House of Commons
Monday 24 November 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The programme to grow the reserves is on track. We have reversed 18 years of decline. Our more recent official figures, published on 13 November, show an increase in both recruitment and the trained strength of the reserves. Enlistment numbers are increasing and recruitment times are reducing, thanks to improvements that the three services have made.
I am very concerned to hear that the net increase of just 20 reservists is actually a part of the Government’s plan. With our regular forces at their lowest numbers since the Napoleonic wars, the news that just 20 extra reservists have signed up is extremely worrying. Will the Minister tell us his assessment of why the almost £2 million spent on advertising and all the warm words have not led to the extra reservists that we desperately need given the huge reduction in the regular forces that we have seen?
In the six months to 30 September, 2,770 people joined the reserves. That is an increase of 61% compared with the same period last year. The bulk of the difference occurred during the second half of that period, because it is only in the last few months that our changes in the recruiting process have come through.
May I thank my hon. Friend for the important reforms that he has instigated and the fact that he has taken this back and we now look to substantial improvements? May I assure him that recruiting in the Yeomanry Squadron, with which I am associated, is going extremely well? The only problem that remains is for the Government to persuade employers that it is well worth letting their employees go for territorial service.
I am most grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend, who is of course a distinguished former Minister for the Armed Forces. I was privileged to visit the unit he mentions, the Royal Yeomanry, which is now over strength. The point he makes about employers is well taken. We recently enhanced the package for small businesses, with a supplementary £500 a month, on top of the rest of the compensation package for small businesses that release people for operations. We also have a considerable initiative in the wider country.
22. I declare an interest as a member of the Strathclyde-area Lowland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. Can the Minister say whether he has carried out any regional or national analysis of reserve recruitment figures, whether there are any problems in different parts of the country and whether a more individual and specific approach to recruitment requires to be taken as a result? (906199)
I am most grateful for the service that the hon. Lady gives on the RFCA board in Scotland. The RFCAs are critical. To answer her question, we are looking at it. I do not have a comprehensive answer for her, but the four recruitment centres through which every recruit passes have a different track record. Some of them have had much tighter capacity constraints. We have taken measures to ease those. Scotland has had a number of interesting initiatives of its own, as well as leading the way on phase 1 training. We are trying to get best practice spread around the country.
25. However these figures are dressed up, the Ministry of Defence’s own figures show that the trained strength of the Army reserve has actually fallen over the last 18 months. Given that the Government have had to throw more money at the reforms, including added incentives to join up, will the Minister answer the one question that the Government have so far ducked: how much extra are these reforms costing, over and above original estimates? (906202)
Over the past six months, the trained strength of the volunteer reserves has increased by 400, and it is only in the last three months that most of the reforms we have introduced have bitten. The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that we are confident that the figure that we originally offered—1.8, over the 10-year period—will be adequate for the purpose. We are still aiming to reach our targets. Numbers are growing and recruiting is increasing rapidly.[Official Report, 2 December 2014, Vol. 589, c. 1MC.]
A key plank of the Government’s defence policy was to increase the number of reservists to make up for the reduction, by a fifth, of the regular Army, but the latest figures, however dressed up, show an increase of just 20 Army reservists in a year. The Government have had two years, spent millions on advertising and revised down their targets, and there has still been no improvement. It is becoming clear that this key plank is now dead wood. Does the Minister have a plan B, or is “Don’t panic!” the only answer offered by him and Captain Mainwaring there on the Front Bench?
The size of the volunteer reserves, including the then Territorial Army, halved under the last Government, and we inherited a structure that had lost most of its officers and was falling apart. The size of the Regular Army was reduced because of cash constraints that arose from an economic crisis we inherited. Our plans to expand the reserves are not designed as a direct substitute for regular numbers; they are designed to provide the kind of reserve—the framework for expansion—that would be needed in a time of national crisis.
Permission to speak, sir—they don’t like it up ’em, do they? We need to see a clear plan to address concerns about future gaps in the armed forces’ capability, so why have the Government rejected recommendations by the Public Accounts Committee to put in place contingency measures if reserve recruitment continues to fall? Surely that is just plain common sense. Is this not further proof that when it comes to defence, the Government have no strategy and just make it up as they go along?
I think the hon. Gentleman wrote that question before he heard my earlier answer. His premise is that reserve recruiting is falling, but reserve recruiting increased in the last six months by 61% compared with the equivalent period last year. We are confident that it will go on increasing, so the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question is, I am afraid, wrong.
I am sure the whole House warmly welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement on 8 November that from April next year, the armed forces pension scheme ’75 and the war pension scheme will be changed to ensure that war widows will be able to continue to claim the pension when they remarry or cohabit.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on resolving this issue, ensuring that all those entitled to an armed forces pension retain it for life. But may I press her a little harder on what steps individuals affected by this most welcome change have to take to ensure that they benefit from it?
