[Relevant documents: First Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2012-13, Recall of MPs, HC 373, and the Government responses, HC 646 and Cm 8640.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Recall of MPs Bill fulfils a commitment made by the three main parties in their 2010 manifestos and in the coalition’s programme for government to establish a recall mechanism for MPs who have been found guilty of wrongdoing or misconduct. Allow me to quote from my own party’s manifesto:
“at the moment, there is no way that local constituents can remove an MP found guilty of serious wrongdoing until there is a general election. That is why a Conservative government will introduce a power of ‘recall’ to allow electors to kick out MPs, a power that will be triggered by proven serious wrongdoing.”
That is the manifesto on which I stood at the last election and the one that I stand by today.
The Bill fulfils the commitment that we made in 2010, and, to put it candidly, seeks to reconcile differences within this legislature. Although we are agreed on the principle that MPs must be held to account when they have done something wrong, delivering on the practical detail of a recall mechanism has been more difficult. There is a wide range of views on how and whether it should be done.
Members will concede that we have not rushed into this reform. The Government opened the debate on recall when they published their White Paper and draft Recall of MPs Bill in 2011. I am grateful to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for its work. Its Chairman was in his place—I dare say he will be back.
He has been recalled!
I suspect that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) would be robust in the face of such measures. The Committee has done considerable and painstaking work in conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of these proposals. It made some valuable recommendations, particularly on the recall petition process, most of which the Government have accepted and incorporated into the Bill.
As Members who follow this debate know, the Committee also concluded that there was no need for a recall system as it did not see a gap in the disciplinary arrangements for MPs. That view is shared by some Members, but not by the Government.
My right hon. Friend may know that I have recalled myself and that I am not standing again at the next general election, but I am struggling after 22 years in this House to understand the point of this Bill. I have seen people who have done wrong and have gone—quite rightly. Of the people caught up in the expenses scandal, several, quite rightly, have gone to prison. Denis MacShane went to prison and Patrick Mercer resigned his seat—quite rightly. But I can only think of two people who might have been affected by this Bill, and unless we make the powers retrospective to 2002, I do not see that it will affect the hon. Gentleman who sits on the Labour Benches whom I will not name because I have not mentioned it to him. Possibly, it might have affected one Member who was recently expelled from the Liberal Democrat party, but actually he has not committed a criminal offence as far as we know. So what exactly is the question that this Bill answers?
First, let me say that we will miss my right hon. Friend in this House, and we are sorry that he has recalled himself. As he knows, MPs are disqualified from attending the House if they are sentenced to imprisonment for more than a year, but not below that. That is a gap, and this Bill puts forward a means of closing it. The other thing that this Bill does is enable the House to put before the electorate the question of whether an MP, who has been severely sanctioned by the Standards and Privileges Committee and suspended for more than 21 days, should continue in post. There are cases of Members who have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment for less than a year to whom this Bill would directly apply.
My right hon. Friend has said that there are people who have been sentenced to prison to whom this Bill would directly apply. Who are those people?
Clearly, this Bill would not apply retrospectively, but the two people who would have been caught are Chris Huhne and Eric Illsley.
They have gone.
My right hon. Friend makes a reasonable point that those Members chose to resign. The fact that it was their choice rather than there being an element of compulsion is the loophole that this Bill seeks to close.
Is the issue not somewhat different? It is about not how we feel, but how our constituents feel. We might be puzzled when people question our behaviour, but we are no longer in the world in which we can behave as we wish and for our constituents to push off. Our constituents will start defining what they think is acceptable behaviour by us. The key thing that we must ensure in this Bill, which I welcome, is that the threshold is such so that pernicious lobbies, such as the gun lobby in America if it were operating here, could not take Members out just because they disagree with their views.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) and the right hon. Gentleman make my case for me: there is not agreement across the House. I merely observe that this Bill was a commitment that we made in the manifesto on which we fought the last election, and that is true for the three main parties. It is reasonable to reflect that there is an expectation on parties that stood on such a commitment that they will bring forward such a Bill.
My right hon. Friend is making a good case, and I shall certainly be supporting him. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said, is not the key issue that if we are to have a greater degree of openness towards our constituents, there must none the less be something that triggers an objective finding of bad behaviour—be it by conviction or by some other form of sanction? Without that, there is a risk that campaigning MPs who take up unpopular causes could be subject to victimisation by various pressure groups.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. He is taking up a popular cause, but there are occasions when Members should and will take up unpopular causes. It would be infinitely regrettable if they were to lose their seat in this House by a campaign that sought to silence them.
Let me make a bit of progress. The diametrically opposed view is that a recall system should be implemented to allow the recall of MPs on any grounds and at any time, including disagreements with an MP’s stance on a matter of policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) makes the counter argument, but my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) takes the view that a policy disagreement between an MP and his or her constituents is such a ground. That is not the position of the Government, or the commitment that was made in the party manifestos.
The right hon. Gentleman is explaining quite clearly the difference between what is misconduct and bad behaviour, which would get someone sacked from any other job in any other circumstances, and what is simply a disagreement over policy, where it would be possible for people to use a large amount of money effectively to remove an MP. But does he understand the concern that many members of the public have that the trigger for this at the moment is in a group of MPs in the form of the Standards and Privileges Committee? Does he understand that perhaps there needs to be an alternative mechanism that goes directly to the point of petition?
I do understand both points that my hon. Friend makes. The question of a trigger is something that we will be debating both today and in Committee. Members who have served on Bill Committees with me will know that I have always taken a view that when experienced Members of Parliament debate a subject of great importance and interest—where the matters divide on party political lines—it is right and appropriate that the Government should reflect on the proposals, or amendments, put forward. I will confirm that we will do that and that we will take very seriously the views of the House.
Wrongdoing is always to be condemned. Is it not the case that MPs such as Sydney Silverman, who urged the abolition of capital punishment and who won the day after a long and hard campaign, and those who fought for the reform of homosexuality laws and for abortion and many other very unpopular issues, would have been in danger if this legislation had been in force?
The drafting of the Bill reflects that undesirable risk that matters of conscience could result in the loss of a seat. A general election inevitably follows the MP’s selection. We all make policy arguments to our electorate each time, and the ability to do that is still in place.
Several of us have serious worries about undermining not just the sovereignty of Parliament, but the sanctity of the general election. My right hon. Friend will know that Edmund Burke said in the 18th century that he was a representative, not a delegate. It is noteworthy that he was removed by the electors of Bristol in a general election shortly thereafter.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many hon. Members will be familiar with what Edmund Burke said:
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
He made that point very strongly and was promptly thrown out by the electorate at the next election, which illustrates the point arising from the intervention made by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick).
Our early exchanges have made it clear that the opposing poles—I hesitate to call them extremes—in the debate have good intentions, and reasonable and serious points are being made. In developing the proposals, the Government have tried to steer a sensible and reasonable course. We believe that recall has a role in dealing with serious wrongdoing. If an MP has been found guilty of serious wrongdoing and clear lines have been crossed, the public must have their say about whether that Member should remain in office.
We have stopped short of enabling recall on any grounds so that we preserve the freedom of Members of Parliament to vote with their conscience and to take difficult decisions without facing constant challenges, at the public’s expense, from their political opponents. We have, of course, considered a range of recall models, including those used internationally, but there is no direct equivalent in a constitutional system such as ours anywhere in the world, so we are breaking new ground, and it is the tradition of the House and the country that we proceed with care when making constitutional change.
I support the Bill, but I am sure that the Minister realises that it has serious flaws. For example, why would it not cover the MPs who took cash for questions in the 1990s?
Clearly, like most legislation, the Bill will not apply retrospectively, but if the Standards Committee was to recommend that an MP be suspended for 21 or more sitting days due to precisely such a breach of the code, that Member would be liable for recall.
I have been here long enough to know that Bills are all too often a huge sledgehammer to crack a nut. If the Bill goes through, I fear that it will be added to in time, as I know that many MPs and members of the public want to take things a lot further. That is why many Members are voicing their fears, which I share, that an MP’s position could be severely destabilised. I recommend caution and that we leave things as they are.
I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will concede that we are proceeding with caution. We recognise that this is a novel constitutional step, and our traditions are that we exercise caution in such circumstances. The Prime Minister made it clear during last week’s Question Time that we regard the provisions as a minimum, and the various arguments that have been deployed today can be properly considered in Committee and on Report. Of course, whatever the House and the other place decide, it will be open to future Parliaments—one will begin next year—to consider whether to take things further still. That is the spirit in which we are proceeding.
I would take the Government’s position more seriously if, at the start of this Parliament in 2010, they had not made it almost impossible for this House to recall a Government.
My hon. Friend takes us on to an area that could detain us for the rest of the day. He and I would prefer to be implementing all the Conservative party’s manifesto commitments, but the electorate did not give us a majority, so we formed a coalition, which I think has made great achievements, not least by turning around the economy through its effective, long-term economic plan.
Let me set out the provisions that will govern the debate not just today, but in Committee and on Report. There are two conditions under which a recall petition would be opened. The first trigger is if a Member of Parliament is convicted in the United Kingdom of an offence for which they receive a custodial sentence of 12 months or less. At present, any MP who is imprisoned for more than a year is automatically disqualified from Parliament, but if they receive a sentence of 12 months or less, they can keep their job until the next general election. The Bill will close that loophole.
The imprisonment of a Member of Parliament will, quite understandably, cause many constituents to question their faith in that MP. Incarceration not only indicates serious wrongdoing, but prevents that Member from doing their job effectively, so the Government believe that constituents should be able to decide whether there should be a by-election in such circumstances. Of course, it would remain open for the recalled Member of Parliament to stand as a candidate in that by-election, should they wish to justify the actions that led to that sentence of imprisonment.
I broadly support the Bill, but with regard to that point, is it strictly necessary? It is open to the House—this has been done in the past—to expel a Member who has been sentenced to prison. Is it not the failure to use our existing powers, rather than a need to create new powers, that is at issue?
My hon. Friend, who is learned and reflective on these matters, is right that the power to expel a Member exists. However, constituents do not have the power to decide whether a seat should be vacated, but that would be available under the Bill.
What discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Governments about using the Bill to empower the devolved institutions, if they so wish, to introduce their own recall mechanism?
I think I have made it clear that the Bill is not the last word on recall. It will apply specifically to Members of Parliament and it will govern simply the procedures of the House. It has been difficult enough to establish a consensus in this House, let alone in the devolved Administrations and beyond. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), it will be open to future Parliaments to take a different view.
The Minister will be well aware that five Sinn Fein Members do not take their seats in the House. Will he make it absolutely clear to those absentee Northern Ireland MPs—and to the House and the general public—that the Bill will apply equally to them?
The hon. Lady makes an important point in the context of Northern Ireland. My understanding is that the Bill would not apply to those Members because they have not taken the Oath to sit in the House, but she will no doubt wish to raise that point in Committee.
I favour a recall Bill and understand that my right hon. Friend has found it difficult to get an agreement, but might we at least have some logic in this process? Under the mechanism set out in the Bill, a Member of Parliament who was arrested at a demonstration and imprisoned would be forced to take part in a new election if 10% of his constituents disapproved of his position.
My right hon. Friend clearly exposes one of the aspects of our debate. The decision would be in the hands of that Member’s constituents in two respects: a petition of 10% of the electorate would be required to occasion a recall by-election; and then that Member could stand in the by-election. My right hon. Friend has experience of standing in a by-election—not caused by any wrongdoing, I hasten to say, but because he was making a point—and he won the support of his constituents for his action, so his experience might provide some reassurance.
It really comes back to the point—many Members have made it—about the threshold needing to be high enough. There are clearly two ways in which people view the electorate. I was under recall by the Trots for 10 years, and it was the electorate who saved me. It is possible to look to one’s voters as a bulwark of freedom, not as a group of people who wish to destroy us.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. None of us would be here today had we not had the endorsement of our constituents, and none of us should be afraid of that endorsement.
The second trigger is if an MP is suspended from the House for 21 sitting days or more. A suspension of such length indicates that the individual in question has done something seriously wrong, and constituents should be able to have their say about whether their MP deserves to keep his or her seat.
With the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make some progress before giving way again.
Comparisons with the second trigger provisions published in the draft Bill will reveal changes that have arisen from fruitful discussions with the Standards Committee and others. The Bill’s proposals are designed to work alongside the existing arrangements and processes for investigating misconduct, and the changes that have been made ensure that recall petitions open automatically as a consequence of a substantial period of suspension. The Bill does not specify on what grounds the Committee, or indeed the House as a whole, would consider a suspension of that length to be appropriate, but I look forward to hearing the views of Members on both sides of the House, both today and in Committee, on the length of suspension proposed and on the operation of the second trigger more generally.
Some will say that the Bill still gives MPs too great a role in triggering recall, but we want to ensure that it complements the disciplinary procedures that already exist and the work of the independent commissioner and the Standards Committee. It is a long-standing principle of our political system that Parliament has sole jurisdiction over its own affairs and is free to operate without interference from the courts, the Crown or any other individual or body. The Standards Committee is currently undertaking a review to look at ways of improving its disciplinary procedure and so has an opportunity to consider these important matters. In other words, the decisions that that Committee will take, given the way that the Bill interfaces with its sanctions, allow whatever the Committee in this House decides should be the standards arrangements to link into the recall proposals. The Government do not wish to impose how the House chooses to govern its affairs and have drafted the Bill accordingly. That principle is of great importance to our parliamentary democracy, and it seems to me that we should exhaust all other avenues before casually setting it aside.
Surely the Minister realises that the reliance on the Standards Committee goes to the root of public dissatisfaction with the Bill. It might be the case, as he suggested earlier, that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has faith in the operation of the Standards Committee, but many members of the general public—our electors—simply do not.
That is exactly why the Committee is reflecting upon its current arrangements and considering whether they should be amended.
I should also say—this is the earliest opportunity I have had—that I was wrongly advised in the answer I gave to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). She will be reassured to know that the provisions would apply to Sinn Fein MPs.
I agree entirely with the two triggers that my right hon. Friend has outlined, but surely there is a third case: where a Member is not doing his duty. In local government there is a rule whereby councillors who do not attend meetings or vote for six months are automatically disqualified. Surely that, too, should be a trigger to allow a recall.
As I have made clear, there are many views about the level of the recall and what the mechanism should be. I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contribution to the debate and think that all Members will understand the point he makes. One of the consequences of imprisonment, of course, is that an MP is prevented from attending, so at least part of that is covered by that provision.
Although the decision to suspend a Member is one for this House, the effective trigger for that process is a recommendation from the Standards Committee. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that it is important not only that we recognise that it results from an independent inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, but that in the current review we strengthen the lay participation and voice in the Standards Committee? Does he agree not only that that should include an increase in the number of lay members, but that this House should hear directly from the lay members if in any respect they do not agree with the conclusion of the Standards Committee as a whole?
That is exactly what I was alluding to when I said that the Standards Committee is considering ways to strengthen its credibility with members of the public. My right hon. Friend has substantial experience of those issues from his time as Leader of the House. I am sure that he will make an important and serious contribution to the debate.
I recognise that the creation of a recall mechanism for Members of Parliament clearly raises the question of how recall might fit with the disciplinary arrangements for other office holders in future. The triggers in the Bill have been carefully designed to fit with the particular rules of this House, and for that reason cannot be automatically applied to the recall of other elected office holders. This is not, and is not designed to be, a one-size-fits-all piece of legislation—that would be even more difficult to establish a consensus around—but we must of course learn the appropriate lessons from its implementation, which might in future be applied to other areas. I know that there will be debate, both today and later, on which other areas it might be appropriate to extend recall to. However, this Bill is narrowly about Members of Parliament.
Returning to the point made by our hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on the efficacy of primary legislation, the House might know that in 1947 the Labour MP Garry Allingham was expelled from the House for writing disobliging comments about fellow Members—not for any criminal offence—so there is a precedent for expelling a Member whose conduct falls below that which most electors would think suitable and appropriate.
I was not aware of that and so am intrigued by what my hon. Friend says. I see that the Government Whip is sending a note, perhaps recommending that to her colleagues in the Whips Office as an available sanction.
Several hon. Members
I will make some progress, because many Members wish to speak.
I will turn briefly to the conduct of petitions once they are triggered by the provisions of the Bill. The Government’s priority has been to develop voting procedures that fit with what the public rightly expect from any official democratic election in this country. Safeguards must be in place to ensure that voting is robust, fair and open. I will not set out this process in detail here, but I look forward to debates in Committee on the clauses and schedules. Under the Bill’s proposals, 10% of eligible constituents would need to sign the petition for it to be successful. If at the end of the eight-week recall period the 10% threshold had been met, the MP would vacate his or her seat and a by-election would be held. There would be no legal barrier to the unseated individual standing in the by-election.
As I have described, we have made changes to the Bill as a result of pre-legislative scrutiny. I appreciate that there will be—there have been already—strong views on these proposals, and I welcome the House’s serious consideration and discussion of them. I remind the House that the transition to representative democracy did not take place in a single step, and nor will the progress we make towards more direct democracy—something I have always believed in. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that our predecessors were sometimes excessively cautious, not least in extending the franchise to women. Nevertheless, our country has gained more than it has lost from the British preference for evolutionary over revolutionary change. I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance between holding Members of Parliament to account while ensuring that they can do their job without facing frivolous or politically motivated petitions. We want a recall process that is fair, open and robust, and I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the tone and tenor of the Minister’s opening speech and in particular the commitment that he has made seriously to consider amendments that will strengthen the Bill. I will come to that during my remarks.
This is a debate of critical importance to our politics and democracy. People feel more disconnected from Parliament and more disenchanted with the political process than possibly ever before. Polling and academic research reveal the pre-eminence of this distrust, but all of us know that the most vivid displays of antipathy are found on the doorstep when we meet voters while we are campaigning. People feel let down by politics, they feel angry, and they feel that too often their voice is not heard and that we politicians are out of touch.
Of course, politicians have never been the most popular people. It is in the nature of our job that we have to make unpopular decisions at times, as the Minister rightly said. But in 2009 the relationship between politics and the people reached a nadir during the scandal about MPs’ expenses. We can never be complacent or overestimate just how much damage was done to the standing of politics, politicians and this House with the public by what was revealed in 2009. In tough times, when families had been taking difficult decisions about their own household spending and with the economy in recession, revelations about the abuse of MPs’ expenses understandably left the public furious with the system and furious with the individuals involved.
I am tired of this general slagging-off of people who work so hard for their constituencies. Like many of us here, I was not an MP then, but I admit that some dishonourable behaviour sadly occurred in this House. What we need to restore is honour; we do not need legislation for that.
I partly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is about how all of us do the job and about the culture of politics, but it is also about legislation. I will come to that now.
I do not disagree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said about the level of distrust, but does he accept that the lack of independence of many MPs is the biggest concern for many of our constituents? Does he not think that one of the concerns about a recall Bill broadly, which I support, is that it would largely undermine that sense of the independence of the individual MP?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Later I shall refer to a distinction that others have made in interventions and which the Minister himself made between our conduct as Members of Parliament and the issues that we vote on, and how we are held to account for our voting. The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point that although recall is, in my opinion, a correct mechanism for dealing with misconduct, it is a more questionable mechanism for dealing with issues to do with voting. One consequence of a particular model of recall could be to undermine the independence of MPs, for the reason that he gave.
In 2010 each of the main parties made proposals to change the system in response to the tide of distrust that I described. As the Minister said, each of us had a commitment to some form of recall in our manifesto. The Minister said that the Government have not rushed into this. That is an understatement: it is a shame that it has taken more than four years to have a Bill before the House. At one point both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister promised to pursue a new politics of democracy and transparency. Well, it has taken them quite a while to get round to it, and now that they have, neither of them seems very pleased with the Bill before the House.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who led on the Bill that was published earlier in this Parliament, said this summer that he agreed with the critics of that Bill, and just yesterday he said he wished that the latest attempt—the Bill before us today—had gone further. The Prime Minister, at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday, four and a half years after declaring his intent to pursue a new politics, said that the current Bill is the minimum acceptable. Surely after four and a half years they could have come up with something better than this.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument about the disgust that many of our constituents still feel about politics and politicians, and about the importance of the Bill. Does he think that the measures relating to accountability and in particular to MPs adjudicating on themselves are strong enough?
I will come to those issues in a moment. The straightforward answer is no, I do not think those measures are strong enough. During the Committee stage we need to strengthen them significantly.
Labour supports recall. Our manifesto commitment in 2010 stated:
“MPs who are found responsible for financial misconduct will be subject to a right of recall”.
