[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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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 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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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—
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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—
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—
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.