My constituent, Mrs Stella Weatherby, herself a war widow, sends her sincere thanks to the Government, as does the Royal Air Force Association club of Newark, which wrote to me to say that, should the Secretary of State find himself again in Newark—not in a by-election, I hope—he should drop by for a drink or two. Having made this welcome decision, will the Minister encourage her ministerial colleagues to consider the same treatment for widows of police and emergency service workers who have been killed on active service elsewhere?
The Secretary of State and I are always happy to go to the RAFA club in Newark to enjoy a couple of sherbets. Answering my hon. Friend’s question as posed, in blunt terms, the decision was made using the covenant. The view was taken, quite properly, that this section of our armed forces—those widows—suffered a disadvantage by virtue of, usually, their husbands’ service. That is why we did this under the covenant. No Government have ever supported retrospective changes—as would be required for the widows of police officers and members of our fire brigades—in pension plans. I understand the injustice—I absolutely get that—but it would require retrospective changes, which are not a good idea. As I say, the changes made were done quite properly under the covenant, which this Government introduced and put into law.
I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman’s question, as I did not quite understand all of it, but local authorities should always make sure that they invoke the covenant. Having all signed up, they are the ones who can deliver on it. I am keen to ensure that that happens.
As one who said some 10 years ago, when I was shadow veterans Minister, that the next Conservative Government would implement this welcome change, I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State on having delivered something that is of huge benefit and has righted an injustice. Is this not a very good example of the Government’s implementation of the military covenant?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for all the work that he did to support the campaign. These women have campaigned for decades for justice, and it has been possible to achieve it precisely because we put the military covenant into law and are now delivering on it.
During my recent visits I met the Iraqi Prime Minister, Defence Minister and national security adviser, the President and Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Government, and my counterparts in the region, including those in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I hope to meet the King and Crown Prince of Bahrain and the United States Defence Secretary at next week’s conference in Manama for further discussion of steps to counter ISIL.
Our contribution to coalition activity so far has been second only to that of the United States, in surveillance, intelligence-gathering, strike missions, and the supply of arms and ammunition. We plan to provide further training and assistance—specifically, further training for the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi armed forces—and to advise and assist the Iraqi armed forces through the secondment of further advisory personnel to command headquarters. We also plan to make a significant contribution to the training of moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.
I cannot put a time frame on the current action, although I think the United States Secretary of State considered that it would take years rather than months or weeks. The present position is that the advance of ISIL has been halted, but pushing ISIL back out of the territory that it has gained will obviously present a huge challenge to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, supported by the coalition.
Given that British nationals are now known to be fighting with ISIL, with the Syrian army and with the Kurdish forces, what discussions has the Defence Secretary had with the Home Secretary to ensure that we have the legal instruments that will enable us to deal with those people appropriately on their return?
I know that the Home Secretary has been considering that very actively during the last few weeks, and will present further proposals to the House. It is very important for those who go to fight against the interests of this country by supporting ISIL to understand that they are fighting for an organisation that is proscribed, and that if they are detained when they return, they can be charged and prosecuted.
One of the reasons for the initial failure of the Iraqi army against ISIL was its inability to present itself as being part of the Iraqi nation as a whole, given that groups such as the Assyrian Christians and Kurds were excluded. Did the Secretary of State have any discussions about making the army much more inclusive, so that there can be a force that is united against ISIL and fighting on behalf of the whole of Iraq?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. The point that he has made is perfectly fair. I continue to make clear to the Defence Minister and Prime Minister in Baghdad that they must have the support of all interests in Iraq. I think that the recent agreement between three of the tribes in Anbar province and the Iraqi army to fight ISIL together, and the growing rapprochement—the interim agreement—between the Kurdish Regional Government and the federal Government in Baghdad, are pointers to the growing inclusiveness of the Government, which must be demonstrated in action. The reforms that are being made to the army, including the dismissal of some corps commanders and the recruitment of a genuinely inclusive national guard, are hopeful signs for the future.
Bilateral Training Programmes (Libya)
Given the deteriorating security situation in Libya, I have not had the chance to discuss training with my Libyan counterpart, but I continue to discuss the situation in Libya with our regional partners. General purpose force training was designed in 2013 at the request of the Libyan Government. The majority of trainees met the required standards but some did not. That was unacceptable and work is already under way on the report that the Prime Minister has commissioned.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. As he has touched on, the Government’s much-heralded UK training programme collapsed after serious allegations about the behaviour of some of the individuals, but of course that does not mean we should abandon the moderate elements in Libya. Will the Secretary of State outline the practical steps he is taking to deal with what has happened, and when can we expect to see the details of the new programme, wherever that is carried out?
This training programme was organised by the United Kingdom at the request of the Libyan Government and a number of locations were considered for it. The most cost-effective turned out to be here in the UK, but I think it likely that we shall learn from this and that this kind of training is probably better provided and organised in the country itself, or very close to it. That is difficult at the moment given the security situation in Libya, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to work with all parties in Libya, particularly the moderates in all three factions in Libya, to secure a political settlement.
Three hundred and twenty-eight signed up originally. Some 100 left during the course of their training by agreement with the Libyan authorities. The remainder have all now been returned properly to Libya, apart from five who remain in custody and a very small handful who have claimed asylum.
