[2nd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Mrs Eleanor Laing in the Chair]
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.
Amendment 38, in clause 7, page 5, line 27, leave out “maximum” and insert “minimum”
This amendment changes the number of designated places for the signing of a recall petition from a maximum of four to a minimum of four.
Clauses 7 to 10 stand part.
That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.
Clauses 11 to 13 stand part.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mrs Laing. For some reason, I suspect that today’s debate in Committee will be less excitable than Second Reading or the first day of Committee.
The clauses and schedules in this group set out the process by which constituents can sign a recall petition, who is eligible to sign the petition and where the responsibility for running the process rests. I will summarise the effect of the provisions and address amendment 38, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), when I describe clause 7.
Clause 6 provides that every constituency in the United Kingdom will have a petition officer and that the role will be fulfilled by the person who usually runs UK parliamentary elections in the constituency.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early on. He will know that in Northern Ireland, the chief electoral officer has huge responsibilities because we have Assembly elections and local council elections. Will any additional resources be given to the chief electoral officer and his staff so that he can be the petition officer under the Bill?
Yes, it will be up to the local authority to provide additional staff to help the electoral officer fulfil their duties with regard to petitions. Petitions will be funded centrally through the Consolidated Fund, so returning officers will get the resources that they need to perform their role. We focus on the returning officer in that context because they have experience of running elections, and we believe that they have the necessary skills and experience to run the petition process.
Clause 6 gives effect to schedule 1, which sets out the general duty of the petition officer in the conduct of the recall petition. It empowers them to appoint deputies, delegate their responsibilities, and claim expenses for running the petition.
Clause 7 sets out the steps that a petition officer for a constituency must take on receiving the Speaker’s notice issued under clause 5. The petition officer must, as soon as reasonably practicable, designate
“a place, or places, at which a recall petition is to be made available for signing”
by constituents. They must designate
“the 10th working day after the day on which the officer received the Speaker’s notice”
as the first day on which the petition is open to be signed, unless that day is not practicable. In that case, it may be sensible to defer proceedings to the next day. The clause also requires the petition officer to make the petition available for signing in a maximum of four places, ensuring that venues selected have “reasonable facilities” for signing the petition, and are accessible to people with disabilities
“so far as is reasonable and practicable”.
Amendment 38 would make it a requirement for the petition officer to select a “minimum” of four places where the petition can be signed, and no maximum would be set on the number of places that could be selected. I can see the good intention behind the amendment, which is to ensure that the process is as accessible as possible. However, I reassure hon. Members that the Government have tried to address that concern, by accepting a recommendation from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee made during pre-legislative scrutiny that the number of signing places be increased from one to a maximum of four. Introducing a minimum requirement of four signing places and not setting a maximum number could result in an inconsistent approach across the country and increase costs. For example, my hon. Friend has 21 wards in his constituency and if he—perish the thought!—were subject to recall, the returning officer could decide on 21 signing places in his constituency. In constituencies such as Norwich North or Norwich South, for example, which are densely populated, there would be just one place to sign the petition because of that dense population.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that takes me further into my argument. We are taking additional measures to ensure that the petition is as accessible as possible. For example, the petition period is eight weeks, so constituents have eight weeks to decide whether they want to sign it, and to make time to sign it at a time convenient to them. It is worth remembering that this process is very different to polling day. That takes place on one day, and therefore returning officers try to make as many places as possible accessible for constituents. I therefore urge the hon. Member for North East Somerset to withdraw his amendment.
Clause 8 places a duty on the petition officer, in accordance with regulations under clause 18, to send a notice of petition to persons registered in the register of parliamentary electors for the constituency. That notice will serve a similar function to the poll card at elections, and set out how and in what ways electors can sign the petition if they wish. Importantly, clause 8 also specifies that the notice of petition must include information on the particular
“recall condition which has been met in relation to the MP.”
Petition officers will find the details of that condition specified in the Speaker’s notice issued under clause 5. Including that information on the notice of petition should help the recipient to understand why the recall petition has been opened, and to decide whether or not they wish to sign it.
Clause 9 requires the petition officer to make the recall petition available for signing
“at the designated place or places, and by post”
for a period of eight weeks from the designated day, in accordance with regulations in clause 18.
As I have said, the eight-week period has been chosen because it ensures that electors who wish to participate have sufficient time to consider information on the reasons for the recall petition, including the views of campaigners, and any public response given by the MP.
The view is that eight weeks—roughly 40 working days—gives sufficient time, or even more than ample time, for constituents to engage properly with the process.
Clause 8 details who is entitled to sign the recall petition. The general rule is that a person who is eligible can sign the petition on any day during the eight-week signing period. They must be on the register of parliamentary electors and entitled to vote in a parliamentary election in the constituency as a result of an application made on or before the day of the Speaker’s notice.
I am very grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene again. I gently remind him that, after the 2001 general election, vote stealing in Northern Ireland was identified as a serious problem, particularly in Sinn Fein constituencies—that is a statement of fact and also a criticism. To deal with that serious problem, all those registered to vote must produce a photographic identity document. The Government have been good in producing free electoral ID cards, but will a person signing a recall petition be required to produce photographic ID?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention—she is welcome to intervene as much as possible. The petition signing process has been designed with general election voting in mind. In Northern Ireland, where voter ID must be produced, the petition process will require voter ID.
Will the Minister clarify his point about the system working in the same way as a general election? What is his expectation of the opening hours for the petition? Try as I might, I cannot find any rules about how long it must be open. Will he set out the position?
I am grateful to the Minister, but if I understand him correctly, the Government are proposing to use a town hall or council office. As you will know from your constituency, Mrs Laing, that council office is not necessarily open from 7 am to 10 pm. Perhaps the Minister wants to rethink that answer.
The hon. Gentleman mentions a town hall or local council office, but it is not necessarily for the Government to determine that. The petition officer will determine where the petition takes place and make the appropriate arrangements for the handling of that petition. That is not being prescribed in the Bill, as he says. I will try to get him further information on that point in due course.
Other constituents will be able to take part in the petition process: anyone aged 18 years or over can do so, and so can anyone whose 18th birthday is before the end of the signing period. Clause 10 sets out that the last day on which a person can make an application to register as an elector, which will enable them to participate in the recall petition, is the day when the Speaker’s notice is issued. The electoral registration officer must determine such applications on or before the cut-off day, which is defined as the third working day before the beginning of the signing period. Such a cut-off mirrors practice at elections and ensures there is a point in time when the register is set and can be distributed to signing places to ensure that only those eligible to sign the petition can do so.
Clause 10 gives effect to schedule 2, which inserts new section 13BC into the Representation of the People Act 1983, and which is on the alteration of registers of parliamentary electors and necessary amendments. The amendments are necessary to ensure the recall petition process can rely effectively on the register of parliamentary electors.
I have received inspiration with regard to the question from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). Opening hours will be set out in regulations. Obviously, locations would not be open all hours, but there may be a possibility of their opening later. That will be a matter for the petition officer to determine, and will be set out in regulations.
Clause 11, as I mentioned, establishes that electors will be able to sign the petition in person by post or by proxy.
It is very kind indeed of the Minister to invite an intervention before I am even on my feet. As I have indicated to the Committee, vote stealing in Northern Ireland was a very serious crime and had to be dealt with very seriously. For those who turn up in person to vote at a polling station there is a requirement for photographic identification. There are also very strict regulations on proxy voting and voting by post. Will equivalently strict measures be put in place to ensure that recall petitions do not result in an increase in vote stealing? It is such a serious crime.
Once again, the hon. Lady makes a very powerful point. As I said, the practice has been designed to mirror the practice in general elections, so the same strict standards will apply to the petition process as one would ordinarily expect in the course of a general election.
Clause 11 allows electors to sign the petition in person by post or by proxy. The entitlement to sign the petition by a particular method will be subject to regulations to be made under clause 18, which will set out the process in more detail. It is worth noting that once a recall petition has been signed the signature cannot be withdrawn. That is the usual way that public petitions are administered. It could undermine the process and cause confusion if electors were allowed to withdraw their signatures from a recall petition at a later date.
Clause 12 sets out that it is an offence for two or more signatures to be added to the petition by, or on behalf of, any individual elector, just as in elections it is an offence for two or more votes to be cast by, or on behalf of, an individual elector. The Government believe it is important that the recall petition process is secure. Systematic fraud would be hard to orchestrate at an election. The provisions are necessary to deter any attempts at double signing to inflate the number of signatures in a petition. The provisions should also give constituents confidence in the result of the petition.
Clause 13 sets out three conditions in which the recall petition process will be terminated before the end of the eight-week signing period. The conditions that would trigger an early termination are: the date of the next UK parliamentary general election being brought forward to a date that falls within the six-month period of the date of the Speaker’s notice; if an MP’s seat is vacated, for example because the MP is disqualified; and where the first recall condition was met and the MP’s conviction or sentence, or the order in question, is overturned on appeal.
I apologise—I perhaps should have raised this point with the Minister in advance—but I have being going backwards and forwards between clauses 3 and 13. As I understand it, clause 3 states that the recall petition shall not take place—I apologise if I am incorrect—until the appeals have expired. Is it therefore not a contradiction for clause 13(4) to say that the recall shall fall if the conviction is subsequently overturned on appeal?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very smart point. He is clearly reading the Bill in detail, as he should. The distinction relates to “in time” and “out of time” appeals. The explanatory memorandum refers to some appeals that could be out of time and could therefore be overturned when the recall petition has already started.
As I was saying, electors will be less likely to sign the petition knowing that they will shortly be able to have their say at the ballot box, thereby impacting on the overall objective of the recall petition. That is why the petition will not be taken forward under those circumstances. The second and third conditions—that the seat is already vacant and that the conviction has been overturned on appeal—are clearly appropriate reasons for terminating the petition early.
In summary, I have set out why the clauses and schedules in this group are necessary, as they establish who can sign a petition and how. The provisions ensure that petitions will be administered by those with experience of running elections and in a manner consistent with the rigours of an electoral process.
Let me return to the issue of Northern Ireland for a second before finishing. The same protections on voter ID will apply in Northern Ireland. In relation to postal signatures, this would be available on demand in Northern Ireland, unlike for elections, because we consider that signing a petition in person may raise different issues from casting a secret ballot.
For the sake of clarity, can the Minister sum up what the position is now in Northern Ireland for someone who wishes to go and vote in person? They will be required, as in a general election, to produce photographic ID and if they do not turn up in person, the same rules for proxy and postal voting will definitely pertain, to ensure that we do not have vote stealing again in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I do not think that is what he said either. Indeed, that was what I was hoping the Minister had said to me, but I have a horrible feeling that it was not what he confirmed.
The advice I have received is that the same protections on voter ID will apply in Northern Ireland. In relation to postal signatures, this will be available on demand in Northern Ireland, unlike for elections, because we recognise that signing a petition in person may raise different issues from casting a secret vote. The position is therefore slightly different from what I said earlier.
I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for repeating the explanation that floated across the Chamber to him to correct what was said earlier. I must invite him to go back and look at the evidence taken after the general election about the serious problem with postal voting in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Belfast West and other Sinn Fein constituencies. They had something like three times as many postal votes as any other constituency throughout the UK, so provisions were introduced swiftly to deal with vote stealing, particularly where it involved postal votes rather than impersonation.
