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Recall of MPs Bill

Volume 587: debated on Monday 27 October 2014

Considered in Committee

[Dame Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]

Clause 1

How an MP becomes subject to a recall petition process

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out from “becomes” to end of clause and insert—

“the subject of a recall referendum where—

(a) a notice of intent to recall, signed by a number of persons not less than the effective number (5% of persons in member’s parliamentary constituency entitled to vote), in accordance with section (Notice of intent to recall) of this Act, has been deposited with a petition officer, and

(b) 20% of persons entitled to vote have then validly signed a recall petition in accordance with section (Notice of intent to recall) of this Act.

(3) In this Act “recall petition” means a petition calling, in terms determined under section 9(4), for a member to be subject to a recall referendum.

(4) The member’s seat becomes vacant and a by-election held where, in accordance with section 15 of this Act, the majority of people who have voted in a recall referendum, vote in favour of the member being recalled from Parliament.

(5) The provision made by or under this Act does not affect other ways in which a Member’s seat may be vacated.”.

This amendment changes the Bill to remove the proposed conditions of recall on the grounds of imprisonment or suspension by the House to the decision making of constituency voters. It sets out the essential three stages - notice of intent to recall (5% of voters), recall petition (20% of voters) and then a referendum. Only if all three stages are passed is there a by-election.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 42, page 1, line 4, leave out “or second” and insert “, second, or third”

Amendments 42 and 43 and NC6 and NC7 form part of a group of amendments and new clauses which provides a route for recall for members of the public independent of any parliamentary committee, or criminal convictions. It allows for an alternative and additional trigger for the recall process which provides direct access whereby one hundred constituents may petition an Electoral Court in the case of improper behaviour or gross dereliction of duty on the part of an MP, and seeks to avoid any conflict with the provisions of the Bill of Rights.

Amendment 48, page 1, line 4, after “second”, insert “or third.”

Amendment 41, page 1, line 10, at end insert—

‘(2A) No action shall be initiated against an MP in relation to a recall petition process on the basis, or as a result of votes cast, speeches made or any text submitted for tabling by such an MP, within, or as a part of, a parliamentary proceeding.”

Amendment 47, page 1, line 16, at end insert “or,

(c) the MP has been convicted of any offence under section 10 (Offence of providing false or misleading information for allowance claims) of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009.”

This amendment adds a further recall petition trigger to the Bill, where an MP is found guilty of an offence under section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 for making a claim for expenses or allowances that they know to be false or misleading in some material respect.

Amendment 45, page 1, line 18, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

‘(4) The second recall condition is that the House of Commons orders the suspension of the MP from the service of the House for a specified period and—

(a) where the period is expressed as a number of sitting days, the period specified is a period of at least 10 sitting days, or

(b) in any other case, the period specified (however expressed) is a period of at least 14 days.”

This amendment reduces the length of suspension required to trigger a recall petition from 21 sitting days to 10 sitting days and from 28 days to 14 days.

Amendment 39, page 1, line 18, leave out “orders” and insert “has ordered.”

Amendment 43, page 1, line 24, at end insert—

‘( ) The third recall condition is that—

(a) an election court has considered a petition claiming that the MP has committed an act which, had it been committed in England and Wales, would have constituted misconduct in public office, and

(b) the court has determined, prima facie, there is a case to be answered, and

(c) the court has notified the Speaker of its decision under sub-section (b).”

Amendments 42 and 43 and NC6 and NC7 form part of a group of amendments and new clauses which provides a route for recall for members of the public independent of any parliamentary committee, or criminal convictions. It allows for an alternative and additional trigger for the recall process which provides direct access whereby one hundred constituents may petition an Electoral Court in the case of improper behaviour or gross dereliction of duty on the part of an MP, and seeks to avoid any conflict with the provisions of the Bill of Rights.

Amendment 40, page 2, line 2, after “starts”, insert “or started”

Amendment 49, page 2, line 5, at end insert—

‘(5A) The third recall condition is where an MP is also—

(a) a Member of the Scottish Parliament,

(b) a Member of the National Assembly for Wales,

(c) a Member of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly,

(d) a Member of the London Assembly,

(e) a directly elected Mayor,

(f) a local government Councillor,

(g) a member of a Parish Council, or

(h) a member of the European Parliament

and the Speaker receives or otherwise takes notice of the fact that that such an MP has been

suspended from a role mentioned in this subsection for a period equivalent to, or greater

than, that specified in subsection (4).

(5B) The Secretary of State may amend the list of bodies in subsection 5A by an order laid before the House of Commons and made under the affirmative resolution procedure.”

This amendment adds a further recall petition trigger to the Bill, where an MP has been suspended from another elected role or office for an equivalent or greater number of days than is set out in Clause 1, subsection (4). (NB Amendment 45 seeks to reduce that period.)

Amendment 46, in clause 2, page 2, line 16, leave out paragraph (b)

This amendment removes the exemption from recall petition in the case of an MP who receives a custodial sentence but for a crime committed before this Act comes into force.

Amendment 44, in clause 5, page 4, line 11, leave out “second” and insert “, second, or third”

New clause 1— Notice of intent to recall

‘(1) A notice of intent to recall is to read as follows—

“If you agree that [name], the member of the House of Commons for [constituency] should be subject to a recall petition, please sign below”.

(2) A notice of intent may be deposited with the petition officer by a person who promotes the call for the member to be recalled from Parliament (“the promoter”).

(3) A notice of intent to recall deposited under subsection (2) must be accompanied by a declaration made by the promoter, verifying that to the best of that person‘s knowledge the notice is in accordance with this Act and any regulations made under it.

(4) A person who makes a declaration under subsection (3) where that person knows that the declaration is false or is reckless as to that fact, commits an offence.

(5) As soon as reasonably practicable after a notice of intent to recall has been deposited with the petition officer—

(a) the petition officer shall, in accordance with subsection (6) determine whether the notice of intent to recall is effective, and

(b) if so, the petition officer shall send a copy of the notice to the member.

(6) A notice of intent to recall is effective for the purposes of this Act if the petition officer is satisfied that the number of persons who have validly signed the notice of intent to recall is not less than the effective number determined in accordance with subsection (9).

(7) But subsection (5) shall not apply if it would require the petition officer to determine that the notice of intent to recall is effective at a time—

(a) within the period of 7 months ending with the polling day for the next parliamentary general election;

(b) when the MP is already subject to a recall petition process, or

(c) When the MP’s seat has already been vacated (whether by the MP’s disqualification or death, or otherwise).

(8) For the purposes of this section a person (“P”) validly signs a notice of intent to recall if—

(a) P signs the notice within the period commencing 28 days prior to the date upon which the notice is deposited with the petition officer and ending on that day, and

(b) P signs the notice on a day on which P would be entitled to vote as an elector at a parliamentary election in the constituency.

(9) In each year, the petition officer of each constituency in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland shall on the relevant day, determine the number that is equal to 5% of the number of persons entitled to vote as an elector at a parliamentary election in the constituency (“the effective number”).

(10) “The relevant day” for the purposes of subsection (9) means, the day on which the registration officer publishes a revised version of the electoral register under section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.”.

This New Clause adds in the process for notices of intent to recall; who is eligible to sign such a notice and how the petition officer is to determine whether it is effective, leading on then to a recall petition notice being issued.

New clause 2—Promoter’s statement of reason and Member’s statement in reply

‘(1) A notice of intent to recall may be deposited with a petition officer by a person (“the promoter”):

(a) who promotes the recall from Parliament of the member to whom the notice relates;

(b) who is entitled to vote on the day it is deposited as an elector at a parliamentary election in the constituency to which the notice relates; and

(c) whose name appears on the notice.

(2) The promoter must ensure that the signing sheet for a notice of intent to recall include s a statement of reasons for calling for the member’s recall to Parliament (“The promoter’s statement of reasons”).

(3) The member may respond to the statement of reasons in a written statement in reply (“member’s statement in reply”) sent to the petition officer after the notice of intent to recall has been deposited with that officer.

(4) The notice of petition sent out under section 8(1) must be accompanied by—

(a) the promoter’s statement of reasons, and

(b) any statement in reply if provided to the petition officer within 2 working days of the notices being sent out.

(5) The statement of reason and any statement in reply must not exceed 200 words each and must be made available by the petition officer at the designated places throughout the signing period.”

This amendment makes provision for the person who deposits the notice of intent to recall with the petition officer, known as the promoter, to include with the notice, a statement of reasons. The member then has a right of reply and both the statement of reasons and any statement in reply must be available with a recall petition throughout the signing period.

Amendment (a) to new clause 2, line 11 at end insert—

“(a) the statement of reasons shall not include reasons relating to the Member’s freedom of expression within his/her Parliamentary role such as those expressed through speeches and votes.

(b) Where the petition officer considers that a statement may contravene (a) he may refer the statement to the Speaker whose decision shall be final.”

To ensure that recall procedure is not commenced because a constituent does not agree with the Member’s political or personal views.

New clause 6—The third recall condition; method of petitioning an election court

‘(1) This section applies when persons allege conduct by an MP which constitutes misconduct in public office.

(2) A petition under this section may be presented by one hundred or more of those who are registered as electors in the relevant constituency.

(3) The petition shall be in the prescribed form, state the prescribed matters and be signed by the petitioners, and shall be presented to the High Court, or to the Court of Session, or to the High Court of Northern Ireland, depending on whether the constituency to which it relates is in England and Wales, or Northern Ireland.

(4) The petition shall be presented by delivering it to the prescribed officer or otherwise dealing with it in the prescribed manner; and the prescribed officer shall send a copy of it forthwith to the Speaker and to the relevant MP.

(5) The election court shall be constituted as if it were constituted under section c123 (constitution of election court and place of trial) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and sections 124 and 126 of that Act shall apply as if it were so constituted.

(6) “Prescribed” has the same meaning as in section 185 (Interpretation of Part III) of the Representation of the People Act 1983.”

New clause 7—The third recall condition; consideration by election court

‘(1) This section applies when a petition alleging conduct by an MP which constitutes misconduct in public office is considered by an election court under section (The third recall condition: method of petitioning an election court).

(2) The court may consider such conduct whether or not it is committed in England and Wales, and whether or not it is committed directly in carrying out the office of member of parliament.

(3) The court must examine evidence adduced of misconduct, and any evidence produced in rebuttal by the MP.

(4) The court must consider whether, on the basis of such evidence, a person might properly be indicted for the common law offence of misconduct in public office.

(5) For the purposes of this section, gross dereliction of duty as an MP may be considered misconduct in public office.

(6) If the court considers, on the basis of such evidence, that the allegation of misconduct is—

(a) not supported by the evidence; or

(b) trivial or vexatious in nature; or

(c) brought for party political purposes;

then the court must dismiss the petition.

(7) If the decision of the court is that the alleged behaviour is such as to satisfy subsection (4), then it must notify the Speaker that it has so determined.

(8) Nothing in this section shall be construed as affecting any provision of the Bill of Rights 1689.”

Amendments 42 and 43 and NC6 and NC7 form part of a group of amendments and new clauses which provides a route for recall for members of the public independent of any parliamentary committee, or criminal convictions. It allows for an alternative and additional trigger for the recall process which provides direct access whereby one hundred constituents may petition an Electoral Court in the case of improper behaviour or gross dereliction of duty on the part of an MP, and seeks to avoid any conflict with the provisions of the Bill of Rights.

Amendment 34, in schedule 1, page 17, line 6, leave out from “effectually” to end of paragraph 1 and insert

“carrying out the functions under this Act and Regulations made under it in relation to notices of intent to recall, recall petitions and recall referendums”

This amendment extends the general duty on the petition officer to reflect the addition of the notice of intent to recall and referendum stages to the Bill.

Amendment 6, in clause 7, page 5, line 22, leave out “receives a Speaker’s notice” and insert

“has determined that a notice of intent to recall is effective”.

This amendment makes clear that the date upon which the petition officer determines that a notice of intent to recall is effective is the relevant starting date for the recall petition process.

Amendment 7, page 5, line 36, leave out “received the Speaker’s notice” and insert

“determined that the notice of intent to recall is effective”.

This amendment makes clear that the date upon which the petition officer determines that a notice of intent to recall is effective is the relevant starting date for the recall petition process.

Amendment 8, in clause 8, page 6, line 13, leave out subsection (2).

This amendment removes the power to make regulations requiring information on the recall condition to be included in the notice of petition to be sent to registered electors.

Amendment 9, in clause 9, page 6, line 27, leave out from “constituency]” to end of subsection (4) and insert

“to be subject to a recall referendum. If the recall referendum leads to the loss of his/her seat this does not prevent the member standing in any consequent by-election.”.

This amendment changes the wording in the recall petition to reflect that if successful there will be a referendum and that if the recall referendum leads to the loss of the member’s seat, he or she may still stand for election in any consequent by-election.

Amendment 10, in clause 10, page 7, line 9, leave out “Speaker’s notice is given” and insert “petition officer has determined that the notice of intent to recall is effective”.