We need a system that improves accountability and gives more power to the public to hold their representatives to account between elections. That is a matter of fairness. People go to work each day and they know that if they break the rules, if they behave inappropriately at work, they may face the sack. The job of a Member of Parliament should be no different. If we are to regain the trust of the people, we cannot place ourselves outside or above this basic principle.
However, the system of recall needs to reflect what the job of a Member of Parliament is. We are not delegates to this place. We have a representative democracy, in which Members of Parliament are sent to represent their constituencies, and sometimes that involves making difficult decisions. A balance has to be drawn between giving people the opportunity to recall MPs for misconduct, and allowing MPs to make difficult decisions. For misconduct, recall makes sense. For holding MPs to account for their voting record, general elections are the appropriate mechanism. We will support this Bill on Second Reading, but look forward to strengthening it in Committee.
We believe that the Bill is an unacceptably minimalist interpretation of the right to recall. For example, as the Minister set out, one of the triggers in the Bill is when an MP is suspended from the House of Commons for at least 21 sitting days or 28 calendar days. Had this rule been in operation over the past 25 years, there are only two occasions on which Members of Parliament would have been caught by this proposed change. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy) pointed out, for the Members of Parliament who were caught up in the “cash for questions” scandal in the 1990s, because of the nature of the punishment they faced, recall would not have been triggered.
Can the hon. Gentleman envisage a situation where the political pressure would be on the Standards Committee to increase the penalties? The political pressure means that 21 days’ suspension has to be given as a punishment to bring in the trigger mechanisms, so in some ways the trigger is a foolish mechanism, and the Standards Committee probably should not be involved at all.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I will address the role of the Standards Committee in a moment. These are precisely the sort of issues that we want to address in Committee next week.
To correct the shadow Minister and for the information of the House, I point out that there are in fact six Members of Parliament who would have been caught by the provisions. I mentioned Chris Huhne and Eric Illsley on the imprisonment aspect. In terms of suspension, there would have been four more—Teresa Gorman, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), Denis MacShane and Patrick Mercer.
The Minister is including Members who resigned from the House before the Standards Committee’s proposals were considered, but I acknowledge what he says. I still think that six is a very small number, considering the scale of the challenge that we face. With reference to the particular example that my hon. Friend cited of the “cash for questions” scandal in the 1990s, there is a concern that the length of period covered by the Bill would not have affected the MPs in that case.
The hon. Gentleman is providing a strong critique of the Government’s Bill and I agree with much of what he says. At the Committee stage there will be a wide range of views about what needs to be done to improve the Bill. The indication is that the Conservative party will be offering a free vote. Will we hear that from the Labour party as well?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I will refer shortly to some of the proposals that he has made. I am not in a position to make announcements about the Opposition’s whipping arrangements or the Government’s, but they will be made available in due course.
While we are correcting the record, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who is no longer in his place, said earlier that Garry Allingham was thrown out of the House for passing on notes. In fact, he was suspended from the House because he had alleged that other MPs had been bribed by journalists with drinks to give them tittle-tattle. The only person who had been thus involved was the said Member, Garry Allingham. Interestingly, the one person who felt that he could not vote to suspend a man for drinking too much with a journalist was Winston Churchill.
I thank my hon. Friend for putting that on the record.
The example of the “cash for questions” scandal in the 1990s exemplifies the weakness in the Bill. If we accept the principle of recall, then surely such clear examples of misconduct should fall within the criteria that I set out.
The stories mentioned by the hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) demonstrate part of the problem, which is the self-importance of this House and its willingness to act as a gentlemen’s club rather than, at the end of the day, giving the verdict to our constituents. That is why this Bill, with I hope, a widening of the trigger mechanism, is so important.
I absolutely agree. That is why the principle of recall is so important and why this Bill is welcome, but I hope that over the coming weeks the House will work hard to strengthen its provisions.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman believes, as I do, that the Bill needs to be strengthened and expanded. We have heard several interventions about the limits that result from the triggers. Would he trust the electorate such that, instead of having triggers, we simply said that a reason for recall had to be given, with the name of a sponsor calling for it? Might that be a better way forward, because we would not try artificially to prescribe in advance what the trigger might be?
Clearly, we will have amendments to that effect before the House meets next Monday, and it is right that we consider them in detail in Committee. The danger with that very pure approach is that we could cross the line between misconduct and how we vote as Members of Parliament. That is problematic, for reasons that I will set out later.
Does my hon. Friend think that there is any room in this Bill to deal with the situation where Members of Parliament are elected and then do not take their seats, but continue to get substantial amounts of money? Surely that is, in some way, bringing this House into disrepute.
My hon. Friend is tempting me into an area that I do not think I will be tempted into. I am sure she will have opportunities to raise those issues in the House at later stages.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to tempt him in a related but different direction. Will he confirm to the House that the Labour party welcomes the fact that this Bill extends to absentee MPs, given that the Minister said, correcting his earlier reply to me, that it applies to all MPs on the day after polling day, not when they take their seats, and therefore does apply to Sinn Fein?
Yes indeed. It is very important that this legislation applies to all elected Members of Parliament from the point at which they are elected. I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to confirm that from the Dispatch Box.
It is important that the public are able to hold Members of Parliament to account for serious wrongdoing and misconduct—for example, taking financial reward for everyday parliamentary activity. Any system of recall needs to pass that rudimentary test. In Committee we will look at ways to strengthen that aspect of the Bill.
The length of suspension required to trigger a recall petition is currently too high, and it fails to catch some of the clear cases of misconduct that we have witnessed. There is also the question of how we can and should improve the process of suspension that would lead to recall. As the Minister confirmed, the Bill does not mention changes to that process, or, indeed, changes to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I hope that in Committee we will look at ways in which we can ensure that the process is not party-politicised and, as a number of Members have suggested in interventions, more independent. It is sensible to rebalance the Standards and Privileges Committee so that it does not reflect a Government majority, whoever is in power, and to increase the lay membership of the Committee, as the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), said.
The second trigger in the Bill allows for a petition if an MP receives a custodial sentence. As the Minister said, some of the people who would have been caught by these proposals received a custodial sentence for political protest. One of my predecessors in Liverpool, Terry Fields, who was the MP for Liverpool Broadgreen, would have faced a recall petition when he was sent to prison for refusing to pay the poll tax. We need to bear these issues in mind when we are debating this aspect of the Bill. At the same time, I think it would be widely felt that if a Member of Parliament committed a crime and was sent to prison, it would be appropriate that, whatever their motive, the public in their constituency had the opportunity to sack them if they wished to do so rather than moving to a general election.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about Terry Fields proves exactly why it is so hard to define what is wrongdoing. In those circumstances, it would not just have been a matter of his constituents having the choice of recalling him—it would have required just 10% of them to throw him out of his job, even if he might then have clawed his way back through a by-election. That is one of many problems with the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point of substance that we need to consider as the Bill progresses. I imagine that Terry Fields would have been re-elected by a massive majority for the stand that he took against the poll tax.
A moment ago my hon. Friend referred to the need for lay members to be involved in the process of trigger determination. Does he agree, however, that it is important that we do not just get the usual kinds of people but have genuine members of the public involved?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I am glad that he has made that point. That will be a crucial part of our consideration not only in Committee but in some of the wider discussion that is happening about the future of the Standards and Privileges Committee. The political membership is contentious in terms of MPs policing ourselves. We could address that by ensuring that the lay membership is genuinely credible with the wider public.
There has been some discussion about the need to ensure that we have more lay members involved in deciding whether to trigger a recall. Surely the lay members are called constituents, and we should have a mechanism that allows them to decide whether a recall is triggered. They are, after all, the lay members who count most.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has campaigned on this issue for a very long time and has a consistent stance that is reflected in his intervention. I am going to set out my thinking on such a proposal in a moment, so if he could be patient I will respond to his point.
The hon. Gentleman said that Terry Fields would probably have been re-elected with a massive majority. Would it not be a failure of any legislation if it brought about a situation where a Member faced a by-election and came back with a massive majority? Surely the point of recall legislation is to put the issue to the test on something that is marginal and not something where there could be a situation involving vexatious constituents who perhaps opposed the poll tax and knew full well that the MP would be returned with a massive majority.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the risk of a relatively small minority of—to use his phrase—vexatious constituents abusing the system. That is a risk with a pure recall system, as I will explain in a moment.
I have great admiration for members of the public—after all, they are my electorate—but could the shadow Minister define “genuine members of the public”?
I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman is asking that question. Did I use that phrase?
The shadow Minister agreed with the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) that we should involve “genuine members of the public”, but what does that mean? “Genuine members of the public” is a political phrase like “innocent victims”—I have never come across a guilty victim. What are “genuine members of the public”?
They are those who are representative of the full range of the public. Often people who are appointed to some of these committees will tend to be—how shall I put it?—the great and the good, who are not necessarily entirely representative of the full range of the public. That is what I understood by the phrase, “genuine members of the public”. Of course, there will be strong opinions on both sides of this debate, which is why the Committee stage will be so important.
Let me now address the amendments that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) is likely to table. First, I welcome his contribution and that of all Members on the committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). It is probably fair to say that the Government may not have put this Bill before the House had it not been for their hard work and persistence. The proposals of the hon. Member for Richmond Park manage to avoid some of the problems associated with the Government’s Bill. As he said in his intervention, there would be no issues about unfairly allowing a petition when an MP is imprisoned for protest; about having to debate the length of suspension from this place; or about the independence of any recall trigger mechanism. His likely amendments would allow for the trigger to be in the hands of the people, and there is a simplicity to that proposal that is, of course, attractive.
The hon. Gentleman’s proposals, however, run into trouble when we assess the potential effect on the constitutional role of Members of Parliament. If we accept that the job of an MP is to be a representative, not a delegate, that has consequences for where we stand in this debate. MPs on both sides of the House need to be able to sometimes make difficult decisions. Sometimes they have to fulfil roles in government and there is a risk that the hon. Gentleman’s likely amendments could challenge that.
For example, the hon. Gentleman’s model of recall—the pure model—has the potential to give enormous power to well-funded, wealthy groups and organisations that could run concerted campaigns to pressure MPs to act in a certain way.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point. We need look no further than the United States, where the Koch brothers use their multibillion-dollar war chest for no other partisan reason than to get rid of individuals who do not agree with their warped sense of the world.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which reinforces a concern felt by many—not just in this House, but outside it—that without proper regulation a system of pure recall could be subject to abuse.
May I add to the excellent point the shadow Minister has just made that if there were three or four petitions against a sitting MP during a five-year term, their reputation would be damaged, perhaps unfairly, and their chance of being re-elected severely reduced? That cannot be right.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and will return to that point in a moment.
The constant pressure of notices of intent, even if they are supported by only a very small minority in a constituency—a notice of intent could be triggered by just 5% of the electorate—could prove destabilising to the ability of the Member of Parliament to fulfil his or her duties, both in this place and, frankly, in their constituency. Politicians often have to make decisions that are unpopular in their constituency, but they may be decisions that are ultimately right for the country as a whole. In our system, a Secretary of State is accountable to this House, but if they are a Member of this House they also have a constituency. Does it make sense for a Secretary of State to face recall for making a decision that may be unpopular in their own constituency but may make sense for the country as a whole?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to our committee, but I think he underestimates the wisdom of the public. When I had my by-election, the policy I was campaigning against had the support of 72% of the public, and yet I was returned by 75%. In the proposal authored by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), the thresholds are sizeable: there would need to be, in effect, 15,000 votes in a normal constituency and then 50% of the constituency would have to agree before a recall could be triggered. That is a much higher threshold than this rather ill-thought-through Government proposal.
The right hon. Gentleman has anticipated the next and, Members will be relieved to hear, final part of my speech. I accept that his committee produced rather high thresholds for the later stages of its proposal, but the 5% threshold for a notice of intent is low. There are sensible ways in which some of these concerns could be countered. Is there a way in which we could ensure that MPs could be recalled only for their misconduct?
Is there not a danger in all this of intimidating Members of Parliament against taking up unpopular causes? For example, as a Labour Back Bencher in the late 1950s, Barbara Castle argued for a settlement in Cyprus when British troops were being killed by EOKA. It was a very unpopular cause and one can well imagine what would have happened to her had there been recall legislation. She may have survived it, but she would have felt under intense pressure. At the end of it all, of course, she was right: there was a settlement in Cyprus.
My hon. Friend makes that case strongly, as have others, both in this place and elsewhere. That is why I reaffirm the distinction between causes, which my hon. Friend has just mentioned and for which the election is the vehicle for accountability, and conduct, which is, rightly, the focus for recall.
Will the shadow Minister give an indication of the Labour party’s thinking? If the House of Commons is going to have a recall mechanism, no matter what it is, does the Labour party agree with the principle that the other Parliaments of the British state, including the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament, should also have the ability to introduce their own recall mechanism, whatever type it may be, should they so wish?
That is a matter that should be decided by those devolved bodies. I understand that there have been discussions in Scotland about doing so. [Interruption.] I am being tempted to announce a policy on Welsh devolution, but that is slightly outside my remit. I think that, in principle, if this House has a reserve power, it should give it up so that it becomes a matter for the devolved bodies themselves to decide, but a decision would need to be made by those bodies. I suspect that I may have moved party policy on, so some clarification might be given later, but the principle has to be one whereby the decision is made by the appropriate body.
By the way—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who will wind up the debate, will talk about this—there is also a very good case to be made that the kinds of recall mechanisms we are discussing for Members of Parliament should be considered for other positions, such as those of police and crime commissioners and mayors. That may be outside the scope of this Bill, but we should consider it at an early opportunity.
I will close with some final comments on the proposals of the hon. Member for Richmond Park. I have said that we should look at whether there are ways in which MPs could be recalled only for their misconduct. To address the issue raised by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), could there be a limited number of recall petitions per Parliament? Some of the American states with the power of recall limit the number of times it can be allowed within a legislative term. Are the proposed thresholds reasonable? Could there be a higher threshold at the early stage?
Members on both sides of the House are in favour of the principle of recall. [Interruption.] I hear some dissent. I think that most Members of this House, as will probably be demonstrated in today’s vote, are in favour of the principle of recall. There will be very important debates in Committee about what the best system might be and how best to deliver it. As I have said, the Bill needs to be strengthened considerably from its current state in order for it to have meaning. The “minimum acceptable”—which was the phrase used by the Prime Minister last week—is simply not good enough. The public will, rightly, expect more. We will support the Bill’s Second Reading, but we will work hard in Committee to strengthen it.
Of all the promises made in the heat of the expenses scandal, recall was the only one that resonated properly with voters. It was a promise that they could hold their MPs to account at all times, with a mechanism for removing an MP who had lost the confidence of a majority of their constituents. I know that some colleagues thought it was a foolish promise for the party leaders to make and that anger levels would eventually die down and people would eventually re-engage with the political process, but that misses the point. Voter turnout has been decreasing for years and years, and party membership has been plummeting to miserable levels over a very long period. Five years on from that scandal, the general confidence levels in MPs are at an all-time low—26% according to a recent survey. The expenses scandal did not start that trend; it cemented it and confirmed a prejudice that people, rightly or wrongly, already had.
I think that most hon. Members recognise that change is not just necessary but inevitable, just as it was at other times in our history when events required politics to adapt and move on. When the industrial revolution changed society beyond all recognition, the first Reform Act became inevitable. It was inevitable that women would eventually be given the right to vote, despite the resistance to it. Well, the world has changed again.
When the last big step was taken in 1969—the voting age was lowered to 18 for all men and women—the only information that people had about their MP, other than the odd scandal in the newspapers, was via very selectively crafted newsletters. Today, people will know how their Members have spoken in this debate and how they have voted at the end of it within seconds of their doing so. With 24-hour news, the internet and social media, we are in a world that is completely different, and that has happened very quickly. People have simply never had more or better information, but politics has not even begun to adjust.
People know so much more about what we are up to in this place, but that has merely compounded the sense that once they have voted there is nothing they can do to hold their MP to account. We have a system in which once an MP is selected they are inviolable until the next election. An MP could switch parties, refuse to attend Parliament at all, refuse to meet constituents in any context, systematically break each and every promise they had ever made to get voted in or even disappear off on holiday for five years, and their constituents could do absolutely nothing about it. Such a formula is no longer sustainable.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I support his amendments. He mentions hon. Members not attending Parliament. Does he include the Sinn Fein Members who do not take their seats and never come into the Chamber?
The very basis of the version of recall that I and, I am pleased to say, a great many colleagues will seek to bring forward next week—I will explain it in a few moments—is that it is down to the voters. If the conduct of Sinn Fein representatives is below what people expect, for that reason or perhaps others people should have the power to make such a decision for themselves; they should not require the permission of the House. I do not pretend that recall is the answer to the problems that I have identified, but it is an answer.
My hon. Friend is making very powerful arguments that he has held dear for a long time. May I suggest that the overwhelming majority of people who stand for and get elected to this place do so for good and noble reasons and want to serve their constituency and their country? We should acknowledge that in this debate, and not always talk down the nobility of being in politics.
I could not agree more. That is precisely why I believe that we need a proper recall system—not some shenanigans conveying the impression that they give people recall powers without actually giving them any power at all—that would give Members, such as my hon. Friend and many others, a permanent implied mandate. In a few moments, I will explain why recall will help to give dignity and to restore nobility to this place, but if he thinks that I have not addressed his concerns properly, I invite him to intervene again.
Recall would allow people in extreme circumstances—where a clear majority of them have lost confidence in their MP—to remove their MP between elections. It would give people a sense of ownership over their democracy, which would help in and of itself.
Recall is not a new or radical idea. It exists in various forms in about 30 countries on five continents, including Poland, Canada, Germany, Japan, India, South Korea, Costa Rica, Taiwan, Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador. It has existed in the US for more than 100 years, and in Switzerland for even longer. It is a good idea—it works—and it is great that the mainstream parties have finally accepted it.
I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about recall empowering voters. In practice, would it not do what it does in the United States, which is to empower wealthy individuals who are not happy with what their representative is doing to mobilise against them? It would empower wealthy individuals, such as the hon. Gentleman, to influence events in a way that my ordinary constituents and I cannot?
I will explain why such concerns are groundless during my speech, but I will make one point, partly in response to the Opposition spokesman. Concerns about expenditure during the recall process are a matter for regulations; the amendments that my colleagues and I seek to introduce would not tamper with the Government’s proposed regulations on expenses. That separate technical issue can be very easily addressed.
I am sorry, but that is not the point. Expenditure limits can be put on the recall election, but the campaigning in the lead-up to such an election would undermine the representative in getting their constituents—
Trust the voters.
This is not about trusting the voters, but about putting influence in the hands of a small group of very wealthy individuals. If the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), with the wealth he has, wanted to shift a Member of Parliament, he could do it.
The hon. Gentleman takes a very dim view of his electorate if he thinks that that is so easy. Irrespective of that, the two-month petition stage before a referendum will be regulated, so his cost arguments simply do not apply.
What happens in practice in the United States is that individuals who take against a policy or a state or national representative can use their tremendous wealth to use a campaign in the lead-up to the recall election to undermine such a representative. The idea that that is somehow empowering the voters is not the case. Recall empowers very wealthy individuals who could then—
You don’t trust the voters.
I do trust the electorate. The hon. Gentleman should stop chuntering from a sedentary position. The fact is that recall will give influence over who the Member of Parliament is not to the majority of the electors but to a small group of very wealthy individuals.
To my knowledge, in the United States there are no limits on expenditure and on broadcasters; in this country, we have limits on both. Even during the 100 years of recall in that wild west environment of the United States, there have been only 20 successes out of 40 attempts. The hon. Gentleman’s arguments simply do not match the experience of recall anywhere in the world. They are complete nonsense.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that recall is not about licensing vexatious attempts to unseat MPs? Frankly, the public would see through that, particularly if it was frequent and clearly about political and personal grudges. There would be checks and balances in the process, and we can trust the public to see through such attempts. Surely recall is about empowering our constituents to ensure that they do not feel let down and failed by their local Member of Parliament.
My hon. Friend is exactly right—I hope in due course to make such points as well as she has—including about the fact that the protection lies in the threshold, and I will come on to that in a second.
When I sat on the Standards and Privileges Committee, it was interesting to see the sort of complaints that we received. Regularly, there were 28 complaints a month of which only one was relevant to what the Committee could look at, and it quite often ended up as a case of “No harm, no foul”. My difficulty with my hon. Friend’s amendments is that the work load created would sometimes be absolutely phenomenal. I want a very high threshold to avoid the problem of vexatious complaints.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I will address her points properly, but if she feels that I have not done so, I invite her to feel free to intervene at any point.