I appreciate the point the hon. Lady is making; I am happy to have a look at it, assess the situation, see whether what we are discussing has any bearing on the issues she has outlined and write back to her.
I commend these clauses and schedules to the Committee.
I want to make a few brief comments and ask the Minister some questions about clause 6 and schedule 1, and clauses 7 and 9. These provisions relate, as he said, to the petition officers who will be appointed.
My questions are about the costs incurred in this process. The Bill is non-specific and refers to the condition that
“the total of the officer’s charges does not exceed the amount…specified in, or determined in accordance with, regulations made by the Minister”.
However, one of the interesting things about the Bill is that it is accompanied by a detailed impact assessment, which goes into such meticulous detail on the likely costs incurred during the process that it lists the estimated total costs of one recall petition, which include the cost for the petition officer, at £500, the cost of the petition signing place, at £734, and the cost of the petition notice card, at £20,891. I was wondering why, if that much work has been done, the Government are waiting for secondary legislation. Why not build it directly into the Bill, so we could see exactly the cost that is likely to be incurred? If we are committed to secondary legislation, when are we going to see the provisions for it coming forward? Will it be done quickly? I presume it will be, because if the work has been done, I see no reason at all why it cannot be brought forward immediately. Perhaps it is, in reality, already available and could be presented to us.
My second point relates to clause 7, which refers to a “maximum of 4 places” where the petition can be signed. To his credit, the Minister has said that he has taken into account the opinions of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, but why has he not taken into account the representations made, not just by the Member who tabled the amendment, but by the Electoral Commission? The Electoral Commission has provided a circular, which has gone to all Members. It says that it sees no reason why there should be “a maximum of four” places in which to go and vote, suggesting there should be “a minimum of four” places. It makes the very good point that our constituencies vary enormously in their size and geography, so four places might be appropriate for a compact constituency, but nowhere near enough for more rural constituencies.
I imagine that, for the Western Isles or even parts of rural County Durham, four places would be quite inappropriate because people would have to travel long distances. In common with my hon. Friend, I cannot understand why we are having a maximum of four rather than a minimum of four places.
That is precisely the point; my hon. Friend puts it very well. Surely, given the extreme variation in the geographic nature of UK constituencies, it makes good sense to have a degree of flexibility. It would be very unfair, for example, if certain voters in large, geographically dispersed constituencies with a difficult geography felt that they were being excluded from a democratic process that we know has excited a great deal of public interest. I would be grateful if the Minister responded not just to what I am saying, but to what the Electoral Commission has said after taking the trouble to circulate information to all Members.
My third point relates to clause 9. The Electoral Commission has queried the wisdom of the Government’s stating on the face of the Bill the wording of the petition, suggesting that it would be far better to have a process of testing among electors to see what words would be most appropriate, most effective and best understood. I think that is a very fair point. We have seen in previous legislation, such as the recent Bill on the EU referendum, that the form of words used makes a big difference to the impression created for the electorate; and we want them to make a fair and objective choice about the pros and cons of a given situation as conveyed in a question.
I would personally question whether the Government have chosen the best form of words. Let me cite clause 9(4), which states:
“By signing in the box below, you are signing a petition for [name of the MP], the MP for [name of constituency], to lose [his/her] seat in the House of Commons”.
I question whether “to lose” is the best phrase to employ. Would not “to no longer continue” be better? It might make a difference to the way in which many people cast their vote. The only sure method of testing that would be an exercise involving a representative cross-section of people to see how they responded to different forms of words. That is important, because words are not simply objective statements per se. They can have certain implications, and lead to certain inferences. The word “lose” might strike some people as excessively strong, and might dissuade them from casting a positive vote.
My hon. Friend is making a good point. The MP in question might not lose his or her seat following the signing of the petition. If a by-election followed, it would be up to the electorate to decide. If a very small number of people wanted to destabilise an MP, this would be the way to do it.
That, too, is a good point, which deserves careful consideration. I think we all know from our experience of various referendums in the past that the words that are used on a ballot paper can be very important indeed. I think that the Government should recognise that what they need to do is consult the people, and come back later with a properly thought through and broadly acceptable measure.
We should bear in mind what has happened in the United States, where so much pressure is put on people who feel that they have done nothing wrong, or have been challenged because of their policy positions, that they resign at that point, and do not stand in the subsequent recall election. The phraseology in the Bill could be used in the same way. The pressure put on individuals could be so great that they would give up before the by-election even if they had done nothing wrong.
That concern was expressed during our last sitting, and it is a concern felt by many people in the House and beyond. We need a democratic process in which people can have confidence, and which fulfils a proper function. We do not want the Bill to be used, indeed abused, as a vehicle enabling external interests, perhaps well financed, to put undue pressure on democratically elected representatives.
I am pleased to say that the extremely well-prepared impact assessment refers to the costs that would be incurred for the Welsh translation of recall petition documents. It is estimated that the cost of a petition in one of the Welsh constituencies would be £100. I welcome that information, because—casting my mind back not too far—I remember that there was quite a hoo-hah in the House when the Government forgot that bilingual ballot papers would be needed for the elections of police and crime commissioners. Some of us said to the Government at the time that we thought it very likely that secondary legislation would be necessary. We were told “We have consulted our expert lawyers, and they have said that there is no need for it.” However, the expert lawyers were wrong, as is often the case, and there was a need for legislation at the last moment—literally just before the PCC elections. However, because the Government had made a mistake, they had to have extra forms produced in English in Wales just in case there was not enough time to get the new secondary legislation on to the statute book. The result was that at the end of the day the Government simply wasted £130,000 of taxpayers’ money because they would not take advice from us.
My question is: have the Government, in recognising the need for bilingual documentation, actually given due consideration this time to bringing forward secondary legislation for that to happen? I suggest it is not enough for the Government simply to say, “We can do it if we want to.” They may well have to have secondary legislation, as was the case with the police and crime commissioner elections.
With those few words and few questions, I ask the Minister, at an appropriate time, to respond.
It is a great pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship in the Chamber, Sir Roger, rather than being hidden away in a dark corner of the House.
I have a very modest amendment to bring forth: amendment 38, which I hope the Committee will consider. All I am doing is changing one word. I am changing the word “maximum” to “minimum”, so I am in fact changing only two letters; I am changing “ax” to “in”, so we are axing “ax” and bringing in “in.” The reason for doing so is because I am a supporter of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith): I think that if we are going to have recall we should do it properly, and if we are going to do it properly we should do it generously, and if we are going to do it generously, it should be easy for people to exercise their right under it.
I know the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) is unable to be here today through illness, but in the argument he was putting forward last week in Committee he championed the fact that people would have to turn up to one place to sign the petition, arguing that that would somehow make it very difficult to achieve the threshold. Is the hon. Member for Richmond Park now saying that that was not the case?
My amendment is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park, and he kindly added his name to the list; indeed it appears immediately beneath mine on this amendment, so yes, indeed, it does have his support, which I am very grateful for. It is a recognition of the difference between constituencies and the fact that this point is already provided for in other areas of legislation. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Minister said and he made some very important points in saying that there may be discrepancies between one constituency and another and raising the issues of cost.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has not answered my question. The point the hon. Member for Richmond Park was arguing last week was that because people would have to turn up in person to one point—the town hall, for example—his proposed provisions would not often be used. Is the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) now saying that the hon. Member for Richmond Park is arguing we should have multiple centres to make it easier for people to take part in a recall?
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to make arguments for somebody who is not here, which is a wonderfully hypothetical approach to be taking. I must make my own arguments for what I believe about this Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park will make his arguments when he is here, as he did so eloquently last week in favour of his amendments to the Bill. I must focus on my amendment 38, and its purpose, however. I hope that clarifies the matter, Sir Roger.
I was saying that I completely understood what the Minister was saying on the issues of differentiation between constituencies and cost, but the first point is accepted in all our elections anyway, and is accepted in legislation that this very Government passed. The legislation providing uniform constituencies made exceptions for the very largest geographical areas, because it recognised that it is unreasonable not to make different arrangements for those beyond a certain size. Therefore, when there are thousands and thousands of acres—sometimes into the thousands of square miles—we make different arrangements from those that we have for the much smaller, more compact constituencies.
I do not fully accept the Minister’s point about cost. Clause 18 provides Ministers with considerable powers to make regulations affecting the opening hours of the places where the petition may be signed. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) has raised this matter in the past. In my view, it would therefore be possible for people to sign the petitions in local post offices during their opening hours. This would involve minimal cost, while giving constituents in the larger geographical areas easier access to the process.
This is important because the difference in size between the constituencies is extreme. I have here a little list, at the top of which is Ross, Skye and Lochaber, whose area is 4,709 square miles. That is a little over 3 million acres, which is three times the size of the county of Somerset. To have only four places in such a vast area would place an unreasonable constraint on people’s ability to exercise the democratic right that we are proud to be giving them. We should be positive about the Bill; it is a good thing to allow constituents to have greater control over their Members of Parliament. Access to the process would be very easy in the smallest constituency, Islington North, which has an area of only 2.8 square miles. Such a constituency would hardly need more than one place, because it would not be too difficult for people to get around, unlike in Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
In my own area, God’s own county of Somerset, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath)—whom I am happy to see in his place—represents an area of 367 square miles. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) is even bigger, with an area of 417 square miles.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene on his geography lesson, which is very interesting. I know that he will have read the Bill from cover to cover, and he will know that the Minister has confirmed that there will be an option to vote by post or by proxy instead of turning up and signing a petition in person. So why is he campaigning for a minimum of four locations in which people can sign? Should he not be encouraging people to make use of the postal service and to spend money on second-class postage?
I rather agreed with the hon. Lady when she expressed her concern about the difficulties of voting by post. It has become much too easy and is susceptible to high levels of fraud, and I do not believe that that is a problem only in Northern Ireland. It is increasingly a problem in England, and probably in Wales and Scotland as well. We have heard about the problems in Birmingham; my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has made regular references to them. I would therefore prefer people to be able to go somewhere physically and add their name to a list.
There are undoubtedly greater difficulties with postal voting. My major concern is that it undermines the secrecy of the ballot. When ballot papers go into people’s homes, they are likely to be seen as a family affair, in contrast to the secrecy involved in going into a corner of a polling station to vote. As I was saying in response to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), I believe that it is better for people to turn up to vote in person and that that should be facilitated. That would reduce the need for excessive postal voting.
I shall not go through all the constituencies on my list, but I should point out that my own has an area of 122 square miles, or about 85,000 acres. That is about the maximum area that could conveniently have only four registration places. Such an arrangement would simply be unreasonable in a bigger constituency, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome.
There is a broader point to make: the rural areas often get forgotten. There is a polling station in my constituency that is in somebody’s porch. About 85 people go to vote there. There are even smaller polling stations across the country; some have only a couple of dozen electors who are eligible to vote in them. We used to make it easy for people to turn up and vote, and if we are introducing new democratic rights, we ought to make it similarly easy for people to turn up and exercise them.
We should think about the rural areas: they have fewer people, but their democratic rights are just as important as those of people who live in dense urban areas, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) so rightly said. There are differences between constituencies, and we recognise them in other ways. In passing, it is worth mentioning the great county of Yorkshire, which has a particularly large number of seats that cover large areas and have small populations. Yorkshire has more acres than there are words in the Bible, if the Apocrypha is excluded, and it is divided into very large geographical constituencies. Again, each of them ought to have more than four places for people to go to. I hope that the Government will listen on this matter, and understand the need for rural populations to exercise their rights as freely, properly and easily as the urban mass population.