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7.

Amendment 11, page 7, line 22, leave out “Speaker’s notice is given” and insert

“petition officer has determined that the notice of intent to recall is effective”.

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7.

Amendment 35, in schedule 2,  page 21, line 10, leave out “Speaker‘s notice is given in relation to a recall petition” and insert

“petition officer determines that a notice of intent to recall is effective”.

This amendment has the same intent and achieves the same effect as for the amendments to Clause 7.

Amendment 12, in clause 13, page 8, line 37, leave out “Speaker’s notice is given” and insert

“petition officer has determined that the notice of intent to recall is effective”.

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7 and reflects the fact that the recall conditions and the role of the Speaker are removed.

Amendment 13, page 8, line 44, leave out “Speaker’s notice was given” and insert “petition officer determined that the notice of intent to recall was effective”.

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7 and reflects the fact that the recall conditions and the role of the Speaker are removed.

Amendment 14, page 9, line 3, leave out subsections (4) and (5).

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7 and reflects the fact that the recall conditions and the role of the Speaker are removed.

Amendment 15, page 9, line 9, leave out “receiving a notice under subsection (5)” and insert “becoming aware that this section applies”.

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7 and reflects the fact that the recall conditions and the role of the Speaker are removed.

Amendment 16, in clause 13, page 9, line 16, leave out “receiving a notice under subsection (5)” and insert “becoming aware that this section applies”.

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7 and reflects the fact that the recall conditions and the role of the Speaker are removed.

Amendment 17, page 9, line 22, leave out subsection (8).

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7 and reflects the fact that the recall conditions and the role of the Speaker are removed.

Amendment 18, in clause 14, page 9, line 31, leave out subsection (2)(b).

This amendment reflects that the Speaker’s role in the recall petition process has been removed.

Amendment 20, page 9, line 44, leave out “Speaker’s notice is given” and insert

“the petition officer determined that the notice of intent to recall was effective”.

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7.

Amendment 21, page 10, line 24, leave out subsection (8).

This amendment is consequential on the amendment removing subsection (2) of this Clause.

Amendment 22, in clause 15, page 10, line 27, leave out from “officer” to end of Clause and insert—

“determines that the recall petition was successful the officer shall issue a notice of recall referendum

(2) Where a notice of recall referendum has been issued, the petition officer shall hold a referendum on the question set out in subsection (3), within a period that is no less than 21 days and no more than 27 days after the date of the notice.

(3) The questions that is to appear on the ballot papers in a recall referendum is—

“Should [name of member of Parliament] be recalled from the House of Commons?”.

(4) A person is entitled to vote in a recall referendum under this Act if that person would be entitled to vote on that day as an elector at a parliamentary election in the constituency.

(5) A person who is entitled to vote in a recall referendum may do so in person, by post or by proxy.

(6) This subsection applies where more votes are cast in a recall referendum in relation to a member of Parliament in favour of the question asked in subsection (3) than against.

(7) Where subsection (6) applies, the result of the referendum is that the member’s seat becomes vacant and a by-election will be held.

(8) The petition officer must—

(a) determine the result of the recall referendum as soon as reasonably practicable after the date on which the referendum took place,

(b) immediately notify the member and the Speaker of the result of the referendum, and

(c) as soon as reasonably practicable, publish the result of the referendum.”.

Where a recall petition has been successful, this amendment sets down the requirement for a recall referendum: it provides the wording for the recall referendum ballot and if passed for the member’s seat to become vacant. This thereby triggers a by-election.

Amendment 23, in clause 16, page 10, line 40, after “amend”, insert—

“(a) Schedules 3 to 5 to apply to expenditure and donations in relation to notices of intent to recall and recall referendums and reporting requirements in connection with the financial control of notices of intent to recall and recall referendums.”.

This amendment extends the regulation making power in this Clause to enable the controls on expenses, donations and reporting requirements set out in the Schedules to be extended to notices of intent to recall and recall referendums.

Amendment 36, in Schedule 3, page 24, line 5, leave out “Speaker‘s notice is given” and insert “petition officer determines that a notice of intent to recall is effective”.

This amendment has the same intent and achieves the same effect as for the amendments to Clause 7.

Amendment 24, in clause 17, page 11, line 11, after “petition”, insert “or recall referendum.”.

This amendment extends the controls on loans to accredited campaigners to be extended to recall referendums.

Amendment 25, page 11, line 18, after “petition”, insert “or recall referendum.”.

This amendment extends the controls on loans to accredited campaigners to be extended to recall referendums.

Amendment 26, page 11, line 22, leave out “has the same meaning” and insert “and ‘recall referendum’ have the same meanings.”.

This amendment extends the controls on loans to accredited campaigners to be extended to recall referendums.

Amendment 27, in clause 18, page 11, line 27, leave out “recall petition” and insert

“notice of intent to recall, recall petition or recall referendum.”.

This amendment extends the regulation making powers to cover notices of intent to recall including the promoter’s declaration of compliance and recall referendums.

Amendment 28, page 11, line 28, leave out “recall petition” and insert “notice of intent to recall, recall petition or recall referendum.”.

This amendment extends the regulation making powers to cover notices of intent to recall including the promoter’s declaration of compliance and recall referendums.

Amendment 30, page 11, line 31, at end insert—

(0) make provision extending section 13 to apply to the early termination of a recall referendum process.”.

This amendment extends the regulation making powers to cover notices of intent to recall and recall referendums.

Amendment 29, page 11, line 38, at end insert

“(including extending section 12 to cover the signing of notices of intent to recall, any offence under [section Notice of intent to recall] and voting in recall referendums)”

This amendment extends the regulation making powers to cover notices of intent to recall including the promoter’s declaration of compliance and recall referendums.

Amendment 37, in schedule 6, page 57, line 35, leave out from “after” to end of line 36 and insert

“a petition officer has determined that a notice of intent to recall is effective”.

This amendment has the same effect as those for Clause 7.

Amendment 32, in clause 22, page 14, line 30, at end insert—

“‘notice of intent to recall’” means a notice calling, in terms determined

under section (Notice of intent to recall) for a recall petition to be issued;”.

This amendment adds in necessary definitions to reflect the other amendments to the Bill.

Amendment 33, page 14, line 43, at end insert—

“‘recall referendum’ means a referendum asking, in terms determined under section (Notice of intent to recall) whether the seat of a member should be vacated in accordance with this Act;”.

This amendment adds in necessary definitions to reflect the other amendments to the Bill.

Clause stand part.

I rise to speak to the amendments in my name and those of 80 or so colleagues across the House, and in so doing make a plea to this House. Today, hon. Members will be able to decide if we want a genuine voter-led system of recall with tight caps on spending and a high enough threshold to prevent vexatious abuse; or if we want a bogus system of recall that is possible only in the narrowest of circumstances and with prior permission of this House. Given that under the Deputy Prime Minister’s current proposals just six Members in the past quarter of a century would have qualified even for the possibility of recall—and four of them resigned in any case—we can at least agree that the Bill in its current form is a waste of time, but it is worse than that. If enacted, it will confirm the suspicion of many voters that politicians pretend to listen but then deceive. We are only having this debate because at a certain point before the last election the mainstream parties felt obliged to do something to address the increasingly strained relationship between people and power, so it would surely be a madness for us to legislate today on the assumption that our voters cannot be trusted.

We had a good debate on Tuesday of last week and I listened closely to the concerns raised around the amendments that I and colleagues are sponsoring and, for context, I want briefly to recap the effect of the amendments. The process is effectively threefold. First, if 5% of the local electorate sign a notice of intent to recall, within a one-month time frame the returning officer would announce a formal recall petition. Secondly, it would take 20% of voters—14,000 or so—to sign the recall petition in person within an eight-week period to trigger a recall referendum. The referendum would be a simple yes or no—“Do you want your MP to be recalled; yes or no?” If more than 50% say yes, there would then be a by-election.

The only concern colleagues with longer memories may have about my hon. Friend’s amendment, which I think is very powerful, is the risk of vexatious claims being made for party political or other purposes. Is my hon. Friend convinced that that could not arise with his amendment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I will focus above all on the point he raises in the few minutes I will take up during this debate. The process is deliberately very difficult. There are several hurdles—I have just identified three of them—and I think my hon. Friend will agree they are very high.

On step two and the 20% threshold, my hon. Friend said last week and will probably say again today that this needs to be done in person at the town hall or suchlike. What guarantee is there that the easy, “click-send” mentality that so many of us see now in this job will not one day be extended to this process? As a result, vexatious recalls will be much easier to pursue.

Such a move could happen only by permission of this House. We will struggle today to get any kind of meaningful reform, and the concern that this House will casually extend the remit of recall to include digital democracy is a hope too far for those who believe in direct democracy.

My hon. Friend will remember that when this proposal—an online process rather than a physical one—was put to 40,000 people online, including online campaigners such as members of 38 Degrees, the vast majority, well over 90%, said, “No, this is a bad idea”. The process should be serious, physical and involve a proper hurdle.

That is exactly the point: the barriers are high enough to prevent vexatious abuse. However, I recognise that concerns were expressed across the House during last Tuesday’s debate, and they fall broadly into four categories. Three are largely technical and can easily be accommodated. The first relates to cost controls, the second to thresholds, and the third to the frequency with which recall petitions can happen. I will deal with those quickly before coming to the more profound concern that was raised—

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will deal with these points first.

On the concern about costs, the Deputy Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), said that under the amendment there would be no cost controls at all on the first part of the recall process, the notice of intent. As he wrapped up Tuesday’s debate, he said that it would effectively be a free-for-all. I know he has read the amendments, so I am surprised he said that, because there are controls that mirror exactly those for the petition stage in the Government’s own Bill. Irrespective of that, it is perfectly possible to build in further controls—strict limits on expenditure and so on—and I have indicated to the Opposition and colleagues in my own party that if they table amendments on Report to bolster those cost controls, I would be very happy to support them.

The second issue, which relates to thresholds, is also technical. The principal concern involves the notice of intent to recall, the fear being that it would be too easy to secure 3,500 signatures—or 5%—in one month and that there would therefore be too many recall petitions.

I will in just a moment. The notice of intent to recall is the least formal part of this process and exists for only one reason: to ensure that where a recall petition happens, there is a genuine demand for it, and not only among a small handful of local cranks. The threshold is about right, but I have said to the Opposition and party colleagues that if they seek to raise it on Report, I would be happy to support it in the interests of achieving meaningful reform.

The third concern relates to the fear that Members would face endless recall attempts, amounting almost to a form of harassment, an issue raised several times in last week’s debate. I see no need for a limit, as the experience of recall around the world shows that its use is extremely rare and that it is used only in extreme circumstances. In 100 years of recall in the United States, where there are virtually no financial controls or controls on broadcasters and so on, it has happened only 20 times. There have been 40 recall referendums—

I will in a moment, when I have finished dealing with this point. However, as I have said to the Opposition and to my colleagues, for the sake of achieving meaningful reform I would not oppose sensible proposals to establish some reasonable limit.

When I have finished this point. Obviously, it would make no sense to limit the number of times a notice of intent to recall can be started because technically, that would enable one lonely crank in a constituency to exhaust those options for the rest of the constituents, with just a single signature. Logically, if there is to be a limit in this process, it would have to apply to the number of recall petitions themselves. I encourage the Government, the Opposition or any Member to bring forward a proposal on Report to set a limit on what would be possible.

I also heard the figure of 40 being mentioned on the radio and in last week’s debate, but in the United States in 2011, there were 150 recall elections at various levels, with at least 30 in Michigan. Although the hon. Gentleman gives the impression that the method is not used in the United States, it is used extensively at all levels of government, and mainly by the Republican right to destabilise local Democrats.

I am afraid that I did not catch the data that the hon. Gentleman set out, so would he mind repeating those figures?

In 2011, there were 150 recall elections in the United States—this is not just at state level, but at a local level—and there were 30 in Michigan alone. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about endless recalls but, in practice, people in the United States who are subject to recall do not contest the process, but resign.

Yes, it does. In California, which has had more recalls than any other US state, there has been one successful recall of a governor, when Gray Davis was replaced by Governor Schwarzenegger. From 2011 to 2013, nine of the 120 elected representatives faced recall, but not one of those processes was successful.

I will move on from that point, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to speak.

I have set out the technical points that were raised on Second Reading, and I hope that hon. Members realise that it would be relatively easy to deal with them on Report.

When there is an unpopular policy in a constituency—HS2, for example—and the MP cannot speak out in public, for instance because they are a Front Bencher, would not my hon. Friend’s proposals make such a Member very vulnerable? Can he assure me that his proposals could not be used to blackmail Members of Parliament who might not be able to speak out as they would wish?