On 26 October, our troops left Camp Bastion and, as confirmed by the Secretary of State, the final UK personnel left Kandahar airfield yesterday. All of our major equipment and matériel has now left the country. A few hundred UK personnel remain in Kabul, at the invitation of the Afghans, to train the Afghan army’s future officers and provide continuing support to Afghan security ministries. I share the Defence Secretary’s view that our armed forces can take great pride in the completion of their deployment to southern Afghanistan. Thanks to their courage and dedication, the country has the best possible chance of a stable future. Our departure from Kandahar airfield is therefore an historic milestone.
Is not the need for a swift start to an inquiry into the Afghan war proved by the fact that today is the fifth anniversary of the start of the Chilcot inquiry, which planned to report within 12 months? Do not the loved ones of the 179 of our brave soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq need to know the truth and why they were sent there in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and the relatives of the 451 casualties need to know why we went into Helmand in the belief that not a shot would be fired? Can the Minister give us an assurance that these reports are not being delayed by those who will be judged guilty by them?
It was 453, and we honour them all. We have been learning tactical lessons through our operations in Afghanistan, such as better detection and defusing of IEDs. Of course we will want to look at broader lessons that can be learned from the campaign, but our focus has been on a successful draw-down and no decisions have been taken yet on any review. In making such a decision on a review, the Government will wish to learn how best any improvements could be made both quickly and practically.
I welcome the Government’s role in bringing together the London conference on Afghanistan, which is taking place on 4 December. Will the Minister briefly update the House on what the Government’s aims are? How hopeful are the Government of being successful at that conference?
The conference will centre mainly on economic development, but it is worth recording that we should be very proud of what our armed forces have done. We have assisted in training the Afghans to deliver their own security and to protect their elections, which led to the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history and the election of a national unity Government. It is now for the Afghans to determine their own future, with our ongoing support. They have done this because of the hard work of our troops. We have given them a chance; we must hope they will take it.
The position of Afghan interpreters is of great concern. Only a very few have been given the right to settle in this country. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the rest of them will be protected? After all, they sacrificed their lives on behalf of our country.
We have two schemes in place—those who served alongside UK forces for substantial periods are eligible to receive financial packages, and those who served alongside us on the front line have, in some cases, the option of resettlement in the United Kingdom. So far about 350 have opted for the resettlement package. There is a separate intimidation policy which protects those locally employed civilians at risk as a result of their employment with Her Majesty’s Government. In the most extreme cases that includes the option to resettle in the United Kingdom. The processing of those cases is ongoing, but it is important to remember that there are two schemes working in parallel.
Armed Forces Covenant
In addition to doing the right thing by our war widows, I am pleased to report that 3,222 applications to the Forces Help to Buy scheme have been approved, and 1,864 service personnel have received funding totalling about £28 million.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend and I thank her for that supplementary question. I am in the process of writing to the chief executive and leader of every local authority because, as we know, most services are delivered locally. This is not about money. It is about putting into action everything that they have signed up to. There is a great deal of work that local MPs can do to make sure that local authorities have a forces champion and that they are delivering on the covenant.
The Minister is well aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and I have been raising the case of the late Corporal McLaughlin, who lost his life in the Falklands in 1982. We recently discussed this matter during a constructive Westminster Hall debate. Yesterday The Mail on Sunday reported that the MOD will make rigorous and extensive inquiries into this case on behalf of his family. I welcome that, if it is correct. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case and say what form those inquiries will take?
I can confirm that. I pay tribute to Corporal McLaughlin, who was undoubtedly incredibly brave. What he did in the Falkland Islands was remarkable. I pay tribute to the debate that we had last week. I have met Lord Astor, who is the Minister responsible for medals. We had an exceptionally good meeting and there will indeed be such an investigation. We will report that accordingly.
20. I represent many constituents who work and do great service at DMS Whittington. They and I are fully aware which Government enshrined the armed forces covenant in law. Will my hon. Friend continue to build on the covenant to ensure that our armed forces get the best clinical staff and clinical support, as they deserve? (906197)
Absolutely. It was a great pleasure to go to DMS Whittington back in October. This is where we now have to do the work—it is going to be quite difficult, because we have to get the message out right across the NHS that there should be no disadvantage to those who have served and that, in special circumstances, they should receive special consideration, based on bereavement and particularly bad injuries. GPs and all health professionals must be alert to that. We all have a role to play in making sure that in the NHS we deliver on the armed forces covenant.
Two weeks ago I met a veteran in Preston who was injured in service and now uses a prosthetic leg. He is being treated in a regular NHS clinic, not in the specialist veterans prosthetics centre in Preston. He wants to know why, and so do I. The Minister reportedly says that her job is not demanding. When will she start doing it properly and make sure that there is some connection between what she says at the Dispatch Box and the treatment that our veterans actually get?