I want to comment on amendment 38, which the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has just spoken to. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), I am generally sympathetic to the idea that having a maximum of four places would be disadvantageous and totally impractical in some large rural constituencies. In the Western Isles, for example, there would have to be a decision about which islands should have such a place. There is a genuine need for the Government to consider that problem.
Is my hon. Friend aware that unlike for an election, where the returning officer is required to consult the political parties regularly about the location of such places, I understand that there is no specific requirement for the petition officer to consult political parties about the location of these offices?
I was about to come on to that. The interesting thing is that even though the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) argued last week that recall would be used on very few occasions, he supports amendment 38 because it would be so difficult for everyone to go to one place.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has said, if there are more than the maximum of four, there needs to be some regulation or control over the number of places, otherwise a different situation may arise. I remember one council in the north-east where a certain person was in control of the location of polling stations, and it seemed as though there was one on every street corner in her ward. The hon. Member for North East Somerset told us that the amendment is designed to increase democratic turnout, but as in such a case, putting one on every street corner could be used to encourage people to oppose an MP.
I sympathise with the view that a maximum of four places is too prescriptive, but there must be some regulation or control for such places, otherwise a petition officer might be put under undue political pressure locally to have dozens and dozens of sites to make it as easy as possible for people to secure a recall. The Government need to change the provision, but they also need to add some guidance or regulations alongside it, because otherwise there will be abuses of the system. Having large numbers of these places might be designed to encourage people to turn out deliberately to undermine and remove the Member of Parliament not for any democratic reason, but for political reasons.
I want to make a few observations on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), and on some of the clauses in this group.
My first observation relates to the number of places at which people can sign the petition. It seems to me completely impossible to equate the notion of fair access across the country with setting a maximum of four places for constituents such as mine, as my hon. Friend correctly said. It takes me about an hour and a quarter to drive from one end of my constituency to the other. Were there very few places, that would effectively disfranchise those who wish to attend a place of signing in person from being able to do so. Obviously, such an issue does not apply in urban or suburban constituencies, but it certainly does in the wide open spaces of rural constituencies, some of which are represented in the Chamber this evening.
The hon. Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned those constituencies that contain islands. Obviously, it is even more difficult to get from one island to another to place one’s name on a petition. For the sake of equity, the availability and the access of these places for petitioning need to be roughly the same for different categories of electors in different parts of the country. That will not happen if we have a maximum of four places in a very large rural constituency. There is also a common misapprehension in this place that we all have access to public transport—I am talking about our electors who do not own or have access to private cars. I keep having to remind people that in my village we have not one bus an hour or one bus every five minutes, but one bus a week. If someone catches that bus, but does not catch it back again, they are stuck and they will not return home for some time. They have to make sure that they take a sleeping bag with them or have access to a hotel. So let us bear in mind the different geography of the country.
There is also a political issue here. If we have a limited number of physical places where people can sign these petitions, where those places are situated may affect the outcome of the petition. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) will probably agree that there are some Northern Ireland constituencies where it would matter a great deal where the place was that someone had to go to sign the petition. But that is generally true of many constituencies. Hard as it is to believe, there are areas that will be broadly supportive of a Member of Parliament, and some that will be less broadly supportive. There is an outcome issue that needs to be considered. I hope that the Minister will take that away and look at it again to see whether a better solution can be found.
I was slightly alarmed by the laissez-faire attitude to opening times, because that is yet another area that is potentially open to abuse. The sensible thing would be for the officer in charge to take advice from the Electoral Commission as to the appropriate signing place and the appropriate opening hours for the area in question. By doing that, we may get a more satisfactory outcome.
Clause 9 deals with the wording of a petition signing sheet. The hon. Member for Caerphilly made a good point. I cannot see why the wording is in primary legislation. Under the Representation of People Act 1983, such detail is usually done through secondary legislation. In addition, I do not understand why subsection (4) says:
“The wording of a petition signing sheet must include the following”.
The implication is that the wording may include a whole lot of other things that the Minister does not wish to prescribe. I am slightly concerned about why, when we are very prescriptive about what appears on a ballot paper, we are so laissez-faire about something that may influence to a much greater extent a person’s decision on whether they wish to sign a petition.
Will the Minister also carefully examine the last sentence of subsection (4), because it is very clumsy? The liberal use of the Oxford comma, which I would normally applaud, makes the sentence difficult to understand. It states:
“If less than 10% of eligible registered electors in the constituency sign the petition, the MP will not lose [his/her] seat, and a by-election will not be held, as a result of the petition.”
I did not table an amendment, but I ask him to examine that. If he is going to do this at all, after the words
“the MP will not lose [his/her] seat”
he might just finish the sentence by saying “therefore, no by-election will be held”. That would be a little more understandable for most people reading the provision and trying to work out what on earth it means, because the current wording gives a contrary impression.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the eloquent points he is making. Given that the ballot paper is very important, being the direct interface between the voter and the end result, whatever that may be, would it not be far better, even at this late stage, if the Government simply accepted this basic point, which the Electoral Commission is also making, withdrew this provision and returned to this, as he says, through regulation?
I do think that, because I have had the great pleasure, during nearly 18 years in this House, of serving on innumerable statutory instrument Committees and considering the wording of ballot papers and the like through statutory regulation. That seems to me the much more appropriate way to get it right. Such an approach might also deal with the specific issue about the Welsh language. I seem to recall, although I might be wrong, that we have on occasion examined the Welsh language version of what appears on a ballot paper as well, and it is prescribed; it is not left to someone to translate it as they choose. So the hon. Gentleman rightly says that the Government would be well advised to remove the prescription in this clause and say, “The Minister may, by regulation, prescribe the words that will appear on the petition signing sheets.” That will allow the Government to go away, talk to the Electoral Commission, get the words right and come back with a regulation that provides for that.
The last point I wish to make relates to postal and proxy votes, about which the hon. Member for North Down makes an incredibly important point. I cannot see why the regulations on applying for a postal or proxy vote, and for the execution of such a vote in an election, should be any different from those used for the petition. These things are equally important to our electoral and democratic process, so I would like to think that whatever applies to one will apply to the other, to ensure that we have a proper level of checking.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but is there not a slight difference? In an election someone gets sent a ballot paper, but they would not be sent a ballot paper to say, “Do you want to sign this petition or not?” The two are slightly different.
I am not clear what the process is. The hon. Gentleman may well have more information on this than I do currently, but I am not clear how the postal and proxy vote system will work in respect of a petition. The people registered for a postal or proxy vote for an election may not be the same people who would wish to exercise their right to such a vote in the case of a petition. Some people, particularly those who do not have a petition signing place within half an hour’s drive or a three-day bus journey from where they live, may well want to exercise a postal or proxy vote, whereas for an election they can just toddle down to the village hall or an outbuilding of the local pub to cast their vote. So a different group of people may well be involved, and I would like to know what the process will be.
This is also about knowing what the process would be to ensure that the signature being sent in is authentic. Since we had the change on applying for a postal vote, a signature and a date of birth is required, and I understand that the signatures are scanned and have to match. If someone has just written on a small piece of paper that they want a recall and they send it in, is that good enough? How do we verify that the signature is from a legitimate person, one who might not have applied for a postal vote?
The hon. Gentleman is right about that. We all have experience of petitions where we look down the names and find people who are perhaps not resident in our constituencies, because they happen to be otherwise employed in a theme park in Orlando or as President of the United States; there are all sorts of reasons why they are not legitimate electors of our constituencies, but nevertheless the names have been appended. I believe the Minister’s answer to that is simply, “We have introduced an offence of providing a false signature in the Bill.” That is not a sufficient deterrent, as we know because we have seen the evidence for that many times. So we need some sort of checking procedure to make sure that when Mr Michael Mouse signs a petition it is the Mr Michael Mouse who is a resident of Railway cuttings, Cheam or a relevant address rather than a Mr Michael Mouse who may be a figment of someone’s imagination.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The signatures and names and addresses are not going to be published in the public domain, so how does anybody challenge whether the signature sent in asking for a petition is genuine? I am sure that during his 18 years in the House he has had many petitions where he has written back to people who then deny ever signing a petition. There has to be a procedure in place to ensure that there is at least some public scrutiny of those signatures. If there is not, the 10% threshold could be reached with bogus signatures.
The hon. Gentleman is of course absolutely right. Indeed, people sometimes forget that they have clicked to add their name to a letter that the computer generated the day before. When we contact them they know nothing about what they have apparently just written to us about in great detail and about which they feel passionately. We all encounter that; it is not an unusual experience. He and I share the view that we need safeguards to make sure that the names that appear are the right ones. There is, however, one point where I will disagree with him. He is still fighting the good fight about the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) when he talks about the possibilities of people harassing a Member using this process. The two triggers we have at the moment—criminal conviction and the 21-day suspension —are very limited. Some of us believe the provision should be wider than that and there should be at least one more trigger, and we will pursue that, but I do not think it is open to the sort of abuse he suggests. I therefore see no reason why we should not make it as easy as possible for people to sign a petition if that is what they choose to do, where those trigger points have been satisfied. With that, I shall be interested in hearing what others have to say.
First, I rise to speak in support of amendment 38, which seems to make a reasonable point, one I understood the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) supported: whatever the trigger points for a petition, there certainly has to be a sufficient number of places for people to go, particularly in a far-flung constituency, but the petition points would not replicate the number of polling stations or anything else like that. The point was being made that the petition points should not be so numerous or diverse as to create a wide open situation and to be much more difficult to manage, particularly given that a period of time is being offered for the petition to be signed. Unlike a single day, polling day, for voting, a designated period, which some of us think is too long, is provided for in the petition. It gives people ample time to keep the thing going in a way that could be politically debilitating to a constituency or a city.
There are issues with the details of the clauses. Even those of us who differ on whether there should be more than the very limited trigger points provided for in the Bill recognise that a petitioning system for recall must work well and credibly. Once there is a whiff of scandal or abuse in relation to one recall, the response might be to abandon recall altogether, so none of us should want sloppy reform, or it will be unsustained.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made an intervention on amendment 38. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) suggested, in the context of Northern Ireland, one would need to consider not just the mileage in geographic terms, but the neutrality or accessibility of locations. That might include geopolitical considerations and sensitivities, the colour of kerbstones, the presence of flags and other imagery and so on. In addition, there is the need to ensure that locations are accessible by public transport, if constituents have more by way of public transport arrangements than the hon. Gentleman. That would be hugely important.
Gathering the petition is not just a matter of designating the points; there needs to be good management. Other hon. Members have asked whether there will be variability or an easy come, easy go approach to timing. People would want to know that petition points were managed properly and efficiently, and that if queries arose, there was someone in the position of presiding officer to talk to.
There is also the question of how one signs the petition. It has been suggested that it will be an offence to sign a wrong name. Is somebody going to be watching every name that is signed? In current elections using ballot papers, people are free to spoil their vote. People could well put a spoiled entry on a petition form, but they could do so in a way that spoils other people’s entries as well, so there are issues relating to the management and policing of the petition process.
The hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but in Northern Ireland, I think, voters must show ID. In the UK they do not. What is there to stop someone putting someone else’s name on a petition? If the list of names and addresses is not made public, how could anyone challenge an entry and say, “I didn’t sign that petition”? That is a weakness. Even if, in the UK, a presiding officer is present, there is no guarantee of the identity of the person signing.
The hon. Gentleman raises another significant point in the Northern Ireland context. Yes, ID is required in order to vote. In a proper recall system, just as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggested in respect of postal and proxy votes, the same standard should apply to them in relation to recall as would apply in relation to elections and ballot papers, and similarly as regards voter ID in Northern Ireland. If somebody is coming to take the power of a voter in respect of a recall petition, they should have to present the same provable ID as is required in respect of an election. It is not particularly arduous and people have got used to the system. There is the electoral ID card, which covers people who do not have the other forms of ID.
I agree that in Northern Ireland that provision is in place, but in the rest of the UK it is not. There is nothing in the Bill to suggest that people wishing to sign a recall petition in my constituency or any other constituency in the UK would have to provide some type of ID. Even if they did, because the names will not be made public, there is no way to challenge their authenticity. It is no good saying that signing a fictitious name is an offence. As the hon. Gentleman knows from his own experience in Northern Ireland, voter fraud used to be quite widespread.
The hon. Gentleman’s point gives rise to the question of location. Whether there is a minimum or a maximum of four locations, can people freely choose, turn up to any of them and register their signature on the petition? Will there be anybody to check there and then whether they are eligible? Many people may be unsure who their MP is or which constituency they are in. When it comes to setting up petition points, somebody should be in a position to verify that people are eligible to sign the petition by virtue of being on the register for that constituency, whether there is a particular geographic catchment for that constituency or an overall register for the constituency. That would need to be managed by way of regulation or other instruments. We cannot take care of all that in the Bill.
I have some sympathy with the points made about clause 9 and the language of the petition. That does not need to be in the Bill. There are also questions about the couching of that language and the need to make it clearer. Whereas on polling day people have to garner a significant amount of support to be successful, those who are mobilising behind a petition have to get only 10% in a constituency over a long period of weeks. It is not a high challenge that they are set. In those circumstances, it is not too much to expect that voters who are being given that opportunity should make sure that they are eligible to sign the petition. I think the test should be higher than 10%, which is why I supported the three-stage proposal from the hon. Member for Richmond Park.
Whichever version of recall petition we are discussing and at whatever stage it takes effect on either model, people should know that the process surrounding the petition is managed properly. If they think petitions are managed in a way that falls short of what they would expect at election time, we are inviting a culture of abuse. I hope the Government will consider the arguments, which will be supported both by those who broadly support the scope of the Bill that the Government have provided and by those who would challenge it. All of us want to know that if there is to be a petition process, it will be durable and reliable.
May I first welcome the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) to his place? I understand that yesterday in the south-west he was seen on television but not heard. This evening we have had the benefit of both seeing him and hearing his wisdom. I shall deal first with a number of the points he made before turning my attention to the rest. He talked about minimum versus maximum and explained that he was looking to change only two letters, which perhaps is a new record, even for his minimalist approach. However, I am slightly surprised that he tabled the amendment: I know him to be a great believer in parliamentary process, yet he is seeking to overturn the advice of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Although we recognise the strength of his argument, we were slightly surprised to see him going against his colleagues.
I thought the hon. Gentleman took the view that Her Majesty was the final authority; he is obviously becoming a republican in his older age.
We have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s argument. He was right to talk about having two constituencies side by side, or indeed one surrounding the other—I think that his constituency completely surrounds that of Bath—and made some valid points about the square mileage and number of hectares in each. We do not necessarily agree that the situation differs for rural and urban constituencies. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) pointed out, that would be determined more by public transport links, particularly the provision of bus services.
None the less, we think that the hon. Member for North East Somerset has raised a valid point. For example, we are concerned that Ministers are not at this stage able to give us greater clarity about opening hours, and that relates to a broader point. I refer the House to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report, which set out a concern about the use of Henry VIII powers. That simply means that the Government are seeking to state in primary legislation that all the detail will be covered by secondary legislation, and they have not yet had a chance to set out those provisions.
We are concerned that the Government do not have a clear position on opening hours. There is an argument that opening hours should be from 7 am to 10 pm, as they are in a general election. Equally, however, if the Government are proposing ultimately to use city chambers, town halls and council offices, perhaps it would be unreasonable to require additional opening hours over an eight-week period. My understanding is that central Government would pick up those costs, rather than individual local authorities, so I wonder whether the Minister, if he receives inspiration before having to reply, could say, when the Government worked out the £55,000 cost of running a recall petition, was that based on opening hours of 9 am to 5 pm in up to four locations, or opening hours of 7 am to 10 pm?
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) raised an important point about security—if I recall correctly, she made the same point last week during the Committee’s first day of considerations. The Government must accept that clearly more work needs to be done to answer those points. Several hon. Members have made the point, rightly I think, that the Government are yet to set out whether in practice they would use a marked register. If we take the example of having just one location for signing a recall petition—I am conscious that we are in danger of slipping into consideration of clause 18, but this relates to the question of where a petition can be signed—is it the Government’s intention that the petition officer would be sitting with the marked register and would cross off constituents’ names as they sign the petition, or would it not be made available?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We think that there are concerns about validity. The Member of Parliament and his or her supporters have a right, not unreasonably, to look at the marked register to ensure that there has not been fraud. Equally, the petitioners who organise a recall petition have a right to look at it. As in an election, we would be able to tell whether a person had voted, but not how they had voted. I hope that the Government will think carefully about that.
I hope that the hon. Member for North East Somerset will not press his amendment to a vote this evening, but I also hope that the Government will be gracious enough to promise to look at all these concerns again and, at least before the Bill goes to the Lords, come back with more substantive proposals on the type of petition station, opening hours and the issue of security. I believe that Ministers are genuinely acting in good faith, but I hope that they appreciate that we simply cannot allow all this to be done through secondary legislation.
One suggestion put to me some time ago was that an order should be laid at the start of each Parliament, stating that in North East Somerset, for example, there would be six places where constituents could sign the petition, that there would be seven in East Surrey, and four in Dunfermline and West Fife. The other issue is that the opening hours for polling stations at a general election are set in legislation, but nowhere can I find the opening hours for recall petitions, and that needs to be sorted out.
That suggestion would not get around the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the importance of where the petition stations are located. For example, if all the stations in his constituency were based in Orange lodges, I am sure that he and others would have something to say about it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but you will forgive me, Sir Roger, if I do not speculate about the popularity or otherwise of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) in the various Orange lodges of his constituency—going down that path would not end well for any of us in the Chamber. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is absolutely right that careful consideration has to be given. Again, we have not had enough detail. We are working from a series of assumptions about petition stations being in council offices and polling stations, but Ministers have not set out in any detail where they are likely to be.
Finally, in relation to my earlier point about consultation, there is a requirement for returning officers to consult at least with political parties and other interested parties on the siting of polling stations, and indeed on the boundaries of polling stations within electoral wards. We have not yet seen anything that would explicitly require the petition officer at least to consult. There is more work to be done on that issue.
We also have concerns about proxy and postal votes. The Minister might like to say a little more about why existing postal voters will still have to write in to request a postal vote, rather than simply being issued a petition form by post. I press the Minister to give us some satisfaction in that regard. Will he also confirm that there is often a last-minute flurry of activity to join the electoral register? I appreciate that he has made it clear that one has to be on the register at the trigger date, but often there can be a slight administrative delay, as we saw in the recent referendum in Scotland. Can he confirm that the application, rather than its processing, will be taken as the cut-off point as there can sometimes be a few days’ backlog?
Welcome, Sir Roger, to the Chair. A number of very good points have been made and I shall deal with them. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) made many interesting points, and asked why the Bill does not go into the same level of detail regarding expenses. The AV referendum process and the petition process mirror a referendum process, rather than a general election process. The AV referendum gave us some hard facts to work with.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my point, he will realise that I was speaking specifically about expenses. We have used the hard facts that the AV referendum gave us to develop some estimates, but the question is: how much detail can the Bill go into? The truth is that expenses may be incurred during a petition process that the Government could not have anticipated, so it will be down to the petition officer to submit expenses and costs, and we will set out a fees and charges order to cover that. That is why the Bill does not go into as much detail as the hon. Member for Caerphilly would have liked.
Rightly and understandably, there has been much discussion about whether the petition signing sheet will be user-tested. I hope I can reassure the Committee that its wording has been developed with the input of the Electoral Commission to ensure that it is balanced and fits with the commission’s guidance for referendum questions. The wording that we and the commission have devised gives petitioners the information they need, including the important addition that if the Member in question loses their seat as a result of a petition, there is nothing to prevent them from standing. It is worth making it clear that during the petition process, the Member in question is no longer a Member of Parliament: when recall is triggered their seat is vacated, but there is nothing to prevent them from standing in the subsequent by-election.
The Minister says that there has been consultation with the Electoral Commission, but the commission itself says that it would be far better if the opinion of a panel consisting of a cross-section of the population were tested before the final wording was agreed. There must be a sliver of doubt in the Minister’s mind, because the Bill itself says that
“The Minister may by regulations amend subsection (4).”
If the Minister wants to be able to amend it, why not take it out, and let us have a proper consultation?
There is not a sliver of doubt in my mind. I am smiling because I actually agree with the hon. Gentleman on user-testing, which we would look to undertake as we go through the process of setting out the regulations, if need be amending the petition signing sheet. So the Government have not set their face against user-testing, which I believe is the main concern, and understandably so.
The Minister refers repeatedly to the secondary legislation process and the Standing Orders. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has said, the relevant wording is in the Bill—in primary legislation. Is the Minister confirming that the Minister in question will seek to amend the Bill itself at a later date, rather than pursuing the secondary legislation process?
We will be using the powers of secondary legislation to amend the Bill once we have been through user-testing. The practical point is that we cannot user-test while at the same time debating the Bill. User-testing could throw up a completely different issue. We have developed the Bill with input from the Electoral Commission and we will user-test it as we go through this process.
I applaud the Minister for being open-minded about this issue and I realise he is describing a process, but it really does not make sense to include specific wording in primary legislation and then say, “We will probably amend it, once we’ve done the user-testing, in secondary legislation”, because no one will know that. When they go to the primary legislation, they will find different words from those that will appear on the petition form. If I may gently say so, it really would make more sense to get rid of this clause, put “the Minister may, by order, prescribe the words” and let him get on with it by secondary legislation. That is not a Henry VIII clause—Henry VIII would have had just one signature, anyway. It is just sensible legislation.
Let me finish describing the process I was outlining. We will get Royal Assent for the Bill, undertake user-testing, and then introduce secondary legislation. We in this House amend our legislation all the time—for next year’s general election we are looking at a number of things that were based on user-testing with the Electoral Commission. We may not have to amend it at all, subject to user-testing.
I say in the spirit of bipartisanship that I think the Minister may have misspoken. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) is entirely correct. It is not normal practice to get Royal Assent and then seek to amend primary legislation. If I may try to be helpful to the Minister, he might wish to offer to the Committee that he will take this issue away and seek to establish some consensus on Report, or even in the other place.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out from a sedentary position, we all want the same thing: we all want to ensure that this process works extremely well, and I will take on board the points that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) has made.