My right hon. Friend’s point goes to the heart of our debate because it deals with a much more profound concern than those three technical points with which I have attempted to deal. This is the line in the sand on which we will need to decide today. It relates to the fear that elected representatives could be unfairly hounded from office—kicked out because of how they voted on issues such as gay marriage, the badger cull or HS2. It is the idea that the mere existence of recall would make Members nervous about expressing themselves on controversial issues, and that rich and powerful vested interests could chase from Parliament those who dare to stand up against them.

Those fears, however sincere, are misguided, and I want to explain why before I take any further interventions.

First, on a technical level, the numbers make such a thing virtually impossible. To reiterate, under my proposals, no Member could be recalled unless 50% plus one of his or her constituents voted for that recall, so there would be no question of a minority hounding an MP out of office—unlike with the Government’s plans, under which, bizarrely, 10% of constituents could throw out their MP, even if the other 90% absolutely adored them—and no Member could even face a full recall vote unless 20% of electors, or roughly 14,000 people, made the effort to go in person to a town hall, within a limited time frame, to sign a petition asking for one. We heard last week from hon. Members who had received 500 e-mails about badger culls and 400 e-mails about equal marriage, but those figures of 400 and 500 would be nowhere near enough to topple an MP, to trigger a referendum, or even to get to the point of having a recall petition. Those numbers are pitifully small compared with those required to clear the hurdles even to instigate the process that I am describing. What is more, those letters that MPs receive are often online and in template form; they can be sent at the mere click of a mouse. We are talking about a completely different scenario.

It is no coincidence that many of the Members who have unfairly faced the greatest difficulty during this Parliament, the very people whom the critics of recall might imagine to be the most vulnerable to attack, have put their names to my amendments, and they were the first to do so—my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and for Meriden (Mrs Spelman). They did so because they know that the existence of recall is the best possible way of challenging a noisy minority of critics either to put up or shut up. They know that when a recall petition fails to materialise, a Member will be able to turn to his or her tormentors and say, “The silent majority does not share your view.”

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view that many of the letters we receive are identical, having been prompted by one source, and that they represent a tiny minority. Could not that be said of the e-mails and letters we have received in support of his amendments?

Even if my right hon. Friend had received not a single letter in support of recall, that would not change my own commitment to trying to secure this very minor but nevertheless meaningful reform.

The key point that I plead with Members to consider is that people can be trusted. They are not a mob of fools who are easily driven to the polling booths by manipulative media barons; they are our friends, our neighbours and our family. They can tell the difference between the rare examples of misbehaviour or betrayal so egregious that justice demands recall and the much more frequent instances of legitimate disagreements on policy or of trivial, minor foolishness. Although he spoke against recall very well last week, I think that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) made that point himself, albeit inadvertently, when he said that his predecessor could easily have been recalled because of her views on abortion—she represented a largely Catholic seat—but she won seven elections, and in each one her majority grew. Voters are like us: they can respect and support someone without having to agree on every single issue. Very few people in this world are motivated purely by one concern over one issue.

The hon. Gentleman referred to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) said last week. Will he also consider the example of my constituency, as I was one of only two Labour MPs who voted not to ban hunting? That was an issue that could have prompted calls for a recall, but it would not have happened, because people accept that individual MPs have very strong views on individual issues.

The hon. Lady makes a brilliant point. She represents an urban seat where there are not many fox hunts, as far as I am aware, and the fact that she faced so little comeback from her constituents reflects the high esteem in which they hold her and it is testament to how rarely recall would be used in reality.

I want to answer the point made in an earlier intervention about conscience voting. There are times, I believe, when a betrayal might be so extreme as to merit a recall. I know that I was elected in Richmond Park and north Kingston largely because my constituents felt that I would be able to bat for them on the issue of Heathrow expansion and put up a serious fight. I made promises at the time that I would disown my own party and, if necessary, trigger a by-election to combat that enormous threat to my constituents. If I had U-turned straight after the election, having made those solemn vows to my constituents, and helped to facilitate a third runway, should I have been able to do so with impunity? I do not think so. Perhaps that is the line in the sand in the debate we are having today.

I fully support my hon. Friend’s amendment. He is doing a very sound job of trying to persuade people by saying how rare and infrequent these events may be and reassure them that there will not be opportunities for vexatious recalls, but is not the true power behind the amendment the fact that it is the only one that trusts the British people to make those decisions, rather than people in this House defending their own?

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I absolutely agree with his comments. [Interruption.]

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) might choose to address herself to this debate in a different way.

I have not signed the hon. Gentleman’s amendments, although I happen to agree with him. I want to raise two issues that he still has not addressed sufficiently. First, 5% is a very small number. He suggested that he might accept a higher number on Report. Would he be prepared to accept 10% or 15%? Secondly, some of us think that the financial provisions are not tough enough in the Bill or in law. Will he support further amendments at a later stage?

The notice of intent to recall is the most informal part of the process—its only purpose is to demonstrate that it is not a waste of time. I do not mind if the level is 5%, 10% or 15%; the House has to decide on that and will have an opportunity to do so on Report, I hope, if these amendments are accepted. I will not vote for the lower thresholds because I have made a commitment to the House. On the question of whether it is 10% or 15%, I would be interested to see what the House thinks.

On financial controls, very strict limits should be applied on the notice of intent to recall. I cannot see that the process would merit more than a few hundred pounds being spent on it, and I certainly do not think it should be in the thousands. As I said, the regulations relating to financial controls in my amendments exactly mirror the controls in the Government’s Bill. I think they can be improved. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to have that argument with the Government, and I will back him up in doing so.

How is the hon. Gentleman going to get the whole thing about the costs involved in doing this—£500, or whatever else—into an area that can be organised in such a way that it would be seen by all?

That is an interesting question. The structure of this place is such that those discussions could be quite difficult. The formal point at which we would be able to have them would be on Report. If my amendments are accepted, it would be for anyone in this House to table further amendments. If they want to do so with me and the Committee that I was part of, we can do that. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to get in touch with me—I am happy for him to do that—because this process should as open as possible. I will not dig my heels in on these matters, because they are not issues of principle but technical issues that can and should be addressed.

My hon. Friend alluded to the example of his undertakings on Heathrow. Members of the party that joined the coalition made undertakings at the election about student finance, and then, in the interests of good government, swallowed hard, and will almost certainly take the pain at the next election for the breach of their promise to the electorate. However, they made a decision in the interests of the sound administration of the country, and they should be commended for that. They should be free to make those decisions, as we all should, when sound administration requires it. The problem with the amendment is that it works against decent government, which, overall, our constituents should expect of us.

I would give two responses. First, if we existed in a world where recall was possible, I suspect that the promises made before the last election would not have been made. In the context of a recall regime, we would have to be much more careful about the promises we made because we would know that we could be held to account after making and then breaking them.

Secondly, if circumstances require a broken promise—an abandonment of a manifesto pledge—in a system of recall, or, frankly, without it, it is incumbent on Members to go back to their constituents and explain why that promise had to be broken. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) has spent a lot of time speaking to and engaging with students of all ages to explain why the U-turn was necessary. I can absolutely guarantee that whether or not he wins at the next election, he would not have been recalled on the back of what was a profoundly broken promise. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) must have confidence and faith in his voters. Voters can see through these things.

A lot of us are worried about my hon. Friend’s amendment because we do not want recall procedures to be started on the basis of the votes we cast here or of what we say. Has he seen the amendment in my name and that in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), which make it absolutely clear that no recall procedure should be initiated on the basis of how we vote or speak in this House? Would my hon. Friend be prepared to accept those amendments?

I have seen my hon. Friend’s amendment and I understand why he and my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire have tabled their amendments, both of which say more or less the same thing. However, as I said a few moments ago, this is the line in the sand for me. I think we can trust our voters. When the Division bell goes, Members will have to decide whether they believe we should trust people with this power. As Members make their decision, I hope they will properly consider whether the arguments they have heard against recall—vested interests, an over-mighty press and a fallible public—are in fact arguments against democracy itself.

On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman said:

“I suspect that every politician, at one point or another, would find themselves the subject of the 5% recall petition stage.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 793.]

That is how the process would begin, but the hon. Gentleman needs to differentiate between misconduct and wrongdoing and policy. As the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has said, a process based on political party policy should not be allowed to begin.

My point about the 5% in Tuesday’s debate was that every constituency, without exception, will have one or two or a handful of people who will want to initiate the process. My point was that the 5% notice of intent to recall might well bubble away in constituencies up and down the country, but in a world where recall existed that is something to which we would become accustomed. If a petition began to reach the 3,500 mark in a one-month period, I would say that that would be a fairly good indication that the recall petition was merited in that constituency, for whatever reason it had been initiated.

In signing this amendment I have signalled my support in principle of it, but I think it would be strengthened if the petition officer had before him a definition of what should represent justification for recall. He could then judge, at the very start, whether it was a case of hounding out or something less serious.

I would argue that that is exactly what the coalition Government have attempted to do, but they have failed. It is very hard to define wrongdoing by a Member of Parliament, because our jobs mean something different from constituency to constituency. Any number of Committees, my own included, have attempted to define wrongdoing by MPs, but it is almost impossible to do so. For example, an amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats, with support from Members of other parties, suggests that an MP who engages in “gross dereliction of duty” would qualify for their new trigger for recall, but how is it possible to define the duty of MPs when there is no job description? Would that include an MP who never turns up to Parliament to vote? I suspect not, because if it did we would have a problem with Sinn Fein and open a whole can of worms that many Members would not want to open at this stage.

Those amendments are a complete waste of time because it is impossible to define wrongdoing. The only people who are qualified to define whether an MP is behaving well or badly and living up to expectations or not are the people that MP represents. That is why the protection needs to be in the threshold, not in the definition.

I compliment my hon. Friend on showing enormous sincerity in moving his amendment. Will he explain exactly how this petition of 5% would work? I am so old that I remember studying the Chartists’ petitions, and their third petition in 1848—I was not there—was somewhat discredited by the fact that “Victoria Regina” had signed it, which was thought rather unlikely. “Mickey Mouse” often comes up in petitions. Of course, it would have to be a name and address in the constituency, but that is quite difficult to check, so could my hon. Friend please explain how that would work?

My right hon. Friend is right that that is difficult. Before I answer his question directly, let me repeat that this is the least formal part of the process and it is not covered by normal election rules. Yes, policing this process would be harder, but the promoter—a person has to deliver the 5% of names to the returning officer—would be bound by the criminal law in the same way that other elections are governed in this country. If the promoter deliberately included signatures of people who were not eligible to vote, double signatures, signatures of people who were too young or who were from other constituencies, or made-up names, that would be a very serious criminal offence. Could it ever happen? Of course it could. Does election fraud happen in constituencies? Of course it does. It is not possible to have a perfect system, but the protection is in the fact that the promoter would be bound by the criminal law.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on tabling his amendments. The momentum for recall came from manifesto commitments focused on serious wrongdoing. Is it not possible to uphold the principle of letting the people decide, but to place parameters on serious wrongdoing—we will not define it ourselves, because it is not possible to be do so—to ensure that the people can decide what it is? Can we ensure that the focus of our principles and intentions is on that?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. In fact, an open recall system of the sort I propose gives local constituents the power to decide what constitutes serious wrongdoing. For my part, I believe that it would not be abused by voters. They would be able to tell the difference between a disagreement on a simple policy issue or a frivolous mistake in someone’s private life and issues that are so serious they merit recall.

I am honoured to be allowed to intervene on this brilliant speech by someone who actually trusts the voters. It seems to me that if all we are concerned about is wrongdoing, that is covered by the Standing Orders of the House, under which we are entitled to expel Members who do something of which the House disapproves. That makes the Bill as framed—without my hon. Friend’s excellent amendments—unnecessary. We should do the whole thing properly, or not at all.

Again, my hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that I absolutely agree. My concern is that many of the arguments against recall imply that, to paraphrase Lenin’s infamous dictum, democracy is so precious that it must be rationed.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman not just for the Lenin quote, but for his extraordinary generosity in giving way. Will he just elucidate one absolutely straightforward point, not a great philosophical issue? The London borough of Ealing faces £87 million of cuts. Who would pay for this process? Will it be yet another impost on a struggling local government?

I believe that, under the Government’s Bill, the cost of the petition and the by-election would be borne centrally. My right hon. Friends on the Front Bench are welcome to intervene if I am wrong. The same would be true in the alternative that I am proposing. I have checked with Electoral Reform Services, which routinely conducts referendums, and I have been told that the cost would be £35,000 for a recall referendum. That works out at about 40p per person. If that is the price people have to pay for decent representation, I suspect that most people would regard it as a price worth paying.

The hon. Gentleman knows that on certain matters I admire his commitment. My problem is that the Bill has been advertised, particularly those using the 38 Degrees website, as a serious amendment to get rid of bad apples. The 38 Degrees document in fact says that people can have a recall for no reason: they do not have to state a reason. Will he clarify the confusion in the public mind? He plays fast and loose with the statement that anyone who opposes this is against democracy. Will he be quite clear that he does not support the idea of having a purposeless petition, or one in which the purpose is not stated, against a Member? We now have a situation in which the will of the Scottish people is quite clearly to stay in the Union, but we are being threatened—thank goodness, we can take it up at the general election—and under recall, his rule could be used to try to overturn the will of the people and to be anti-democratic.