I think that my hon. Friend’s proposals include not having a recall opportunity within six months of a general election, for the obvious reason that there would soon be an opportunity to get rid of the MP if he or she were that unpopular. If we repeal or move on from the law on five-year Parliaments and go back to a system in which the Prime Minister has discretion on when to call a general election, how would that work?
That would open up a whole new debate, but that is for another time. In the Bill put together by the committee, the six-month limit relates to the start of an election, not the end, so it is possible to have a recall process after an election, but not within six months of an election being called. The reason is that someone may be elected on a spurious basis; for example, on the basis of a whole tangle of lies that are then exposed.
Several hon. Members
I will make some progress and then take as many interventions as there is an appetite for.
It is good that our three mainstream parties and all the smaller parties have understood that recall is necessary. That is a sign of real progress. However, what is not great is the Bill that we are debating today. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that it represents a small step in the right direction. If only it did. I believe that the Bill in its current form will set democracy back, and I want to try to explain why.
For one thing, the criteria in the Bill are so narrow, as we have heard from many Members today, that the process will be virtually pointless. It will still be possible for an MP to switch parties, refuse to attend Parliament, disappear on holiday or break every promise that they made before the election without qualifying for recall. The public will discover, with the very first scandal, that they have been misled. The Bill will inflame the very resentment and anger that gave rise to it. Extraordinarily, the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday called it “the people’s recall”. I call it madness.
Another reason is that, instead of giving voters powers to hold this institution to account, the proposal is that the institution will, effectively, hold itself to account. Except for when an MP is jailed, voters will need our permission to initiate the recall process. Panicking because of the backlash that he has received, the Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday that he would create a panel of ordinary independent people to adjudicate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) has pointed out, we already have that panel—it is called the constituency. The proposal before us will appal voters and has been rejected, without exception, by every single democracy pressure group from 38 Degrees on the left, all the way over to the TaxPayers Alliance, and everything in between.
The Bill could also destroy good MPs. Under the plans, just 10% of people can throw an MP out of office, although that MP could claw their way back into office if they got lucky in a by-election. Yes, the MP would have had to initiate the trigger, but history is full of hon. Members who have been suspended from this House or even jailed for noble protest. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) is no longer in his place, but I believe that he has been suspended from the House 10 times. I apologise if I have got that wrong. Is it correct?
It is correct, so hopefully the hon. Member for Bolsover will not be appalled that I have used that figure. Is he an hon. Member who merits recall? No, he is not. Would he have qualified for recall under these plans? Probably, yes.
My hon. Friend mentioned pressure groups from the left and the right of politics. I have not had a single e-mail from a constituent on this issue that has not been initiated by a pressure group template, so he should not overestimate the public’s interest in the Bill.
That is interesting. I have been bombarded. I even received a letter this morning that said, “Dear Zac Goldsmith, we very much hope that you will support Zac Goldsmith’s amendments.” I take my hon. Friend’s point, but as is shown by all the surveys on this issue, of which there have been a great many over the past few months, if this proposal is put to members of the public, it is something that they support.
The amendments that my colleagues and I will table in due course are based on a Bill that was put together by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), which was crowdsourced. Some 40,000 people, many of whom were members of 38 Degrees and other organisations, went through it line by line and fed in their comments. It has engaged a large number of people. I cannot think of another Bill that has been subjected to that level of crowdsourcing.
The hon. Gentleman made me think of some of the lines in the Bill when he mentioned the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). It states that
“the period specified is a period of at least 21 sitting days”.
It does not state that they must be 21 consecutive sitting days. It might help the Government if they go back and look at that.
That is a good point that I had not picked up on. The hon. Gentleman made the valid and reasonable point in an earlier intervention that there would be enormous pressure from the media, social media and members of the public for 21 days to become the norm, regardless of the offence.
This shabby pretence of a reform needs to be profoundly amended. With the help of a considerable number of colleagues, I hope to do so in Committee. The goal will be to put voters in charge, but with enough checks and balances to prevent any possibility of abuse. We will attempt to remove the Government’s trigger and replace it with a system that allows voters to initiate the process. In response to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), the protection will be in the threshold. It must be low enough to make recall possible, but high enough to ensure that it happens only when it absolutely should.
Under our proposals, there would be three simple stages. If 5% of the local electorate signed a notice of intent to recall during a one-month period, the returning officer would announce a formal recall petition. The purpose of the 5% provision is simply to show the returning officer that there is an appetite for the formal petition process. It is the least formal part of the process and is designed to prevent the initiation of recall by a few angry cranks in the constituency, which every constituency has.
At the point when the 5% figure was reached, the MP’s reputation would be damaged because the local newspaper would splash with, “MP to be recalled”, telephone calls would come in and the whole thing would spiral out of control, even though it could potentially be a vexatious thing. I wait to hear what my hon. Friend has to say, but I am not convinced about how he will sieve out non-vexatious calls from the 5% figure, which could ruin a Member’s reputation. That is such a small figure, particularly with modern media.
The purpose of the 5% figure is to take the temperature and to demonstrate to the returning officer that a sufficient number of people would like to have a recall petition. On average, it would be about 3,500 people. That is the least formal part of the process. According to our amendments, it would require a 200-word explanation of why the petition was being initiated. Of course, there will be times when people unfairly and unreasonably initiate the 5% process. However, if they get to 3,500 people, they will have demonstrated that there is enough of an appetite for a proper recall process.
In answer to my hon. Friend’s point about sullying the reputation of the individual, recall is not part of the way in which we do politics in this country, but it is part of the way in which many other democracies work. If it became part of our culture, it would become a normal part of the argy-bargy of politics in this country and would be no source of shame. I suspect that every politician, at one point or another, would find themselves the subject of the 5% recall petition stage. The question is whether it would reach the 20% stage.
If 20% of constituents signed a petition in a two-month period, not online, but in person in a verified, formal context, we would know that there was a problem. It would mean that 14,000 people had left their home and gone to the town hall or another specified venue to sign their name. What is the biggest petition that anyone in the Chamber has faced since they became an MP? Was it anywhere near 14,000? I doubt it. If it was anywhere near 14,000, had it been verified? I doubt it. Was it online? Could anyone have signed it? Was it timeless? Very likely. Was it geographically specific? I very much doubt it. To get to 14,000 people is a massive result. This would not be an online gimmick, but would require people to go to the town hall and vote in person.
The most feedback that I have ever had as an MP—admittedly, I have only been an MP for four years—related to our NHS reforms. Nearly 1,000 people wrote to me. Many of them were template letters, but not all of them. Nearly 1,000 people wrote to me to express their disgust at the policies that I was supporting, but not one of them came to see me. Had they had the opportunity to vote for my recall online, I suspect that many of them would have done so, but how many of them would have left their home to go to the town hall and sign a petition? If 14,000 people had done so in a two-month period, I would have found it hard to put it down to the vexatious activities of the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party, the unions or anyone else.
Is the last paragraph of the hon. Gentleman’s speech in favour of recall or against it?
I am very sorry, but will the right hon. Gentleman repeat his question?
The hon. Gentleman appears to be saying that even if we accepted his extreme version of recall, it would not work because not enough people would take part.
That is not at all what I am saying. I do not want to trivialise the concern of Members across the House that this tool might be abused. The threshold is therefore sufficiently high—it is possible to argue, perhaps rightly, that the threshold is too high—to make it impossible for the right to be abused by vexatious campaigns by minority groups, pressure groups and so on. It is simply inconceivable that that could happen.
My hon. Friend and I have had many civilised conversations about this matter over recent weeks. My concern centres on the 5% trigger. He knows full well that he and I could visit his local Sainsbury’s or Tesco on any matter and secure 3,750 signatures. My concern is over that initial threshold. Perhaps a better threshold would be 10% of those who voted at the previous election. For example, if 50,000 votes had been cast, the figure would be 5,000.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I think that 5% is about the right level, and that was the consensus of the committee of Back Benchers, which represented seven different parties—5% was the figure that people centred on. I think that 3,500 signatures is a high threshold in one month, but I accept that it is a lot easier than 20% of signatures in person in the town hall. However, I am open to attempts on Report to amend the amendments that I and colleagues will be tabling. A consensus that 5% is too low and that 10% will meet the approval of the House is for me an issue not of principle but of detail. If that is what it takes for the House to be comfortable with the proposals, I will politely go with the flow on that. The principle is what matters.
I have great sympathy with many of my hon. Friend’s arguments about recall, but were his plans to be accepted and a recall initiated, would the names and addresses of constituents who signed the petition be public knowledge, or would that be confidential? That will obviously be of great interest to many political figures.
The regulations we are using for those who sign the recall petition are exactly the same as those proposed by the Government. I do not want to mislead the House, but my belief is that names and addresses would not be published, and that this would be an anonymous process. The recall would need to be verified by the returning officer, but names would not be publicly available. The name of the person who initiates the 5% stage and the notice of intent to recall would be made public, however, as would the description. I think that is right for a number of reasons, including that there would be a person to whom the authorities could go if the 5% stage was fraudulent—if there were duplicate signatures or if children or people from other constituencies were asked to sign. It is much easier to attach legal responsibility to a named individual, as opposed to something entirely anonymous.
In responding to interventions I think I have described the process—I hope so; I am slightly lost—and I was beginning to describe what genuine recall would look like: the 5% of constituents; then the 20% at the business end, the 14,000 people going to the town hall and signing. If that 20% is met, the bell would be rung and a recall referendum would be announced. That would be a simple yes or no, where a majority—not a vexatious minority—of an MP’s constituents would be required to boot them out in order to trigger the next stage, which is a by-election.
As I understand it, my hon. Friend’s alternative approach would enable a recall petition to be triggered for any reason. Will he explain at what point somebody who might be the subject not of a political complaint, but of allegations relating to their personal affairs, their conduct in this House, or conduct that might be the subject of a criminal investigation, would be subject to a petition? How would he prevent a petition from being triggered in circumstances where no allegation had been proven against that person?
One supporter of the amendments that will be tabled is my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), whose circumstances match closely those just described. I hope that he speaks at some point in the debate—I do not see him here. He chose to support the amendments because he was reassured by provisions in them that once the judicial process begins, the recall process would be suspended. It would not be possible to seek to recall a Member once such a process had begun, until it had concluded. I think that is right, and there was an overwhelming consensus that that is right among the 40,000 people or so who responded to the survey. The measure would provide the protection that is required.
To reach its logical conclusion, before getting to the by-election the process would require an absolute minimum of five and a half months. This process would not happen over a weekend, and five and a half months would also allow Members to make the case to their constituents in a way that they could not in a short period of time. That is another reason why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) —he has had similar experiences that I do not need to rehearse because everybody knows about them—is very much a supporter of the Bill. He feels that the five-month process was far longer than he would have required to engage with his constituents and make the case. The same is true of two other Members of the House who have had difficulties in their lives and who began the debate very much in opposition to recall. They now both support the amendments because they feel that they will get a fairer trial from their constituents than they ever would from social media, the mainstream media, or from a standard committee of parliamentarians, susceptible and fragile as we all are to tremendous pressures from newspapers and social media. The thresholds and protections are there.
In support of what my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) said, I am worried about fairness. People sign underneath a petition of 200 words, but is it not fair for the MP to have a say at that point? How do we cover the fact that the MP is accused and does not have the right of response to those 5% of people?
Order. Mr Goldsmith, you have been speaking for 27 minutes and have been very generous with interventions. A lot of other Members are waiting to contribute, and they will not all be able to speak for nearly half an hour, as you have. Could you perhaps resist taking any more interventions, make the points you wish to make and conclude your speech?
Thank you for that helpful reminder, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will wrap up my speech quickly, but I want to address briefly some of the concerns raised. I do not seek to demean or trivialise those concerns, and I recognise that there are genuine, heartfelt and principled concerns about recall, as it represents a big step. The Deputy Prime Minister has referred often in the House to kangaroo courts, but I emphasise that no Member could ever be recalled unless a majority of constituents choose for him or her to be recalled. That is the whole point of a recall referendum.
We must keep a perspective. I am repeating myself, but to reach a point of recall, 20% of constituents—some 14,000 people—would have to make the journey in person to a town hall or another dedicated place within an eight-week period, and there would have to be a very good reason for that recall. Any hon. Member who disputes that should try to think back to the biggest petition they have faced, and to the issue that triggered the biggest e-mail flurry they have received. It will not have been anywhere close to 14,000 signatures—not of constituents, at least.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
In one moment, if my hon. Friend does not mind.
In dozens of democracies around the world that use recall, it is hardly ever used. In the US, where recall has existed for 100 years—I have already made this point—it has been used only 40 times, and only 20 times successfully. California is the most active recall state in the United States. Only one governor in 100 years has ever been recalled, and there is not a single example of a successful vexatious recall campaign.
I know that other hon. Members worry that recall might somehow turn us into delegates and no longer representatives—a point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—but that is not realistic. Voters care about a wide range of issues, and it is rare for recall to be motivated only by one issue. People might disapprove of a Member’s position on one issue, but support them on a range of other issues. It is rare for one issue to be a deal breaker, and the history of recalls shows that that is very rare—I cannot think of an example of one policy issue being the cause and effect of a successful recall.
There are no examples of that. There are examples of attempted recall on the back of gun control, but not a successful one. It is probably true, however, that where recall is possible MPs will think twice about making undeliverable pledges, which is not a bad thing. It is also likely that where pledges have to be broken, MPs would feel obliged to engage extensively with constituents to explain why that was necessary, and that is also a good thing.
Hundreds of thousands of constituents around the country have been sent the same template letter from Liberal Democrat Members, and been told that this measure will cost too much. I saw one of those letters a couple of days ago. Constituents have been told:
“Just one real Recall petition per constituency per Parliament could cost the taxpayer £100 million.”
That figure is completely bonkers. It inflates the Government’s own impact assessment by 300%, and assumes that each Member of this place will face the full recall—not just the 5%—at least once in every Parliament. If 650 Members of this place face recall in one Parliament, the cost is the very least of our problems.
Of course there are arguments against recall, but at their core those are arguments against democracy itself and against all elections. If those arguments prevail, I believe that we will have lost a golden opportunity, not just for voters but for us as Members of this great place. Recall would empower people to hold their MPs to account, and that ubiquitous moan that we have all heard—“You’re all the same; there’s no point voting and nothing will ever change”—would no longer make any sense. The mere existence of recall would give each of us an added, implied continuous mandate, and embolden us as a Parliament. I do not say that it would fix our democracy, but it would be a very big start.
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I just want to pick up on one point. He said that votes for women were inevitable. I disagree. I of course passionately support women having the vote and it seems inevitable to us today, but it took a first world war and millions of people slaughtered across the continent for the political class in this country to change its mind on women’s votes. Nearly every political reform that has happened in this country that has been worth having has had to be fought for and has never been inevitable.
The first Reform Bill, when it came through the Commons in 1830, was carried by a single vote. Mrs Thatcher only became Prime Minister because of a single vote in the no confidence vote in 1979. Habeas corpus, when it was put on the statute book in 1679, was carried by two votes in the House of Lords because a very fat peer was counted as 10 votes—it should never have passed. If one believes in parliamentary reform, one has to campaign for it and to fight for it. Nothing is ever inevitable. I know the hon. Gentleman has been fighting and that is why I do not think he should undermine his cause.
There was a general election in May 1979. It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s attention, but that was not in this place; it was outside among 60 million Britons.
If it had not been for the vote of no confidence and the nationalists joining with the Conservatives in March 1979, there would not have been that early general election.
If I am really honest, there is part of me that does not want to have anything at all to do with recall, because part of me thinks we should have confidence in the parliamentary process and just have shorter Parliaments. Five years for a fixed-term Parliament is far too long: it should be four years. However, we have got to where we are because our parliamentary system is broken. It is bust in important ways that matter to the public. We are held in utter contempt as a class, if not as individuals. I recognise what the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) said. All of us know that the vast majority of politicians—more than the vast majority; virtually every single politician I know—have honourable intentions and ambitions only for what is best for their country and want to change the world according to their lights for good. The truth, however, is that that is not what our voters think. Our voters have come to a completely different conclusion. Maybe that is because, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, we have sometimes made ludicrous promises that we knew, even when we made them, we were not going to be able to deliver. The classic example is tuition fees. I could say that to the Liberal Democrats, but they could equally say that to Labour Members when we first introduced tuition fees.
It may be that familiarity in the past century has bred contempt. One hundred years ago, people did not know what their Member of Parliament looked like. Many MPs never lived in their constituency and hardly ever visited. When Edmund Burke was MP for Bristol he visited it twice—no wonder they did not vote for him. He also made some profoundly arrogant remarks on the role of a politician and a Member of Parliament. We think that this is all terribly unfair, but the end result is that voter turnout is falling, and falling in different kinds of elections. Turnout is at its worst for police and crime commissioner elections. I think it was always inevitable that they would have a particularly low turnout. Incidentally, should there not be recall for them?
After the second world war, in 1950, the turnout in the general election was 83.9%. At the last general election turnout was 65%, even when we leave out the millions who have not even bothered to register. In one seat, Manchester Central, the turnout was just 44.3%. If that is not the electorate voting on whether our system is bust, what is?
The hon. Gentleman mentions Edmund Burke. In Burke’s famous address to his electors in Bristol he said that Members of Parliament should sacrifice their interests in favour of their constituents, but he also said that Members of Parliament owe their constituents their judgment and that if they betray their judgment to their constituents’ opinion they are betraying, not serving, them. Take the recent example of same-sex marriage. My concern is that I was lobbied vigorously by constituents to oppose it and I voted for it. What protection would there be in the recall mechanism for a Member of Parliament who takes a conscious decision to vote against public opinion?
I will come on to whether there should be a recall in a situation in which MPs disagree with their constituents. It is often said of my constituents—I do not know whether it is true, but it is often said by the commentariat—that they would all vote in favour of hanging. I am passionately opposed to hanging. If there were recalls solely on that matter, however, I think the voters would none the less choose to re-elect me because I was prepared to say what I believe and stand for. I think voters are actually far wiser in that respect than even Burke would suggest. He also said:
“To be a good Member of Parliament is, let me tell you, no easy task.”
I think we would all agree with that.
We have to bear in mind that not a single one of us in this House receives the votes of more than 50% of the total electorate, including those who choose not to vote—not a single one of us. There was only one British seat in the 2001 election where a Member got more than 40% of the total electorate, including those who did not vote. In that seat, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit. The constituency was the Rhondda. Even in the Rhondda, the figure is only a smidgeon above 40%. We must have a degree of humility in how we approach our electorate. Sometimes I think it feels to our voters that we are not full of humility.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and his use of statistics. I would just like to pick up on one point. The number of people voting in elections has dropped not, I believe, because of the misconduct of individual MPs, but because the identities of the three main parties have merged. What I am getting on the doorstep is that they are fed up with politicians not standing up for what they believe in. That does not have anything to do with misconduct. They are two entirely separate matters.
The hon. Gentleman must have hacked into my computer, because he has basically said what I am about to say in my next couple of paragraphs. That is not an allegation of misconduct, by the way. [Laughter.] I do not think the Standards and Privileges Committee needs to address it.
Edmund Burke has been mentioned a lot. When he campaigned against corruption in Parliament, he complained that there were too many people in the pocket of the Crown. He came to the conclusion that there were 140 Members of the Commons who, because they had a pension, a well-paid salary post in government or had been given some kind of perk or sinecure, were in the pocket of the Crown, and he complained about those 140 MPs. Today, we have 95 paid Government Ministers, 43 Conservative Parliamentary Private Secretaries, five Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Private Secretaries and seven Conservative members of the No. 10 policy board, to say nothing of those on the Government Benches or on the Opposition Benches who want to have those jobs.
My complaint is that there are now more than 150 MPs in the direct employ of the Government who have no choice in how they are going to vote. If we take all the others into account, more than half the Members in this House have their voting determined entirely for them by two people: the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Ironically, France has just 35 Ministers, none of whom are in their Parliament. Germany has just 17 Cabinet Ministers and two under-Ministers in each Department—50 in total. The UK therefore has more Government Ministers than France and Germany put together. In essence this House, which should be the cockpit of political debate expressed without any fear or favour, where the nation’s grievances are aired and solutions found in what should be a free and fair legislature, is frankly today nothing more than a gene pool for Government. Our primary role is no longer to scrutinise the Government or hold them to account; the majority of Members think that our primary role is to staff or sustain the Government. In the end, that is a problem. It is why we have all the planted questions and obsequious speeches and why votes we pass—on Magnitsky or Palestine—with massive majorities are completely and utterly ignored by the Government. It is why we still have a completely and utterly unreformed House of Lords where patronage remains vital.