I assure the hon. Lady that I never said any such thing. It is an absolute pleasure and a great honour to do the job that I do, and I like to think that I do it with total commitment. I, too, want to know why that man has not received the treatment he says he should have received, and I should be grateful if the hon. Lady met me so that we can discuss why that is. I have no difficulty whatsoever in taking up every single case and asking the questions. It was a challenge I threw down to the BBC; I said, “I want to know the names and I want to help.” I am waiting to hear of any of those details. I look forward to the hon. Lady’s supplying me with the details relating to her constituent; we will get it sorted.
The armed forces covenant had all-party support, and we should remember that. The Minister referred to local government. Can she give an assurance that all Government Departments are signed up to the covenant, and particularly the Department of Health regarding general practitioners, veterans and hearing loss?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and good point. He has asked a couple of questions in one, and I hope to answer them as fully as I can. It is delivery that is important, which means that all our Departments have to sign up to it, but of course, they can play a part in delivering the corporate covenant as well. However, there is more that we can do, and we have to get the message out across the NHS and through the devolved Administrations. If we all do that—if I may say, working together to ensure that—we can absolutely deliver on the covenant in the way we want.
Does the covenant offer an opportunity for local and national Government to respond to my constituent Sue MacLean’s campaign to ensure that veterans who pass away without anyone to deal with their affairs have something more than a pauper’s funeral to recognise their passing?
I am more than happy to discuss this with the hon. Gentleman. We know that our forces charities play such an incredibly important part in the welfare of and assistance given not only to those who serve, but to veterans. We have a fabulous system in this country of which we should be proud.
Being a reservist is a great way to experience adventure with new comrades, develop leadership qualities, learn new skills and get paid up to £3,000 in the first year, while maintaining a civilian life and day job. Funding of nearly £2 million has been delegated to fund regional and unit initiatives, as we believe that it is from the unit level that the greatest impetus for recruiting should come.
On Remembrance Sunday, I had the honour and privilege of meeting the commander of the reserve base in my constituency. He made it clear that capacity was available for new volunteers to come forward. What further steps does my hon. Friend suggest we can take to ensure that people locally can volunteer, should they wish to do so?
The short answer is that we have a very considerable advertising programme and a programme of engagement with employers—from the civil service down to small businesses and the special measures for them that I mentioned. The best advocates of all are serving reservists themselves, who need to go out and talk about the new opportunities. Examples include the platoon from my own constituency which, with a reserve officer commanding it, is going off to serve in Afghanistan from February onwards; the company that has just been to Cyprus; and all the other opportunities that are available in reserve service.
The fantastic 7 Rifles, based at Brock barracks in my constituency, will be encouraged by my hon. Friend’s answer, but could he please outline any specific incentives that employers are being offered to encourage their employees to become reservists? He has talked about the package for small businesses; can he provide a bit more detail, please?
I in fact served in the unit to which my hon. Friend refers when it was 4th Green Jackets. The £500 a month on deployment available to small businesses is over and above the full compensation package available to all employers when soldiers are away on operations. It is estimated that the training experience gained from an average period of mobilisation is worth up to £8,000 for a private, £14,000 for a sergeant and £18,000 for an officer. We have a full employer recognition scheme for supportive employers, and I myself have signed off a number of the dozens of organisations coming through, large and small, that want to be part of this exciting initiative.
I have had the privilege of meeting reservists and potential reserve recruits up and down the country, including in Wales. Many potential recruits are deeply disturbed by the length of time they are having to wait after their initial expression of interest. What is the Minister’s estimate of the number who are dropping out of the reserve recruitment process as a result of the delays that are being experienced by so many people?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that there was a very considerable glitch in the pipeline, but we have taken a number of steps to solve it. People can now be enlisted even if their medical documents have not caught up with them, and they can be enlisted pending their security checks once they have done the initial interview. We have also very considerably increased the capacity at the assessment centres so that people are not caught waiting for places. All those changes are making a considerable difference. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer to his final question, but it is quite a number. I hope that that will not be the case in future, however, because the process has now speeded up so much.
Reports by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Defence Select Committee into Army 2020 have all said that Ministers have not done the basic work necessary to bring forward those reforms successfully. Poor planning data have been used, and assumptions have not been properly tested. What is the Minister going to do to put right this shambles?
The outline of the plan came from the original “Future Reserves 2020” review, which was chaired by the current Chief of the Defence Staff. The early blueprint was put together by General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the General Staff. The hon. Gentleman is partly right: there were some mistakes in the early stages relating to the way in which the recruiting pipeline was organised. Since those early glitches, we have made considerable changes—relating to meeting a common standard, for example—and recruits are now coming through in much greater numbers.
Since Parliament authorised military action in support of combat operations, the Royal Air Force has flown some 139 missions, gathering intelligence, providing surveillance and striking some 37 targets. We are already providing training and equipment to Kurdish forces and we are now preparing to provide further infantry, combat first aid, sharp-shooting and counter-improvised explosive device training.
Does the Secretary of State agree that if our policy aim in Iraq is the successful containment of ISIL, we are indeed making a fantastic contribution towards that, but that if our aim is the degradation or destruction of ISIL, as we were originally told, that will occur only if there is significant political engagement by the Baghdad Government, particularly with Sunni-friendly tribes? Does he agree that, unless we have that wider political engagement, what we are doing is either unnecessary or not enough?