This is a point of difference. I do not believe that voters will attempt to recall—and they certainly would not succeed in recalling—anyone who is not a bad apple. I do not believe that voters will remove people over a policy difference. I made that point earlier. The question comes down to whether or not the hon. Gentleman trusts the voters. It is as simple as that. I cannot guarantee that frivolous attempts will not be made—of course I cannot—any more than I can guarantee what will happen in his seat or anyone else’s at the next election. Democracy is unpredictable, but ultimately I have confidence that voters will make the right decision.

The hon. Gentleman has talked about many technical points, so may I offer him a technical point? Would it not add to the level of democracy if the names and addresses of everybody among the 5% or 20% were made available to the public, just as a marked register is made available after an election, so that everybody could see who they were?

That is an interesting debate to have. Instinctively, I would be reluctant to go down that road, because I do not think that people should have to declare their vote. I do not believe that any amendments to that effect have been tabled to the Bill or to my amendments, but we could have that debate on Report. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point on board.

I have allowed too many interventions and I want to come to an end to allow other people to take part.

Regardless of their views on recall, I hope that Members will at least acknowledge that something has gone wrong with our politics. The question is what we should do to fix it. Surely the Government Bill—this desperate pretence at reform—is not the answer. Its every clause betrays a lack of confidence in voters, with or without the feeble Government amendments—the last-minute tweaks of the last couple of days. If we as a Parliament are so untrusting of our fellow citizens that we refuse to allow them even the remotest opportunity to hold us to account, other than twice a decade, we will merely confirm their low opinion of us. We should think the best of our voters, demonstrate our confidence in their moderation and good sense, and enact a true recall Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess.

I will speak first about the clause as it stands. I will then explain the purposes of the Opposition amendments and set out our view of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and others. Finally, I will briefly address the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) and others. Later in the debate, when the arguments have been set out more fully, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) will make another contribution to sum up our position.

I want to place on the record Labour’s support for the principle of recall when an elected representative’s conduct falls well below the standards that Parliament and their constituents expect. That is why our manifesto in 2010 promised to introduce recall legislation and why we supported the Bill’s Second Reading last Tuesday. We made it clear during that debate that we would table amendments to strengthen the Bill. Before I turn to the amendments that we have tabled, as promised, I will talk briefly about the Standards Committee, which recommends the suspensions from the House that could trigger a recall.

The Opposition agree with those inside and outside Parliament who believe that we must reform the Standards Committee in order to build public trust. Although amendments on the Standards Committee were not within the scope of the Bill, I want to place on the record the Labour party’s support for a radical overhaul of the Committee. That would include the removal of the Government’s majority and an increase in the role and authority of its lay members. We propose that at least half the Committee should be lay members and that the Chair of the Committee should not be a Member of Parliament. I note that the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), who was the Leader of the House for two years, has backed changes to the Standards Committee. If his comments are indicative of a wider view on the coalition Benches, let us move swiftly to build cross-party support for reform of the Standards Committee.

We tabled four of the amendments that are being considered today and I will set out how each of them would strengthen the Bill. Amendment 45 seeks to amend the threshold for recall that relates to suspensions from the House of Commons. The Government propose that MPs will have to be suspended for more than four sitting weeks or 28 calendar days for the threshold to be reached for recall petitions. According to the excellent research services of the House of Commons Library, it appears that that threshold would have been met on only two occasions over the past two decades, and that no one found guilty during the cash for questions scandal received a sufficiently long suspension to meet the Government’s proposed threshold.

Labour believes that that is not acceptable and therefore proposes the halving of the threshold figures. We are clear, however, that we should not lower the threshold to such a level as would merely allow vexatious and mischievous claims. In addition, we must recognise that parliamentary dissent is part of our democratic heritage, and a Member who is standing up sincerely for their beliefs should not find their right to protest compromised by unnecessary recall petitions. None of those who were suspended for protesting in the Chamber—unless they were serial repeat offenders—would be caught by our amendment. Therefore, we believe that it strikes the right balance of strengthening the right to recall without jeopardising parliamentary democracy.

May I be absolutely clear on this? Is my hon. Friend saying that there could be a cumulative number of days and number of suspensions—I take this as a matter of personal interest?

I am most grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. We are clear—I look to the Minister to clarify this when he responds—that it is a case of suspension, not a running total, although one hopes that we will not see my hon. Friend too near to the Dispatch Box and the mace in the near future.

Earlier, my hon. Friend touched on a point that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) never really cleared up because he did not distinguish between malpractice, bad practice and criminal activities, and political activities. That is the weakness in his amendment—it does not distinguish between the two and we could end up with a recall because of someone’s political opinion in the Chamber or outside. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I am grateful for that intervention, and my hon. Friend spoke very well last week when he pointed out, and Labour Members agree, that we are representatives, not delegates, in this place. That is an important principle, particularly for those of us in the Labour movement. He is entirely right—I will come to this later—that the basis for recall should be wrongdoing and someone’s conduct, not the causes that they support.

The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he wanted to stop the public having this choice to avoid vexatious or mischievous recall petitions. Does he believe that Members would be subject to that because the public are not smart enough to understand what is mischievous or vexatious, or that they would be too open to manipulation as the result of a recall petition?

The hon. Gentleman was slightly misinformed about what I said. We believe that the people of Dunfermline and West Fife are very smart: they sent me to the House of Commons and voted no overwhelmingly a few short weeks ago.

Further to the intervention from the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller), is the problem with the Labour party’s position that it would essentially put power of recall in the hands of a Westminster Committee, whereas other amendments would put power in the hands of the people?

I appreciate that this might be a novel concept for some Members of the House, but Labour is sticking to what its manifesto said. We said in our manifesto that we would support recall for those who have committed wrongdoing. That is what we are proposing tonight, and that is what our amendments seek to strengthen.

I will make a little progress if I may. Amendment 47 relates to MPs who have fiddled their expenses.

Surely amendment 45 puts even more pressure on the Committee that decides on suspensions because it knows that the threshold has been reduced from what the Government propose—28 days, or whatever—to 10 days. I would much rather leave it to the people, but in my opinion we would be putting pressure on the Committee that would make the judgments, and any punishment would therefore fall the wrong side—or the right side for the hon. Gentleman—of those 10 days.

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I struggle with his logic. Does he trust the independent Standards Committee? As I said a few moments ago, it would be genuinely independent and would have a majority of lay members. A Member of Parliament would not chair it. If he does not believe that an independent Committee can judge fairly and rationally the bad conduct of his colleagues, I am not sure what his faith in the system would be.

I am going to make progress—many hon. Members wish to speak.

As I have said, amendment 47 relates specifically to MPs who have fiddled their expenses. It is worth noting that since the introduction of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority not one MP has been caught trying to abuse the new system. The cases that have come to light in this Parliament have related to the last vestiges of the old, discredited system. Nevertheless, it is crucial that Parliament listens to the concerns of the public to ensure that if a Member of Parliament is found to have abused the new system a suitable course of action is available. That is why the amendment would ensure that, when the IPSA compliance officer finds that an MP has committed a serious breach of the rules, and the MP is convicted of making a false expenses claim, they will be subject to recall.

Some colleagues might question why the Opposition have singled out expenses for qualifying for recall, even when a non-custodial sentence is given. Labour Members believe that a flagrant misuse of public funds by an elected representative is unacceptable and that extraordinary measures are required. We hope that MPs in other parties agree with that principle.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s points. Everything he has said points to a proper judicial process rather than an internal one. Would his supporters prefer that?

That is why we have set out that there should be three routes to recall. Hon. Members will know that the occasions on which recall should be required will be very few and far between, but the hon. Gentleman is right that we are proposing three methods of recall. For the benefit of the Committee, it is worth capturing them again.

Let me finish dealing with the earlier intervention.

The first criterion is that a Member of Parliament is convicted and given a custodial sentence. The second is that they have received a suspension from the House for a specific period—amendment 47 tackles that. The third is that a Member is found to have fiddled their expenses and receives a conviction. Those are three clear examples of wrongdoing. None of them is about how a Member votes in the House, their views or other such behaviours. That is the difference between the Opposition and the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin).

The fact that the hon. Gentleman proposes three different methods does not solve the flaw in the central method, which is that a Committee of the House will make a ruling. If the ruling is, in effect, a career capital punishment for a Member of Parliament, the decision should be judicial. I am sorry, but no lay Committee and no Committee of the House is equipped to make such a decision. It must be judicial.

To be fair, the Prime Minister could not follow the right hon. Gentleman’s logic when he was a member of the shadow Cabinet.

To reiterate the Opposition’s position, recall must be based on a measure of wrongdoing. It cannot happen just because a group of constituents, or a well funded vested interest group, seek to remove a Member of Parliament because they disagree with them.

My hon. Friend is trying to grasp a complicated matter. The Bill of Rights makes it absolutely clear that no proceeding in Parliament should be questioned or impeached by any court of law or any other place. Unless we change the Bill of Rights, it seems difficult to allow a court or another body outside Parliament to judge what a Member may or may not have done in the proceeding in Parliament. Does my hon. Friend’s proposed Standards Committee, which he wants to make more independent, meet that same rule?

With your indulgence, Mr Amess, perhaps I may spend 30 seconds on the issue of parliamentary privilege. In part, the Standards Committee is outside the scope of the Bill, because it would remove the exclusive cognisance of the Committee, and it would be open to judicial review, either by the complainant or the Member of Parliament if either party was unhappy. As the learned and knowledgeable Clerk sitting close to you, Mr Amess, will agree, there are already some exceptions to the issue of privilege, such as the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The register is not covered by parliamentary privilege, so if a Member makes a declaration, the courts are able to use that as evidence in criminal proceedings, as I think happened a few years ago—my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby will probably be able to tell me which case it was. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is right: we have to be careful that we do not end up creating endless litigation that would result in far greater frustration for our constituents and the parliamentary process.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Procedure Committee discussed the question of lay members of the Standards Committee voting and concluded that if they did have votes, they would be outside privilege. Therefore, there is a real difficulty in having voting lay members on any Committee of Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Committee was not unanimous on that matter. That is why we are offering to work on a cross-party basis—I see that the Deputy Leader of the House is in his place—away from the Bill, on a reformed Standards Committee that will genuinely command the confidence of the public and the House and also meet our constitutional requirements.

Amendment 46 relates to the issue of whether only offences committed after this Bill comes into effect should be subject to recall. That appears to be the case as the Bill stands. As an example of the problems that would create, let us take the case again of Bill Walker, the disgraced former SNP MSP. It was only after he was elected that it came to light that he had, over a 30-year period, repeatedly assaulted four members of his family. He was subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. However, as the Bill stands, had Mr Walker been an MP, he would not have been covered by the recall provisions. Of course, the recall provision should not apply if the electorate are aware of a previous conviction when electing a Member of Parliament, but it surely cannot be right that if an historic offence comes to light and a conviction is then forthcoming, voters cannot remove and replace that convicted politician. We hope that the Minister will recognise that important oversight in the Bill and work with us to tidy it up through this amendment or on Report.

Amendment 49 deals with offences committed by MPs who also hold other elected offices. Although the Bill is so narrowly drawn that we cannot extend its provisions to other elected posts, we think that it is at least sensible to extend it to cases in which MPs hold a dual mandate. Let us use as an example a hypothetical case in which an MP is also a councillor. If that MP is found guilty of a breach of the councillors’ rules, such as interfering inappropriately with a constituent, and suspended for a certain period, it would be bizarre if they could not be recalled by their constituents as an MP.

Our amendments are designed to strengthen the Bill. They seek to strike the right balance between protecting parliamentary protest and ensuring that MPs who commit wrongdoing are held to account. They would widen the scope for recall and lower the threshold to ensure that genuine wrongdoing does not go unpunished. I hope that they will command support on both sides of the House.

I want to turn briefly to the amendments in the name of other hon. Members, and to turn first to the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Richmond Park. He has campaigned on this issue since he was first elected in 2010 and held consistently to his views. We are concerned, however, that he has not been able properly to define wrongdoing, despite being pressed to do so not just in Committee today and on Second Reading last week, but on many previous occasions. The dangers associated with not having a requirement to demonstrate any wrongdoing are clear: a well-funded campaign group or vested interest would be able to remove a Member of Parliament simply because it disagreed with his or her views.

The hon. Gentleman is right that I have not been able to define wrongdoing, but neither has anyone in the Committee. All he has been able to do is create thresholds that demonstrate certain elements of wrongdoing, and one falls into terrible difficulties when one tries to do that. For example, reducing suspension from 21 to 10 days would have meant that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) would not have fallen foul of the provisions, despite the fact that many people think he probably should have, whereas the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) would have fallen foul of the provisions even though his crime was not apologising for impugning the honour of certain Members of this House. We may not like it, but that is hardly a recall offence. The trouble with the mechanism that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) is introducing is that it will have a perverse outcome, not a democratic outcome.