It would be all right if the edifice of our present government system was built on a strong foundation of mass-membership parties, but it is not. If we put all the political parties’ members together into one great big rowing lump, we would not get to 500,000 people. It is sometimes compared with the membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or the National Trust. The numbers are feeble, yet that is what it all depends on. There are constituency associations on both sides of the House that have fewer than 200 or even 100 members. I do not like the term “safe seats”; there are seats that have been reliably electing the same kind of MP for decades and where the new MP will be selected by perhaps 50, 60, 70 or 100 people. People introduced the Reform Act in the 1830s complaining about constituencies where only 100 people could elect the MP, and it is no different today, which is why constituency parties are finding it difficult to get more candidates to present themselves, even in safe seats. On both sides of the House, constituency parties are selecting safe-seat candidates from a short list of two or even one.
Therefore, I would of course argue that the parliamentary system is bust. In 1951, 1955 and 1959, the two main political parties, Labour and the Conservatives, received more than 90% of the vote, but now they get barely 65%, and in the European elections this year they got 49.3%. Yet we have a “winner takes all” parliamentary system in which the winner gets to appoint as many peers as they want and decide the whole Government and all business; only the Government get to table motions laying a charge on the taxpayer or to advance legislation as a priority at the beginning of the day, and so on.
For a long time, we had a system that allowed a chink of democracy: we had ministerial by-elections. For centuries, if someone was appointed a Minister, they had to face a by-election in their constituency, because they had to go back to their voters and say, “Is it all right for me to join the Government?” I would argue that that is a perfectly legitimate system, but of course people did not like it. In 1908, when he lost his ministerial by-election, Winston Churchill, who had a terrible habit of losing elections, said:
“It is an awful hindrance to anyone in my position to be always forced to fight for his life and always having to make his opinions on national politics to conform to local exigencies”.
Some of our objections to recall are basically that self-same arrogant attitude towards the electorate. It is an awful hindrance, isn’t it, to let the voters get in our way?
The key issue in the Bill is the threshold. In essence, it places the initial decision in the hands of MPs or the courts. The danger is that the courts would decide not to imprison an MP because it would of necessity start the recall process, so MPs would not be treated the same as others before the law. Furthermore, if we put the decision in the hands of a Committee of MPs, regardless of how many members of the public—it does not matter whether they are genuine or non-genuine members of the public—also sit on it, it just will not wash with the public.
There was an extraordinary moment in 1911 when Asquith was Prime Minister. There had been a big battle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords over the “people’s Budget”, which introduced national insurance and the rest of it. Asquith was at the Dispatch Box and blind drunk. He was the Prime Minister; it was the most important piece of legislation in his life; and he was blind drunk, and we only know about it because Winston Churchill and Lloyd George both wrote home to their wives to tell them that he was blind drunk and had to be carried out of the debate—you cannot tell from Hansard. Churchill made the interesting point that it was only thanks to the freemasonry of the House of Commons that the public would never know about it. That is the danger. The public think we are engaged in a freemasonic activity by protecting one another. They think we protected one another in the expenses scandal and that we look after one another even across the party divide, and that is why I do not think the initial threshold—of allowing the decision to be made by Members—will be good enough.
I must take the hon. Gentleman back a few minutes in his speech. I am sure I am not alone in feeling deeply offended at his reference to the judiciary. The judiciary, of whose independence I am enormously proud, would not be swayed by the fact that someone is an MP—quite the opposite; they might be swayed to be more severe. I am sure he would like to put on the record his confidence in the independence of the judiciary.
I am very fond of the hon. Lady, but I think she has deliberately misunderstood what I was saying. Judges regularly say in their summing up that they are taking into consideration the fact that because the person is a Member of Parliament they would lose their job as well if they were to be given a custodial sentence of more than a year. It is a matter of fact that these matters are taken into consideration.
There is another problem with the Bill. Having set a very high threshold—that the courts or MPs get to decide whether somebody is subject to the recall process—it then sets the very low threshold of 10% for throwing someone out. As I said, no Member has achieved election to this House by 50% of the total electorate, so the idea that it would be difficult to find 10% to force them out of their seat, notwithstanding the remarks of the hon. Gentleman, is to live in cloud cuckoo land.
If those two thresholds are wrong, what is the right one? Should we just leave it to the public, which in essence is what we heard from the hon. Member for Richmond Park? As many Members have said, there is a danger that the extremely wealthy could pervert the process; they could spend lots of money in individual constituencies—or perhaps 10, 20 or 30 at a time—and subvert the proper democratic process. Arguably, big money is already doing that in the British system. We need to look again at how people spend money and at the rules governing not just general elections, but by-elections, because the last thing I want is an American-style democracy where only the rich can ever get elected.
Of course there is a danger of timid MPs, but there is that danger today, and the honest truth is: I would trust the public. I say this for a simple reason. In 2003, I got into a bit of trouble with the electorate, The Mail on Sunday and a whole load of journalists after the paper revealed that I had been using a gay dating website called Gaydar, and there were pictures and so on. The story was not quite as it was presented in some of the newspapers, but be that as it may—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will once I have finished my point.
One Mail journalist told me they were taking bets in the office on when I would commit suicide. The campaign was malevolent, but it still would have been perfectly legitimate for some of my constituents to say, “Let’s start recall.” People could legitimately have asked about my conduct. However, I also have absolute confidence in the electorate and the people of the Rhondda, and in the people of this country for that matter. They might have got 500, 1,000 or 1,500 to sign the recall, but The Mail on Sunday did its own opinion poll and found that the vast majority of the people in this country did not think I had done anything wrong or that I should resign. Having gone through that hell in November 2003, I say that it is perfectly legitimate, and the wise thing for us to do, to leave it to the public, as long as we make sure that the threshold is decent enough that it is not just about people being vexatious and as long as big money cannot determine the outcome. In the end—
This is my last sentence, and I am sure that people have heard quite enough from me—
I am sorry, I did promise to give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
At the risk of repeating the hon. Gentleman’s point, I remember that we discussed that issue at the time. Surely the outcome of his whole argument is that the public are wiser than we give them credit for. They were wiser about his private life, they are wiser about the influence of big money and they are wiser about our politics. There are many Labour members in my constituency who vote against me religiously but would never vote for a recall, because they think that I am doing my job. Is that not what we end up depending on?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The proof of that is that after those events, in the 2005 election, I increased my majority. I can only assume that that proves that it pays to advertise.
My argument is simple, really. Yes, let us have recall; it is an important next stage in the democratic process. We have to open up that little sliver of democracy in the political process, because the leviathan is groaning. We need to change, but we need to ensure that we sort out the financial thing, that this cannot be done vexatiously and that we have a high enough threshold.
I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I have finished.
I put in to speak in this debate with righteous indignation because I thought I was going to be entertained to a ghastly speech from the Deputy Prime Minister, who tries to make himself look big by making this place look small and who persists in talking about broken politics. Unfortunately, that task fell to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who talked about our broken Parliament. We must not conflate our political parties with Parliament. Our political parties may come and go, but hopefully Parliament will remain a constant.
I see this as an opportunity to talk about what I still respect, admire and revere about this place. We need champions of Parliament, and I must say that the thing that still excites me most about this place and what it offers our constituents is accountability. Is it not extraordinary? We take it for granted that a member of the public can write to me, their Member of Parliament, because they are concerned about a policy—an education policy, or a transport policy, for example—and I will take that concern up and write to the Minister. And here it is: we get a response from the Secretary of State for Transport, the Secretary of State for Education or, on occasion, the Prime Minister. We diminish that in this place, but it is truly remarkable. It is not replicated in many parts of Europe and it is scarce around the world.
Let us be careful before we use the Bill as an opportunity to attack this Parliament. Parliament is not broken. I have seen many colleagues in this place achieve remarkable things, not just for their constituents but for the nation at large, and I have the utmost respect for them and the power this place provides them with to do those wonderful things.
I share my hon. Friend’s reverence and respect for the institution of Parliament, and I very much agree with the points he is making. However, does he agree that one reason why this place has fallen into some disrepute is that we have given so many powers away? In exercising our constituency responsibilities, we are finding that powers have been given to the European Union and unelected quangos. This place needs to take more power back.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Institutions are only as powerful as the trust that people have in them, and I am concerned when our sovereign Parliament is overruled by supranational bodies, as that undermines faith in the institution. It is the same with our courts. My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point.
Let me also touch on a couple of other things that have been said today. We are often told that we are out of touch by our constituents, but in reality that is code for, “You disagree with my point of view.” I understand that, but I am not out of touch with my constituents. They might not like me and they might not like what I stand for, but every morning I travel in from my constituency and every evening I go back. I am pleased to meet my constituents on the platform and, in the main, they pretend to be pleased to meet me. I spend numerous weekends out and about in my community, not just having surgeries but going to the shops—I am an ordinary Member of Parliament. Let us take all of this with a pinch of salt and let us not self-flagellate constantly about our standing and the standing of Parliament.
I shall not detain the House much longer, but let me just make a point that I touched on in an intervention. In 2010, the Bill that became the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was introduced in this place. I did not support it and, in reality, it made it much more difficult for us as Members of Parliament to recall the Government. I found that extraordinary, and I find it even more extraordinary now that a recall Bill is being promoted by those on the Front Bench that will, in essence, further entrench the power of the Executive as opposed to the interests of Back Benchers.
I have some concerns. I accept that the Minister is here with good intentions, but there are genuine concerns about the Government’s proposals, as there are about the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I hope that we can reach a solution that carries the confidence of this House and of our constituents. Let us not forget that we all serve in a wonderful Parliament and one that many would like to replicate around the world.
I feel so strongly about recall that I recalled myself. All three established parties pretended that they were in favour of recall, too, and went into the last general election offering voters a right of recall, but four and a half years on that has not happened. They have found time to debate a referendum on the alternative vote system and to talk at length about non-existent Lords reform. We have debated every subject imaginable under the sun, but somehow we have failed to pass legislation to make MPs meaningfully accountable to voters. And we wonder why there is such distrust in politics.
Worse, the coalition now brings to this House measures so deeply flawed that they are unworthy of the name recall. Let us be clear about what is being proposed. If an MP is suspended from the House of Commons for 21 days or more, a petition process is triggered. Should 10% of local people sign it, the MP ceases to be a Member of this House and there is a by-election. Therein lies the first and most fundamental flaw in the Bill: it is a recall Bill without a recall mechanism. As those on the coalition Front Bench well know, recall mechanisms involve a local referendum that asks whether the sitting MP should be recalled—yes, or no. It should be a binary choice, not a by-election. If 50% plus one agree, there should be a by-election, but it is up to local people to decide whether there should be—not 10% of local people, but a majority of local people. Where in the legislation is that mechanism? The coalition has forgotten to include a recall mechanism in the recall Bill.
Worse than being a recall Bill without recall, the Bill will have precisely the opposite effect to that which is intended. It is a proposal that is supposed to make MPs more accountable to voters that leaves the trigger firmly in the hands of Westminster grandees. A measure designed to make MPs answer outwards to the electorate ends up strengthening the power of Whips. As the Bill is drafted, MPs and Whips, not voters, will sit in judgment on errant MPs. It is an implausible Bill from an implausible Front Bench with an implausible record on political reform.
If there was a way to put more power back in the hands of the electorate to decide whether an MP should be recalled, although not necessarily without any grounds whatsoever, would the hon. Gentleman feel that that was a better way of proceeding?
I certainly would. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) is going to table some excellent amendments, which I will do everything I can to support. That will ensure that we have a recall Bill worthy of the name and of the promise made to voters.
The Deputy Prime Minister has expressed his concern that real recall might leave MPs subject to partisan pressure and sectional interests, yet by leaving it to Westminster insiders to decide who gets to face a by-election, MPs are going to be vulnerable to precisely the sectional interests from which they most need protection—the party Whips.
I would like hon. Members to cast their minds back to the previous Member who represented Norwich North—Dr Ian Gibson. I mean no disrespect to the current MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), when I say that I have known Ian Gibson for over 20 years and I know what a good and decent man he is. More to the point, I know that his constituents in Norwich, a city I know well, knew what a good and decent man he is, yet he was thrown to the wolves by the Whips. At the height of the expenses scandal, after a couple of awkward headlines, he was judged by his party Whips to be guilty. Perhaps his real guilt lay in the fact that he failed to sign someone’s nomination papers; I do not know. However, had there been a proper recall mechanism in place, I am absolutely certain that Ian Gibson would have been exonerated by those who knew him best—Norwich voters. As MPs, we should have nothing to fear from recall.
I do not want to get personal about other Members of Parliament, as I do not think it appropriate that we should in this place. On the hon. Gentleman’s very point, as I said earlier, if someone commits an offence, such as those during the expenses scandal, it is a matter of honour for the individuals in this House. An hon. Member should resign their seat if such an offence is committed. There is no need for laws, recalls or anything else to do the job for us.
The point I was illustrating is that MPs often look at recall, but recoil from it because they fear it will somehow make them vulnerable. I would argue that MPs who do their job properly, stick to their promises and do their best by their constituents will find that their hand is strengthened by recall. It should in fact give them greater confidence to do their job in the knowledge that, if there is a question mark over whether they stay here, those who trust them the most will make the final decision.
There has been some suggestion that real recall would lead to vexatious attempts to remove MPs. Let us think about that for a second. This country has had a recall vote—we do not call it that, but that is what it was. In 1997, the Liberal Democrats won the Winchester seat at the election. The Conservatives claimed that the Lib Dems had done so by error and that they had been cheated of victory because they had lost by a mere two votes, and that that was somehow wrong. They got a judicially sanctioned recall, but it was seen by local people for what it was—a vexatious attempt by bad losers to overturn the democratic will of the people. What happened? Having initially lost by two, the Conservatives went on to lose by more than 20,000. I thus emphasise that we have nothing to fear from vexatious attempts at recall.
I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments over a long time. In many ways, he talks a great deal of sense. Does he agree, however, that we have to draw a distinction between failure of conduct and professional judgment. For example, I have been running a campaign on incinerators in my constituency. Some 65,000 constituents voted no. I was actually on their side, but had I been against them, their recourse would have been to kick me out at the next election. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if I had gone against 65,000 people in my constituency, I would have been vulnerable to a recall Bill that is cast too widely?
I am a little surprised that my hon. Friend should recoil from the idea that voters might vote against Members on policy grounds. That is the whole point of us, is it not? Surely it is entirely legitimate for people to vote politicians out of office if they do not reflect their policy priorities. This idea that we can somehow separate the two—so that voters can pass judgment on us for our conduct but not our policy priorities—is absurd and ridiculous. Charles I would have agreed with my hon. Friend. I think it is a false distinction, which does not give the voters the respect they deserve.
Let us ponder for a second something that we are used to in this country—the idea of trial by jury. We trust 12 lay people to pass a judgment and to determine the guilt or otherwise of someone accused of wrongdoing. We trust those jurors to decide not whether they agree with the law that was allegedly broken, but whether the defendant has broken the law. We trust them to exercise good judgment. If we have a right of recall, I think we can trust that jury of 70,000 or 80,000 people to exercise good judgment, too.
Speaking as someone who recently faced a jury, may I say how grateful I was for their independence of mind and the verdict they gave? Like the hon. Gentleman, I have no fear of the electorate. Although I will support the Bill, I want to see it go into Committee and to find ways to make it far more liberal so that the electors get the opportunity, if they so wish, to decide to remove a Member of Parliament at some time. The important point is to get this Bill through tonight, get it into Committee and see what improvements can be made. I understand that the Prime Minister says that he believes this legislation can be improved.
I am grateful for that powerful point. If I thought that this measure would allow lynch mob justice, I would be against it, but I trust the judgment of the people in aggregate. Just as we can trust a jury to decide and sometimes exercise perhaps more common sense than public prosecutors, so we can trust the electorate in aggregate to make decisions about the conduct of Members. If we proceed with this, I think we will discover that the voters are a pretty liberal bunch and a pretty forgiving bunch. I generally think that if we trust remote, unaccountable officials and grandees in Westminster, we are likely to get worse decisions than if we trusted the voters in aggregate. If we can improve the proposals by widening the body of people who decide, so much the better.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his forbearance. He makes a good point about jurors, but before something gets to the jury, it has to be established whether there is a prima facie case to answer. The jury is thus deciding on a case that has already had some legs to go before the judge and jury in the first place. Following the hon. Gentleman’s reasoning to a logical conclusion, perhaps there should be some way of judging a case before it came before the public through the recall petition.
That strengthens my point considerably. Until the 1930s, this country had grand juries to determine whether there was a prima facie case. If that had happened, we would not have had the number of cases being brought to court when common sense would have dictated that they should never have been brought to court. If we have grand juries and trust the people, we get better decisions in the courts. If we trust a wider body of people to determine whether or not an MP should remain, we get better judgments and more effective recall proposals. Wherever more people are included in a decision-making process, we generally get better decisions.
Further to the hon. Gentleman’s point about grand juries, does he accept that the last group of people who should act as a grand jury in relation to recall would be any Committee of this House?
I absolutely agree. There are many good and decent Members who would never be given as fair a hearing by a Committee of grandees—people who spend their careers chasing the Whips’ baubles—as they would if they trusted the views of the voters. After all, it is the voters who know us best. If the majority of our constituents decide in a vote that, frankly, they want us recalled, there is no shame in that. We are clearly in the wrong job; we should go and do something else. The voters would be better off if we did; we would be better off and so would democracy.
It is worth pointing out the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee has already said on the record that he does not want this extra duty of this extra ballot. He recognises, as does everyone else, that if we want to exert pressure and to influence an outcome, it is much easier to do so with a fallible group of 10 people than it is with 70,000 constituents.
Absolutely. I would ask people again to apply the Ian Gibson test. If the Standards and Privileges Committee had been left to make the key decision in those heated and fevered moments during the MPs’ expenses scandal, would it not have been under intense media pressure to make the wrong choice by that good and decent Member of Parliament? I think it would have been. It is wrong for the Standards and Privileges Committee to have this role. It is right, if we want more lay members to be involved, for us not to seek to increase the number of lay members on the Standards and Privileges Committee, but to trust the voters. It puzzles me that people still struggle with the idea that the voters should decide whether or not to trigger the process, for they are the ultimate jury.
I shall support the Bill this evening. I shall do so because I am confident that it can be amended and made meaningful, and confident that many of the amendments that will be tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park will be successful. Unless that happens, this recall measure will remain a sham, a fix, a pretence of change so that Westminster can stay the same. Proper recall will end safe seat syndrome, which is what has really hamstrung our democracy. In four of the past five elections, fewer than one in 10 seats have changed hands. Even at the time of the 1997 great Labour landslide, only three in 10 changed hands. In other words, seven out of 10 seats are safe seats. There is almost a zero chance of those Members losing their seats unless they fall foul of the Whips. They are fiefdoms. That means that MPs answer to other MPs. The great destructive mechanism in our democracy, the Whips Office, is all-powerful.
The hon. Gentleman said that recall would end safe seat syndrome. How will it do that?
At present, the career trajectories of MPs in safe seats are determined by how obsequious they are to Ministers, and on whether or not the Whips think highly of them and give them promotion. If a Member is vulnerable to a recall election—if he is vulnerable to the views of the voters—he may start to face outward to the voters. Even if he is in a safe seat, he will know that he can lose his position if he breaks his promises and does not do what he said he was going to do. Recall would mean that instead of facing inward and chasing favour with the Whips, MPs would become outward-facing, and I think that that would revive and reinvigorate our democracy.
Is not the ultimate battering ram against “safe seat syndrome”, as it has been described this afternoon, not a recall Bill but the single transferable vote system that we have seen in operation in, for instance, the Republic of Ireland?
I would rather not get into the subject of electoral reform, although my views on it were not generally mainstream in my old party, and I am open to ideas and suggestions. Recall would be a key part of reviving our democracy.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is being rather unkind about “safe seat syndrome”, which has been the focus of much of his attention. My own seat —the seat that I currently occupy—has been Conservative for an unbroken period since 1868. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman—and, perhaps rather more importantly, my 73,000 constituents—that I work extremely hard. I treat my seat like a marginal, and I think that the same applies to many MPs. It is an attitude of mind. It may be entirely irrational, given all the hard work that must be done in the run-up to an election, but I think that many MPs, whether or not they have safe seats, take a very diligent approach to their constituency work.
