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Direct Democracy Initiatives

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2010

I appreciate this opportunity to speak about direct democracy, and I thank the Minister for attending the debate.

In recent years, we have undeniably seen a mass disengagement from the political process. The figures speak for themselves: former allegiance to political parties has plummeted over the past 15 to 20 years, and turnout at elections has followed a similar trajectory. I believe that the last three general elections had the lowest turnout of any since the second world war, so much so that the Commission on Parliament in the Public Eye said two years ago that no Government could now claim democratic legitimacy. Therefore, it is heartening that the coalition Government have embarked on a programme of reform.

However, whatever changes are brought in, it is key that they are real, not synthetic, and that, at their heart, they have a commitment to reducing radically the distance between people and power. I shall focus on two areas—the recall mechanism and local referendums—and others may add to them.

The new Government have already promised to bring in a recall initiative which, theoretically, would allow voters to get rid of MPs mid-term, or between elections, as happens in several different countries, including Switzerland. Some states in the United States of America have the same mechanism and right. However, the measures proposed by the Government fall far short of genuine recall.

The terms of reference are to be restricted to serious wrongdoing which, as far as I know, has yet to be defined properly. However, even with a definition, it will be for a parliamentary sub-committee—the Committee on Standards and Privileges—to determine whether an MP qualifies for such treatment. Instead of handing power down to voters, which is the whole point of a recall initiative, we would see power handed up to a small group of MPs. That is not by any stretch or interpretation a true recall mechanism. Ironically, it could actually aggregate even more power at the top by handing a tiny group at Westminster the power to rid Parliament of difficult, troublesome MPs.

True recall allows people to sack their representatives, for whatever reason, if a majority have lost confidence in them, and it certainly is not subject to approval by a central authority. The right should exist not just in respect of MPs but at every level: councillors, the Greater London authority, mayors, mayoral candidates, representatives and so on. This country could not be further from that at present.

I accept that this does not happen in practice, but, theoretically, it is possible for a new MP to jet off to the Bahamas the day after the election, delegate all their parliamentary and constituency work to a team of people employed at public expense and return four or five years down the line, probably to be booted out in the next election. It is likely that they would be deselected by their local party; if not, they would have the Whip removed by the central party. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the local people who put them in position would not be represented at all during the entire lifetime of the Parliament. True recall would change all that, and would make politics much less remote and much more responsive. I urge the Minister to look again seriously at the Government’s plans.

My second and final point, before I hand over, relates to local referendums. This, too, is something that the coalition Government have promised to facilitate. In my view, such referendums are absolutely key. If people have pulled away from politics—I do not believe that anyone can really argue with that—it is not because of a lack of interest in politics. Millions and millions of people around the country have signed up to pressure groups, a million people marched against the war in Iraq, and half a million people marched against the ban on hunting. We have endless examples of a very political population.

The reason why people are pulling away from the political process is that it has become far too remote, and that is true at every level of political activity. It is true at the level of the European Union, as has been debated ad nauseam in Parliament itself. It is certainly almost inconceivable to ordinary people that they could influence any decision made at any level in the EU.

Nationally, the equation is only marginally more favourable. In real terms, in the 1,500 or so days between general elections, people are denied any meaningful access to the decision-making process. Local authorities, meanwhile, have been almost completely stripped of their powers; in effect, they have been neutered. There is very little their local electors would expect them to do that they can do.

Direct democracy would provide a direct answer. It is a simple concept: it would allow people to intervene on any local issue at a time of their choosing. Assuming that they have majority support, decisions could be challenged and new ideas could be proposed. The direction of local political activity would be determined by the people most likely to be affected by those decisions.

The Government have said that they will introduce local referendums, but the details remain unknown. They mostly relate to the mechanics: how referendums would be triggered, on what issues could they be triggered, and so on. The really big issue is whether the results of referendums would be binding. It would be a huge mistake if, as some people fear, the proposal is simply to give people the power to force their representatives to debate an issue.

There is an argument that councils would feel obliged to adhere to the results of a local referendum held in their area, but, in reality, that is merely a far-flung hope. We can all reel off endless examples of local authorities ignoring local opinion, hiding behind bureaucratic procedure and so on. In reality, non-binding referendums would be an expensive gesture. We would almost be better off without them, and I say that as someone who is passionately committed to introducing them.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Would he agree that a corollary of having binding referendums is a requirement that the decisions that voters attempt to influence are those that the people on whom they are binding can indeed influence? He referred to the impotence of local government. Would it not be an absolute requirement of binding local referendums that there should be a great deal more flexibility for local governments to fund themselves and spend as they wish?