Opposition Members disagree. We believe that there is a clear measure. If someone is convicted of a criminal offence and sent to prison for a non-expenses-related offence, that is clear wrongdoing. I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says about struggling to define wrongdoing, but he seeks simply to blow off the doors for recall.

I am struggling to define wrongdoing, but I challenge anyone here to define wrongdoing in a way that would genuinely capture wrongdoing by MPs. It is simply not possible. My argument is that it is not necessary because we have a jury out there: they are called constituents and we can rely on them. My concern is that even with a relatively straightforward threshold such as jail, there could be perverse outcomes. For example, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—I apologise for bringing her into this—could have been sent to jail for two or three days for her role in a protest against fracking. I have no doubt that she would have been welcomed as a hero by her constituents for doing so, but under the hon. Gentleman’s mechanism and under the Government’s mechanism just 10% of her constituents could have thrown her out of Parliament. Yes, she may have been able to claw back in through a by-election, but I suggest that a situation where 10% of the people can throw her out of Parliament and make her lose her job on the back of something most of her constituents would appreciate, is another example of a perverse outcome.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his second speech so early on. I do not disagree that there is a particular issue—I, too, apologise to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion—in relation to parliamentary protest. I am not saying for a second that this relates to the hon. Lady, but the Opposition have been struggling with the question of when knocking off a policeman’s helmet is an act of civil disobedience and when it is an act of assault. That is why we are not getting in the way in trying to subdivide an act. As the hon. Gentleman says, the decision is for any Member’s constituents to make.

As the impact assessment states, even under the Government’s system, which as we have already stated is relatively modest, the cost to the taxpayer of both the recall petition and the by-election would be £300,000. I am slightly perplexed about where the Electoral Reform Society got its figure of £35,000. A sum of £300,000 is to most of us real money and there is a real danger that, without any control over the grounds of recall, not only would the system be open to abuse by well-funded special interest groups that dislike how an MP has voted in the House, but the cost to the taxpayer would be astronomical.

I asked the hon. Member for Richmond Park about definition, but he did not come back to me. I notice that in new clause 1, which he has tabled, there is no need to define the purpose of a recall petition at all—a petition can be called for no reason. He has tried to rescue himself by seconding new clause 2, which asks for a clear definition. The confusion is that he is mixing up populist politics with good jurisdiction. It is clear he is playing to a crowd that is basically following the 38 Degrees argument, which is that a recall can be called without stating any reason. Of course, that undermines the whole purpose of jurisdiction and having a recall Act.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Richmond Park has been struggling for four years to come up with a workable definition. The reality is that a failure to do so does not give us a pass to proceed without a definition. We are deeply concerned that these provisions would be open to vexatious challenges.

I am following what the hon. Gentleman is saying very carefully. He is right that nobody has managed to define wrongdoing. Does he not accept, however, that the two different amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and I have in their own way sought not to define wrongdoing but to exclude certain issues relating to freedom of expression, which we will come on to later? Rather than defining wrongdoing, we could make exceptions to what is clearly not wrongdoing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby will touch on that point and on points made by the right hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and others.

I want to make some progress. I have been on my feet for a significant period and perhaps longer than some of my colleagues would wish.

Without a clear definition or threshold to demonstrate wrongdoing, the amendments, however well intentioned, open the door to abuse. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park has admitted, he has provided no spending limits for his system, further raising the spectre, as we have heard, of US-style recall petitions. Those on the Labour Front Bench are clear. We support giving the public the right to recall their MP on the grounds of misconduct. We do not support recall on the grounds of how an MP votes. That would have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and limit the ability of MPs to represent their constituents effectively. We urge MPs to reject the amendments, because they do not provide robust safeguards. However, we recognise the diversity of opinion across the House and hope that our debate this afternoon might help us to find a way forward.

I would like the opportunity to put the record straight. I did not say that we had no financial controls attached to the amendments. On the contrary, we want all the controls in the petition stage to apply throughout the various stages in the Bill, so that the regulations provided by Government would be mirrored on the notice of intent to recall, on the recall petition and on the referendum itself. As I have also said, it is up to the hon. Gentleman and other Members to come forward with other ideas for further tightening the regulations to prevent abuse. I am sure that would meet the approval of the whole House.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I say very gently that he is seeking to amend the Government’s Bill and is then asking the Government to come up with suitable amendments to his amendments. That, I am afraid, is not how it works. Perhaps in a few months’ time he will be sitting on the Opposition Front Bench—we do not know what Boris will do—but he is not on the Front Bench at the moment. It is not for other people to come up with amendments that tidy up amendments tabled from the Back Benches.

The hon. Gentleman did take my name in vain and for the record I am very glad to be able to put him straight that I have never, ever knocked a helmet off anybody, much less a policeman. With respect, I think the arguments he is making are spurious. The amendments described by the hon. Member for Richmond Park are already in the Bill. Amendment 23 is also very helpful when it comes to regulating the amount of money we are talking about. Frankly, the idea that this is something cooked up by 38 Degrees is such an insulting suggestion. The hon. Member for Richmond Park and many more of us have been working on this issue for many, many years.

I hope the hon. Lady will accept that I did not mean to imply that she had knocked off a policeman’s helmet. On her main point, I must say that simply working on something for a long time does not in itself solve the problem. I have been working for some time on trimming down but have not made enough progress; that does not mean I should simply stop and say it has been accomplished.

These are not robust amendments, but we recognise the diversity of views and will urge the Government to work with parties across the House to find a way forward. In that spirit, I want to turn briefly to the amendments in the names, among others, of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), which have appeal because they enable a public trigger that is still based around wrongdoing. We want to listen carefully to the arguments tonight. In order to function properly, the proposals will need further refinement, but in principle we would be willing to consider the idea of an external body deciding whether the trigger level of misconduct had been reached, if we can make it work fairly, and we are willing to discuss the amendments in more detail with the signatories. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby will say more about that later, but we hope that the Government will reflect upon this matter carefully.

In conclusion, Labour believes that voters should have the power to recall their MP for wrongdoing, and we believe that our amendments would strengthen and improve the Bill, but we look forward to the debate and the Committee finding the best way forward.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I want to speak principally to the amendments in my name and those of other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been kind enough to add theirs—amendments 42, 43 and 44 and new clauses 6 and 7—but first I want to welcome the Bill, which delivers on a manifesto commitment from at least three of the parties represented in the House. The other parties must forgive me as I do not know whether it was in their manifestos.

The hon. Lady nods her head.

I am pleased that our commitment is finally being honoured. In government, I was frustrated at the time it took to get something before the House, and I think it is an open secret that I would have preferred it to have gone slightly further than the Bill before us, but nevertheless it is exactly in line with what those parties said they wanted and what they put to the people. I hope, therefore, that we can get away from this false dichotomy between a real recall Bill and a bogus recall Bill. This is not a bogus recall Bill, but it is one that could be strengthened, and that is exactly what we should be focusing on.

I think we might need to look at the constitution of the Standards Committee. As a former member of the old Standards and Privileges Committee, I think there is scope for changing the membership of the Standards Committee, although I would make one caveat about the voting rights of members. That point was covered in a Green Paper on privilege that I produced as Minister but which I do not think anybody read, apart from—possibly—the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. Either way, it was obviously minority reading, given that so many people since have commented from a position of sublime ignorance on the subject of privilege. Nevertheless, there are issues to consider and in principle I agree that we should reform the Committee.

We should not kid ourselves, however, that any Committee of the House will have the confidence of many members of the public. That is why I want a mechanism that provides the public with direct access to this process and which is not mediated by a custodial sentence or the decision of a Committee of the House. I am sorry but there is no way such a Committee could be seen as anything other than an old boys’ club. I winced slightly when I heard my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who is not in his place, refer to the capacity of the House to expel Members. This is not a gentlemen’s club. Can we please get away from the Victorian idea that we make the rules and deal with things? Our electorate has a right to be engaged in this process.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Standards Committee, whose lay members are denied a vote by the House, does nothing more than report to the Floor of the House? It is not a Committee that sits upstairs and comes to these decisions. The decision about whether somebody is guilty of misconduct—I have spent three years trying to find out exactly what that means—would be taken on an amendable report on the Floor of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but that does not alter the fact that the public will not believe that any mechanism mediated by MPs, either in Committee or on the Floor of the House, is not going to protect MPs. I do not think it a fair criticism, but that prejudice is now impossible to remove, so let us accept it.

I want to find a new way to give the public access to the recall process. As was clear from the exchanges between the hon. Member for Richmond Park and the Labour spokesman, we are talking about behaviour that our constituents cannot accept, rather than views with which they disagree. As I think he knows, I have a lot of sympathy with much of what the hon. Member for Richmond Park is trying to do, and I accept his point about 20% being a difficult level to achieve—somebody would really have to incense their constituents—but I do not accept that 5% would be difficult to achieve for a well-funded campaign or even a political opponent who has lost an election and wants an immediate rerun. He blithely says, “Of course, all Members would probably have a petition process against them”, but that is not a satisfactory position for Members to be in. If someone wants to do radical things in the House and represents a socially conservative constituency, they will face problems of this kind. It does not take much to get 3,500 people to say they do not support gay marriage or some other policy on which we have legislated. I want to concentrate, therefore, on genuine misconduct.

It could be the other way round—a social conservative could be attacked by more liberal constituents—but I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. I presume he is in favour of the amendments from me and my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) providing that no process could be started based on votes cast or speeches made here. Is he in favour of what we are trying to do?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the threat of recall would have an effect on MPs? In the United States, a lot of people who face a recall just resign. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) contended that the support of 50% plus one of voters would be required for a successful recall, but that is not the case; it would only require 50% plus one of those taking part in the referendum.

My hon. Friend just said that the threshold of 3,500 voters or 5% was low, and used the example of gay marriage as an issue on which a petition could easily be secured. Will he explain to the Committee how that would be so wrong for democracy? What would be so wrong for me, as the hon. Member for Bedford, to have to go back to my constituents under the threat of a potential recall because of something I had said in the House? I cannot understand what the problem with that would be.

The hon. Gentleman might take a different view, but my personal view is that the general election process is where these things are decided, not on a single issue, but on the performance of the Member and the plurality of views that are expressed. To have a form of Athenian democracy in this country, where we have constant voting and constant re-election, does not seem to—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell) is burbling from a sedentary position, but I do not think his party had anything about recall in its last manifesto, so perhaps he needs a further recall now, because if he votes for a recall provision this evening, he will be breaking his election pledge not to have one; I do not know.

Let us move on. I personally do not think that what the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) described is in the interests of the sort of representative democracy that we have always enjoyed in this country. However, I do think—I feel this very strongly and have argued it passionately, both before the election and since—that we need to find a way of capturing those examples of misconduct that are not necessarily caught by the criminal law and might not attract the attention of the Standards Committee, or, even if they do, where the public do not accept that as a mechanism.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the constant threat of recall, particularly for those in marginal seats, might be intimidating and lead parliamentarians to champion popularity over principle, which would corrupt the democracy in which we live?

I do think that is a recipe for “populism”—in the worst sense of the word—and that it is open to abuse. It is a naive view that it would not be abused by those with deep pockets and strongly held views. It would be, and I do not believe that is necessarily in the interests of parliamentary democracy as we understand it.

To return to misconduct, several Members have rightly said that it is difficult to define the misconduct that we are talking about, so I looked around for an objective test of whether somebody had behaved improperly. I found that in England there is such a test, which many Members will be familiar with. English and Welsh law has the common-law offence of misconduct in public office, which is often used against public officials—most commonly against police officers nowadays, but also against council officials or others in the public service, including occasionally civil servants. The offence is understood by the courts and has been in existence for a long time—since 1783: Rex v. Bembridge, if anyone wants to look up the start of the offence.

If it helps the Committee, I will give a simple definition. Actually, nothing is simple in this area, because it is open to interpretation, but the legal definition—the working definition for the moment—of the offence is where somebody

“wilfully misconducts himself to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder without reasonable excuse or justification”.

To an extent, therefore, it is a catch-all offence to deal with people who behave improperly. I felt that it might serve as an appropriate trigger for the public to have recourse to the system without having to go through the other mechanisms.

The right hon. Gentleman describes the offence as a catch-all, but the advice that I have had—I have sought advice on this—is that it is a catch-virtually-nothing-at-all. The Crown Prosecution Service has issued guidance saying that it should apply

“only where…the facts are so serious that the court’s sentencing powers would otherwise be inadequate”.

The House of Commons Library says:

“There are few prosecutions, suggesting that action is taken only when misconduct is particularly gross”.

And the courts have said:

“The threshold is a high one requiring conduct so far below acceptable standards as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder. A mistake, even a serious one, will not suffice”.