A number of references were made to the wording of the petition signing sheet. The wording is set out in primary legislation but can be amended by secondary legislation if some problems transpire, as I said earlier, but we would look to gain consensus for the process.
The decision on where polling stations should be located is normally made by members of the council for the local authority in question. All local authorities must review their UK parliamentary polling districts and polling places at least once every five years. To assist with this, the Electoral Commission has produced guidance on conducting polling place reviews. A number of Members said that the decision on where to locate the polling station could in some ways prejudice the result. The truth is that unless there is a polling station in every part of the constituency, we will be open to that charge.
It is important to point out that these are not polling stations but collection points for petitions. I accept that, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) said, we no longer have last week’s nonsensical proposal by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). However, it would be open to someone from a party in opposition to a Member of Parliament subject to recall to do exactly what the Minister just said. They could have a polling station on every street corner if they wanted to. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for example, let us say that the local party wanted, for unfriendly political reasons, to put a polling station in a certain building.
The main point is that the person who determines where the polling stations are located is the petition officer, who is otherwise the electoral registration officer, and they have the skills and experience to determine how to run the process. It would be easy for the hon. Gentleman to make that charge if there were to be a petition station in every part of the constituency, but that is not what we are debating, because the Bill says that there will be a maximum of four.
In my experience, it is possible to influence the outcome of these things. I remember that many years ago a council ward in the Newcastle city council area seemed to have a polling station on every street corner. When I became the Labour party’s local ward secretary, I asked why, and found—lo and behold—that the person in charge was a local councillor. I am not saying that this should necessarily be addressed in the Bill, but there should be some stronger guidance as opposed to just leaving it up to the local council.
The hon. Gentleman seems to assume that the only way in which people can participate in this process is by turning up physically and signing the petition sheet. Let me be clear, by the way, that it will not be possible to see everyone’s signature on the petition sheet; in fact, it looks more like a ballot paper. People can participate by post or by proxy. It is not strictly accurate to argue that the place where the ERO decides to locate the petition station can, in itself, affect the result.
I think that most electoral registration officers will fulfil their duties as petition officers with exactly the same degree of integrity as they would in elections, and they are also subject to supervision from the Electoral Commission. When the regular review of polling places takes place, we could ask the ERO, in consultation with all the people he has to consult, to designate where the petition places would be situated so that there was clarity on that at a time when it was not specific to a particular MP in particular circumstances, and everyone recognised that it was a neutral process. That would be very sensible, and it might be done by guidance or by regulation.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being incredibly patient given the number of questions. I have not yet had an answer to my question about costs, on which I am sure that he has had inspiration. As part of the £55,000 costs for a recall, what estimate was made of the number of people who would seek a postal vote?
I will come to that point later.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) asked whether anyone can turn up at any location and sign, and asked about double signing. I assure him that these details will be set out in regulations. Constituents eligible to vote will be sent a petition notice card allocating them a location, and they will be able to sign only at that location. They will be marked off the register at that location when they are given a signing sheet.
On a point of order, Sir Roger. I think that the purpose of a Committee is for the Minister to answer questions about what he is saying to it. When people ask the Minister questions, a lot of the time he clearly does not have a clue what he is talking about. He should accept interventions on these technical points—they are not general political points.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I think I have been quite generous in allowing interventions in the spirit of allowing members of the Committee to contribute as much as possible to the Bill. As the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said on Second Reading, we have been generous not only in accepting interventions but in accepting excellent ideas such as that just proposed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath).
The hon. Member for Caerphilly asked about translation into the Welsh language. Clause 21(5) applies section 26 of the Welsh Language Act 1993 to regulations made under the Bill, and this would give a power for the appropriate Minister to provide a form of words in Welsh. I hope that that deals with his point.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked whether there would be a marked register. Yes, there would. We are considering whether it would be a public marked register, because in this case, unlike in an election, where we can have a register but be unable to tell which way people voted, people will declare by way of a marked register their intention on whether they want to get rid of an MP.
That is precisely why we are considering the issue. Obviously, the point of the register is to mark people off for verification purposes as they turn up at the petition station. Further to that, we are considering whether to make the register public. We have to recognise that this process is very different from an election and think about what happens when the register becomes a marked register.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked about appropriate opening hours. I assure him that we will look into that when it comes to drafting the regulations. It may be possible for a petition officer to choose a location that is open in the evening, on weekdays, and so on. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that we should have a consultation to determine some of these questions every five years rather than doing so in the heat of a petition process.
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. He kindly said to me at the beginning of the debate that he was happy to welcome as many interventions as I wanted to make, so I am taking him up on that offer.
A couple of very useful suggestions have been made by the hon. Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan). Will the Minister pick up on those as a compromise that would take us through this group of clauses? The hon. Member for Foyle rightly observed that eight weeks is too long a period, and that four is too small a number of designated places for a recall petition. Will the Minister consider shortening that period, because it will be agonising for the sitting MP? For eight weeks, a sitting MP who has been successfully elected in an election will not know whether they are sitting or suspended, or what they are going to be, until perhaps 10% of the electorate have cast some manner of vote. Will the Minister consider the compromise offered of more designated places and a shorter period in which a person could sign the petition?
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. The Government are trying to strike the right balance. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said that four places would be the minimum rather than the maximum, but not setting a maximum at all would risk having great inconsistency across our constituencies. Allowing for eight weeks provides a balance and people will be able to vote either by post or by proxy during that period.
I am enormously grateful to the Minister for giving way. If he persists with this line of argument, I invite him to visit Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, where more peace walls have been built since the Belfast agreement was signed on Good Friday than existed during the troubles. We have constituencies that are divided. Four places for people to vote on a recall petition would be so unrepresentative.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s particular point about Northern Ireland, but I do not think that the Government’s point about a maximum of four places and allowing eight weeks is particularly onerous. If people are particularly exercised about signing the petition, eight weeks is a sufficient amount of time for them to be able to do so.
Only 10% of voters would have to sign the recall petition during those eight weeks, which is a longer period not only than the by-election campaign that would succeed the petition, but than the period designated for a general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Is eight weeks reasonable?
Eight weeks is reasonable, given that there will be a campaign on both sides. Once there is a notice of petition, the candidate would want to set their case before the electorate and the people who believe in the MP would also want to campaign. Eight weeks allows for getting people to the polling station to vote and for campaigns to take place. It allows for every step of the process to take place in an orderly fashion.
The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, asked how the Government arrived at the estimate of £55,000 in our impact assessment. According to the breakdown, a total of £23,000 breaks into staff preparation and issuing, staff opening and check-in hours, training, printing and stationery, postage and equipment. I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman the necessary assurance.
I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on that specific point of detail.
In rounding up this debate, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset not to press his amendment. When establishing an electoral process, the Government believe that we have to ensure that we make it as open as possible. There are many cases where a smaller number of signing places will serve constituents just as well as a large number, but we must not set out in statute expectations of service that could be hard to meet. The flexibility that the Government have built into the Bill following pre-legislative scrutiny provides enough physical locations for signing when people wish to do so in person.
Before I sit down, I want to clarify one point. I said that the MP would not be an MP during the petition process. In actual fact, it is the seat that is vacated if the threshold is reached, but the MP would have to stand in the by-election and win in order to retake their seat. In that sense, the seat would be lost, albeit only temporarily.
Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make a point of order, I will take it, but he knows that once the winding-up speech has been completed no other member will be called. If he wishes to refer to his amendment, I will come to it at the appropriate time, which is not now.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Let me explain, for the benefit of the whole Committee, that only the lead measure, which in this case was clause 6 stand part, is moved. Other amendments and clauses are moved in the order that they are reached, so technically amendment 38 has not been moved, although the hon. Gentleman has spoken to it.
Where and from when the recall petition may be signed
Amendment proposed: 38, page 5, line 27, leave out “maximum” and insert “minimum”—(Jacob Rees-Mogg.)
This amendment changes the number of designated places for the signing of a recall petition from a maximum of four to a minimum of four.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 8 to 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Clauses 11 to 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Determination of whether recall petition successful
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 14 and 15 set out the actions that must be taken to determine whether a petition is successful, and the consequences of a successful petition.
Clause 14 sets out the mechanism for determining whether the recall petition was successful and the subsequent actions that the petition officer must undertake. At the end of the eight-week signing period, the petition officer must determine whether the petition was successful, notify the Speaker of the outcome and issue a public notice of the outcome in the form and manner to be set out in regulations.
The petition is deemed successful if the number of persons who validly sign it is at least 10% of the number of eligible registered electors—that is, the number of persons who are registered in the register of parliamentary electors for the constituency on the last day of the signing period, including those who made an application to register on or before the day of the Speaker’s notice and who were added to the register before the cut-off day. That means that at least 10% of those eligible to sign must have done so for a petition to be successful. Electors who are under the age of 18 at the end of the signing period will be excluded from that figure, as will additions to or removals from the register that take effect after the cut-off day, unless the addition or removal was made as a result of a court order or to correct an error.
Clause 14 provides that a recall petition is validly signed if it is signed by a person during the signing period who is entitled to sign under clause 10; if the person has not previously signed the petition and meets any conditions set out in regulations that are applicable; and if their entry in the register of parliamentary electors has not been removed after they signed the petition, as a result of a court order or discovery of incorrect information. Finally, clause 14 specifies that the Speaker must lay before the House of Commons any notice received from the petition officer on the outcome of the petition.
Clause 15 provides that if a recall petition is successful, the MP’s seat becomes vacant when the petition officer notifies the Speaker of the petition’s outcome. However, this provision does not apply if, before the petition officer notifies the Speaker of the outcome, the MP’s seat is already vacated as result of the MP’s disqualification or death, or for any other reason. Additionally, regulations may be made under clause 18 that set out the circumstances in which the validity of a petition may be questioned. Clause 15(3) ensures that the process by which an MP’s seat becomes vacant is subject to those regulations.
Clauses 14 and 15 will ensure that proper actions are taken to determine the result of a petition and give notice of the outcome. They will ensure that a vacancy arises when at least 10% of an MP’s constituents have signed a petition for their removal and that, by extension, a by-election will happen. I therefore commend the clauses to the Committee.
The Bill is so important that I think I would like to speak.
Voting in this country is a serious matter. We have the great distinction of being a democracy that is admired around the world. Men died in their thousands in the trenches during a world war that began 100 years ago. When we have a general election and voters come out in whatever numbers—we wish that they came out in greater numbers—and go to the trouble of casting their votes between set hours, which are generally 7 am and 10 pm, they have taken the matter seriously and have voted for an MP. Some MPs belong to political parties and some, like myself, stand as independents. Independent MPs do not have a party to pay for recall expenses or support them through a recall petition. It therefore behoves us to think about the legislation that we are passing.
Given that Bill will apply throughout the United Kingdom, we must think about the differences in Northern Ireland. I think that valuable lessons could be learned from the experiences of voter registration and identification in Northern Ireland. We have been very successful in defeating vote stealing as a major criminal offence. Those valuable lessons could be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Deputy Leader of the House rattled through clauses 14 and 15, which have been beautifully drafted by wonderful and skilled parliamentary assistants. What worries me is that we accepted in the previous group of proposals that there will be only four designated places where a recall petition can physically be signed, no matter whether it is in the islands and highlands of Scotland, the far reaches of Fermanagh and Tyrone, with their lovely spires, or the constituency of Strangford—if the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was here, he would be able to speak for his constituency—which is a large and disparate geographical area. We have agreed that there will be four designated places and that there will be eight weeks. We have skimmed through the issue of the signatures on the petitions. In Northern Ireland, we have strict regulations for voting in elections to ensure that there is no voter fraud.