My hon. Friend has made my point for me, rather eloquently. There are very good and decent people who come into Parliament with good and honourable intentions, but why is it so often the case that those who enter this place with good and honourable intentions do not—in the public’s eyes, at any rate—do what it was hoped that they would do? I submit that it is because they end up facing inward. They come here, and then they face what other MPs in Westminster determine should be their priorities. That is the problem. That explains why so many good and decent people come here and end up not achieving what their constituents hoped for.
I think that, by giving voters the power to sack MPs, recall will break open cartel politics. I am somewhat bemused when some Members seem appalled at the very notion that the public might actually vote out of office an MP with whom they disagreed over policy—shock, horror. Surely that is the whole point of politics. The Minister attacked the very idea of a politically motivated recall, but surely “politically motivated” is what we are supposed to be in this Chamber. I thought that that was the essence of politics.
I look forward to voting for the Bill, and to supporting the amendments that will make it meaningful.
I think that 10 years ago I would have opposed the Bill, because I would have taken the conventional view that has been expressed by one or two Government Members today. The last decade, however, has led me to believe that the chasm that has grown between the political classes and the ordinary voters—the population of the country—has become too wide. Some of that has, of course, been due to the expenses crisis, but it is by no means either the only or the first reason. As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) pointed out, the current trend has been ongoing for a long time, but I believe that it is now approaching a crisis point.
I have therefore concluded that a recall Bill is necessary, and, like the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell), I shall vote for this Bill, although I must add that I do not view it as a recall Bill. If anything, it is a parliamentary expulsion Bill, because it makes it easy for the establishment of the House to expel someone from the House. Let us imagine the circumstances. A Member is found wanting by his peers in the Standards and Privileges Committee—no doubt amid a vast hue and cry from a number of tabloid and red-top newspapers—and his constituents are then told “If 10% of you vote in the referendum, this man will go.” No matter that 90% of them might want him to stay; in those torrid circumstances, only 10% need to vote, and he will be expelled. I do not think that anyone who was criticised and set up in that way would survive the process, or would be reselected by his party thereafter. He might stand on his own account like Dick Taverne, like the hon. Member for Clacton, or indeed like me, but he would not survive the normal political process. This is, as I have said, a mechanism for political expulsion.
I might find that tolerable if our mechanisms in the House met any sort of judicial test, but, having been here for some 25 years, I suggest Members conduct an experiment. I say this with no ill reflection on the people who serve on and chair the Standards and Privileges Committee. I suggest that Members make a list of the names of all who have been ruled against by the Committee, separate them into two columns consisting of Front Benchers and Back Benchers—I do not suggest that the two columns should consist of those who are within the gilded circle and those who are the mavericks—and compare the treatments of people who have committed the same crime. They will then find two classes of justice. We do not deliver justice in this House; we deliver an opinion of the establishment of the House, and that is why the public are not wrong to view our systems as intolerable.
Let me give one example. I shall not give the examples of those who have been let off, because that might be mean in the circumstances, but I will give an example of someone who, in my view, was very badly treated. It was someone who was no friend of mine and, indeed, no friend of almost anyone in the House: Ken Livingstone. About a decade ago, he received income from a series of speaking engagements. He went to the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests and asked how he should declare that income, and he then declared it in the way the Registrar recommended. Later, someone found out how much money he had made. I think that it was more than £100,000, but in any case it was a lot of money. He was then suddenly hauled before the Standards and Privileges Committee, and forced to make an apology here in the Chamber. Why? He was an outsider. He was a maverick. He had no friends in the House, or at least no friends in the parties in the House. His was not the only case of that kind—I could have picked a number of others—but that was not justice, it was not democracy, and it would not improve this House to formalise such a process by means of the mechanism with which the Minister has presented us today.
Such a system could be made to work only if we replaced the standards and privileges process with a judicial process. I do not think that the House really wants to introduce the law into its mechanisms, but if it wants to adopt a test it will have to be a judicial test. I suspect that, if I were ever in front of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I would be looking for a judicial remedy immediately. So this is not a recall Bill as it stands; it is a parliamentary expulsion Bill, and we should understand that.
I support the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who has been a principled campaigner for these reforms for some time. I shall not take up much more of the House’s time, but I want to remind hon. Members of the differences involved. The Government’s proposal would take either a criminal mechanism or the House’s judgment and turn it into a one-off, 10% referendum. Then it would be over. My hon. Friend’s proposal would have a 5% first threshold to start the process. That would trigger the timetable, and a 20% threshold would follow. In my constituency, that would equate to just short of 15,000 voters. I have never seen a campaign in my constituency get 15,000 voters to go out voluntarily and put their name on a petition.
I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend. If, as a result of such a referendum, a political scalp were gained and a seat lost, does my right hon. Friend agree that supporters of an opposing party would get out and vote, as they would at a general election? I accept that the numbers would be down, but there could still be significant numbers voting. The numbers that he is talking about would certainly be possible if a seat could be gained in that way.
This point has been made a number of times, particularly by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)but also by others. My hon. Friend is presuming that his constituents would vote on the basis of a simple political judgment, according to whether they wanted a Labour Government, a Tory Government, a Liberal Government or even a UKIP Government, but I do not believe that our constituents behave like that. I believe that they behave in a moral way and make judgments about us. I have discussed this matter with my constituents. Many of those who have never voted for me in my 20-odd years in the constituency would not vote to remove me on that basis. They would not make such a judgment on a political basis. They would recognise that this was a quasi-judicial judgment. That is why we are better off trusting the public than trusting the hierarchy in this House.
Much of what the right hon. Gentleman says about our constituents is true. However, he is perhaps slightly out of date in regard to the collecting of signatures. We have seen 38 Degrees inundating us with e-mails, and with modern technology it would not be as difficult as it used to be to get a great number of signatures.
The hon. Gentleman misses the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park made. This would involve not an electronic collection but a physical collection of votes. People would have to get out and go down to their town hall or their polling station. I think we have nominated four locations for any given constituency. We thought about this very point; indeed, it is one of the things we crowd-tested with 40,000 people. They recognised, as did members of 38 Degrees, that an electronic vote would be the wrong way to carry out this process. It has to be a process in which people exercise a moral judgment and overcome a physical hurdle by going down to one of those locations and doing something about it. Again, this shows that we are better off trusting our own constituents.
There was much argument in Committee about the figure of 20%. Some people talked about 25%; others talked about less. The simple truth is that 20% is pretty much the norm internationally. Most, if not all, other countries exercising this mechanism do not experience many vexatious actions. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)made legitimate points about the role of big money in this exercise, but only a Californian governor has been replaced throughout the century in which this mechanism has been in place in America, despite the fact that many people would have been vehemently opposed by big corporate interests. In any event, we can deal with that through the regulations and laws that will surround this Bill when we make it an Act of Parliament.
This is an incredibly important Bill, but the Government have got it quite materially wrong. This is one of those rare occasions on which it is for the House of Commons to make a judgment that will decide our own future.
Mention has been made today of the disengagement with politics in the wider context, but it might be good news for the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) that politics in Scotland is now going through a veritable purple patch—a renaissance, even—and that we have perhaps the most engaged and politically literate electorate in the whole of Europe.
Am I right in thinking that even the Conservative party is having a renaissance in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman might be on to something, but I think that it might have to be called a relative renaissance. Polls have shown that the Conservative party’s figures have not increased much, if at all, in Scotland, although they are above those of the Labour party. It is not really much of a renaissance at all. However, I do not want to be distracted by the political ill weather for Labour and the Conservatives north of the border, because that is not the matter before the House this afternoon.
I hope that there is much agreement on the idea of a recall Bill, but the disagreement lies in whether we should have an open recall Bill or the more prescribed recall Bill that the Government propose.
I want to say quite a bit about the Government’s attitude and approach to the Bill. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) was absolutely right to say that among the problems with the Government’s Bill are its reliance on the Standards and Privileges Committee and the justice of that Committee. The right hon. Gentleman told us that he had looked into that matter, and it did not surprise me that there was such a justice differential between those inside the gilded circle and those outwith it.
The proposal for a 10% threshold is dangerous. A safer mechanism for recall would involve a 5% threshold, followed by 20% and then a simple majority in a referendum. This process should be an extension of democracy and, if we get to that point, there should be a secret ballot—or an Australian ballot, as it was originally called. The prescribed route also carries the danger that it mentions trigger conditions, such as a jailing. Mentioning the conditions would make a recall more likely because it would light up the minds of those in journalistic circles, who would start to crank up the machinery that could lead to what history suggests might sometimes be the wrong steps being taken.
I am thinking in particular of Terry Fields, who was jailed for 60 days in 1991 and was probably released to a hero’s welcome, as indeed was Tommy Sheridan in Scotland, although he was not an elected politician when he was also jailed for non-payment of the poll tax. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) made an important point about the Cyprus situation in the 1950s. He suggested that Members should be given a degree of latitude and have the freedom to speak their minds, because sometimes an uncomfortable truth is a great servant to us all.
The open route would allow us more easily to ignore some of the many reasons that the establishment might see as triggers for a recall, and allow us to take a more open approach. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said in an intervention on the opening speech, it should be no longer MPs who define their own behaviour, but society at large. The open method allows the recall mechanism to be a dynamic process that takes account of circumstances. Some might feel that lying to the country or to Parliament to take the nation to war might reasonably be open to recall but that would not be included in legislation by the Government.
The overarching point is that recall should be a sanction of last resort. It should not be used much, and hopefully it will not be used much—it should be little needed and little used—but it is a sanction that should be available. At the stage we are at now in our ever-evolving democratic countries—evolving due to social media, certainly—the proposals before us would provide another arm of participatory democracy.
Whoever instigates a recall and whatever mechanism triggers it, it should have a reasonable chance of success. I mentioned the example of Terry Fields. He would have been re-elected anyway, and to use the recall mechanism against an MP who is clearly going to come back with a thumping majority would be an abuse. It should have a real chance of succeeding in removing the MP. As has been said, perhaps an MP removal mechanism is what it is. Therefore, and perhaps with the fear of the vexatious recall in mind as well, we might consider requiring a bond or deposit—some sum so that those engaged in this have to put some money where their mouths are, as do those who engage in elections or by-elections, in order for them genuinely to demonstrate to the wider public that this is not a whim.
I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, but that would not stop a wealthy individual. It would not stop the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), for example, as he could obviously afford to lose his deposit, and in the United States it did not stop people such as the Koch brothers, who put £2 million into the Colorado recall of the state Senators who introduced gun control. I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I am not sure this would stop big business and big interests.
The hon. Gentleman might be correct in some of that, but we do live in an imperfect world. All I would say to him is that this removes many of the imperfections and is an improvement on the current situation.
The hon. Gentleman is making a brilliant speech, and I agree with I think everything he has just said.
The points about moneyed interests are arguments against all elections, not just recalls. It would be possible for the Koch brothers to influence any election, not just recalls. That is another problem we need to address: there are arguments to be had about regulating the process so that that cannot happen. These arguments are not about recall; they are about democracy.
I think there is a debate going on around me here about the influence of money in politics, and hopefully we are not quite in the same scenario as the United States of America in that respect, although it would be wrong to say that the influence of money is negligible in politics at whatever level, including general elections, by-elections or, perhaps, recall elections.
Some Members have argued that a general election is a form of recall, but I dispute that. Should a Member face recall, they will be facing recall on one point, with the eyes of the country, and particularly of their constituency, on the cause of the recall. In a general election Members come face to face with other candidates, as they would in a recall election, but the issues of the day can sweep a candidate into winning a seat. We have often seen over the last number of elections that some candidates have won to their own surprise; it is clearly not the candidate who has been elected personally, but instead it is support for their party or the issue of the day that has taken them to victory. Therefore a by-election or general election is not a recall election.
One of the most concerning aspects of the recall measures before us is the Government’s wording of clause 1(3), which mentions an MP who
“has, after becoming an MP, been convicted in the United Kingdom of an offence and sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained”.
The word “detained” leaves us with quite a difficult situation. According to House of Commons notes, during this Parliament at least four sitting MPs have been detained by the police but not prosecuted. I will not name them because they do not deserve that. The detaining and imprisoning of people could, under the Government’s mechanisms, enable 10% to push for a by-election, and that would be wrong.
We must, I think, conduct a thorough experiment. Not many of us would like to imagine that we live in a country in which we have politically motivated arrests and people being detained because of mistaken identity—the measure does not even allow for the possibility of mistaken identity. Let us imagine that the detention was heavy-handed and wrong. Imagine too that the system was taken as a gold standard and used in other places. We could have a situation in which different standards in a different time and place would allow somebody to be detained, which could lead to a 10% trigger to an election, and that could be taken as a benchmark across the world. It is difficult to see how people could withstand the pressure of that.
I hope that the Minister will intervene on this matter. My understanding is that detention is not being held without bail, but is an English law term. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that situation at some point later in the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, and there should be absolutely no ambiguity here. The fact is that this is a point of debate. Therefore, whether he is right, I am right or the truth lies somewhere in between does not matter. The point is that there is some ambiguity in the words, and it should not be there. If that is the situation, it leaves a process that is open to abuse. Although we would all like to think that we live in a country that follows the rules of fair play, a country that adopts this system might not. Standards might change here over time. By-elections with a biased national media are a lot more plentiful than we would imagine. The result could be quite different and justice—the point of this is justice—would not be seen to be done.
Recall has to be real, in the hands of the people and open to the circumstances of the society in which it operates. As I have said, there will be circumstances that we cannot possibly imagine today. I have already mentioned the taking of a country to war, and there will be other such situations. If the Government do not listen to our amendments, will they, at the very least, clarify what they mean by “detain”. Surely, too, they must raise the barrier of 10%. There is better thinking in front of them. I commend the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for his work, and I agree with just about all of his amendments bar one, which we will discuss later.
Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) that there has been too much self-flagellation as part and parcel of the process that has led towards this Bill, we cannot dispute that a lot of the concerns that underline these measures are to do with trust—I am talking specifically about trust in the political and parliamentary process. The public appetite for parliamentary recall was turbo-charged by the reputationally ruinous expenses scandal that broke in 2009. That brought to public attention the decades-long scandal of a self-regulated system in which secrecy and opaqueness by the political establishment were the watchwords. That was then compounded by the calamitous rearguard attempts by the parliamentary great and good to use the courts to prevent the publication of details of dubious expenditure claims of public money—a process that was sensationally broken open by The Daily Telegraph.
Slowly but surely this place has been dragged into playing catch-up. Ever since the expenses scandal, this House has paid lip service to the importance of restoring public confidence in the political process. A central part of that has been the public insistence for genuinely independent regulation. Yet the centrepiece of this Bill flies in the face of giving our voters, rather than political insiders, the authority to drive recall.
I regret that the coalition’s revolutionary intentions, as set out in May 2010, have been so watered down.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any confidence in his party leadership’s record on political reform?
That is a rather unfair question. It was the hon. Gentleman’s party leadership until a few weeks ago. I have some confidence—perhaps hope springs eternal—that there will be other elements of reform going through. I am afraid that the constitutional record of the coalition Government has been lamentable in the way that it has worked out.
As hon. Members have said, it is entirely understandable that the Government have tried to find a mechanism to weed out trivial or vexatious complaints. For sure, there will be abject disagreement on purely partisan political issues, as well as furious disagreements between an elector and his or her parliamentary representative, but that should never trigger the recall process.
As I am now disagreeing with the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell)—my friend, but my former hon. Friend—I should congratulate him on his recent re-election. I know that he pays the closest possible attention to these issues. Although we profoundly disagree about the desirability of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and about immigration policy—I think it is in the national interest that we have a calm and rational debate, rather than one that plays to members of his current party—we were, as instinctive democrats, in the same Lobby for the November 2011 referendum vote and with regard to House of Lords reform, which would have brought about an elected second Chamber. Our views are similarly aligned on the importance of sound money and the need for a much more urgent emphasis on deficit reduction than seems acceptable to Britain’s political elite.
More importantly, in this era of established political parties being set out in law, surely an elected representative’s decision to switch political parties should automatically trigger a recall. I would support an amendment to achieve that if the hon. Gentleman were to table one. I respect his decision and that of the erstwhile Member for Rochester and Strood to put their money where their mouth is and let their electors determine their future. Why should voters be deprived of the opportunity to hold to account an MP who switches parties but is unwilling to resign? Surely that should be a prima facie reason for recall.
I fear, however, that the Minister has instead boiled down the grounds of recall to just two small conditions, the first of which applies to criminal convictions and will operate along similar lines that already exist for expulsion from the House. However, the second condition, which applies if the Standards Committee imposes a suspension from the House of 21 or more sitting days, is much too open to party managers’ political manipulation. Let us not be naive about the conduct of party leaderships and the Whips Offices. They will, as they have always done, try to manipulate such a process to protect or condemn as they see fit. After all, that is what party managers do, and that is precisely why they must have no part whatsoever in the recall process. The overriding need to restore public trust is the reason why they should have no opportunity to interfere with the recall process.
The Standards Committee is still appointed, rather than elected by the House as a whole, so while its members are often able and diligent, that has the consequence that emollient and obedient MPs may be selected as its members, especially if a helpful outcome to a sensitive case is desired. As we all know, if cases come before that Committee, the House is able to impose penalties ranging from expulsion and suspension, to an order to repay moneys, when appropriate. It is all too easy to see how favoured sons and daughters—errant Ministers perhaps—might be made subject to stringent repayment conditions, but have imposed on them a suspension that is lenient enough not to trigger the second recall condition. I agreed with much of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said about that.
I fear that this is not a wild academic concern. Let us consider some of the matters that have recently come before the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards Committee, and then the House. For example, two former Cabinet Ministers were both ordered to repay more than £40,000 in inappropriately claimed second-home expenses by the commissioner. Following long and protracted inquiries, no doubt aided and abetted by an unhealthy interest from party managers, they were subject to a sanction that would not have triggered recall, even though the strength of public opinion meant that they both had to resign their ministerial office.
By contrast, in the past year two independent-minded Back Benchers—Patrick Mercer and Denis MacShane—have resigned from the House after being suspended for long terms, although neither had made similarly substantial personal financial gain requiring the repayment of public money. I do not wish to draw entirely direct comparisons between those sets of cases. I simply ask the House to reflect on the fact that the mere perception that pressure might be brought to bear to favour MPs closer to party leaderships, or indeed to militate against those regarded as more easily expendable, will only further undermine public confidence in this new process.
I very much agree with many of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and look forward to these issues being debated at length in Committee. I do agree with the Minister that there is an increasingly strong case for a mechanism to allow constituents to recall their MP. In my view, there is an almost unanswerable case that we will have to have such a Bill. I am only sad to conclude that this Bill fails to rise to the occasion.
It is customary to begin a speech by declaring an interest, but in this case I can declare a disinterest, as I am not standing at the next general election. Also, so far as I know, in the year of the great expenses scandal my expenses were the lowest of any Member of Parliament. However, I am firmly opposed to the Bill, and not because it does not go far enough, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) argues, but because it proposes recalls at all.
I was disturbed to hear the Minister describe the Bill as a first step. In my view it is the first step in a bit of fancy dancing at the top of what could turn out to be a very slippery slope heading in the direction of the things advocated by the hon. Member for Richmond Park. The proposition from the recall enthusiasts is that there should be provision so that MPs can be sacked between general elections—to quote the hon. Member for Richmond Park—
“for whatever reason if the majority have lost confidence in them”.
To say that that would be open to abuse by vested interests would be a grotesque understatement.
I believe that the introduction of a recall mechanism along the lines outlined by the enthusiasts would have proved a great hindrance to social progress in this country, and to a lot of the changes that have led to our society becoming more decent. I point out that things become a consensus; they do not start off as such. A lot of the things that we now enjoy started off as very unpopular ideas, and we should do nothing that restricts MPs from taking up unpopular ideas that they believe to be right.
Many of the things that I now value in our society, as I hope do many other Members, were seen as shocking when they were first launched by fearless MPs. They knew that their ideas were unpopular and would be seen as shocking, and the response from much of the news media and many people in here was not just an expression of opposition to their views, but personal vilification and smears.
My right hon. Friend is arguing against allowing people to decide who their representatives are on the grounds that occasionally representatives might hold views that do not accord with the voters. Surely we should trust the voters, not to agree with everything a representative says, but to respect a representative for being frank and honest with them.
That is what I believe in. I do not believe that introducing a recall system will further that degree of independence.