Is the right hon. Gentleman really adding anything at all to the Bill?

Yes, I think I am, for two reasons. First, I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has just said, because the offence is actually quite frequently used nowadays in the courts of England—we are talking about more than a dozen and towards 20 cases a year. In fact, there was one only last week, when a senior police officer was indicted for the offence. Secondly, the reason the offence is not used against Members of Parliament at the moment is, of course, the potential difficulties with the Bill of Rights—I need to move on to that, because that is one of the difficulties.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. He will of course know that the Bill as drafted extends to Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but his amendment extends only to England and Wales.

Oh, so it extends throughout the whole of the United Kingdom? It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman could confirm that and give some examples.

I will, but if I may, I will come back to that, because it is one of the major difficulties in the drafting.

This will be the last time. I am trying to get to the content of my amendments and I have not yet succeeded.

This is meant to be helpful. In the several cases of misconduct in public office that I have had to deal with, the charge has been used because, really, there was nothing else that would catch the offence that had been created by the public official. I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s argument; the problem is that there is very little in the way of proper precedent that tells us what the offence really means. It seems to me that that is a very bad basis for any law at all.

It is difficult, and as the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, the common law offence of misconduct in public office has been subject to scrutiny over recent years. Indeed, the Law Commission is studying it right at this moment to see whether it could be put on to a statutory basis, which might provide a better definition. Curiously enough, however, one of the attractions of the offence for this purpose is its lack of definition, because all I am trying to do is define the things that fall short of fraud, assault and battery or whatever, but that nevertheless clearly constitute improper behaviour in the conduct of a Member of Parliament.

What I am seeking to do is put the matter in the hands of the public, not MPs, so that there is a third trigger in the process. I am trying to ensure an objective test, which is applied in two ways. First, misconduct in public office is a recognisable offence. Notwithstanding what the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) said, it is one that the English courts understand—I will come back to the problem with the other jurisdictions in a moment. Then, using a court that is understood—the election court, which is established under the Representation of the People Act 1983, which provides for two High Court judges in England and Wales, two judges of the High Court of Northern Ireland or two judges of the Court of Session in Scotland—the matter would be assessed.

That would put Members of Parliament in the same position as other public servants, which is an important signal in itself. Notwithstanding the need for protection under the Bill of Rights, I do not see why we as Members of Parliament should not be in a different position from other public servants in other respects. I have also drafted my amendments so as to automatically provide a filter for claims that are trivial, vexatious or clearly simply party political in nature, rather than genuine claims of misconduct.

What are the difficulties with my proposal? There are two really big drafting difficulties that I encountered in trying to put it together. I think I am reasonably adept at drafting parliamentary amendments, but I have to say that these were significant problems. One problem is exactly the point that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made. We are talking about English common law and there is not a directly comparable offence of any kind in Scotland. I looked in vain for a common law offence in Scotland, and the nearest I could find was breach of duty, which is not the same as the common law offence in England. That is why there has to be a slightly, I would say, circumlocutory approach—perhaps that is not the right expression, but it is certainly complex—in that the courts would be asked to adjudicate on the offence as though it were committed in England, irrespective of where it was committed by the Member. I accept that that is a difficulty, and I would like better constitutional lawyers than I am to have a look and find a more elegant way of achieving the same objective.

It seems to me that there is another problem. The Crown Prosecution Service says clearly in its guidance on misconduct in public office:

“The suspect must not only be a ‘public officer’”—

not as straightforward to define as it seems—but that

“the misconduct must also occur when acting in that capacity.”

When does an MP act in the capacity of an MP except when proceeding in Parliament, which is the one thing that the hon. Gentleman wants to preclude?

That is another precise difficulty in the drafting that I foresaw. If the hon. Gentleman looked at my new clause—there are so many tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) that I cannot find it at the moment. [Interruption.] Yes, new clause 7, which states:

“The court may consider such conduct whether or not it is committed in England and Wales, and whether or not it is committed directly in carrying out the office of member of parliament.”

In other words, it deals with the Member of Parliament irrespective of that hazy definition of what the terms of contract of MPs are. I accept that this is a difficulty, however, and I do not want to pretend anything other than that these are difficult issues. I hope the Committee will accept that this is a genuine attempt to find a solution to a very difficult problem.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the struggle he has entered into. Let me provide him with this practical example that occurred in my constituency in the 1980s. Statements were made in this House that we considered to be of a racist nature, and we thought that they would have been prosecutable if they had been made outside this place. The individual, however, was covered by parliamentary privilege, so was not brought to book. He could only have been brought to book if there had been a right for the electorate to trigger a recall.

That is the other major drafting difficulty. I do not believe it would be right for me to put something before the Committee that accidentally repealed the Bill of Rights. I think the Bill of Rights provides important protection to Members. My proposals skate on the very edge of what counts as parliamentary privilege and what does not. If the words had been uttered here, they would not be covered by the recall procedure, but I do not think they should be covered by that procedure rather than by having a general election. That is my answer.

What mechanism am I proposing? It is for 100 electors from the constituency—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Amess.

I am proposing that 100 constituents—I deliberately kept the number low—can petition and make a claim of misconduct to an electoral court. That election court will then receive submissions relating to that claim or petition and will receive any rebuttal from the Member of Parliament concerned. The court will be asked not to find guilt—that would provide the difficulty over the clash with the Bill of Rights—but rather to certify that a prima facie case of misconduct has been made. The recall process would be triggered and it would then be for the electorate to decide. The jury would be, as was said earlier, the electorate, and they would decide whether they felt that the case was sufficiently proven and that they would no longer be prepared to accept the individual as their Member of Parliament. The recall process would then proceed.

Is my new clause a perfectly formed amending provision? I do not believe it is because of the very serious drafting issues I have mentioned. If, however, the Committee’s view is that misconduct should be captured, but thought and speech should not be captured, my new clause provides a potential mechanism for doing so. I hope to hear from the two Front-Bench teams—to be fair to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, I have partially heard it already—that they are prepared to take the provisions away, talk to people much more learned in the law than I could be as a layman, try to provide a workable mechanism and then lay the proposals before the House on Report. It is essential to crack this nut of public access to the system. That is what I want to achieve. I will support the Bill irrespective of whether it contains a further trigger, but I would very much like to see a mechanism that gives the general public access to something that is currently exclusively the preserve of this House if not through custodial sentencing.

Before he concludes, I would like the hon. Gentleman to address two issues that can be seen in the central turmoil of the debate. The first is the trigger of 100 people. That is not a large number to get together, raising the risk of continuous vexatious references. How would he overcome that problem? Secondly, when the outcome is a finding against the Member by the electoral court, is that a 10% test, as in the Government’s proposals, or a full referendum test as suggested in the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith)?

The first point is explicitly covered in new clause 7(6), which states:

“If the court considers, on the basis of such evidence, that the allegation of misconduct is—(a) not supported by the evidence; or (b) trivial or vexatious in nature; or (c) brought for party political purposes; then the court must dismiss the petition.”

That is the filter that prevents people from bringing vexatious charges time and time again. In extremis, of course, the courts have the power to award costs if they feel that the same allegations are being brought forward again and again inappropriately.

On the second point about the threshold, my proposal is that this should act as a further trigger to the Government’s proposed mechanism. I am perfectly open, however, to discussion over whether a better and more appropriate threshold could be applied—both in terms of the original complaint and of the petition process. I do not have strong opinions on this; I would like to talk to others and see if a consensus could be reached.

Would the decision of the election court be challengeable? In other words, if someone were found to have been involved in misconduct, could they appeal against it, bringing an element of fairness into the procedure?

My new clause is constructed in such a way that there would not be an appeal process because the court would not find on matters of guilt. It would find only on the prima facie case in the same way as a magistrates court when it sends an offence for trial at a higher forum. The electorate of the constituency are the court of appeal as well as the court of indictment, which seems to me appropriate.

One of my points was half-addressed earlier when the hon. Gentleman suggested that one of his arguments against the notice of intent to recall, which we are proposing, is that it would be awkward and inconvenient for MPs to have this bubbling away. However, the same arguments apply even more so to the fact that only 100 people could get headlines in the local papers such as “Misconduct Charges brought upon MP”—even if the attempt was vexatious. There is more room for that sort of mischief in the hon. Gentleman’s proposals than there are in my amendments. However, I have a question for him about the “gross dereliction of duty” in his new clause 7. How is it possible to find an MP guilty of gross dereliction of duty when there is no job description? Would this apply to an MP who refused to come here to engage, debate and vote, as is the case with some parties?

If a Member of Parliament is elected and fails to carry out even the basic duties of a Member of Parliament, that Member of Parliament will, in my subjective view, be guilty of a dereliction of duty. If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the number of Irish constituencies represented by Members who have not taken their seats, I think, judging by the electoral history, that a recall procedure would be unlikely to succeed in the long run, simply because people would elect those Members again in the full knowledge that they would not take their seats.

There was a famous Member of Parliament who decided to go and run a pub in Northern Ireland, and did not attend the House of Commons for a very long time. I think that he was eventually persuaded to do so by inducements offered by the then Government, who were rather short of voting power at the time. It may be that his constituents were perfectly content with that position, but I think that it should at least have been argued that he was failing in his duties to the electorate and to the House.

I intervene merely to seek more information. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the scale of the costs of the election court is likely to be, and who he expects to meet them?

So many Members have now referred to me as a member of the Privy Council that I think I must have received that status by acclamation. Will someone please tell the Deputy Prime Minister that I obviously behave as though I were a member of that august club, although I am not?

I assure the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife that the arrangements would be identical to those that currently govern election courts and election petitions. However, if someone were clearly initiating vexatious proceedings, as is the case with the present election courts, the court could, if it wished, award costs against the petitioner, and might well do so if it felt that the process was being abused.

I hope that I have answered all the questions that have been asked. I am sorry to have spoken at such great length, Mr Amess, but I have done so mainly in response to interventions, which seems to be par for the course this evening. Let me end by saying that I think that my new clause is objective, and that it fulfils some of what Members on both sides of the Committee want to achieve. I do not claim that the drafting is perfect and cannot be improved, but I hope that the new clause will begin a process of discussion which may reach a conclusion allowing for many of the things that the hon. Member for Richmond Park and some of his supporters want to see achieved without opening the door to what some people equally adamantly do not want to see achieved, which is Members of Parliament being in constant fear of recall on the basis that they have voted to the displeasure of someone very rich in their constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess.

I support recall, as outlined in the Bill, for serious misdemeanours. Those of us who were in the House at the time of the expenses scandal knew that things had to change, and, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), the proposal on which we are being called to vote today was in our manifesto.

I shall oppose the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), and, although I know it is a dangerous thing to do, I shall support those tabled by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). This must be the first and only time I have agreed with him about anything. I also want to say something about the attempt by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) to find a middle way.

The Bill has been publicised as though it constituted a method of giving the electorate more of a say. It has been suggested that anyone who speaks against it does not trust the voters, and is somehow less of a politician because he or she is afraid to stand for election. It is a bit like being accused of being a witch. Well, each and every one of us has the guts to stand in every election, and to put our record before our voters. I have always said that the one thing that distinguishes all those who stand for election to Parliament or a local council, or for any other elected office, is that they have the courage of their convictions, the courage to stand before their peers and ask for their trust. We should recognise that, because it is an important principle.

I think that we may have given too much away to the unelected quango state and the like. We seem to have believed that if we fill organisations with independent people who have no political influence at all—I do not know whether they are born or develop—there will be better decisions. I am a great big believer in the importance of elected office. I think that it is something of which we should be proud, and for which we should argue forcefully as parliamentarians and other elected office holders.

The Bill is strange in that it has united UKIP with the far left in the belief that it somehow represents a radical way forward. I do not think that it does. I think that it is very dangerous. It does not empower voters, and it will undermine the democracy that we in this country take for granted.

The effects of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park would be very simple. The amendments remove the notion that someone must be recalled on grounds of imprisonment or suspension, and allows the recall of Members for any reason. I think that this the first time I have ever heard a Member present the argument that his proposals will never actually be used. The hon. Gentleman said that it would be very difficult, and that the barriers were very high. Why put such a proposal on the statute book? Is it conning the electorate to give them something that is so difficult to achieve? Is the hon. Gentleman being dishonest with the people who he suggests will be empowered ?

Let me put the record straight. That is not what I said at all. I have never described the hurdle as impossible. I have said that it is a difficult hurdle—a deliberately difficult hurdle—which is high enough to prevent vexatious abuse, but low enough to be surmounted. Amendment 1 is deliberately designed in that way. It is nonsense to pretend that we are creating an impossible hurdle: I never said anything of the sort.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what he said a moment ago. I did take notes. He said that it would be very difficult, and that the barriers would be very high. During our debate on Tuesday, he said:

“I know…Members worry that recall might somehow turn us into delegates and no longer representatives…but that is not realistic. Voters care about a wide range of issues”.—[Official Report, 21 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 796.]

The hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the process would be difficult for some reason, but it will not be difficult. He and those who are backing him are implying that people will not be “picked off” because of the way in which they vote, which is complete nonsense.

In a speech that he made the other day, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) gave the very good example of his predecessor Lena Jeger, who had argued strongly for abortion reform although her constituency was largely Catholic. Given the thresholds in the Bill, I think that it would have been easy for her to be recalled. Let me give another example. I do not think that the hon. Member for Richmond Park was here when she was in the House, but there was a very courageous Labour Member of Parliament called Ann Cryer, who represented Keighley. In the face of a great many personal threats and a great deal of local hostility, she argued against forced marriages and highlighted the issue of birth defects in the Asian community. She was also one of the first people to talk about issues that have now gained popularity—trafficking and the abuse of white girls in Keighley. She was very unpopular in the constituency.

Is the hon. Gentleman trying to tell me that somehow the Asian community in that constituency, or at least part of it, could not have put Ann Cryer under pressure by means of recall? I do not think that that would have been the case. She would have come under huge pressure. She received death threats on occasion as a result of some of the things that she said, and many of the things that she said were proved to be correct. Courageous people such as Ann Cryer should be free to speak out although large sections of their constituencies consider what they are saying to be wrong, or disagree with them. I think, knowing Ann, that had this measure existed, she would have acted in the same way, but she would have come under a great deal of pressure to temper her views.

I do not remember Lena Jeger, but I think I am right in saying that in each of her successive elections her majority increased despite her stance on abortion. I believe that the same was true of Ann Cryer, whom I remember well—and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that she was courageous.

I will come on to that in a minute, because we have to look at the process of what is before us. There is this idea that somehow a Member of Parliament is not going to be affected by recall, despite the pressure they are going to come under, and that they will keep speaking out. I do not think that is the case. We only have to look to the examples in the United States to realise that.

My hon. Friend will know that I was formerly the MP for the marginal seat of Croydon Central and that I lost it. At one point I stood up to defend the rights of my constituent Feroz Abbasi in Guantanamo Bay, saying he should face a proper trial and have proper treatment. There might have been further pressures on me other than the marginality of my seat in that regard, as I might have been facing the possibility of recall by a vociferous minority of UKIPians or others who might have asked why I was talking about what they might assume to be terrorists—as opposed to innocent constituents. If I had come under such pressure, I hope I would still have acted according to principle rather than popularity, but it is intrinsic in what is said in respect of the proposals of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) that this corrupts those who want to stand for principle over popularity.

I just wonder whether we might bear in mind Sidney Silverman and David Steel, who both courageously advanced causes that were considered to be very unpopular at the time. They both represented marginal seats, and I would argue that they kept their seats because they were prepared to say uncomfortable things.

I have no doubt that what my hon. Friend says is correct, but I will explain in a minute why they would not have kept their seats if there had been recall, because a small and vociferous minority could have removed them.

No, as I want to make some progress first. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Richmond Park says “Absurd” from a sedentary position. He has had enough of a say, talking, I have to say, in some cases complete rubbish. He now has to sit there and listen to me.

In the debate on 21 October the hon. Gentleman, in trying to demonstrate that somehow his Bill would never be used, said:

“I know that other hon. Members worry that recall might somehow turn us into delegates and no longer representatives…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.”

I said from a sedentary position, “Gun control.” He then said,

“There are no examples of that.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 796.]

Well, I will turn to an example in a minute.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but the frustration many of us in the Chamber are feeling is that he says on the one hand that a vociferous minority can remove an MP via recall, whereas it is a four stage process that precisely requires a majority in order to remove someone, so that is clearly not the case.

I am not going to answer that point now, but I will answer it in a minute, and the hon. Lady is wrong in saying that the majority of the electorate in a constituency have to vote for this.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said earlier that the threshold would be so high it would be very difficult for vexatious claims to be made. Why does he not separate that in the Bill? Why does he not drop that—completely separate it—if he does not intend that?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Like a lot of other things the hon. Gentleman says, he has not actually thought about that in practice. The problem I have with the word “vexatious” is that somebody such as Ann Cryer might come under such a recall Bill, given what she was arguing for, and it could be argued that the people arguing against her were not being vexatious but were arguing against a clear, important role that she was performing.

It is said that somehow the use of this recall would be almost unique. The hon. Gentleman used examples from the United States, saying there had only been 40 such occasions. He is completely wrong. If we look at state level in the United States, in 2011 there were at least 150 recalls. Of these, 75 officials were recalled and nine officials resigned under recall. In the state of Michigan alone there were 30 recalls. So we have two things. First, there is the pressure of recall on individuals who then resign before they get to that process, which would happen under this proposal—I am not suggesting some people would not be tenacious, but some might fall by the wayside before that. The hon. Member for Richmond Park also says the electorate look at issues rather than just one issue. In the United States, we only need look at the example in Colorado in 2013 where two state Senators—John Morse and Angela Giron—both voted for tighter gun control. It was certainly not tight gun control as we would understand it in this country. They asked for two things: more ID checks on the purchase of firearms, and legislation to limit people to buying 15 rounds of ammunition. They were both recalled. The right-wing National Rifle Association along with the Koch brothers and their Tea party fanatics piled in something over half a million pounds for that recall election. The Senators lost it and they were then replaced by two very right-wing Republican state Senators.

I say to the idea that somehow this will be free from the influence of big money that it will not be. The hon. Gentleman has not even thought about limits in terms of what could be spent on the elections. If we look at what happens in the United States, we see that in some states as soon as someone loses an election, money goes in to destabilise certain state legislators. Before recall, big money is spent, so being able to control that would be very difficult.

The question of what these limits are is important. What does recall mean to a person of limited means when they are up against big money?

Exactly, and I made that point last week. If I had the £250 million or £300 million the hon. Member for Richmond Park has, I would not have to worry. [Interruption.] Well, I am sorry, but it is a matter of fact. [Interruption.] Of family history, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) says. If someone has that amount of money, it influences the way in which they can conduct recall elections. If I had that amount of cash, I do not think I would be bothered even if I lost it.

I am going to answer the hon. Lady’s point if she is patient.

On the hon. Lady’s point about the electorate, the hon. Member for Richmond Park said it is necessary to have 51% of the electorate. No, it is not. In Colorado the recall election had a turnout of 36%, and under what is being proposed by the hon. Gentleman and his supporters it is only necessary to have 51% of the turnout. A small number of people might turn out, and a huge swathe of people in a constituency who might have strong views on other issues but not the issue in question might not be mobilised and might not vote. So to the idea that somehow this would be democratic, I say there could be a situation where there was a 60%, 65% or 70% turnout at a general election, and then a much lower turnout for a recall election—as low as 10% if police and crime commissioner elections are anything to go by—could determine the future of that Member of Parliament. It would take a very strong individual then to stand up before the electorate after the damage done in that process, because we all know what would happen with that individual.

The idea that somehow large numbers of people would give power to the mass of people is therefore complete nonsense. In the United States this gives power to large numbers of small groups of well-organised individuals. People should google the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council—which is actually the libertarian wing of the Tea party and is where this proposal is coming from. I think this is very dangerous for progressive politics both in the United States and this country.

Is my hon. Friend aware that I received an e-mail a few days ago from the British equivalent of the Tea party: the front organisation of the right wing of the Conservative party, the TaxPayers Alliance, which is supporting these proposals?

That does not surprise me.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park has not even thought about finance and spending limits for recall, or about the work that would be done to undermine someone in the lead-up to it.

My hon. Friend began by saying that he supports recall as set out in the Government’s Bill. However, surely it provides that, on the basis of either of the triggers, a petition of simply 10% of the electorate can take a Member out completely, regardless of what the other 90% say. How can we give any weight to his argument about democracy, given that he supports 10% being able to oust a Member straight away?

I must say that I do have problems with that system, but I also know that under it, at least we are talking about someone who has been found guilty of some wrongdoing. If the amendment were accepted, as in the United States, a small number of well financed people would be able to go after certain individuals.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park referred to a figure of £35,000 for a recall election. The recent recall election in Wisconsin cost $35 million. The idea that several recall election referendums around the country could be done on the cheap is fanciful, to say the least.

Has my hon. Friend read the Government’s impact assessment, which says that, even under their proposals, the likely cost of recall and by-election is £300,000-plus? Does he agree that it is slightly ironic that, under the amendment of the hon. Member for Richmond Park, the TaxPayers Alliance is proposing a free-for-all that could quickly rack up millions of pounds of spending?

That is the flaw in the argument, and it is clear that the proposer of the amendment has not even thought about that cost element.

There is a cost involved in democracy, and I support paying that cost. However, we have general elections, at which people can indicate whom they want to represent them. I have no truck with the argument that the hon. Member for Richmond Park and his supporters are advancing that somehow the system is broken. Time and again, the phrase “Westminster establishment” is used. He may well be a member of an establishment; I am not, and nor are most Members of this House.

In a minute. Most Members of Parliament do their best for their constituencies. The situation now is very different from the days when Members never lived in their constituencies or went anywhere near them. In the light of developments such as electronic media, MPs are more accountable to their constituents than ever. I want to knock on the head the idea that we come to Parliament, sit on these green Benches and never give a thought to the opinions of our constituents, and do not talk to them daily.

My hon. Friend said that in his view, there is no such thing as a Westminster establishment. Does he agree with me that there is also no such thing as a Westminster class? Those of us who live in the real world know what class politics is really all about.

I agree. I would not consider myself to be in the same class as the hon. Member for Richmond Park, for example. The fact is—[Interruption.] I am not antagonising my constituents, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) says from a sedentary position. Most Members of Parliament get elected to try to do the best for their constituencies, and it is insulting to say they do not. I may disagree politically with other Members of this House—of all shades—but the majority are in politics not only to do what they can to help their constituents, but to make the world a better place as they see it. The same was true of my time in local government; I think I met only one or two rogues—who were perhaps in politics for different reasons—when I was a councillor. It is a bit patronising for people to dismiss that point.

We must get back to recognising that standing for elected office is a noble thing that people should strive for, not just in this place but in councils and elsewhere. I respect anyone who has the guts to stand for election. Many commentators criticise what MPs do, but if they were asked if they would stand for election and be subject to such scrutiny not only at election time but throughout the life of a Parliament, not many would say yes. We must recognise the value of standing for elected office.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and the whole House will appreciate the compliment he has just paid to Members. However, if he is afraid that this extension of democracy will result in the supplanting of socialist Members with libertarian ones, why does he not just propose spending limits?

The hon. Gentleman is talking complete nonsense. The idea that the Bill is an extension of democracy to the average elector is complete rubbish. It will limit what we in this House can do, and put control of the agenda in the hands of well financed individuals. Yes, I trust my electors: that is why I keep on standing for election and do monthly constituency surgeries to listen to what they have to say. That is why I attend public meetings and speak to my electors when I go to get the Sunday newspaper, for example. We need to dispel the nonsensical idea that Members of Parliament do not speak to their electorate; these days, very few would even get elected if they took that approach.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that in my patch, Swansea, there was a bid by a big financial organisation to have motorbike riding on the beach. It was heralded in the press as a very popular idea, but I spoke out against it, saying that it would do enormous environmental damage, encourage hooliganism and so on. Let us say that the financial forces behind that proposition coalesced behind the popular view—those who wanted a motorbike riding free-for-all—and I was threatened with recall. That would be another example of how this proposal would intimidate democracy and those of us who stand up for principle over popularity.

Not yet. There is a convention in this House that we have to answer an intervention before allowing another one.

My hon. Friend makes a good point from a sedentary position.

There are occasions—I gave the example earlier of Ann Cryer—when Members take positions that are at odds with certain sections of their constituents, but that is the beauty of Parliament. It is about being able to argue not just on our constituents’ behalf, but for the progressive changes and legislation that, if we had recall, I doubt would have been delivered. That is why I find it very odd that people who are supposedly on the left support this type of recall—

As my hon. Friend says, it is a rich man’s charter to pick off anyone who has views at odds with their own.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said earlier that the Colorado state legislators were recalled over gun issues, arguing that the Koch brothers had put millions of dollars into that campaign. In fact, the spending by those calling for the recall was exceeded fourteenfold by those arguing against it. Yes, big money is involved, but I think the hon. Gentleman has got the maths wrong. That aside, our proposals would have very strong limits on funding and, as I and colleagues have said, we would welcome even further controls, so his arguments are just nonsense.

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot argue for his proposal and then say, following my raising the issue the other day, that if someone else wants to bring in spending limits, they can. He should have thought this through. He knows exactly what he is doing: this proposal will give powerful individuals with deep pockets a big influence over how our democracy is conducted. I am sorry, but I do not agree with that. It is wrong. The supporters of this proposal are saying, “Are you afraid of your electors? Are you going to give ordinary electors a say?” That is not what the proposal will do. It will give well organised, well financed individuals a lot of say over who sits on these green Benches.