I was disappointed to hear the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) dismiss the opportunity to think about improving the Bill. This is an important Bill under which an MP could face recall after only 10% of the electorate have voted for it. That is a very low threshold. If we are not careful in looking at the clauses this evening, instead of the Speaker being given a notice of a petition, a number of MPs will be going to their solicitors and calling into question the validity of recall petitions on the grounds of forged signatures and illegal proxy votes, because the Bill before us tonight is riddled with loopholes. It is no good for the Minister to say, “Oh, well. We will test the Bill when it gets on the statute book.” That will be a bit late in the day to test the legislation. We cannot leave it that late. We have an opportunity to amend it and improve it.
I would like the Deputy Leader of the House to address the following question. Given the importance of a recall to a Member who has just been elected in a general election, what will happen when an independent Member such as me is subject to a recall petition? I have no party to support me or to pay for me to fight off a recall petition. However, I would not hesitate in going to a lawyer, many of whom I taught in a previous incarnation. I am very proud to have taught in the law faculty of Queen’s university. Will the Minister clarify what will happen when an MP who has just been told that they have lost their seat through a recall petition looks to see who has signed it and finds that the signatures are not valid? What will happen in the intervening period? I would like him to address that when he closes the debate.
I have just one quick question for the Minister. Has he or any other Minister had any discussions with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority about whether it is producing a scheme to deal with the staff of a Member of Parliament who loses their seat by virtue of recall? I hope that it will not produce a scheme that allows for an ex gratia payment or severance pay for the Member of Parliament. However, will the Member’s staff be made redundant at the point at which the notice is served to the Speaker, or has no one yet thought about that? If no one has thought about it, I invite the Minister to think about it and urge him to get in touch with IPSA to see whether it can provide an appropriate schedule.
I think that it would be appropriate for me to respond to the points that have been made.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) suggested that the Government had dismissed the opportunity to improve the legislation. I do not think that that is the case. For instance, we are looking actively at the proposals that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). The Government are willing to listen to what Members say and to see whether we can respond.
The hon. Member for North Down asked how one will be able to check the validity of the signatures. In responding to the last group of proposals, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) confirmed that there will be a marked register. We are looking in greater detail at whether the marked register should be in the public domain. He rightly explained that the marked register that is made available after a general election or local council election is different in that all that can be ascertained by the people or political parties who look at it is that a person voted in the election; they have no idea how the person voted. A petition that calls for the recall of a Member of Parliament, whether they represent a political party or are independent, is a statement of opposition to that party or politician. The register is therefore different in terms of what it reveals about the person who has taken part in the petition process. That is why the Government are actively looking at whether it would be appropriate to make the marked register public. I agree that we need to have a process that allows people to look at who has voted and to check whether someone did or did not participate in an election or a petition. We are actively considering that point.
The hon. Lady spoke about the four designated places and said that eight weeks was a long period for people to be able to sign a petition. That is not a matter for discussion under clauses 14 and 15, but the Government have set out their view. We think that having four places strikes the right balance in making the places accessible to people. Those who have spoken about increasing that number have not referred to the fact that postal and proxy voting is available. People do not have to go to one, four or more locations as they can vote by post, and eight weeks is a sensible period in which to sign a petition.
The Minister is outlining how long people have to respond to a petition. Given the concerns of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about potentially challenging some of the signatures, is there a length of time for which that will be open to a Member, or—mañana—could it be any time? How will Members know the rules governing the process?
The Minister replied to the point rightly identified by the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), but no clause states any period in which an MP can challenge a recall petition. We are discussing clauses 14 and 15. Which clause covers circumstances in which an MP—quite rightly—seeks an injunction to prevent the Speaker from reading out the fact that their seat has become vacant?
Again, the hon. Lady can draw parallels with other election processes and the avenues available for appeal regarding those who have voted in an election, if there is the possibility that fraud has taken place. She can look at how that process works in other elections.
Perhaps I can be helpful to the Minister. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) raises an important point, and as I understand it—the Minister may wish to get inspiration on this—the Speaker is not challengeable under judicial review and parliamentary privilege—[Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Gyimah) is nodding away. Is it correct to say that the Member cannot challenge the Speaker’s decision, and that therefore the only opportunity for such a challenge is before the petition officer has informed the Speaker that the threshold has been met?
I am happy to take helpful interventions from the hon. Gentleman—and indeed any inspiration, which may be forthcoming—and to address his particular point and seek clarification on whether he is right to say that once the process has reached the Speaker, no appeal can be invoked.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome made a helpful query about whether the Government have engaged with IPSA about the impact on an MP’s staff should their employer be successfully recalled and subsequently lose their seat in a by-election should they stand again. Fortunately, we still have time in which those discussions can take place—if they have not done so already—and I am sure we want to ensure that IPSA is aware of that possibility. We clearly want clarity for staff on the impact that any recall would have on their future employment, particularly during the petition process, and immediately afterwards during the by-election should the Member seek to stand. If the Member decides not to stand in that by-election, what terms and conditions would apply to their staff? On that point, in the absence of more detailed inspiration—[Interruption.]
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is in everyone’s interest for those discussions to take place as soon as possible. As we are debating this issue and the profile of recall is increasing, staff who may—for whatever reason—feel that their MP might be vulnerable to recall might start to ask themselves questions about their future employment. In response to an earlier intervention from the hon. Gentleman, the Speaker does not determine that the threshold has been met. The giving of the petition officer’s notice has that effect, and it is therefore challengeable. Details will be set out in regulations, but once the by-election has been held it is clearly too late.
This raises an important point. In an election, the election is held, the result declared, and the Member of Parliament may take their seat, but that can be set aside by an election court in the case of malfeasance during the electoral process. If malfeasance during the petition process comes to light at a later date, it is not clear that there is a process for rectifying the situation. I think that is at least part of the point raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), and it may be something that Ministers will have to consider.
I thank my hon. Friend for that further contribution. There may come a point where a Member of Parliament has been recalled, stood in a by-election and lost, but subsequently something is proved to have been flawed in the recall process. That is a possibility, and it is unfortunately difficult to see how the Government could come forward with something that would address that. There may be other circumstances that I have not thought of that it might be appropriate for us to consider, and I will certainly look at whether the Government need to take into account other aspects of this issue.
I am grateful to hon. Members for their views on these clauses, and some important points have been raised, particularly on IPSA. I believe that the clauses are necessary to ensure that a proper and consistent process is followed at the conclusion of a recall petition, and to establish that an MP will lose their seat if a petition is successful. I therefore believe that the clauses should remain part of the Bill in their current form, and I again commend them to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Expenses, donations and reporting
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 16 gives effect to schedule 3, which sets out the regulation of expenditure; to schedule 4, which establishes the controls on donations to accredited campaigners; and to schedule 5, which sets the rules for making recall petition returns. Clause 17 deals with the control of loans to accredited campaigners.
The nature of the recall process means that a wide variety of groups will be campaigning for or against the recall of an MP. Concern was rightly expressed by right hon. and hon. Members on Second Reading about the impact of “big money” on the recall process. It is therefore vital that recall petitions are proportionately regulated to allow local groups to engage, while limiting the capacity for wealthy or overseas campaigners to have disproportionate influence over the outcome.
Campaign regulation under the Bill mirrors, with appropriate modifications, the Representation of the People Act 1983. As a successful recall petition will result in a by-election, it is sensible that the difference between the regimes regulating the petition period and a subsequent by-election is not too large. The Bill also draws on the regime for permitted participants in referendums in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That is appropriate because the recall petition process will share many of the characteristics of a referendum.
Schedule 3 introduces two spending limits for expenses incurred during the recall petition period, with regulation appropriate to the sums. The first is a lower limit of £500. Campaigners who incur expenses of less than that amount are subject to that limit and no other regulation. They are known in the Bill as non-accredited campaigners. That lower limit will permit local groups to carry out a certain amount of campaigning, such as printing and distributing leaflets, without their being subject to the fullest reporting requirements.
Those who intend to spend more than £500 must become an accredited campaigner. An accredited campaigner cannot spend more than £10,000 during the recall petition period. That figure is similar to the amount a candidate can spend in the short campaign before a general election. Eligibility as an accredited campaigner is based on eligibility for becoming a permitted participant in a referendum, and includes individuals, political parties and companies. The intention is not to restrict campaigning to those who are eligible to sign the petition. An MP who is subject to a recall petition can become an accredited campaigner.
As the Bill extends to the whole United Kingdom, will the Minister take the opportunity to confirm that donations will be in the public domain, and that the Bill takes precedence over current procedures in Northern Ireland, where donations to political parties are protected by anonymity? I might have no idea who or what is trying to unseat me in a recall petition.
I am afraid I am unable to give the hon. Lady the reassurance she needs. My understanding is that the Bill does not ensure that donations will be public, but if I am wrong, I am sure I can correct myself shortly.
Accredited campaigners will be subject to additional rules under the Bill relating to spending and donations. The rules follow an established approach set by existing electoral legislation that will be familiar to right hon. and hon. Members and party administrators.
Currently, recognised parties have an imprinted logo on all leaflets to ensure that any leaflet that goes through a door can be traced. Will accredited campaigners have to band together under a logo? If not, how does one trace leaflets and associate them with expenditure on a campaign?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is conflating having an imprint and identifying campaign groups that are working together in concert to fight against an MP. Under the rules on expenditure and the £10,000 limit, if two organisations are working together with a common campaign plan to try to get people to sign a recall petition, they will have to account for their expenditure collectively within that £10,000 limit. They cannot accumulate their expenditure. However, as we know from other elections, it is sometimes difficult to identify whether two campaign organisations are working together to oppose a particular candidate or party, because they might structure their campaigns in a way that is not entirely transparent.
May I take the Minister back to the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)? As I am sure the Minister recalls, political parties currently have to declare to the Electoral Commission any donation they receive above a certain value. Members of Parliament are in addition required to declare to the registrar of interests any donation we receive to our campaigns above a value of, I believe, £500.01. Will the Minister therefore clarify whether a donation to the campaign of the Member of Parliament who faces recall would have to be declared to the appropriate authorities? Would a donation above £1,000 to a political party that is an accredited campaigner have to be declared to the relevant Electoral Commission?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I need to respond to an earlier intervention from the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on imprints. The answer to her is that that will be set out in secondary legislation.
I also want to clarify the point I made in response to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on donations in Northern Ireland. It is a complex and important issue, and she has campaigned for greater transparency. To maintain public trust in the process of recall, it is essential that there is transparency in the funding of accredited campaigners. All donations of more than £500 will have to be reported by accredited campaigners, including the donor’s name. That includes donations from Northern Ireland residents to accredited campaigners. However, there is an exception when the accredited campaigner is a Northern Ireland registered party that is not a minor party, as these are regulated separately by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Under the Act, reportable donations to a Northern Ireland political party are currently not made public. In the specific case of recall, there will be anonymity for the donor. However, that is subject to changes that can be introduced under the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 to increase transparency on donations. I hope that that clarifies the issue for the hon. Lady and has picked up on the point about accredited campaigners having to report donations of more than £500 and the donor’s name.