There is a brilliant example from my own constituency —not me, I rush to point out. My distinguished predecessor, Lena Jeger, was the Member for Holborn and St Pancras South, which was an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic constituency in the 1960s. Lena Jeger was an advocate of abortion law reform. She was one of the sponsors of David Steel’s Bill that became the Abortion Act 1967. It would have been a simple matter for opponents of what she was advocating to get together 10% or 20% of people to oppose what she was doing.
It is no good people who do not agree with me shaking their heads, because I am sure that is the truth.
The example that the hon. Gentleman gives is an argument for recall. The Member of Parliament he describes, whose views were apparently at odds with those in her constituency, was nevertheless elected seven times in seven general elections despite holding those views. You can trust your constituents, and that is a case in point.
Yes, but she would have been put to all the bother and expense of fighting for her seat in the middle of a parliamentary—
That is the idea.
I know that is the idea, and that is what is wrong with it. That is why it is a stupid idea.
This is intended to punish certain individuals, but it would have the effect of persuading a lot of other people who were feeling a bit edgy about things not to go ahead and stick to their principles because they might be set upon. That would not necessarily be done by an innocent group of individual electors—it could be the product of a very lengthy campaign by nasty people in the news media or, these days, some squalid, awful campaign in the social media, which built up over a long period of time and was almost impossible for an individual Member of Parliament to resist. We need to be very careful about that.
A lot of the things we enjoy today were advocated and supported by Lena Jeger and people like her, in the face of many objections. They include a lot of stuff to do with women’s rights, equal pay, family planning, outlawing racial discrimination, being in favour of abolishing capital punishment, being in favour of gay rights, and being in favour of in vitro fertilisation. More recently, people might have been subject to recall, depending on their constituency, for voting for or against the hunting ban—or, even more recently, voting for or against same-sex marriage. I can see some advantages in the idea of recall for such reasons. No doubt the Liberal Democrats would not have been very keen on innumerable recalls being launched when they went back on their promise not to increase student fees, and nearly every Tory and Lib Dem MP probably would not have fancied a recall over the NHS reforms. Even with those two attractive features, however, I do not support the proposition of recall.
When I make my position clear to my constituents, as I always try to do, they say, “How would you deal with the expenses fiddlers?” All I say is, “All the spectacular ones disappeared at the general election, so the system got ’em in the end.” As we know from the saying usually ascribed to Talleyrand, revenge is a dish best enjoyed cold. Even in an era of instant gratification, waiting for a general election should prove okay.
I absolutely accept that the Government Bill is a very shabby coalition compromise. There have been many objections to the triggers relating to a Member being jailed. Another trigger is misconduct that results in a Member being suspended for 21 days or more. Let us get this clear: this proposal is not about a Member being suspended for 21 days or more; it is about either being suspended for a short period or being sentenced to recall. It is not about the amount of time for which a Member might reasonably be suspended. I think that that could result in a lot of scandal—real or invented—being stirred up by the news media or social media. We all have to agree that there would be nothing objective or quasi-judicial about that process. It might be reasonably like going before the Standards Committee, but the decision would be taken on the Floor of the House.
“Objective” and “quasi-judicial” are not terms I would usually apply to a debate on that sort of thing. People might say that I am saying that the process would be a kangaroo court, but that is an insult to kangaroos. The decision would, generally speaking, be party politically motivated. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has said, it is fairly clear that, even without the threat of recall, this place has treated some Members very differently from others even when they were guilty—if that is the right word—of the same wrongdoings.
I am aware that Edmund Burke lost the general election in Bristol after saying that he would betray the electors rather than serve them if he sacrificed his judgment to their opinions. That is fine, because that is what we are talking about: the judgment made at the general election. I find it rather odd that, even though he is usually portrayed as the philosophical father of conservatism, so many Conservative Members do not seem to agree with him.
The proposed process is not democratic in any way. Under the Government’s proposal, which is worse than that of recall enthusiasts, just 10% of the electorate would need to sign a petition. There would not be any provision for the other 90% to say, “We don’t think there should be a recall.” It would, therefore, be possible for 10% to sign up and get a recall under way, even if the vast majority of people living in a particular area were opposed to it.
The threat to the MP is not just that they might lose their job, but that they would have to go through a horrible process, which would be expensive, in both a personal and a party political sense, even if they survived the recall. That is something we ought to try to avoid.
Another problem is that the proposal would deter Members from sticking to the views they deeply hold. If they saw another Member suffer for sticking by their principles, a lot of them would start wondering whether it was still a good idea to do so themselves. Anything that discourages Members from sticking to their principles is bad. My electors have elected me eight times with varying majorities and I have always tried to tell the truth, because I am fairly secure in the feeling that, at a general election, what I have done will be looked at in the round by my electorate. However, a recall system would not look at things in the round, but at a specific and particular issue.
I have mentioned my distinguished predecessor, Lena Jeger. In 1974, I canvassed on her behalf. I called on a family I had got rehoused into a really rather nice flat, and the mother came to the door. They were definitely a Roman Catholic family. All the five daughters had the vote, as did the dad, so with the mum that made seven votes. People were not very sure about the likely outcome of the general election—I cannot remember which it was of the two general elections in 1974—and the mother said, “We want Mrs Jeger to support tightening up the abortion law.” I thought for a minute about whether to say, “Oh, she’ll do it.” Then I thought, “No. If she was here, she would tell the truth.” I therefore said, “No, I don’t think she will. She was one of the sponsors of what is now the law.” The mum said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ll be able to vote for her.” On election day, I happened to pass their polling station when all seven of them came out, and called, “Frank, Frank”. I went across the road, and they said, “It’s all right. We’ve voted for Mrs Jeger because you told us the truth.” Telling the truth, and being judged at general elections in the round for what we do, is what should continue.
I believe that the proposals will massively strengthen the hands of rich individuals and pressure groups, as well as vindictive media campaigns and unprincipled and manipulative social media targeting, and that they will ultimately be reactionary. People have benefited from changes pushed for by individual MPs who made themselves unpopular at the time they did so, and they will realise that we need to encourage such MPs, not do them down.
It is a great privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson). [Interruption.] He may have a safe seat, but it was a great privilege. I listened very carefully to what he said—like him, I do not support recall at all—and I agreed with every word as he set out his reasons for not supporting the Bill or the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith).
I think that this is rather a sad day—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) is shaking his head, so I am doomed from the start. There again, he used to shake his head at me when he sat on the Government Benches, so perhaps I will just get on with my speech.
It is a sad day when in a place where we are meant to be honourable—the huge majority are honourable—we are navel gazing, as it were, about how we do behave, while all around us the world is in meltdown, with eurozone economies about to go splat again and wars across the world. There are very serious issues, but we are discussing us, which is what our electorate are not so keen about.
Millions of people have died in two world wars and in other wars for our freedom. Several Members have praised and applauded our system of democracy in this country, and I join them in doing so. This is the most extraordinary place that I have ever been in. It is bigger than us, and so it should remain. The day we tame it is the day that democracy will really start to die in this country. The general election is the most special day for all of us, as well as for our electorate and the country. It is the day on which many of us lose our jobs, many of us keep our jobs and many candidates earn their jobs. Anything that undermines that extraordinary event has to be considered seriously. It could seriously damage the democracy that so many people have died to protect.
I have no doubt that the motives of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park are entirely honourable. I have a lot of respect for him and all those who will support his amendments, and I have respect for the Government who brought forward the Bill. I hope that I do not disappoint the Government, my hon. Friend and other Members by saying that when the Bill was first mooted some years ago, it was a knee-jerk reaction to events that had spun out of control, as is so often the case in this place. We panicked—I was not here, but in saying “we”, I speak collectively of the political class—and rightly so. Some had been found with their fingers in the till. To the electorate, that was completely unacceptable, and rightly so. The political class panicked and the recall Bill was mooted.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If a Member is caught indulging in corrupt actions, I have no argument with their being deprived of their seat, ultimately. That is what happens at present. I am worried that people might be deprived of their seats because they express independent or difficult views. Therefore, before the Bill becomes law, we must amend it to ensure that the House of Commons cannot expel anybody for expressing an individual view that the House as a whole does not like.
I concur entirely with my hon. Friend. As always, his words are wise and should be listened to by us all.
I am concerned by some of the comments that colleagues have made. Disparaging remarks have been made about MPs, the system, this place and our democracy itself. Members have said that we have somehow undermined democracy.
The hon. Gentleman has used the word “democracy” a few times. As I am sure he and everybody else knows, democracy comes from the Greek for the rule of the people. If we believe in democracy, what can be wrong with the recall Bill?
If the hon. Gentleman will hold on for a few moments, I will hopefully answer his question.
Will my hon. Friend turn his attention to Members of Parliament who are voted for by the electorate for one political party, but who chose to defect mid-term? That happened in Shrewsbury when my predecessor defected from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. It caused a great many problems. Would he support some form of recall mechanism in those circumstances?
I do not know whether my hon. Friend was here earlier, but I talked about honour, which is sadly lacking in some cases. My view is that if somebody changes party mid-term, the honourable thing to do is to submit himself or herself to the people, as the hon. Member for Clacton and his colleague have done. Legislation is a very dangerous tool to use. I have been here for a very short time—just four years—but I think that what the public want to see is some honour and principle back in this place. Those things are here. I am not saying that they are absent. They were a bit absent, but we have learned our lesson—I hope.
Legislation is such a heavy tool. When we introduce a piece of legislation, we seldom ask what the consequences will be. We do not ask, “What if?” If we raise a tax, we do not ask people what effect it will have on their business. Do we ever say that? I suspect that it happens occasionally, but not on the whole. I agree with what my hon. Friend says, but I do not think that we need legislation to achieve what he wants.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is not in his seat, said that the leviathan is groaning. I think he was referring to this place and the democratic system as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said that there is a “chasm” between the electorate and this place, but I argue that that is not the case as far as conduct is concerned. Some Members have misbehaved, but they are in the minority. Where I believe my right hon. Friend is right, however, is that all too often politics and principle have been surrendered for a coalition—to name but one reason—or to “grab the centre ground”. How often do we hear that? People perhaps react to opinion polls, rather than following their gut instinct. I read a comment about Winston Churchill, and when he was shown an opinion poll all he growled was, “Every time I see one of those, I do the opposite.” He followed his gut.
I do not know what my colleagues hear on the doorstep, but I get, “Richard, we want you to follow your principles and what you believe in. That is what we want to hear.” The lack of blue water, red water, yellow water, or whatever water it is, has been diluted over the years—[Interruption.] Yes, perhaps that was an unfortunate phrase; I take the point of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), but he understands what I mean. There is a lack of clarity and political principle, and in some cases when dealing with huge issues—not least immigration—there appears to the public to be a lack of political will, for all kinds of reasons. That is the view of the public out there, not that we are all tucking into our expenses, going on freebies and having endless affairs, or whatever it is alleged we are up to. If we took 650 people in any other walk of life, I would be interested in what we would find if we opened up that can in a big retailer, a bank, a hospital, or whatever. I guarantee that we are no different to the rest of the population.
I am a little confused. My hon. Friend keeps saying that there is a big chasm between us and the public, but is not the threat of recall one way of removing that? Recall would require Members of Parliament to be more honest and true to their opinions, and perhaps those of their electorate.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention but—dare I say it—I think it is a little simplistic because so many other factors govern an MP’s life and the way he or she behaves. There is, for example, party loyalty, although many would call me a rebel so perhaps I am not a good example of that.
We in this place all search for a silver bullet and an easy solution to our problems. In 2009 it was the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority that would resolve all these problems. Has it? I do not think so. We must be realistic. Recall may have a place, but the idea that it will somehow restore faith in this place is pie in the sky.
I agree entirely. What will restore faith in this place is us—the parties and individuals that make up this great place. It is our duty to do that, and I do not think we need a recall Bill to prove that point.
As I have said, the Bill, sadly, is a knee-jerk reaction. The hon. Member for Clacton asked why it has taken four and a half years to come to this place, and I wonder—no doubt I shall be shot down by the three party leaders and many of my colleagues—whether because it was a knee-jerk reaction, in time people have thought, “Is this actually a sensible Bill?” I think they have come to the conclusion that in the main it is not, although at the time it may have seemed attractive, and to a certain extent it may have appeased the electorate. Will it solve the problem? I do not believe it will.
There is some logic to the Government Bill. Apparently, there are no rules and regulations if we get a custodial sentence under 12 months. If we do receive a custodial sentence—there have been various examples of that—it means there are big questions to be asked, and in a sense the Bill covers that. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras said he was concerned about the figure of 10%, and asked about the other 90%. Again, I entirely concur with that point.
I also agree with every word the right hon. Gentleman said about the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park. I have a lot of respect for my hon. Friend, but I do not agree with any of his amendments for all the reasons I have set out. I shall not repeat them, but I would like to point out what the letter we all received from Cabinet Office Ministers, dated 20 October 2014, says in explaining the intention of the Bill:
“In formulating their proposals the Government has examined international models which allow elected representatives to be recalled on any grounds. The recall model proposed in the Government’s Bill fits with and goes further than Parliamentary democracies similar to ours—Australia, New Zealand and Canada do not have recall in their main legislatures.”
I do not like comparisons with other countries. They are always dangerous. One of the many reasons why the eurozone is such a complete flop is that all the countries are so different and cannot be put in the same straitjacket. The same principle applies here.
I shall move on briefly to another point that counters the Bill. We are all elected by our local associations. Each party has its own system. Were I to commit an offence that constituted serious misconduct, I have no doubt—I am sure colleagues on both sides of the House would have no doubt—that I would be summoned to the local association office to explain myself. That is the local face of our party. The local associations select us and they have the power to deselect us. In that conversation, if my chairman was to say to me, “Richard, up with you we shall not put any longer”, I hope that, if my action had been so heinous, I would have already resigned. However, if I had not resigned I would be pushed. If the chairman did not do the job then, along with the party hierarchy, the party should be prepared to say to the sitting MP, “Up with this we will not put.”
That leads to a question. Let us say the polls are against the party and the sitting MP and suddenly there is a potential by-election. Every instinct in the parliamentary party would say, “For heaven’s sake, a by-election is the last thing we need in that seat.” But this is where honour, responsibility and all the things we must show to the public that we have come in; and I believe that we do have those things. The party hierarchy should say, “Tough. We may lose this seat, but the sitting MP has committed such a heinous crime that we have to get rid of him or her and have a by-election.” Those are the sort of people who should be making these decisions. They should not be made by legislation.
If we think back to the expenses scandal, is the hon. Gentleman saying that nothing dishonourable happened among any Member still in this House?
I am not quite sure I got that, because I am so staggered by the question. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could rephrase it, because it did not make sense.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that during the expenses scandal nothing dishonourable happened—he has said so much about honour—among any Member who was subsequently re-elected?
I am not sure I have ever said that. In fact, I have said the opposite. If people have behaved—let us take the expenses scandal—in a dishonourable way, they should go, yes.
Have they all gone?
Ah. That is another question. I am not going to look back with hindsight. I was not even here. We are where we are, and I do not believe that a recall Bill would have made any difference in this instance. The expenses scandal has unfortunately caused all of us in this place to look backwards. The point has been made to me on many occasions, in spite of the fact that I was not here. Even now, the shadow of that appalling time hangs over this place. We have to shake it off and put it behind us. People have paid and some have gone to jail. We should move on in a way that allows us, as the responsible adults and grown-up politicians we are all meant to be, to please the electorate in the way they want to be pleased: by behaving in an honourable fashion.
It is as well to remember that the expenses scandal in the 2005-10 Parliament was the result not merely of individual foibles but of a collective, institutional failure to embrace openness and transparency —under the previous Government but with the collusion of other parties; it was not solely the result of the malfeasance of individual Members.
I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely; he is absolutely right.
I was not here, but I have heard from those who were that the expenses scandal was sparked not least by a lack of clarity about what could be claimed. Nowadays, there are MPs appearing in the newspapers for buying staplers and other perfectly legitimate things for the office, so it has gone from one extreme to the other. We all know if we have behaved dishonourably or done something wrong, and if it is so heinous, we should leave our job; of that I have absolutely no doubt.
I ask the Government to think carefully about the Bill. If it becomes law, I fear there will be a gathering momentum, as is often the case with such legislation, to add on bits. Indeed, amendments are already being discussed. I have listened all afternoon—it is important to hear people’s views—and people are already keen to add on bits. The hon. Member for Clacton, who is no longer in his place, was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) about an incinerator plant that 65,000 of his constituents were against; my hon. Friend said that had he voted for the plant, it might have sparked a recall. I think the hon. Gentleman was rather amazed that the point was raised.
To conclude, we are here to represent our constituents for a period of five years—not that I agree with fixed-term Parliaments; incidentally, if I may get in some free advertising, there is a debate about that on Thursday. On the matter in hand, however, will the Government please think carefully about this Bill? It should be a matter of honour, honour, honour, not legislation, legislation, legislation.
I struggle to find any part of the remarks of the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) with which I can associate myself, but he has clearly stated his opposition to the Bill and the amendments that we know are to come from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and others. As one of those in the pick-up band of MPs the hon. Member for Richmond Park put together to sit as a cross-party committee to consider an alternative Bill, obviously I support the general thrust of the amendments, but I also take the point, aired as a trailer for subsequent debates, that some of them need to be tested just as much as some of the clauses in the Bill before us do.
Warning against legislation, the hon. Member for South Dorset said that the Bill addressed an issue that should not be dealt with by legislation, but which should be left to honour and responsibility. He indicated that hon. Members know when we have done something wrong and will take the appropriate course of action, and that we do not need any rules. If we took that argument to its extreme, we would not even have the Standards Committee, because we would simply know automatically that we had done wrong and would make amends; there would be no need for anybody else to come to a judgment—we could be entirely reliant on our own sense of honour and conscience—but clearly that is not the case and would not wash with the public.
I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Does he not think that what lies behind the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) is a belief that trust in the people is the main thing, and that it is not honour, honour, honour from MPs that we need, but trust, trust, trust in the electorate to do the right thing?
Absolutely. I fully take the point. I believe that the bottom line, as regards the democratic principle, should be to trust the judgment of the electorate and to show belief and trust in their decisions by equipping them to deal with such issues. The idea that we must be protected from other judgments goes back to some of the issues that gave rise to some of the problems with the expenses scandal. I do not believe that this Bill is before us at this stage in this Parliament in the same way as the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 was introduced at this stage in the last Parliament; I do not buy the argument that it is comparable panic or anything else.
Long before we had the expenses scandal, there were many warnings that the expenses system was open to a lot of confusion and potential abuse, and that it was ripe to scandalise the public if there was more transparency. Those warnings were not heeded and the Good Ship Lollipop ran aground on what was leaked to The Daily Telegraph.
Everyone agrees with the hon. Gentleman about such bad behaviour, but does he agree with us on the following point, if on no other? Under the Bill, when it becomes an Act, the House of Commons should not be allowed to initiate any recall procedure on the basis of the views expressed by a Member, or his votes, or the party he joins, or any political act. The protection is similar to that which we have under the Act of Settlement: we are not held to account outside for what we say here.
I certainly believe that hon. Members should be clearly protected when expressing their views properly, honourably and honestly as legislators in this House. I firmly believe that legislators should be properly protected in doing their conscientious duty in this House, but when someone is elected for one party and suddenly flips to join another, a constituency should be able to recall that MP. That is why I support amendments such as those proposed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park.
I am afraid that kind words butter no parsnips. If the hon. Gentleman supports the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), he is essentially allowing a value judgment by a minority of the electorate in each constituency, subject to the recall procedure, to be the determinant factor, so he cannot give that guarantee on, for instance, a moral or conscience issue.
I am almost being prompted to speak specifically to some of the amendments. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) asked me about a decision being taken by this House to, in effect, activate the expulsion proceedings—the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) was right to say that this is an expulsion Bill, rather than a recall Bill. The principle of recall is meant to be in the hands of the voters. The voters in a constituency elect an MP and the power of recall is meant to lie with them, but the Bill is not about a power of recall that lies with the voters. It is about the power to initiate a recall petition being in the hands of this House or of the court; and, particularly if the process was activated because that Member’s views were not comfortable for others in the House, an election would be called simply on the basis of 10% of the constituents signing a petition. It is wrong that a recall should be triggered, with someone losing their seat and having to go into a by-election, on the basis of 10% of the vote.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend plans to serve on the Bill Committee, but given his knowledge and expertise I think that that would be a great advantage to us. Is not the challenge to try to find something better than the original Government proposals and that addresses the need for the public to feel that they have recall power while protecting people from the political risks of the amendments? Is not the challenge to find something in the middle, perhaps better defining the kinds of offences that would lead to recall—
I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I fully accept what my hon. Friend says, which is why I have said that just as some of the clauses in the Bill need to be tested, so do some of the amendments to which I have added my name. Their practicality and implications need to be teased out.