Let me confirm to my hon. Friend that it is indeed our aim to help the legitimate Government of Iraq to degrade and defeat ISIL in that country. I agree that the new Government of Iraq have to be inclusive, and they are: they represent Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds. The new defence Minister is a Sunni, and I have emphasised to him the importance of demonstrating that the Iraqi national army is there for all the peoples of Iraq.
May I remind the Secretary of State that, when I asked the Prime Minister about boots on the ground, he said that they would not be the boots of our own troops but other people’s boots? I have to tell the Secretary of State that, when representatives of my Kurdish community came to see me recently, they were angry that the Kurds fighting for us against ISIL were not being provided with enough machinery or weaponry.
I have been to Kurdistan and I was in a training ground close to Irbil where I saw for myself the Kurdish forces training on the heavy machine guns that we in this country had donated to them. We are following that up with the supply of other arms and equipment and, just as importantly, the training to go with it.
23. There have been recent successes for the Iraqi army and its associated militias of late, but those have been costly, both in lives and equipment. To what extent has the lost equipment been replaced and to what extent are the British Government assisting in that replacement? (906200)
There have been losses to the Iraqi and the Kurdish forces, which is an indication that they are taking the fight to ISIL, and it is important that we support them in that task. The Iraqi Defence Minister handed me a list of some of the gaps in their capabilities. We are now looking at that and seeing what can be supplied from our inventory, and we are encouraging other countries to do the same.
In September the Prime Minister announced that he would bring both carriers into service so that we always have one carrier available 100% of the time. Final equipment installation and system commissioning plans are being developed for both the aircraft carriers, so we expect HMS Queen Elizabeth to proceed to sea under her own power for the first time in 2017 and HMS Prince of Wales to do so in 2019.
As my hon. Friend knows from his persistent challenging of the Front-Bench team on this and other equipment issues, we recognise the need to consider how to meet the maritime patrol aircraft capability gap as part of the strategic defence and security review 2015.
The Army 2020 programme will deliver the flexible and adaptable force the nation needs to defeat the threats of the future, and it is on track. The Army is in the middle of the busiest period of change in the programme, which will see the majority of units completing their reorganisation next year. Despite this ambitious change, the Army remains fully deployable to support current operations, including those in west Africa.
The Government significantly revised down their reserve target, but have made no equivalent changes to the programme of redundancies. With all the redundancies now complete but thousands of reserves still to be recruited, is the Army currently under strength and has Britain been left with a dangerous capability gap?
Absolutely not. This is a five-year programme to restructure our forces, as they shift from focusing on the campaign in Afghanistan to being an Army that is sufficiently adaptable to be able to meet any threat the nation faces in future. For example, we currently have some 1,350 troops on exercise in Poland and more than 850 deployed to tackle Ebola in west Africa.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Department on what they have achieved towards this programme. Will he share with the House precisely how we are helping families who may want their loved ones to serve as reservists but have misgivings about what the implications will be?
I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend on that. It is very important that families understand the nature of service life, and there can be some misapprehension about the scale and length of reserve activity. If I may, I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), the Minister responsible for the reserves, to meet her to see what further reassurance he can offer.
Compensation Claims (Injured Veterans)
We have taken on extra staff, including five accredited doctors, to make sure that we process complaints and cases quickly. On the armed forces compensation scheme, I assure the hon. Lady that 100% of the cases of those with the most serious injuries are cleared within 20 days. We are making good progress; I have the full figures available to me, and I will share them with her.
I thank the Minister for her reply. One of my constituents who was injured in Iraq tells me that she is caught up in a quagmire of red tape. She says that many of her queries go unanswered and that it takes years to settle claims. There is an online petition asking for an inquiry into the Veterans Agency in relation to those problems. What will the Minister do about it?
If the hon. Lady writes to me directly, I will be more than happy to take up her constituent’s difficulty and claim; I have no trouble with that. There have been difficulties, but good progress is being made. Unfortunately, some claims take much longer, because of their complexity and the changing nature of medical needs, diagnoses and prognoses. I can assure her that, in general, we are making good progress.
The Ministry of Defence is providing significant support to the Department for International Development-led effort to combat Ebola. We have deployed RFA Argus with three Merlin helicopters on board. We have also deployed more than 800 personnel for a range of tasks, including providing planning support to the Government of Sierra Leone; supervising the construction of six Ebola treatment units; training more than 3,000 local health care workers, which will increase to 4,000 by the end of the month, exceeding our original target; and manning a 12-bed treatment facility. I saw elements of all those initiatives when I visited Sierra Leone a fortnight ago. I am sure that the whole House will join me in commending our armed forces personnel who are working to combat this terrible disease.