I strongly agree with everything that my hon. Friend just said. I am thrilled that the coalition Government have already begun a programme of radical decentralisation. I believe that 1,200 targets were imposed on local government in the past 13 years—the figure may be slightly out, but it is thereabouts. The effect is that local authorities cannot do the things the electorate expect them to do. That means they often hide behind that ambiguity when it comes to unpopular decisions, but also that they often get the blame for bad decisions when the fault lies with central Government. I absolutely accept that both processes need to happen at the same time.

Shortly before the election, a major part of the coalition Government—the Conservative party—invited people to join the British Government. It was a message that went down well in some quarters, and one that I certainly welcomed. If we do not introduce binding referendums, we will undermine the very core of our message. It would be almost an insult to voters, who would be told, in effect, that they are not to be trusted with taking decisions that directly affect their lives.

I have set out provisions for genuine recall in my recall of elected representatives Bill, and for binding local referendums in my local referendums Bill. I shall publish them soon, and I hope that Members will support them. More importantly, I hope that the Government will incorporate them in forthcoming legislation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this debate. It is fundamentally important that we consider ways to revive our moribund democracy. I would go so far as to say that, if one good thing came out of the previous, rotten Parliament, it was a recognition that there is something profoundly wrong with our democratic system and that we need change.

It is not surprising that our democratic system is not working, given that seven out of 10 constituencies are safe seats—one-party fiefdoms—which makes Members of Parliament inwardly accountable and inwardly responsive to party Whips, rather than outwardly responsive to the people. Direct democracy can help us change that in two or three key ways and I am pleased that the Government are toying with some ideas. However, with respect, I fear that Sir Humphrey Appleby and the powers that be in Whitehall fear the full implications of direct democracy and are already trying to water down some of the radical intentions of the coalition agenda.

Open primaries are the most significant way that we can make democracy outwardly accountable and responsive. Instead of leaving it to the party machines and hierarchies in London to decide who gets to be a Member of this legislature, we can have open primaries to throw open the question, particularly in safe seats. If Senator John McCain, a well-known national figure in the United States who has stood for the office of President, is forced to contest the nomination to be the Republican candidate in his home state, Tory, Labour and Liberal MPs in safe seats should be subject to the same process.

We must ensure that open primaries are not open caucuses. They must be full elections involving the entire constituency, rather than just matters of sectional, self-selecting self-interest. We must overcome the problem of the cost. In this country we have had three open primaries: in Totnes and Gosport, and for the Mayor of London. The cost was prohibitive in other constituencies. We must, without resorting to state subsidy, taxpayer-funded politics or, heaven forbid, giving the party chairman the power to decide where open primaries should be held, find a way of allowing people to have a say about who gets to be the candidate in their constituency. A simple way to do that is to piggyback primaries on to pre-existing local ballots and allow people to petition their returning officers to trigger the process.

I hope that the Government listen and get this right, because if they get it wrong it will mean strengthening the power of the big corporate party hierarchies in London, rather than opening up democracy to local people.

The Government need to get two other things right. People should be allowed a direct say in law-making. Rather than contracting out the process to a professional caste of politicians and a priesthood of party managers, we should allow people a direct say. I am delighted that the Government are toying with the idea of a great repeal Bill—a freedom Bill—written by the people. However, I fear that they are not running this project as a wiki Bill, like the wiki Bill on Wikiversity, which is run completely as a crowd-sourced, open-source project. Instead, they are running it as a Government-owned online consultation. The difference is that, if something is genuinely crowd-sourced and the people are allowed a say, it tends to be pretty optimistic and liberal and is not dominated by demands to legalise cannabis, for example. There tends to be a much more angry and illiberal exchange in respect of a project on a Government-owned website. I hope that the Government amend the online architecture of their freedom Bill proposal, replace it with what is available free on the Wikiversity site and try to introduce the latter to the House.

The Government talked about a right of popular initiative, meaning that, instead of leaving it to the Sir Humphrey Applebys and a few Ministers to decide the legislative agenda of the Commons, we should give the people a say. There was a wonderful proposal for a threshold mechanism, under which, if a proposal got a certain number of signatures it would be introduced or at least given time and MPs would be forced to debate and vote on it. I ask the architects of this proposal in Whitehall, again, to be cautious about allowing thresholds for this popular initiative. A far better way of ensuring that the outcome is liberal and inclusive—sunshine politics, rather than reactionary, angry and sectional politics—is to ensure that different proposals have to compete for Floor time in the House of Commons, rather than having to pass a certain threshold. If we allow the threshold mechanism to be used, we would be asking for proposals that, as a liberal, I would feel uncomfortable supporting.