Several hon. Members
Before I take another intervention, I want to go back to an issue raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). He said that we as MPs know what our role is, but I do not know where the job description of a Member of Parliament is. I do not know what our terms of office are or what our pledge of office is. I hear people quoting Edmund Burke and see them pointing to “Erskine May” and a variety of other standards, but at no point do we have a pledge of service that clarifies the standards to which we pledge.
My belief is that there should be a pledge of service. I do not believe in the simple affirmation of the oath of allegiance being the only terms on which someone comes to this place to represent their constituents. If we had a different pledge of office—it could include a statement of allegiance for those who wanted it—to affirm and encapsulate the standards of public life and a commitment to proper parliamentary principles, it could provide the basis on which anyone would have to mount a recall challenge. That would give more protection to MPs and would prevent the fear of an “anything goes” situation, with people looking to do “gotcha” petitions against different MPs of different parties in different parts of the country.
Before the hon. Gentleman was interrupted, he spoke momentarily about what happens when a Member of Parliament defects from one party to another. I feel extremely strongly about this issue. It caused a huge amount of concern in my own constituency when the previous Labour MP defected to the Liberal Democrats. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in future the people must always be able to recall a Member of Parliament when he changes sides? People vote for parties, not for individuals.
If people want to recall on that basis, yes, they should be able to do so, which is why I am supporting the amendments. The hon. Gentleman challenges me on something that I have already stated I believe in.
I agree with my hon. Friend—I refer to him in that way because I like him very much—on most things, but the beauty of being a Member of Parliament is that there is no job description. It is not a job; it is a vocation. We all bring our unique experiences to this place, and I think that anything that undermined that would be to the detriment of the House of Commons.
I take the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I do not accept it literally. If we are to talk about having a recall power—whether it be in the terms of this Bill or any other—I believe there needs to be a yardstick. If the House of Commons is to adjudicate itself or to ask a select number of us to adjudicate the rest in respect of standards and privileges, there must be some clear standards.
Many of the misgivings people have expressed about the decisions of the Standards and Privileges Committee over recent years have been because there has not been an apparent consistent standard in some of the judgments made and the decisions subsequently transacted. If we as hon. Members have misgivings about how those decisions are made and if we do not always understand them, why should we not expect the public to suspect the same thing? Should we be able to say, “Unlike many other people about whom we legislate, and unlike in many other walks of life where we provide all sorts of detailed schedules, guidelines and regulations, we are to be entirely free agents. We are the purest of democratic angels, moved by whatever spirit or inspiration takes us, and we are to be trusted as such”? We cannot present ourselves in that way.
Let me return to core points about the Bill’s deficiencies. As hon. Members have said, it is essentially an expulsion Bill rather than a recall Bill. Recall is meant to put things in the hands of the voters. Calling this measure the Recall of MPs Bill is a bit like the old joke about the two-hour dry cleaners: “‘Come back next Monday and you’ll get your suit.’ “But it says ‘two-hour dry cleaners’ outside”. ‘No, that’s just the name of the shop.’” Recall of MPs seems to be just the name of the Bill; that capacity is not given to voters. Insofar as a role is given to voters in respect of the recall process, it is simply that if someone triggers either of the two mechanisms, 10% will trigger a by-election. I think that the idea of a by-election being triggered by 10% is wrong, particularly if there has been a lot of speculation and felon setting by the media, which hon. Members fear. Those who fear that sort of scenario should certainly oppose the Bill as it stands.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point about the 10%, but will it not be dealt with by one of the safeguards proposed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith)? We would have the 5% step, the 20% step and then a referendum involving a binary choice before a by-election took place. Rather than a minority activity, there would then be a majority activity of choosing to have a recall by-election.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. Those of us who were members of the pick-up band that was organised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park wanted to ensure that there could be a trigger other than a parliamentary trigger, or a trigger from the courts, and the idea of putting what could be termed a 5% premise petition in the hands of constituents struck us as reasonable. Having been received, the petition would then have to be tested by a more qualified assessment—the 20% petition—and if that was successful, it would be followed by a referendum which would have to secure a 50% vote before a by-election could take place.
Some Members have expressed the fear that voters will be whipped up into a state of prejudice, and that there will be misrepresentation of people and a disproportionate focus on certain issues. I ask them to consider both the stages and the time scale that are proposed in the amendments that some of us support. It is even possible that the time scale is too long. The amendments would allow more protection and more measured consideration. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) told us earlier that his constituents, who had a very clear view on a very specific issue, were eventually prepared to vote for an MP who held completely the opposite view, because they had reached a more rounded judgment on the nature of the MP’s job, and because they set great store by truth and people being honest about their opinions.
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, notwithstanding the safeguards that he has described, in Northern Ireland a group with the organisational ability possessed by Sinn Fein could unseat an MP whom it believed to be vulnerable because that MP was already in a marginal seat. Such a well-organised group could surmount all the barriers that he has outlined, and request a recall on spurious grounds.
People can organise petitions, and perhaps they can achieve the 5% and perhaps they can then achieve the 20%, but after that there would be the referendum. Even in Northern Ireland, where people have their own views, I have always found them to be fairly tolerant of MPs with different views if they know that those MPs are being honest and diligent.
Many years ago, I had to run the campaign in South Down against Enoch Powell, who represented a minority opinion in the constituency at the time. I remember that even nationalists in that constituency said, “Well, whatever else he is, he is certainly a hard-working and diligent MP.” They did not agree with his views, but they knew his views, and they knew that he did his job. Of course, he also raised his hat to them when he was in the constituency and greeted them, and they seemed to like that as well. Even in the context of Northern Ireland, and speaking as a Member whose seat has been heavily targeted by Sinn Fein, which is investing an awful lot of effort and resources, I do not believe that fear of the outcome described by the hon. Gentleman is sufficient reason to oppose a more meaningful recall provision.
Will the hon. Gentleman address a very particular situation in Northern Ireland, namely the anonymity of donations to political parties? Fears have been expressed this afternoon about the ability of the very wealthy to buy a recall. How would the hon. Gentleman deal with that? Will he also take the opportunity to correct an earlier intervention, and confirm that voters vote not just for parties but, on occasion, for candidates who present themselves as independents?
I entirely take the hon. Lady’s point. People do indeed vote for candidates who present themselves as independents, some of whom have a very distinguished record, as in her case. Voters can make sound judgments not only on the basis of party loyalty or traditional party affinity but on the quality of service they want. The hon. Lady is again a good example. She asked me about donations. Thanks to some rearguard efforts in the Chamber in relation to a Bill that was previously before the House, we are now considering a timeline for introducing donor anonymity, albeit with some qualifications. The proposals for recalls could be an even stronger reason to focus on clarifying issues of anonymity, so that situations could not be abused in one direction or the other.
Many Members appear to be raising concerns about how the process could be abused. Yes, there are all sorts of nefarious forces out there, and various interests that are equipped with money, with ill will and with power motives, but at the end of the day all our protection against that has to reside with the electorate. We come from the electorate and, when we leave this place, we go back to being part of the electorate. We should not try to proof ourselves or protect ourselves against the scrutiny and standards of democracy.
I do not believe that recalls will be used in anything like the number of situations that are being envisaged, but the fact of their existence will add to the standing of Members of Parliament. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras seemed to suggest that recalls could deter Members from sticking to their own views, but I believe that they could encourage them to do so. If a Member were being asked by the Whips to move from their own clear personal position and to adopt the stated party position, a proper recall mechanism would allow that Member to stand on the integrity of their position as an MP elected by their constituents, with whom their first and last loyalty lies.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this interesting debate, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). In a sense, he and others who support the alternative approach, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), are looking for a Bill that would achieve a substantially different end from that of the Government’s Bill. I was surprised, however, that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park appear to argue that we should adopt that alternative approach precisely because they have constructed it in such a manner that it would be unlikely to have any effect. I know that accusations have been made, perhaps with some justification, that the Government’s Bill would result in relatively few instances in which a recall would be triggered, because Members would very likely resign instead, as other Members have in the recent past. However, I do not think we should be looking for a system that is so difficult to manipulate and in which recalls are so unlikely to happen that Members would, in practice, be proof against it.
My starting point is that Members would have little to fear from being the subject of a referendum vote of the kind postulated in the Recall of Elected Representatives Bill, as opposed to the Bill we are considering today. I believe in the genius of the masses. The experience of my 17-plus years representing South Cambridgeshire has taught me that, although I might on many occasions have done something that a minority of my constituents disagreed with, I doubt that they would ever have actually turned me out between elections on those grounds. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made a similar point.
My right hon. Friend makes the point that those in favour of these amendments believe, as I think we all do across this argument, that most Members of this House behave honourably and that there will be very few instances in which the public, when they reflect seriously on the issues, seek to throw us out, but that is not a reason for not putting in place a recall—put that power with people and put trust in people to exercise it properly. The fact that it will be rarely used does not mean it is not important.
I agree. I have been listening carefully to the debate, and it is interesting to consider under what circumstances the kind of mechanism—the kind of trigger for recall—that is not in the current recall Bill but that is proposed to be put into it in its place would impact on Members. I do not think it would be the prospect that they would be the subject of a referendum vote with 50% voting to have a by-election and the seat vacated. I think that is extremely unlikely. Much more likely, and in my view much more pernicious, is the possibility of large numbers of Members, over the course of a Parliament, being subject to a notice of intent to recall—with all the attendant impact that can have on an MP, not least when deployed by, and in the hands of, the media—for taking steps that may be in line with their manifesto and with the policy of their party or for taking an independent and potentially unpopular line, which, frankly, is even more laudable.
If the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) and some others were here, they would say, “That’s simply putting yourself in a position where you have to listen to your constituents and respond to them.” That is fair enough. We could accept that if this was done simply on that basis, but I think it would be more dangerous if it was deployed in other circumstances.
I made a point to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park about a Member who had not been the subject of due process. Under his Bill, somebody being charged with an indictable offence would stay the process, but we know perfectly well that substantial periods can pass during which people are the subject of very damaging allegations but are not charged with an offence.
I prosecuted nine murder trials and all manner of other things in my previous career, so I can endorse the fact that there will be a huge time gap in these matters. If we adopted the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), the Member involved would simply be hounded out.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has such expertise, for endorsing that point.
It goes even further. Often we are talking about offences that are not indictable. They are what are regarded as offences in the mind of the electorate. They may be genuine or they may not be genuine, but if they are genuine and bear upon conduct in this House and are, on the face of it, a breach of our code of conduct, they should be considered by due process. We are trying to make the process in this House as fair as possible.
I have heard Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, be very critical of the processes relating to past decisions of the Standards and Privileges Committee. Let us be clear: we have made changes in this Parliament to standards and privileges. We now have a Standards Committee that examines matters not solely at the behest of MPs who are members of the Committee but has three lay members. We should consider this Bill alongside, and I hope with the benefit of, the review that will be conducted by the Standards Committee and its lay members. I am sure that in Committee the Chair of the Standards Committee will be able to add further to that.
When I was Leader of the House I made it clear to the Standards Committee that I saw these two things happening to some extent side by side, because the second trigger in this Bill depends upon the credibility and authority of the Standards Committee and the recommendations it makes. We can improve that. I think it will require more lay members and I think it will require a veto whereby a recommendation from the Standards Committee may not be made without the support of its lay members.
For reasons not least of parliamentary privilege we cannot give lay members a vote. However, as Leader of the House I said—I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House confirmed this—that if there was a recommendation arising from a vote in the Committee on Standards relating to the conduct of a Member that did not have the support of the lay members, when the House came to consider that recommendation, I would see it as my responsibility, as I hope that my successors would, to put alongside any motion that was presented by the Chair of the Committee an amendment that would reflect the view of the majority of the lay members of the Committee. Therefore, while it would remain true that the membership of the House as a whole was responsible constitutionally for the regulation of the conduct of Members of this House and for a decision to suspend or expel a Member, it would be transparent whether the House was acting directly in accordance with the majority view of lay members. It would of course be acting with the benefit of the advice of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
My right hon. Friend places a lot of emphasis on the issue of due process, but due process is not necessarily just the preserve of this House. There can be due process through a proper and appropriate trigger, threshold and referendum. Ultimately, an election has a due process. We have heard about being concerned about reputational damage from spurious allegations and the rest. If there is a judicial process, the recall could be suspended. We are already besieged by spurious complaints. Surely we should put this to a proper recall mechanism so that the electorate can put up or shut up.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. I am afraid that there are too many risks to be confident that the process of notice of intent to recall leading to the 20% petition could necessarily be regarded as objective and fair. All that is required to be done to damage substantially and perhaps fatally the reputation of a Member of Parliament is for such an allegation to be made, which may or may not lead to any charge for an offence or even relate to an offence and which may be something that is the product of their private and personal life and not of their activities in their professional responsibilities as a Member of Parliament. The fact that that kind of recall can be triggered for whatever reason gives an opportunity for substantial damage to be done without any objective and fair conclusion having been reached, which should be the case if one is going to have one’s livelihood put at risk in that way.
Is my right hon. Friend not drawing the distinction between the Government’ proposals, which, although not perfect, are formalising the fact that the recall process will be around criminal behaviour and misdemeanours rather than the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), which will be focused on conscience and policy issues? That distinction is very dangerous, which is why my hon. Friend’s amendments should fall.
My hon. Friend leads me on to the most important aspect of this, which is that what is being sought here is an opportunity for recall in order to seek to influence the views of Members of Parliament. If that is not the case, why would the public be doing it? I have made the argument about allegations of poor behaviour. The Government’s recall Bill, which I support and was involved in, directs itself towards a perceived gap in the regulatory process relating to Members of Parliament who commit criminal offences or who behave in a manner that seriously breaches the code of conduct.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It would be wrong to have a power of recall to try to sanction Members of Parliament. This recall Bill puts in place an objective and fair process whereby, if something is proven, members of the public may, by means of a petition, recall a Member of Parliament and subject them to a by-election. However, the amendments that we will consider in due course would put in place a substantially different process by giving people the opportunity to intervene by saying, “You, as my Member of Parliament, are expressing a view with which I do not agree”—for reasons of conscience, policy, party or whatever it might be—“and I want to demonstrate that you are doing something that we do not agree with to try to influence you to take a different approach.”
I agree with everything that the former Leader of the House is saying, and I want to ask him a genuine question because he has tremendous expertise in this matter. Does he think that there might be scope to amend the Bill further on Report so that it is absolutely clear that no procedure may be initiated simply on the basis of a Member’s votes or views? Is there room for improvement?
I am happy to think about that, and I am sure that our Front-Bench colleagues will also be willing to do so. My initial view is that the second trigger could be applied only in relation to serious breaches of the code of conduct of MPs so, by definition, views on policy expressed by Members in this Chamber could not in themselves represent such a breach.
When I was Leader of the House, I always enjoyed hearing the often highly educated views of the shadow Minister, and I give way to him so that I can do so again.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he was involved in the Bill’s drafting and that it is good to be filling a gap. Will he or the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is sitting next to him, explain why although the coalition agreement said that the Government would
“bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall”,
it has taken them four and a half years to bring forward this important Bill?
The coalition agreement did say that, but draft legislation was published in 2011, which was reasonably early in a five-year Parliament.
How were you involved?
I was involved not least because of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s comments on the draft Bill but, more specifically for my purposes, because the Standards Committee suggested that the second trigger should be recast. The Standards Committee’s reservations are now dealt with in this Bill.
As important as recall is, what was much more important in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 was fixing this country’s economy, and ensuring that people could pay their mortgages and remain in work. Let us not overestimate the Bill’s importance, because—dare I say?—the Public Gallery is not doing so.
I do not suppose that I am overestimating the Bill’s importance, although it was important that we delivered on our manifesto promises and the coalition agreement. Achieving that was at the forefront of our minds as we set out our legislative programme, for which I had responsibility.
I was slightly amused that the speech made by the hon. Member for Clacton was largely about the importance of delivering on promises made at the previous election. The Bill exactly delivers on the promise in the Conservative party’s general election manifesto, and I think that that was why the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), started his speech by reminding us what that manifesto said. For me, as a Conservative, the Bill is directly in line with that promise, and shifting to a process that is substantially different from that under the Bill would involve making a presumption about what the legislation should be without our having a mandate from the electorate. The hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Clacton showed in their speeches that they would like a different constitutional settlement, of which the power of recall that they want is only one small aspect.
I will give way first to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is being very persistent, as ever, and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart).
I am trying to understand exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he saying, for example, that were a future Prime Minister to lie in order to take the country to war, duping Parliament and, by extension, its Committees, the public should have no sanction other than years later at a general election, when many other issues could be at stake?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question, and not a hypothetical one—let us face it: he is referring to a decision of the kind taken in 2003. We have asked today how many people would sign petitions, write to their Member of Parliament or go to one of four designated places in a constituency in order to do something. Well, in my recollection, 2003 was the point when it was most likely that large numbers of the public would have taken some specific action in relation to a Government policy that they had not sanctioned, that certainly was not part of any previous manifesto promise and that they felt was wrong. That raises the following question: what would have happened in 2003 had recall been available?
I say this in a disinterested way, because I did not vote for the invasion of Iraq and so this would not have affected me, but I think there are those who would argue that that is what it is all about—that in those circumstances members of the public would have had an opportunity to say, “Not in our name” by setting up petitions and giving notice of the intention to recall. Throughout the period of the conflict in Iraq there would have been a rebellion among the electorate.
Is that right or wrong? I happen to think that necessarily it is wrong. To return to the constitutional point, we are a representative democracy in which we owe our constituents our collective judgment. We come here not as an independent legislature separate from the decisions of the Government, but to form a Government and sustain them through the legislature. That Government have to make decisions and secure the majority of this House, and we have to stick by that. This proposal would have completely undermined that.
If we are looking for a way to undermine the proposal, let us imagine that it had been possible for the organisers of protests in 2003 to focus on the Prime Minister’s constituency and get 20% of the voters there to sign a petition. They would have done so, even though they recognised that there was no way they could get 50% on the subsequent vote, but it would have had such a destabilising impact on the Prime Minister of the day, in circumstances in which he was doing something that was deeply unpopular but that he felt was right—whether or not he was right is not the matter. I cannot see how a responsible Parliament in a representative democracy could go down that path.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for honouring his pledge to give way to me. I think that he has now come to the heart of the matter, certainly as far as the amendments from our hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) are concerned: whether the electorate would seek to use the power of recall to challenge Members on matters of conscience, on how they vote and, fundamentally, on how they do their job in this place. Hon. Friends who represent university towns might have found themselves subject to such proposals when it came to voting on tuition fees. On balance, I do not believe that the electorate would abuse that power, but I recognise that there is a risk. Does my right hon. Friend have any evidence that it would be misused, as we would see it, in that way?
This is very difficult, because we are necessarily debating what the circumstances would be, but I have been struck by speeches arguing for amending the Bill on the basis that it will all be all right on the night. Well, legislation is not like that. Legislation is like writing a contract; if we write a contract with somebody—in this case with the electorate—we have to know how it will be used and what will happen when it starts to go wrong. It seems to me that at the moment the defences against those potential problems are not there in the alternative Bill proposed.
Surely the evidence my right hon. Friend is looking for is in the bit of the Bill that is covered by the amendments. I have not been e-mailed by a single member of the public who is not also a member of 38 Degrees.
My hon. Friend will recall that I am not enamoured of 38 Degrees, but it is interesting to make that distinction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park and his colleagues have constructed the proposition that one must physically go to one of four places in a constituency in order to disempower 38 Degrees and those who would try to create petitions on an online basis. If we start down this path, that is where the pressure will come. People will say, “In this modern age we should not be dependent on physically having to go somewhere”, in the same way that they blithely talk about electronic voting and so on. It will rapidly get to the point where it is not about visiting particular physical locations but about generating large numbers of electronic signatures on online petitions. Then we will see a substantial change in the relationship between Members of this House and their constituents.
I have no problem with the idea that I should engage fully with my constituents and listen to them. In practice, we have moved subtly in that direction. Anybody who cares to remember, as I can, the debate in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq and the debate that took place last year on the intervention in Syria will recognise that last year more Members were responding in short order to substantial online representations, in larger numbers, from their constituents. In 2003, I got a very large number of letters, but they were actual letters, and overwhelmingly individual, not template, letters. A lot of Members felt burdened by the weight of opinion that was coming to them on the Syria vote.