Two reservists are already working in the joint civilian military headquarters in Sierra Leone, and another two are soon to deploy to the region. In a month or so, we expect 18 reservist medics to deploy to Sierra Leone to work alongside their regular counterparts in the 12-bed Ebola treatment centre at Kerry Town. We should also pay tribute to those NHS personnel who have recently mobilised and travelled out to Sierra Leone to join that effort as well.
A church in my constituency would like to send food parcels to Sierra Leone, the capital of which, Freetown, is twinned with Hull. However, it found the transport costs prohibitive, and asked me whether it could work with the Ministry of Defence to find ways of getting the food parcels over to Sierra Leone to help families who are affected by Ebola.
My immediate priorities remain our current operations in Afghanistan and against ISIL and Ebola as well as the commitments reached at the NATO summit and the delivery of Future Force 2020. I want to build up our reserve forces and invest in the equipment that our armed forces need to keep Britain safe.
Has the Secretary of State noted the comments made today by the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) who said that he is very disappointed
“that there appears to be no public dialogue about the Strategic Defence and Security Review in advance this time round?”
Why are the Government so reluctant to have an open and transparent debate about the future of Britain’s defence?
T2. The number of cyber-attacks against computer systems in the UK are increasing every year, and it is suspected that foreign Governments may well be involved in some of those attacks. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to deter such attacks, and what is being done to protect our critical infrastructure? (906169)
The Ministry of Defence takes the cyber-threat very seriously. Indeed, I visited one of our joint cyber-units only last week. The priority is to keep our networks and systems defended and operational. Since 2010, we have invested several hundred million pounds to help maintain the UK’s cyber-security and cyber-defences. In July, the Prime Minister announced a package of investment for our armed forces, which included a further £75 million over four years to help maintain a leading edge capability in this vital field.
Opposition Members were pleased that the Secretary of State took the opportunity, following articles that suggested the opposite, to confirm that the Type 26 will be built in Scotland and not overseas. However, he did not take the opportunity to allay fears about the slippage in the programme, with the approval date going beyond mid-2015. Will he do so today?
Let me take the opportunity absolutely to reinforce the point the hon. Lady makes. UK warships are built only in UK yards. I do not think I can make the position on the Clyde any clearer, and I hope she will take some reassurance from that. I am aware of what she says about the timetable and we are addressing that. I hope that we can make some early decisions, at least on some of the longer lead items that feed into the Type 26 programme, in the very near future.
T4. We are the only country in the world to pay legal aid to foreign nationals to sue our own soldiers. The MOD spends many millions more defending these claims. Is there anything more that the Secretary of State can do to divert these millions of pounds away from the legal profession on to the equipment budget? (906172)
I agree with some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. There is no place, in my view, for European human rights law to come into any of this. We have a Geneva convention and we have good strong international law that should determine these matters. I am concerned, however, about how some solicitors act. All solicitors, like those in all professions, are guided by strict codes of conduct and if anyone thinks that a firm of solicitors or an individual is not abiding by that code, they should absolutely report them to their professional body so that swift action is taken. They should at all times behave with complete integrity.
T3. Official figures show that the Government granted 68 export licences for nearly £7 million-worth of military-use items to be sent to Israel between January and June of this year. What discussions did the Defence Secretary have with the Business Secretary about those licences and why did the Government refuse to suspend them during the offensive on Gaza this summer, when they clearly broke the guiding principle of being responsible exports? (906170)
The Government were concerned to look at any export licences that had been granted and undertook an initial review in August. We launched another review earlier this month and when it is available we will respond to the hon. Lady.
T6. I sincerely welcome the Government’s recent decision to grant pensions to forces widows who remarry. However, there are still 126 divorced spouses, including one of my constituents, who are denied access to their anticipated pensions due to an administrative error by an agency of the Ministry of Defence. In the light of the recent decision, will the Minister reconsider these cases and see what can be done across government to put this right? (906174)
The short answer is yes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done on his constituent’s case. He can be assured that I am aware of the ruling. Consideration is being given by lawyers from both the MOD and the Department for Work and Pensions. I am very happy to continue to work with him and to help his constituent.
T5. Is the Secretary of State not concerned about what has happened in Georgia and Mr Putin’s record of expansion towards the rest of Europe? Does that not worry him? This is a time when the Government are weak on the European Union, in their relationships across Europe and in their partnerships in NATO. Are they not the worst Government? They are allowing Britain to sleep—[Interruption.] They do not like to hear it, Mr Speaker. They are allowing Britain to sleep and they are a Government who remind me of the age of Neville Chamberlain. (906173)
There was a reference earlier to Captain Mainwaring and I think the answer to the hon. Gentleman is, “Stupid boy.” That is not the position. We are a predominant member of NATO and I am as concerned as anybody by the actions of President Putin in destabilising eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea. The northern members of NATO discussed that last week in the Oslo meeting and we are determined to continue a programme of large-scale exercises involving multiple countries in the territories of the eastern members of NATO precisely to provide reassurance to those countries and to deter Russia from any further aggression.