I hope the Government listen to these concerns and ensure that, through the mechanisms they introduce, direct democracy means more liberalism, rather than reactionary illiberalism.

I am grateful for your chairmanship of this debate, Mrs Brooke. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for calling the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for chipping in with his thoughts on direct democracy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park correctly set out some of the problems that we face, including public engagement with Parliament. Some issues with the previous Parliament that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton highlighted are well known, which is why political and constitutional reform is one of this Government’s central features. We need to ensure that people are properly engaged with Parliament and politics—those are not always the same thing—and that we do a much better job than the previous Government did.

Let me respond to the two things that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned: recall and local referendums. I will come to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton later. The prominence given to recall by all three major political parties at the general election reflected its importance. There was consensus among all those parties, particularly off the back of the expenses scandal, that we needed to do something to deal with that issue.

Under the Government’s proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park does not think goes far enough, the recall mechanism would be set in motion only if there were, effectively, a trigger—if an MP were engaged in serious wrongdoing. At that point, if 10% of constituents signed a petition, a by-election would be triggered in which the individual would be able to stand and defend their record. Effectively, that would put the decision in the hands of the people.

We decided to do that to deal with specific issues in the previous Parliament, because members of the public were rightly saying, in respect of matters raised with an MP early in the Parliament, “We’ve got an MP who’s been judged to have fallen below the standards we expected, but they can continue sitting in Parliament, taking their salary for the rest of the Parliament and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

My hon. Friend thinks that we should go further. We balanced that right because we do not want this mechanism used as a political tool by political opponents, with Members of Parliament consistently being faced with a recall challenge based on nothing more than the fact that people disagree with them.

I respect the Minister’s statement that it is important that we should not have a system that allows vexatious attempts against good, legitimately elected MPs, but will he consider the example of Winchester in 1997, when a vexatious attempt was made by the Tories to trigger a judicially sanctioned recall election because they felt that they had lost, unfairly, by two votes? They went on to lose that election by more than 20,000 votes. Surely, we should trust the people, who have pretty good judgment to decide what is and is not a legitimate complaint against a Member of Parliament.

I remember that well, as I suspect my hon. Friend does. I went tramping round the streets of Winchester in that rather thankless by-election.

In his article in the press, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned the Californian recall system, through which every governor since Ronald Reagan in 1968 has faced a recall petition. Clearly, most of those petitions were not successful. The state of California is of a significant size, compared with the United Kingdom, and it takes a fair amount of organisation and initiative to even get a recall petition sorted out.

Given the size of a parliamentary constituency and that most hon. Members face significant blocks of Opposition voters, recall could easily turn into a tool used by our political opponents. I will explain in a moment why I think that that would be particularly bad, and I will try to do so in a way that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton will find appealing.

I understand that recall has been successful only once in California, despite all those attempts, precisely for the reasons mentioned by my hon. Friend during his intervention.

That is right. I hinted at that in my remarks. Let me mention one reason why recall would not be a good idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton wants legislators and those in positions of power to be fearless and to put forward bold ideas—to be able to come up with challenging ideas, demonstrate them and argue for them in public. I think that I have characterised some of his views correctly. Under the recall system that we are talking about, legislators could be subject to recall by their constituents at any moment. If that fact were held over MPs, it would drive away any opportunity to set out bold or challenging ideas that took a while to deliver.

If someone had an idea involving a tough and difficult period with a payback taking some time to come to fruition, and if there were a recall petition hanging over them that could be triggered for political reasons, I suspect that they would be off. People who wanted to bring forward bold and radical ideas would be deterred, and the proposal would have the opposite effect.

I do not wish to labour the point, but under our proposal, recall would be a two-stage process. The people, rather than a committee of grandees in this place, would decide in a vote whether there should be a recall, and there would then be a by-election. I would rather face the judgment of the good people of my constituency than a committee of grandees in Whitehall.

I understand why my hon. Friend might think that, but Members of Parliament might feel constant pressure. There is always a challenge in politics when putting forward bold ideas and having time to allow them to come to fruition before facing people’s judgment.

Those of us in the business of putting forward such ideas, whether in Government or outside, must make a judgment, and the Government’s view is that it would not be sensible if a recall could be triggered at any time without there having been serious wrongdoing. We have set out what we want to do, and triggering a recall on serious wrongdoing was a policy proposed in the manifestos of all three major parties at the last election. My hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park and for Clacton still have some way to go to persuade the Government to change position.