The right hon. Gentleman has used the phrase “representative democracy” on a number of occasions. If this is indeed a representative democracy, surely he has nothing to fear from a recall Bill. In fact, having this Bill in the voters’ locker as a big stick used lightly might ensure that it was a representative democracy as regards the two examples he has given—tuition fees, given the promises made by one of the coalition parties, and the Iraq war.
It is not that Members have something to fear from participation in our democracy—far from it. I believe completely in the wisdom of the masses, but we have to recognise when and how that is properly to be tested in the formal sense. We are a representative democracy, and we increasingly change the character of our democracy anyway. The referendum is a participatory democratic vehicle. We have used it more, and it is likely to be with us for the future, but only in specific circumstances. That illustrates the nature of the constitutional question at the heart of the potential amendment to the Bill.
Shifting to a recall process is not about addressing the individual behaviour of Members—it is much more likely to be used to try to influence the policies of political parties, of Members of Parliament, or of the Government. It would relate to particular individual issues, unlike a general election. As other hon. Members have said very forcefully, a general election is a vital moment in a representative democracy, because people take the whole presentation of party and candidate and consider it in the round. The recall mechanism is designed to enable the public to intervene in and, notwithstanding what the decision in a general election might have been, to impact directly on an individual decision on an individual policy issue.
My right hon. Friend is describing Parliament as if it were made up of hundreds of free spirits whose decisions might be corrupted by the pressure brought about by recall, but surely he realises—in fact, I know that he knows this—that the pressure applied by party hierarchies through the Whips is on a dramatically different scale from the tiny pressure that might be felt as a consequence of this remote and unlikely threat of a three-line whip that constituents might find themselves holding from time to time. There is no comparison—surely my right hon. Friend understands that. Most Members do exactly what they are told by the Whips for 99.9%—sometimes 100%—of the time.
I am quite old fashioned: Members would have to look quite far back to find a point at which I did not vote in accordance with the Whip. I think that the last time I defied the Whip was on the question of same-sex adoption rules.
I see part of my role as having been elected as a Conservative. A number of Members have said, perfectly reasonably, that we are primarily and overwhelmingly elected—the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has accepted this—on a party rather than an individual basis. I do not see that as meaning that individual Members of Parliament should not have a conscience or be able to exercise their judgment, because they owe that to their constituents. They will have to come to a judgment on great matters of conscience that are relevant to their constituency. That was true on Iraq: I did not vote for the invasion, even though it was my party’s policy to do so. To suggest, however, that we should behave as individuals outside party discipline is nonsense, because the whole system will begin to break down if we go in that direction.
The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park was slightly the other way around. He said that we all behave in the way the Whips tell us, but this has been a more rebellious Parliament—for good or ill—than ever before. I am not sure whether that is a good basis for the argument in favour of recall, because Members clearly feel that they can respond to their conscience and their constituents without the need for a recall mechanism.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) has suggested that if we took the Whips out of the process of deciding whether a Member should be suspended from this House—actually, I do not think that the Whips are part of that process— that would somehow relieve us of the impact of the Whips controlling our behaviour. The recall mechanism proposed as an alternative to this Bill, however, is a greater risk to Members. If a Member were subject to an allegation—a serious allegation, but not a criminal one—that threatened their reputation and position in the constituency, it is clear that they would then be subject to a notice of intent and at risk of a recall petition. The situation would develop rapidly and the question for their party would then be whether it supported them or not.
The hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) mentioned Ian Gibson, who accused his party of abandoning him. The most dangerous thing for a Member is to be abandoned when they are at risk of having to stand in a by-election in their constituency. If the party takes the Whip away from a Member, they would, in effect, have no chance in a by-election—unless they were in a very strong position—and they would be undermined. The power of the Whips as to whether a Member has the Whip—and, therefore, their power over that Member’s position in an election—would be unchanged by this or any other recall Bill. The power of the Whips is often exaggerated, but in so far as it exists, it would be unchanged by the recall mechanisms, whatever they might be.
This is also a constitutional issue. We make judgments on behalf of our constituents on issues that are not in our manifestos. We also carry out manifesto commitments, but we are not delegates. I think that is where people tend to get a little confused: there is a big difference between making a judgment on behalf of constituents and being mandated as an individual delegate to represent something.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are not delegates or ciphers; we are representatives. As Members have rightly said, we owe our constituents our judgment and our conscience and we are here to represent their interests, but we should not necessarily subordinate any of that to their opinions or, still less, to some calculation of what might be their opinions.
It is very difficult to know precisely what one’s constituents’ opinions are. For example, it was often asserted with great confidence that my constituents were against the legislation on same-sex marriage, but that was absolutely untrue. I knew that they were in favour of it. Even those who contacted me were generally in favour of it. I say this advisedly to Government Members, but some Members in the Chamber voted for it and felt that they were right to do so despite their constituents being against it. They could not have taken much comfort from the last Conservative manifesto, because the proposal was not in the manifesto as such, although it was referred to in other documents. Under the recall mechanism, in that sense they would be at risk. That brings us back to the argument made by proponents of the alternative recall mechanism, which is that it would never have come to that. In that case, we have to ask under what circumstances recall would get to such a point, and I mentioned some of those circumstances earlier.
To sum up, first, we are delivering on the promise we made; and, secondly, we are very clear that in past cases of wrongdoing Members—either somebody, a long time ago, who was given a prison sentence or, more commonly, a period of suspension from the House—would not necessarily, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) put it, have done the honourable thing and resigned. Recently, such Members have done so, but, frankly, they were not required to do so.
To return to an earlier point, regulatory processes in the House for managing the conduct of Members should show that we are willing, able and have mechanisms in place so that, as we promised, somebody who commits serious wrongdoing will be subject to a process that may lead to their recall and expulsion from the House at a by-election. We have seen possibilities for doing that in the past, and we would stick to such a system in future.
Over the past couple of years or so, Ministers have tried to make the Bill as robust as possible, and we have not stopped doing so. However, there is a big gap between where we are now and a recall mechanism that is completely different constitutionally, because it would allow the public the opportunity—on individual decision-making and policy issues—to reach in to the Chamber of the House of Commons in the middle of a Parliament, and pull out a Member on the grounds that they had done something the public did not like between one general election and the next. That would undermine the general election as the critical moment for accountability, and it would undermine Members if it was abused, as inevitably most mechanisms can be abused. Constitutionally, it would take us in the direction of participatory or direct democracy, which is not the direction in which we in this Parliament want to go.
Notwithstanding the fact that many Members will vote for the Bill on the grounds of wanting to change it, I and I hope others will vote for it, although it is susceptible to amendment, because we in principle—the Second Reading is about the principle—support the Bill as it is.
I have been called earlier than expected, because there seems to be a lack of Opposition Members in the Chamber, which I greatly regret.
Interestingly, Members spoke about those with safe or marginal seats. For Lib Dems, there is of course no such thing as a safe seat. Looking back—I am fairly inexperienced in this Chamber—I must admit that 10 years ago I had absolutely no idea that I would be standing here to talk about recall, but I thought that I had better get up and speak.
A few people have spoken to me about America, although it has not been mentioned much in this debate. Of course, America does not have by-elections. If somebody is removed, a governor or whoever appoints somebody in their place. It therefore does not expose the seat to the sort of manipulation for political purposes that might happen in this country.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) spoke about a job description. We do not have one, but we could certainly live by a code of conduct. We may need to consider that.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said that we should be honourable. He said that there is no need for the Bill because we have honour, although not among thieves. I think that it was Lord Hewart, when he was Lord Chief Justice, who coined the phrase, “Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.” Perhaps the problem is that people see Members of this House as not as honourable as we are, not as hard-working as we are, and not as committed to doing what we should be doing for our constituents and the country as we are.
When I came to the House, I was incredibly impressed by how hard everyone works and how committed they are to their constituents. There are probably a few exceptions. [Interruption.] Even the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is an honourable person who has his constituents at heart. Most of us fight for our principles, but we have to compromise to ensure that what we get done is good for the country. Sometimes we have to say, “I can’t do this, but I can do that.” We have all done that within parties and within the Government.
Unfortunately, the Bill has serious flaws. The main flaw is that, if it goes through unamended, the public will see that we are deciding who should be kicked out and who should not. I agree with what Lord Hewart said. We must not just be honourable; we need a mechanism that allows the public to see that we are honourable. The public must have a way of initiating a recall.
I have read the amendments of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). Not only would they open the process to political abuse, but they are so horrendously long-winded and complicated that the chances of succeeding in getting anyone recalled if they deserved it would be minimal. The process could be dragged out for two years, at which point the MP would be more or less useless and would probably resign anyway. It is just not a good mechanism.
We need a decent amendment that would allow the public to bring an issue to some sort of independent body of Parliament. I am not clever enough to say at this moment how that could be done. Perhaps a judge or someone else would be able to say, “This person has breached the code of conduct.” It does not have to be anything criminal. Teachers and social workers can lose their jobs for non-criminal activity if they breach a code of conduct. We need to allow the public to point out when someone has breached a code of conduct. If a reasonable case is brought forward—not proven, but reasonable—a recall mechanism should be instituted.
I think—believe it or not—that the 10% threshold is too high if it is demonstrated that somebody has breached the code of conduct. We need to reduce it to provide a reasonable chance that somebody who has done something wrong will be recalled. However, I do not want someone to be recalled just because somebody else feels like it. It is possible that, after my by-election, 20% of my electorate could have said, “We might be able to get rid of him and get someone else in.” I do not think that it would have been fair to have another by-election six months later.
I put it to the House that we need a compromise between the proposals of the hon. Member for Richmond Park and the Bill, which is very weak. I will vote for the Bill, but I will do so in order that a good amendment can be tabled that makes it workable, practical and fair.
The Bill is fundamental to us being a democracy, and I am proud that the Government have introduced it. We treasure democracy, and I believe we will continue to treasure it as the years progress. Being a Member of Parliament is an enormous privilege, and as a first-time MP in 2010 I have come to value that. It is a privilege because it is the only role I can think of that is based on trust—trust between the electorate and the individual. If my constituents do not trust me, or if I do not trust them, it simply does not work, and the Bill seeks to address where that trust breaks down.
I agree that there must be a real cause for recall, but I trust the people to work out whether or not there is that just cause. My problem with the Bill as currently drafted is that the decision is very much in the hands of us as MPs—after amendment of the original Bill, that decision has gone to the Standards Committee. Although the proposed amendments would introduce lay members to the Committee, I am far from convinced that the British people would accept and trust that. However the decision is made, I believe that it cannot be made by Members of Parliament.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) in what he is trying to achieve, and he put it extraordinarily well. However, the issue of the trigger has been a continuing challenge, and the Government’s proposals, with just two triggers, have been challenged by many in the House. We are trying to find a way of giving people a say in the recall of their MPs, and that cannot be as narrow as the Bill sets out.
I entirely understand concerns that there may be abuse, but we must find a way forward. That is why, working with my hon. Friend and his committee, I suggested that one way of trying to ensure that the public know exactly what this is about, and are not filibustered by politicians, was to make it an obligation for whoever is requesting the recall to go on the record. That individual must be able and willing to come forward and put their name on the record, and someone who is a political mischief maker and whose name is well known will therefore give a message to the public about exactly what is behind that process of recall. Having somebody on the record whose name is made public is important, and I fought long and hard in the committee, where we discussed a number of amendments, to ensure that that was included.
The second point I fought hard for was the need for a reason. For all the reasons that the triggers are too narrow, there must none the less be something that sets out clearly what lies behind the recall and is known to the public. Not only must those reasons be set out clearly in the document, they must also be present, along with the name of the sponsor, in every polling station, so that anybody voting in the referendum knows who is proposing the recall and the reason for it.
Even that is not enough, however, and to me it is important that the Member of Parliament has a right of reply. That is absent from the Bill. It is mission critical for an MP to have that right of reply, and that that is on the table with the name of the sponsor and the reasons given for the recall so that Members of the public are fully informed about the decision they are making. No system is perfect, but I believe that that system is fairer and more reasonable, and will give confidence to the British people that we are honourable: that we stand by our word, we stand by our reputation and we stand by what we say and do.
The very fact that the hon. Lady has outlined so many safeguards is an indication that she knows the process would be open to abuse, and that people would wish to abuse it. Her first suggestion is for a name to be on the front of the petition or whatever so we know who is sponsoring it, but surely any organisation would get an unknown and innocuous supporter to put their name to it, just as happens with judicial reviews in Northern Ireland on planning applications and so on, where the real person behind them is not known.
I would love to think that we lived in a world where we were all saints and there were no sinners. Clearly, there will be individuals who might well try to abuse the system. However, there is no system, whether it is the system my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park puts forward or the Government system, that is completely proof from any abuse. I take issue with the challenge from the hon. Gentleman on the name of the sponsor. I do not believe that the British people are sufficiently misguided not to look at the name. When they look at Mr Nobody, which I think is what he is suggesting, they will say, “Hold on a minute. Mr Nobody doesn’t generally get interested in these sorts of things,” and realise there is a stitch-up. I understand his concern, but we live in the real world. We do not live in a world of saints, but fortunately we do our best to deal with the sinners.
As part of the amendments put forward by my hon. Friend, what I propose will provide the comfort that I know a number of MPs want. At the end of the day, however, if we do not accept that we are here because of the trust of our constituents, and if we do not recognise that there has to be that mutual trust and respect, we have a problem. Indeed, we know we have a problem because right now people remember us for the expenses scandal. It really does not matter whether we were here at the time, we still have that black mark. We have to win that trust back and this is a very powerful way of doing it.
If we want to deal with an abuse of democracy and win trust back, does the hon. Lady realise that it does not help when this House pays hundreds of thousands of pounds each year to a political party in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, for not coming here to represent their constituents?
The hon. Gentleman has the advantage of me. That is something close to his heart and he understands its ramifications. This is a matter of where angels fear to tread. I do not think that this is an issue I am brave enough to comment on. Indeed, I think I would be wise not to, but I thank him for his comments.
I wonder whether one might suggest that the lack of a job description is one of the things that confuses the electorate, because it is not entirely clear what MPs do. I accept that MPs interpret their job in a particular way, but if one had some way of recalling MPs for what might be described as a gross dereliction of duty that would at least give some faith to the public. The public and those who might engage in a by-election process should be able to judge that. That, at least, could be deemed as a correct or incorrect charge.
The hon. Lady makes a very interesting point, but it is not quite as simple as giving us a job description. There is something peculiar and special about being a Member of Parliament. We are not employers, we are not employees and we are not self-employed. We do not fall within the framework of almost any piece of standard legislation. She is right that a job description might be a good plan, but that is very much the first point. There is so much more that would have to be changed. The challenge would be, as she rightly says, that we all do the job in a number of different ways. It would be very difficult, and perhaps constrain us from doing a good job, to say that the job had to be done in this way or that way.
I am not suggesting there should be a job description, but in a representative democracy, people should understand exactly what they expect of their MPs. We all have to deal with the post, hold our surgeries and do various other things that have come to be expected of MPs. For instance, it might well be that constituents have a reasonable expectation that MPs should at least turn up in this place.
The hon. Lady makes another good point about the challenge, which the Government have faced, of trying to define triggers, rather than relying on the people to look at why and by whom an individual is being recalled. She identifies the problem, but I am not convinced her solution would be better, safer or less liable to abuse than mine: the name of the sponsor, a clear statement of the reason for a recall and the opportunity for the Member to respond.
We have debated whether the percentage is too high or too low. It is extraordinarily hard to know what the correct figure should be. It will depend partly on whether we adopt the truly democratic approach proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park, which I support, or the—in my view—more restrained democratic approach proposed by the Government. I think that my hon. Friend is right to opt for a higher percentage. I hear the argument about it being too high, but on reflection I am confident it is the right figure. We are concerned in this House, this goldfish bowl, about how the British people see us, and some are worried that others with adverse views might endeavour to misuse the Bill. I am the first to agree that every country is different—we are very different from the US—but why is it that in countries with a truly democratic recall process there have not been the catastrophic events feared by some in the House?
To return to where I started, this is a matter of trust. We spend a lot of time with our constituents. Every year, I deal with 6,000 new cases—not simply complaints, but real issues of housing, benefits, health and so on—and in dealing with so many people, one gets under the skin of a community and people come to understand and trust their MP. It is something we have to earn—it is not a right—but if we can earn it, the sort of recall process suggested by my hon. Friend can work.
On the distinction between a legitimate issue of criminal misbehaviour and sincere, well-meaning beliefs, my hon. Friend still has not convinced me that people such as Sydney Silverman, Leo Abse, who campaigned on homosexual law reform, and others would not have been subject to recall and lost those ballots.
We can speculate about what might have happened, but it is not as simple as whether something is a criminal offence. So many things, situations and reasons could serve as a basis for recall that if we tried to over-categorise them, we could get into a legislative nightmare trying to provide for every single event. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I do not think that even he could provide a perfect definition giving the complete protection he would like, and that brings me back to trust. Trust is something very special. Married couples need it: there are no rules or regulations for marriage; it works if there is trust and if both people want to see it through. For that reason, I think this can work.
I commend the Government for having the courage to introduce the Bill. It is very important, but I will work with my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park to try to amend it to include some of the proposals I have made, which I hope Members will accept.
I welcome the fact that the Government have introduced the Bill and I congratulate them. It has been a long time coming, but it is welcome that we shall at last have a Bill on the statute book that brings about recall in some shape or form.
We need to recognise that the cornerstone of the democratic process is that power resides with the people—the electorate—but it is far too easy to ignore how disillusioned they are. We have heard Members say that this will pass, but it will not do so without more positive action, and a recall Bill modelled on the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) will go some way towards providing that.
The challenge, of course, is how we achieve the balance between the very real demands of the electorate and the need to protect Members from vexatious attempts to undermine and remove them. We must not underestimate how disillusioned the public are with politicians and the whole political process.
Earlier in the debate, concerns were raised about Members who support unfashionable causes. Change is painfully slow in this country; we can all sympathise with that, as we all have our pet schemes and find it incredibly frustrating that we cannot put them into action. Despite those frustrations, we must recognise that one of the great strengths of our country is stability—change certainly does not come quickly.
If we are to restore public confidence, the first thing we must do is genuinely recognise the level of public distrust of and cynicism about we politicians. We must do more than pay lip service to dealing with it; we need to show by our actions that we will do something about it. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) drew attention to some uncomfortable home truths, talking about safe seats and how the low level of party membership can result in the selection process in such seats being limited to 100 people or fewer who, in effect, elect the Member of Parliament. That could of course be simply resolved by thousands of people queuing up to join the political parties that are most in tune with their views, but we have all had very limited success in increasing our party membership and it will not happen in the near future.
The message should go out that democracy is a two-way process. Those of us who put ourselves forward for election are not the norm. Most of us try very hard to engage with those we represent, and it is because so many are so disenchanted with the whole process that they simply refuse to become involved. I recognise that the opportunity to give a sitting Member a kicking might tempt some to join in, but although the thresholds being proposed might be sufficient, I would probably err on the side of slightly upping the thresholds proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park to offer additional protection.
I mentioned unfashionable causes, and mention has been made of abortion, capital punishment and the like. Of course, unpopular policy decisions are taken: the closure of a local hospital, for example, is always going to be contentious, but what if I or any other Member thought that the proposals were in the best interests of those we represent? Should we be on the side of the health trust, which has vast resources and an army of lawyers and accountants to look after it, or should we be there to articulate the genuine concerns of those we represent, by engaging meaningfully and trying to put forward a balanced view?
Members have campaigned on issues such as abortion or ending the criminalisation of homosexuality, but is it not an irony that those causes were advanced in previous eras in private Members’ Bills? They were given time by the whole House, and I think the public valued that private Members’ process, when no party Whip was exercised, which is completely different from today.
I cannot disagree; private Members’ Bills have indeed played a very important role over the years.
On the subject of articulating the concerns of the local community, I recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—I served as his constituency agent for many years—always used to speak of his role as being “a megaphone” for the local community. We should take that seriously; it applies to many issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park highlighted Members’ failures: failure to engage with constituents, long absences from Westminster and switching parties without by-elections, to which I might mischievously add, voting in support of handing the sovereignty of this place to a foreign institution. Having an in-House solution, as is being proposed, is no longer acceptable to the public. Whatever the outcome of the Bill’s legislative journey, a recall Bill will reach the statute book, which is progress.
Let me explain the difference between the recall process and waiting for the next general election in order to get rid of a Member. As a previous speaker mentioned, general elections tend to focus on whom we want to govern the country, while the recall process and subsequent by-election would be much more focused on the individual and his failings or, indeed, his strengths.
I shall support most of the amen