T7. My hon. Friend recently signed an £800 million contract for the development of a state-of-the-art radar system for the Eurofighter Typhoon. What are the implications of that decision for the protection of our skies and for British jobs? (906175)
The contract signed last week in Edinburgh is a major step forward in developing radar capability for the Eurofighter Typhoon. It will increase operational effectiveness by simultaneously tracking air and ground targets at range. It also represents a significant investment in the UK defence industry, sustaining jobs in BAE Systems in Lancashire and in the whole radar supply chain, including some 500 jobs in Scotland, half of which are for highly skilled engineers, which would not have happened in the same way had Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom.
The construction costs for the second aircraft carrier have been identified within the MOD equipment budget. However, Government Front Benchers have been reluctant to identify the operational costs. As well as having a second carrier, would it not be a good idea to be able to put it into operation? Will they take this opportunity to clarify the position?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to explain once again to the House that it is this Government who have decided to make both carriers operational, unlike the previous Government, who were going to leave the second one tied up. The Ministry of Defence is now conducting a detailed analysis to develop how best to utilise the capability, including man power and aircraft numbers, which will become clear as part of the strategic defence and security review 2015.
T8. In addition to Army Reserve numbers going backwards over the past 18 months, recent answers to written parliamentary questions show that there has been no improvement in the age profile of the existing Territorial Army/Reserve, with the average age of the infantryman stuck at 35 and the average age of senior non-commissioned officers and junior officers in the 40s. Why are the Government not tackling that? (906176)
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for his question. On his premise, I remind him that over the past six months numbers have been moving firmly in the right direction as a result of the upturn in recruiting. On his question about age, I make no apology for a reserve force recruiting some older people, especially ex-regulars, who bring much experience. Fitness is a major requirement for all those people, and it is this Government who over the past few years have re-established a common standard for fitness across regulars and reservists.
In the 2010 SDSR the UK Government committed to reducing the number of launch tubes from 12 to eight. A recent opinion poll issued by the US navy states that the American firm General Dynamics will build 12 Trident missile launch tubes for a successor UK submarine, something that has not yet been approved by this Parliament. Is that true? If so, why has the House not been informed, and why do we need to learn about it from US navy press releases?
With 1,000 people killed since the Minsk accord in Ukraine, with up to 1 million displaced and with NATO countries such as Lithuania looking as though they might be prepared to be more deeply involved, can we be told what the latest news is from the European monitoring team on the state of the ceasefire and the risk of escalation involving NATO countries?
I will ensure that the Foreign Office updates my hon. Friend on the latest status of the monitoring. The best answer we can give is to make it absolutely clear that the sanctions will stay in place and, if there is any further destabilisation of Ukraine, they should be increased. In the meantime, it is important that all NATO members keep up their defence spending and commit to the very high readiness taskforce that was agreed at the NATO summit.
I have pressed Ministers previously about the increase in pension age for MOD police and firefighters, who merely want parity with their civilian counterparts. Will Ministers look at this again given the very high costs associated with redeploying older workers and people having to be retired early on heath grounds?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Negotiations continue, but the MOD Police Federation takes the view that it is looking for retirement at 65. It is not quite as simple as straight parity with the civilian forces, but we continue to negotiate with everyone.
As a friend of the Forces Children’s Trust, which you, Mr Speaker, very kindly host in your apartments every year, may I ask the Secretary of State whether the children of service widows will have a guaranteed pension until the age of 18 despite the fact that their mothers may have remarried?
I do not know if I can give an answer to that; it is a new one on me, if I may say so. No doubt my hon. Friend will want to discuss it further with me, and I am more than happy to do so. Again, this is where the power of the covenant comes in, because if people can establish a disadvantage, then the covenant can deliver justice.
Today in Craigneuk in my constituency, the first sod will be cut on the building of new homes for ex-service personnel. Will the Minister join me in congratulating all the local volunteers who have been working so hard to ensure that this much-needed project goes ahead?
Absolutely. I congratulate my hon. Friend—I hope he does not mind me calling him that; he knows exactly what I mean, because he is a friend in this regard—on the work that he is doing to support such great schemes. These schemes are doing remarkably good work, not only in delivering better homes but, invariably, enabling the veterans who get involved to learn skills and helping those who have been damaged in any way to restore themselves and get back into the world of work.
I read in the media that the greatest threat to the United Kingdom is considered to be so-called Islamic State and jihadism. While I am not a great fan of deploying troops to Syria, does the Secretary of State believe that NATO, the western powers or the coalition in Iraq—whomsoever—should be reassessing the help they are giving in Syria and in Iraq to defeat Islamic State?
The Prime Minister has made it clear that ISIL can only be defeated both in Iraq and in Syria. There are now some 50 countries involved in a huge international and regional effort to support the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their action against ISIL in Iraq, but we also have to consider what more can be done in Syria. We support the United States in its strike missions in Syria, and we are looking at what more can be done to train moderate Syrian elements outside Syria itself.