Schedule 4 will deliver confidence that donations are appropriately controlled. The rules will prevent undue influence by wealthy or foreign donors over the outcome of recall petitions while allowing legitimate donations to be made. The definition of a relevant donation is consistent with wider electoral law. It is based on what counts as a donation to permitted participants at a referendum under the 2000 Act. The definition of permissible donor is based on the definition relating to donations to political parties. That will prevent the overseas funding of recall petition campaigns without preventing UK electors, organisations or companies from donating to campaigners of their choice.
Schedules 3 and 4 provide proportionate regulation of campaigners seeking to raise and spend money, and schedule 5 adds openness. To ensure transparency and compliance with the regulations, details of reportable expenditure and donations to an accredited campaigner must be submitted to the petition officer at the end of the recall process. Those submissions will be available for public scrutiny for a period of two years.
Schedule 5 sets out what is required in a recall petition return and is based on returns for permitted participants in referendums under the 2000 Act, although with appropriate modifications. Responsibility for the administration and conduct of the recall petition falls to the petition officer. That includes receiving and publishing accreditation notices and spending returns from accredited campaigners. The aim has never been to create a highly regulated process, but to ensure, as in a constituency election campaign, that spending and donations are transparent. The Electoral Commission will have a number of advisory, reporting and administrative roles that are similar, although with appropriate modifications, to those it exercises in elections more generally.
Clause 17 amends section 62 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The Act contains an order-making power to introduce controls on loans to candidates at elections, recognised third parties at national election campaigns and permitted participants in a referendum. No orders have yet been made under this section. The amendment made by the clause will extend the order-making power to accredited campaigners in relation to a recall petition. The Bill’s approach is consistent with wider electoral law and will deliver three objectives. First, it will not hinder individuals and groups who have an interest in participating in the petition process. Secondly, the system will prevent disproportionate levels of spending or donations being made in an attempt to influence unduly the outcome of the process. Thirdly, those who spend significant amounts on campaigning will be appropriately regulated and transparent about what they are spending and who is supporting them. I commend these clauses and schedules to the House.
It is very kind of you, Sir Roger, to call me to speak when I have not indicated that I wish to do so. I moved on the Bench to indicate to the Minister that I was most displeased with the response to my earlier intervention. I feel that I need to—[Interruption.] I am absolutely delighted to be called. It is awfully kind of you to call me, Sir Roger. I was not scolding you—I am really pleased.
I was indeed intending to rise. It is so nice of you to call me, Sir Roger.
This is a very important provision. I was under the illusion that the Bill would apply equally throughout the United Kingdom. I was encouraged by the Minister when he read out, very quickly and precisely, the carefully and very skilfully drafted words in relation to expenses, schedules and donations. The Minister built up my hopes by explaining that in Northern Ireland there would have to be a declaration when £500 was donated. However, exemptions will continue for donations to political parties under the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014.
We have the most unusual and completely unjustifiable situation in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland can be safe enough to host the G8 summit in Fermanagh, a border county that at one stage was the heartland of the Provisional IRA and where many people were killed. Northern Ireland was safe enough to host the world police and fire games. Thousands of police and fire officers came to compete and absolutely loved the experience. Despite that, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland introduced the 2014 Act, which extended the period of anonymity for donations to political parties. We are moving in the right direction and there is a time scale in which we hope to be able to remove that anonymity, but at present we do not know who donates to political parties. That is not good for the democratic process in Northern Ireland. It undermines public confidence in the political parties—as if we needed public confidence in Northern Ireland to be undermined any further than it already is.
Since the Belfast agreement, many people have tried to build bridges between the two communities. In some instances, they have been very successful. When it comes to elections, however, the people of Northern Ireland have no idea who is funding the large parties. I do not want to personalise the argument. I sit as an independent MP and that is what I stood as. I am sure the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) would not mind me mentioning her. She represents the Alliance party in this House. Alliance party members on Belfast city council voted to stop flying the Union flag over Belfast city hall on 365 days a year and instead to fly it on only 17 designated days. The hon. Lady, who very courageously represents Belfast East and does not sit on Belfast city council, has been subjected to death threats, and her constituency offices have been targeted regularly. She and her staff have had to put up with the most vile abuse and intimidation, but she courageously defends her seat and represents her constituents. She will not be easily intimidated and I am just full of admiration for her.
I would have expected the Minister to provide Members representing small parties like the Alliance party or those sitting as an independent, as I do, some glimmer of hope that a recall petition could not be funded anonymously by large donations to political parties that could get together to unseat a very able MP. I would hate to think that that would be the outcome in Belfast East. The hon. Lady is a very feisty lady and I am sure she will fight the general election, but that is what the recall petition could do.
The Minister insisted that the Bill has to apply evenly across the United Kingdom in terms of the eight weeks for the recall petition and only four places where people can sign petitions in a constituency. That has to apply equally throughout the UK. Constituents and MPs in Northern Ireland are therefore entitled to know, as they are in Yorkshire, Devon, Cornwall or anywhere else in the United Kingdom, who is funding the recall petition that seeks to unseat them when they have been legitimately and properly elected in Northern Ireland, just as other MPs have been legitimately and properly elected elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I will be as brief as possible. I did not think that this part of the Bill would be contentious—I assumed that that would come with clause 18 and the recall provisions—but I have been somewhat surprised by some of the points made by the Minister. I have taken the opportunity just now, in relation to the points raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), to read through both the Bill and the explanatory notes. I have a great deal of sympathy with her arguments. As far as I can see—the Minister will have the opportunity to be “inspired” and rebut my arguments—there is not a sentence in either the explanatory notes or the Bill that says the provisions will not apply equally to Northern Ireland. The exception is, of course, the donations that are allowed from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, but there is no specific reference to two different recall systems operating.
I suspect the Minister was not lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in Scotland in recent months during our referendum campaign, and I fear nor were those from the Cabinet Office. Many of the Government’s assumptions on collusion simply do not stack up with the reality of what we saw in Scotland. Let me explain. There was a concerted and clear effort by the Scottish National party and its supporters to co-ordinate activity. A number of organisations were set up—including Academics for Yes, Farming for Yes, Mums for Change and Christians for Yes—to receive significant donations from the same individuals, including Brian Souter and Mr and Mrs Weir, for the clear purpose of allowing multiple spends during the campaign.
There was a limit of £1.5 million that any one organisation could spend during the referendum, but the reality was that the yes campaign, through a very small number of donors, was able to stack up multiple spends. The reality is that it was impossible to prove on the ground that collusion was going on, even when brown envelopes were arriving through constituents’ doors with “Referendum information” on them containing four or five pieces of literature from Academics for Yes, Farming for Yes, Wings Over Scotland and others. Therefore, we are not convinced at this stage that the Minister has set out sufficient safeguards to avoid collusion by organisations.
There is a valid point, which was made by the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) and the hon. Member for North Down. The hon. Member for North Down is not a member of any political party, so if I may take her as an example, without sufficiently robust procedures, it would be quite possible for three or four political parties to choose, in effect, to club together and each spend £10,000-plus amounts from multiple unaccredited campaigners, and dwarf what she would be able legitimately to spend, even if she could gather donors who would allow her—as I am sure they would—to spend significantly more than that.
The problem is that throughout this debate we have been constantly referring to schedules or saying, “It will be coming forward in due course.” I want to place on record our belief that before this Bill gets to the Lords, the Government will have to do significant work listening to the interventions from both sides of the Committee to satisfy hon. Members.
I entirely agree. There is merit in further discussion about that because, as the hon. Lady says, unlike in a general election, where there would be three or four competing parties each pursuing a different goal—trying, I would hope, to get their own person elected—in this case three out of four political parties might be pursuing one goal and able to spend £30,000, while the fourth party, the party of the incumbent, would be pursuing the other goal.
I urge the Government to have a careful think and to talk to Members across the House to see whether we can establish some rules. For example, I know that some hon. Members have suggested that rather than capping what each party could spend, we should cap the total spend on the two arguments—that is, for and against recall. I hope that Ministers will consider those arguments in the weeks ahead. We do not wish to detain the Committee; I know that Ministers are listening carefully—I am grateful to see some nods from the Treasury Bench. If the Minister assures me that he will undertake to meet the hon. Member for North Down to discuss her concerns and to meet the Opposition in the days ahead, I will not seek to divide the Committee on this issue.
We have had a useful debate, identifying some areas where the Government could usefully do some more work on the Bill. As we have said on a number of occasions, the process that the Government want to follow with this Bill is one is that allows Members from all parts of the House to make suggestions.
Let me respond to the points made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). One thing that she omitted—I am sure she remembered it, but she did not refer to it—is that for the recall process to start, there has to be a trigger. It is not as if organisations are lining up to try to unseat her or anyone else, such as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long); there is a trigger that starts the process. However, I agree with the hon. Member for North Down that once the process has started, some organisations will have more money to bring to bear on the campaign than she, or I or other individual Members may have.
The hon. Lady has raised a point, which was reflected in the points that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) made about how to ensure a level playing field in expenditure. I am happy to look at the point he made about whether it would be practical to have a total cap on the for and against campaigns. However, I am sure that experienced campaigners will be able to find their way around that approach—[Interruption.] Not my party, of course; I was thinking more of the Labour party. So it would not be a guarantee that one side could not outspend the other.
The anonymity of donations is an issue that the hon. Member for North Down and, indeed, other Northern Ireland Members raise on a regular basis. It would not be appropriate for me to put forward a solution in this Bill to an issue that has been ongoing for some time, but I hope she will acknowledge that at least some partial progress has been made on transparency—albeit perhaps not the full Monty that she would like to see us delivering. She knows much better than I do how complicated politics are in Northern Ireland and how difficult it is to find solutions that are accepted in all camps there.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has approached this Bill in a consensual, engaging way. He highlighted the importance of having safeguards against collusion among different organisations. I accept that that is a significant issue, just as it was in relation to, for example, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, where one of the biggest issues concerned the collective ability of third-party campaigners significantly to outspend others and the difficulties in identifying whether they were acting independently or as part of an organised campaign. Those concerns will also apply to this Bill; I acknowledge that. We need to be aware of the issue and ensure that as many safeguards as possible are put in place—which is why I have said that I would be happy to get back to him on his suggestion of capping both sides of the argument to ensure equality of arms in any recall petition campaign.
The hon. Gentleman raised a point about donations to political parties and the Member of Parliament. For clarity’s sake, let me put it on the record that donations to political parties will be declared and made public under the current legislation—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—rather than the Recall of MPs Bill. An MP who is an accredited campaigner will have to declare relevant donations in the same way as other accredited campaigners.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether I would be willing to meet the Opposition to discuss their concerns about the Bill. We met earlier this morning, and I am happy to meet him whenever appropriate, whenever he feels there is a significant issue he would like to raise. Indeed, if the hon. Member for North Down would like to meet to discuss some of her concerns, Ministers would be happy to do that and to accommodate her.
I do not wish to detain the Committee any longer than necessary, but I wonder whether the Minister can clarify something about his very helpful answer about MPs’ declarations. As I understand it, a Member of Parliament who is fighting a recall petition has not yet vacated their seat, so am I right in thinking that they would have to declare any donation made to the fighting of the recall while they were still an MP, regardless of the outcome of the petition?