I turn to local government. Reference was made to whether recall should apply to other elected officials. Clearly, we want high standards of behaviour from local councillors, as well as from Members of Parliament. We have announced that we will replace the existing standards regime, which is centralist and leads to vexatious complaints. We are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and local colleagues to decide what sort of regime will replace that. My hon. Friends had a meeting with the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation earlier this week, and I know that he will welcome any ideas about what that regime should look like.

I understand what has been said about the need for politicians to be able to make bold statements and to think outside the box, but the recall process would necessarily take many months. The right to trigger a recall would have to be activated and in turn, if that were successful, it would lead to a by-election in which the same candidate—the person who had been recalled—could stand. The process would be lengthy, and the time would give any challenged MP, local councillor, MEP and so on an opportunity to sell their ideas to the electorate. If they failed, they would lose their job, and that would be a consequence of democracy.

I am sure that every hon. Member here can think of individual local councillors who waste public money and deliver almost nothing. There must be a mechanism that allows local people who feel under-represented by councillors in safe wards, and who are given a limited menu of options at elections, to assert themselves and to ensure that they are properly represented. I again urge the Minister to consider including councillors in the recall mechanism.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for this debate. Engagement with the public is vital, particularly now. We need to know that we can hold our elected representatives to account. In respect of the recall mechanism and direct democracy, is there not a need for greater sanctions within the establishment as a whole so that the public can see what goes on in the House and in their councils, and whether they are being correctly dealt with internally, as well as externally?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. I referred to the standards regime and one reason why we will sweep that away is that we do not believe that it works adequately. The Secretary of State said that if councillors are guilty of illegality, sanctions and a system exist to deal with that. If they are guilty of political foolishness, the ultimate sanction is that electors can throw them out. That is why we will change the conduct regime, and we are considering how to do so. I am not sure what my hon. Friend is proposing on specifics, but that is why we will change the system.

In the few minutes remaining, I want to touch on the local referendum issue, which is a little closer to what my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park was talking about. We want to give citizens much more say in terms of local referendums than at the moment. We have made a commitment to give local residents the power to trigger local referendums on local issues. That was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery). The issue must be local and the local authority must be able to do something about it.

We intend to include the necessary legal provisions as part of the Decentralism and Localism Bill, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech. That work will be taken forward by the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation. The measures will set out the nature of local referendums and whether and in what circumstances they will be binding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park touched on the extent to which authorities will be bound by the decision. This is a significant step forward. At the moment, local authorities can have referendums, but they, not local people, decide whether to have them. Clearly, my hon. Friend will engage in that debate and consider the Government’s proposals when they are published later this autumn.

Something else that we will do—this was set out in the coalition programme for government, and my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton touched on it—is to ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a Bill that will be debated and voted on in the House.

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about how we should deal with the details of that proposal to ensure—this will be music to the ears of the Deputy Prime Minister—that measures that are brought forward are liberal rather than illiberal. We will announce details of that proposal in due course; they are currently being worked on. I will share the views of my hon. Friend with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the House. We will think about them as we develop our proposals. That is a positive step forward.

My hon. Friend knows that the coalition Government’s programme includes a commitment for open primaries. I heard what he said about how he would like them to operate, and I have taken careful note of that. I will pass on to the Deputy Prime Minister his thoughts about how the debate on what is in the freedom or great repeal bill could be more liberal than the way in which the Government are undertaking it.

My final point picks up on the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley about local government and its scope. I hope that he will be pleased that, to promote devolution of power and greater financial autonomy, we have made a commitment to have a review of local government finance. That is a brave undertaking, given the history of local government finance reviews, but we want to do it because it is clear that unless local authorities are given more control over revenue and money, we cannot shift more power in that direction.

The Government have said that they will have a serious and wide-ranging examination of local government finance and its powers, I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that. It is an important measure to give local authorities more power and responsibility, and will make the ability to have referendums and to engage local people in what local authorities do more meaningful. It is meaningless to have local referendums if the local authority cannot do much in response.

The coalition Government’s package of political and constitutional measures that come under the heading of direct democracy, even if they do not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park wants, are a step forward in reconnecting this House and this Parliament with the country and getting the public to feel that they have more ownership of how we do politics.

I want to ask on the record whether the Minister would be willing to come and meet the newly formed all-party group on direct democracy so that we can continue this discussion.

I would be pleased to accept that invitation.

This has been a good debate, and has provided colleagues with the opportunity to make some good points. I am happy to continue it in a more informal setting so that we may continue to develop these ideas.