I do not think that money should determine that or, as my hon. Friend says, how Members behave. People should be elected on a broad range of issues, and it is for the electorate to determine subsequently whether they are re-elected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) says that he is proposing strong financial controls, but his amendment 23 would provide only that Ministers should have the power to apply controls on spending to the notice of intent and recall referendum processes. He does not say what the controls or the financial limits might be. Indeed, the limit during the recall petition period for which the Bill provides is £10,000 per accredited campaigner, but there is no limit on the number of accredited campaigners.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman raises that point because in the United States, to get round any spending limits, a plethora of organisations will be set up to force a recall, meaning that they can carry out vigorous and targeted campaigning. We should remember that such recall would not be like the general election, with 650 contests being fought, because resources could be concentrated on one single constituency, meaning that big money would influence the outcome.

My hon. Friend is being most generous by giving way again as I know that he wants to get towards the end of his speech. On spending limits, is he aware that the Scottish National party ran a series of front organisations during the referendum in Scotland so that they could each spend to the £1.5 million limit? Does he agree that one of the great concerns about the proposal of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) is that it could give rise to co-ordinated attack after attack from organisation after organisation?

We all know that organisations get around election limits—we need only to look at the last election in Richmond Park and the activities of its MP—so it would be difficult to control the amount being spent. In the United States, seats are targeted well in advance so that once an election is lost, money goes in to undermine an individual.

Implementing the power to recall for any reason whatsoever would be not an advancement of democracy in this country; it would be a retrograde step. It is suggested that the power would be rarely used, but people would work out clear ways to use it and how to finance the process. I therefore ask the Committee to oppose the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park.

The hon. Gentleman’s proposals would not give the ordinary elector any more power, but would benefit those who want to drive through a political agenda. There are those on the left of my party who think that the process would somehow empower individuals and represent a radical statement, but that is not the case. Under the proposals, progressive legislation would be killed in the House, as views that people passionately believed in and courageously set out—such views may later become the norm in the nation—would be killed not following proper debates and votes in the House, but because someone could finance a recall election that would either put such an individual under pressure to be quiet, or actually force them out.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) has given you some timekeeping assistance through his suggestions, and I shall try not to fall foul of that.

As the group includes many amendments and new clauses, I shall say something about the overall choice facing the Committee that is embodied by the measures, before giving the Government’s assessment of each, which I hope will help the Committee. If there is time, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), will make a speech at the end of the debate, so colleagues who speak after me will have an opportunity to hear a reaction to their remarks.

As I explained on Second Reading, the Bill has had a difficult history. Some people are against it—and indeed against anything that introduces a system for recalling MPs. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee concluded of the draft Bill:

“We do not believe that there is a gap in the House’s disciplinary procedures which needs to be filled by the introduction of recall.”

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) made a similar point. Others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), believe that we should adopt an entirely different model of recall: one that is not triggered by proven misconduct, but can instead be initiated by a petition of the electorate for any reason at any time.

That disagreement could lead one to suppose that the Government’s Bill is just another contribution to a debate without consensus, and that it has no greater or lesser significance than any other approach, but that would not be right. The Bill is fundamentally different from the approach of no recall, or that of recall for any reason at any time, although I hesitate to tease my hon. Friend by referring to that as the Martini recall—any time, any place, anywhere. The Bill as drafted implements completely and faithfully the promises that the main parties made in their manifestos at the general election. The Conservative manifesto promised that

“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.”

The Labour manifesto said:

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

The Lib Dem manifesto said:

“We would introduce a recall system so that constituents could force a by-election for any MP found responsible for serious wrongdoing.”

The coalition agreement reflected those positions.

As drafted, the Bill would cause a recall petition to be triggered if an MP was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of up to a year or a suspended sentence of any length—hon. Members will know that disqualification is already automatic following immediate imprisonment of more than a year—or, in other words, if serious wrongdoing was proved; or if an MP was suspended by the House for at least 21 sitting days, or 28 continuous days, which again would indicate proven serious wrongdoing. Members will of course consider carefully all the amendments that have been tabled, but it is only reasonable to observe that both other views, whatever their merits, do not implement the particular commitments that all parties made to the electorate at the previous election.

I am grateful to the Minister for how he is presenting his argument as, ironically enough, debates in the House are often most fractious when there is the smallest difference between people. However, I suggest that the flaw in his argument is his reliance on the words “misconduct” and “wrongdoing” which, under the Bill, will be determined only by MPs. That is the problem for many members of the public, as they would like to be able to decide what constitutes wrongdoing and misconduct.

The hon. Gentleman expresses his reasonable and important point well. As I said on Second Reading, I do not take the view that the Bill cannot be strengthened. One thing we can conclude from the Second Reading debate is that we will want to reflect, in Committee and during the Bill’s later stages, on the public’s involvement. The Bill can be improved and clarified, and I repeat my personal assurance that the Government will be open to reflecting improvements in the Bill during its passage.

Amendment 42, a cross-party amendment that was ably spoken to by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath)—although he is my hon. Friend, he has the demeanour of a right hon. Member—proposes a constituent-led trigger for recall, albeit one based on misconduct. That important suggestion has much to commend it, so I will reflect carefully on the amendment. Similarly, the Opposition have suggested making the trigger more sensitive and sending the clear message that the criminal abuse of the parliamentary expenses system should trigger recall, and I appreciated the spirit in which the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife spoke to those proposals. While my colleagues and I will vote to maintain the balance that the Bill as drafted strikes, and for a faithful adherence to the manifesto on which we stood, it might well be possible for us to support changes on Report. That demeanour is an appropriate response to today’s proceedings and last week’s Second Reading debate, given that no overwhelming case has been made at this stage for sending the Bill back to the drawing board and starting again.

Would the Minister like to go a little further and indicate whether he is prepared to have genuine cross-party talks to see whether it is possible to establish a consensus?

Well, I think that we are having them now in Committee; the parties are approaching a serious subject and seeking to strengthen the Bill. Of course, those talks can also take place between now and further occasions when the Bill is debated. The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point.

My right hon. Friend is handling this in his characteristically rational way, but he made one comment that I really cannot leave unchallenged. He said that the Bill is progressing without any serious assault on its central tenet. Its central tenet is that for a wide range of offences, which under the current criteria would include the expulsion of the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) for impugning another Member of this House—not a financial or criminal offence—Members could be cast to a jury in which effectively one member, or 10%, could vote and find them guilty. In other words, 90% of a Member’s constituents could think that they should stay and 10% could think that they should go, and on that basis, under the Government’s proposals, the Member would be thrown out.

I learnt to take a rational approach during my many happy years working with my right hon. Friend, so he will forgive me if I apply it here. I will move on to talk about the point he makes later. Suffice it to say that if the figure of 10% was reached, that would trigger a by-election in which the Member could of course stand. I know that he has personal experience of doing that. Indeed, I campaigned for his successful re-election.

Let me reflect on some of the concerns raised on Second Reading that are germane—you will be relieved to hear, Mr Amess—to the amendments before us. Members were concerned that a process that allowed recall for any reason could be put to vexatious use in a number of different respects. First, it could be used to hound someone out of office because of honestly held and sincerely expressed views. Secondly, it could be used to wage a war of attrition, with recall petition after recall petition being opened by just 5% of the electorate who have conceived a grievance against a sitting MP. Thirdly, it could be used for limitless expenditure on propaganda intended to destabilise an MP, by vested interests that the MP might be brave in confronting, well before any spending limits for an actual recall petition kicked in.

We have heard the word “vexatious” used a lot in this debate, but people with strongly held views on abortion, for example, are not vexatious. I am not suggesting that the Minister is saying that, but I think that we need to differentiate between vexatious silliness and people having strongly held personal beliefs that might be at odds with certain groups within their constituencies.

The right hon. Gentleman—everyone who has contributed today seems to be right hon. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course Parliament, and election to it, should be the subject of significant debate on issues of contention; that is the purpose of Parliament, and of standing for election. Therefore, it is not right to assume that any challenge to an MP would be, in and of itself, vexatious—quite the opposite—but at times it might be possible for people with less high-minded motives to take that approach.

Let me briefly address the principal amendments and new clauses in this group. Amendment 1 and new clause 1, tabled and spoken to by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park, would delete the two conduct-related triggers for the recall of an MP and replace them with a system of petition-based recall for any reason, to be initiated by 5% of the electorate signing a notice of intent to recall. That would trigger an official recall petition that, if signed by 20% of the electorate within eight weeks, would lead to a recall referendum. If the majority of those voting in that referendum voted for recall, the seat would be vacated and a by-election called. There is nothing to stop repeated, or even parallel, notice of recall petitions being lodged, all with attendant publicity and each requiring only 5% of the electorate to sign, meaning that an MP could suffer a prolonged bombardment of negative publicity in that way.

The Minister said on Second Reading that he thought that the Bill needed to be improved and that there could be amendments. If not these, does he have in mind some Government amendments to deal with some of the issues about democracy?

I do, and if my right hon. Friend—I know him to be right hon.—is patient, I will make those suggestions later.

New clause 2 is operable only if amendment 1 and new clause 1 are passed. It provides for a 200-word statement by the promoter of the recall petition, and a reply by the defending MP, to be included in the petition. Let me say something about some of the flaws in that understandable provision. The notice of intent to recall could contain accusations that are unfounded or unproven. Although the MP would of course have the right to reply, the inclusion of an unfair and unfounded statement on an official communication to every elector would almost certainly damage their reputation, particularly as the petition officer has a duty to send the statement to everyone on the electoral roll. Indeed, the statement could be positively libellous, and although the MP could seek damages though the courts, the injury to their reputation would be difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

Whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) included in clause 9 of his Recall of Elected Representatives Bill a provision whereby any process would be stayed where there was an indictment on a chargeable offence, that has not been included in the amendments before us today. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is another flaw in the amendments? Clearly a notice of intent could include statements that would be prejudicial to a police investigation, as well as potentially very libellous and unfounded. My right hon. Friend has not yet noted this—I am sure that he has read it—but in those circumstances the Member would be given two working days in which to frame a reply to the statement of reasons.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He points to some other flaws in the amendment, which in itself is designed to be sensible and constructive, as having a statement and a rebuttal is clearly sensible.

Let me turn to the amendments tabled by a group of colleagues on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), the hon. Members for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith). I have a great deal of sympathy with the thinking behind the amendments, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome set out comprehensively. They would give the public a role, which some have felt has been missing, in initiating recall, and provide an answer to the charge that one flaw of the Bill is that it is about MPs marking their own homework. Those are two themes that emerged on Second Reading. In line with our manifesto commitments, and with the views of many Members who spoke on Second Reading, and indeed today, the important point about the amendments is that they would keep the recall process focused on misconduct, which I think is the advantage of the approach he has set out.

The amendments propose that where misconduct in public office is alleged, electors in a constituency would be able to start a petition to initiate a recall process. They would require 100 electors to support the petition before it could be presented to an election court. I do not need to labour the point—my hon. Friend mentioned it—that this is a suggested way forward that clearly raises important legal drafting requirements, so I do not think that it will be possible at this stage to commit to endorsing them. But I think that he has proposed an important avenue and the possibility of a third trigger that is linked to an initiative of the public, which is valuable.

With regard to some of the difficulties, there is a widening of the definition of misconduct to include “gross dereliction of duty”. As others have said, that would require some understanding of what that might embrace.

In relation to the possibility of the Government looking at a third trigger relating to misconduct in public office and the question whether that applies equally to Northern Ireland and Scotland and to England and Wales, may I say ever so gently to the Minister that issues such as parading, stopping parading, flying flags and not flying flags can be criminal offences in Northern Ireland, and public representatives may become involved in them, so drafting this provision carefully in relation to Northern Ireland will take some time?

We will attend to the points that the hon. Lady makes. They apply perhaps with even more force to the possibility of a recall in Northern Ireland being triggered initially by 5% of the electorate, for any reason. In relation to the arrangements in Northern Ireland, we have taken care not to cause repeated debate and contention when that would be against the interests of democracy in the Province. Nevertheless, I will reflect on her words.

May I take the Minister to task about his comments on new clause 2, which stands in my name? He suggested that there is almost a greater likelihood of libellous statements being put on the statement of reasons than on anything else. In an election process, many pieces of paper are put into the public domain, and they are properly scrutinised. I do not believe that anybody who puts out something that is potentially libellous will not feel the full force of the law. The duty of care remains, come what may, and this document is no more susceptible to a problem than any election leaflet.

My hon. Friend takes me to task in a very gentle way. It may be true that election leaflets may contain statements that are contentious to the point of being alleged to be untruthful, but a statement that is supplied by the returning officer to every elector may be viewed as having official authority, whereas the leaflets that we produce at election time, whatever our intentions, may be discounted to a greater extent, if I may put it that way.

But the Post Office delivers our election addresses to every single household, and that gives them some standing: they are not just pieces of marketing.