As the hon. Gentleman often does, he has come back with a very detailed question, to which I will respond in writing, as I have to conclude the debate on this particular grouping of amendments. I hope what I said has been helpful in setting out the Government’s position. We have identified some further areas where more work needs to be done. I commend these provisions to the Committee.
Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 3 to 5 agreed to.
Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Power to make further provision about conduct of a recall petition etc
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Amendments 50, 51 and 52 seek to amend clause 19 and have been tabled in the name of the Deputy Prime Minister. I will also explain the effect of the other clauses and schedules in the group.
The Law Society of Scotland suggested that, as drafted, there is a circularity in clause 19 that requires clarification. We think that it is unlikely that the clause would be misinterpreted, but would prefer to clarify the drafting to avoid doubt. As drafted, the Speaker may appoint someone to take his place if he is unable to perform his duties. The circularity comes because if he is unable to perform his duties, he is also unable to appoint someone. The Government have therefore proposed these amendments to remove any ambiguity from clause 19. The effect of the clause is the same.
Clauses 18 to 25 are largely technical clauses. They allow the Government to make further regulations about the recall process and to amend or otherwise reflect existing legislation. Clause 18 provides for the Government to make regulations about the conduct of a recall petition. It is envisaged that regulations on the conduct of the campaign will be based on those that exist for elections, with amendments to address the particular circumstances of the recall petition.
Clause 19 mirrors existing legislation, which makes provision for the Speaker’s functions, such as issuing notice to the petition officer, to be exercised by another person in the absence of the Speaker. This can be a person appointed by the Speaker or it can be the Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. As I have mentioned, amendments 50, 51 and 52 remove any ambiguity in this clause.
I could not possibly allow the Minister to move on so quickly from clause 18, which is very important because it ties in with an issue I raised earlier. He referred only to clause 18(1)(a), and I would like him to deal with paragraph (b), which provides that the Minister
“may make provision about the questioning of the outcome of a recall petition and the consequences of irregularities”.
As I raised earlier, if the Member who is being subjected to the recall wishes to stop the petition officer notifying the Speaker, that MP should have the opportunity to take legal advice and to seek an injunction to prevent it from happening. Will the Minister simply confirm that the relevant Minister will not take the opportunity to attempt to oust the jurisdiction of the court if a Member subject to a recall petition has perfectly understandable concerns about the irregularities experienced in the recall petition?
I knew I would not get away without an intervention from the hon. Lady in this final group of amendments. I have more to say, and if I do not address her points, we can return to them later.
Clause 20 introduces schedule 6, which provides for minor and consequential amendments to be made to the Representation of the People Act 1983 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. For example, the Representation of the People Act 1983 will be amended to allow that the form of writ for a by-election can state that it is to be held as a result of a successful recall petition. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 will also be amended to give additional functions to the Electoral Commission in relation to recall petitions. These amendments will give the Electoral Commission functions that are similar, albeit with appropriate modifications, to those it already exercises in relation to elections more generally. Further changes to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 made by schedule 6 ensure that the recall Bill can be successfully introduced into the landscape of existing electoral legislation.
Clause 21 allows the Government to make any further necessary regulations under this Act, and sets out the procedure for doing so. The clause provides for the regulations to be made by statutory instrument.
Clauses 22 to 25 are formal clauses which, respectively, define the interpretation to be given to key words and phrases in the Bill, set out its territorial extent, provide details of when the provisions will come into force, and give the short title of the Bill. I therefore support amendments 50, 51 and 52 in the name of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I commend to the Committee clauses 18 to 25 and schedule 6.
I have three brief points to make. The first echoes the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about clause 18(1)(b). I do not think it satisfactory in this instance to have something decided by further regulation. This is a sufficiently important part of the procedure to be built directly into the Bill, so I ask the Minister to look at that.
My second point relates to clause 18(3)(c). If we are to maintain the position that we have a limited number of designated places, it is not satisfactory for people to be allocated to a specific designated place. If there are only four places in my constituency where people can go to sign this petition, people should not be told which one is the most convenient because it might be the wrong choice given where people work or whatever. I would prefer clause 18(3)(c) to disappear.
Thirdly, on clause 19, the Minister has proposed three explanatory amendments, but I have to ask why on earth the Speaker should be able to appoint a person to perform his functions. We have a system here whereby we elect four special Members: the Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means and the Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. If the Speaker is not able to carry out his functions, those responsibilities will fall naturally to the Chairman of Ways and Means and so on down the chain of command, as it were, in the Speaker’s Office. It is not appropriate for the Speaker to magic somebody else out of thin air to perform his duties when that person is not supported by the election of this House. This is a throwback to the old system whereby a Speaker was elected and everybody else was appointed by the Speaker. That is not appropriate. I ask the Minister to rewrite clause 19 to make it quite clear that in the absence of the Speaker, the Deputy Speakers will take on this responsibility.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I have just three or four brief points and one substantive one. Let me begin with the substantive one.
As the Minister knows, clause 18 is the one about which Opposition Members have the most trepidation—and not just because of experiences in Scotland, but because of the recall petitions in the United States and elsewhere, and indeed because of the events that occurred in Oldham, East and Saddleworth in 2010 and the subsequent conviction in the elections court. The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) has pressed diligently on this matter —today, in Committee last week and, if my memory serves me correctly, on Second Reading, too. Labour Members have some genuine concerns about the material that might be issued during the recall petition campaign. It does not appear to us to be absolutely clear at this stage that both accredited and unaccredited campaigners are required to abide by PPERA. The Minister’s stock reply throughout the evening has been, “We will cover this by means of regulation.” We seek a specific guarantee that the Government intend to ensure that all campaigners are covered by the requirements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.
Will the Member of Parliament still be working as a Member of Parliament during the period concerned? If people write to him saying “I want to know this from you in your capacity as my Member of Parliament”, does he have to declare the costs incurred for his staff or anyone who replies to any such letters? That really does need to be sorted out if we are to have a level playing field.
The hon. Lady has asked an excellent question. It is not for me to speak for the Government—yet—but I understand that during the recall petition phase, a Member of Parliament will still be a Member of Parliament. I trust that the Minister will nod his assent to that. If the petition is successful, the seat will be vacated, and the person concerned will no longer be a Member of Parliament during the period leading up to the by-election.
We need to know more details in regard to a number of issues. As I said earlier, it would be helpful to both Houses if the Government could at least produce draft regulations before the Bill goes to the Lords, if not before for the Report stage in the House of Commons. We think that there is plenty of room for potential abuse by campaigners, who, if not covered by PPERA, could make a series of unfounded allegations. We are concerned about the £500 limit, because a large number of individual constituents who had not supported an MP’s position on another issue could choose to spend £499. Although the petition itself had been called for on specific grounds of wrongdoing, it would then be possible for someone to say “My MP did not support my position on issue x or y.” There needs to be clear guidance not just on spending limits, but on what is written on the leaflets. We want Ministers to confirm that everyone will be covered by PPERA.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) made a valid point about the Speaker. I appreciate that we are not engaging in a broader debate on clause 19, but I think that there is scope for us to consider not just the question of who will appoint a Deputy Speaker, but the question of what will happen if the Speaker himself, or herself, is subject to recall in the future. The Government may say that if the Speaker were in prison, he or she would clearly be absent, but that might be for only one day. An expenses offence might be involved, if our proposed amendment is accepted on Report. We hope that the Government will consult Members on both sides of the House, and will consider clarifying the rules—either on Report or in the House of Lords—to ensure that if the Member of Parliament concerned is the Speaker, there will be a specific procedure enabling the Speaker to be recused from that process.
We have had a long and fulfilling debate, but I think that Ministers have plenty of homework to do. We would give them a C minus today, but they “could do better”. So far they have shown considerable attitude, if not aptitude, and we hope that when we return to the Bill on Report, their homework will be better.
Let me respond briefly to the points that have been made.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was rightly concerned about the possibility that a Member of Parliament could challenge the recall process. Regulations will set out the details of the way in which questioning about irregularities will take place, and the impact that irregularities may have on the outcome of the petition, but the courts will, in certain circumstances, be able to rule that the outcome of the petition is invalid. The hon. Lady may not feel that that is a substantial enough answer to her query, but I shall be happy to meet her if she wants to make further points or to be given further clarification.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) mentioned the limited number of designated places for signing, and the fact that they would be designated: in other words, people would have to go to specific signing points. As he probably realises, the purpose is to ensure that people cannot double-sign. If people could go to any of the four places, they might choose to move from one to another—
Let me help out the hon. Gentleman, who does not usually need any help. According to my recollection, he was not disputing the issue of multiple signing. It was a question of who decided which petition station the constituent was assigned to, which is a slightly different issue.
I do not want to delay things, but if there are four designated places, and there is a long period in which to check whether someone has signed in more than one place, it will not be like a general election, in which people turn up on the day and the result is announced that night. There is no reason why the electoral registration officer cannot detect that someone has visited more than one polling station. However, it may be greatly to the convenience of a person, particularly in a very large constituency, to go to one designated place rather than another to sign, and that may not be the one that happens to be the closest to that person’s house.
I entirely understand that point, although I suspect that had my hon. Friend, in his previous guise, been at the Dispatch Box, he would have made the point that I have made. While in theory it is perfectly possible to check whether someone has signed at different locations, in practice, given that 20,000 people might potentially be signing the petition, it might be quite a hard task for the petition officer to undertake.
As for my hon. Friend’s point about the Speaker, the answer is that the provision follows existing legislation, which is exactly the point that he was making. However, I shall be happy to reflect on whether we need to do anything more.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) wanted to see draft regulations before the Bill reached the House of Lords. I am afraid that I cannot give him that assurance, but I can undertake to make any information that we can provide in advance available before the Bill goes to the Lords. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the Speaker, although he made a slightly different point: he wanted to know what would happen if the Speaker himself was recalled. I think that the Government have understood that point and have covered all bases, but we have offered the hon. Gentleman a meeting, and I should be happy to explain in a further meeting why I think that the House would be able to respond to the scenario that he has in mind. I am grateful to all Members for giving their views. As I have said, these clauses are largely technical, but they are essential for the smooth introduction of a recall power that fits into our existing electoral system and uses safeguards to ensure that recall will be a fair and transparent process. In addition, the Government have tabled amendments 50, 51 and 52 to remove any ambiguity in clause 19. I therefore believe that clauses 18 and 20 to 25, and schedule 6, should remain part of the Bill in their current form.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 18 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Performance of the Speaker’s functions by others
Amendments made: 50, page 13, line 3, after “person” insert
“who is, if a relevant circumstance arises,”
This amendment and amendments 51 and 52 remove a potential ambiguity in clause 19(1).
Amendment 51, page 13, line 4, leave out from “functions”)” to end of line 7 and insert—
‘( ) For the purposes of this section, a “relevant circumstance” arises if—
(a) the Speaker is unable to perform the Speaker’s functions because of absence, illness or for any other reason, or
(b) there is a vacancy in the office of the Speaker.”
Amendment 52, page 13, line 11, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
‘(3) If a relevant circumstance arises and no appointment under subsection (1) is in force, the Speaker’s functions are to be performed by the Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.”—(Tom Brake.)
Clause 19, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 6 agreed to.
Clauses 21 to 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill, as amended, reported.
Bill to be considered tomorrow.