May I commend to Ministers the film “Kajaki”? It is a brutal but brilliant account of soldiering on the front line in Afghanistan, and, as such, should be seen by all in this House. Will the Secretary of State consider going to see the film?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As we approach the 200th anniversary of Gurkha service in the British Army, will my hon. Friend look with sympathy on the recommendations made by the all-party group on Gurkha welfare so that we do right by these veterans of the British Army too?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that negotiations with defence police and firefighters are still ongoing, but time is running out because the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 comes into effect on 1 April. Will my hon. Friend ensure that these negotiations are concluded to the satisfaction of both sides well before then?
What are the base-porting arrangements for the remaining Trafalgar class submarines?
My hon. Friend has been pressing me on this issue for some time and I can confirm today that while the Clyde will become our main submarine base from 2020, HMS Torbay and HMS Trenchant, which are both due to decommission shortly, will remain at Devonport in order to minimise disruption to their crews and the crews’ families.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this unexpected boon. As he prepares for next year’s SDSR, may I commend my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary on the merits of an open and inclusive process that maximises the involvement of the public, Parliament, industry and academics?
I certainly welcome that suggestion. I think there should be a wide-ranging process. The point I made earlier was that we cannot start the review now in 2014—it is scheduled for 2015—but it is important, obviously, that we consult widely when it gets under way, not least with our international allies.
In welcoming the announcement about war widows, may I ask whether it is the case that a war widow who lost her widow’s pension on remarriage but who has subsequently become single again is eligible to have it reinstated and never taken away under any circumstances thereafter?
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 4 November, I tabled a written question to the Home Secretary, asking how many Libyan service personnel who received training in the UK had claimed asylum. I received a reply on 17 November saying that it was not the policy of the Home Office, hiding behind the Data Protection Act, to disclose personal information. On 18 November, I tabled a similar question, only to be told that it would not be possible to answer the question in the time available. Today the Defence Secretary has confirmed that a handful of personnel have actually claimed asylum. Does he think that the Home Office’s replies are acceptable, and how would he suggest that we go about getting an answer with the actual numbers who have claimed asylum?
Of course, that is not a matter for me. When the hon. Gentleman asks whether “he” can advise on this or that, I assume he means me. I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not expect the Secretary of State to criticise one of his ministerial colleagues—the Secretary of State will not do that. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman, in so far as he requires my protection or advice, is that he needs to pursue his usual approach, which is to be a busy bee. He should table questions and, in a legitimate, parliamentary sense, nag. In my experience of the hon. Gentleman, he requires no encouragement to do just that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In exchanges on Friday, the shadow Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), told me with regard to the privatisation of Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire that
“when the previous Government left office there were three bidders, one of which was an NHS provider, so he really needs to get his facts straight”—[Official Report, 21 November 2014; Vol. 588, c. 575.]
I have checked the facts with the National Audit Office, the strategic health authority at the time and the press, and the three bidders still in place when the shadow Health Secretary left office were Circle, Ramsay Health Care and Serco, which are hardly NHS providers. Indeed, none of the final five was. Could you provide an opportunity, Mr Speaker, for the shadow Health Secretary to correct the record so as to avoid misleading the House on this important issue?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I hope he will understand if I do not wish to intrude into what is becoming a protracted debate between him and the shadow Health Secretary, who responded by e-mail to the hon. Gentleman at 1.46 pm and 23 seconds today. I just have a sense that there is an ongoing debate and dispute between the two of them and it would be unseemly for me to intrude in that continuing argument. We will leave it there.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I hope that you will not consider this a “Stupid boy” point of order, but something on which you can give me some advice. Fairly recently, I have noticed more and more references made to right hon. and gallant or hon. and gallant Members, and I have tried to find out who is and who is not gallant. I served in the cadet force at school, but I am told that even if a Member without a commission—an ordinary soldier—had won the Victoria Cross, he would still not be called “gallant” because it applies only to officers. Will you clear up who is and who is not gallant in that sense?
There is no difference between commissioned and non-commissioned for this purpose. Beyond that, I would tell the hon. Gentleman, to whom I would never intend any discourtesy, that the decision whether to use the term—the newly appointed Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), chooses to do so—is purely a matter of taste. If memory serves, the former Minister, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), was himself partial to using the term, and I think it has been used in relation to him as well. It is a matter of parliamentary taste. I am sure that we all intend to show good taste to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), as he is now in his 35th year of parliamentary service.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask, while members of the Defence team are still in their places, whether you have been informed that we are in sight of having the statement or debate on the ending of the campaign in Afghanistan, and the lessons to be drawn from that, which we were promised a little while ago?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You very kindly referred to me as potentially gallant—I am not sure whether that is right—but I do not think that we ought to take this practice too far. I am sure you would agree, Sir, that we should not extend it to former members of cadet forces.
The hon. Gentleman has never sought any particular acknowledgment. I do not want to embarrass him, because this is something of a tribute to him, but he is the only Member of the House I have ever come across who has phoned the organisers of a parliamentary awards competition to protest at his inclusion on the shortlist and to demand his removal. He certainly cannot be accused of seeking prizes or special recognition, and I respect that.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. While the traditional practice of referring to those who have served as gallant Members may have fallen into desuetude, surely at this present time—when the nation has been committed to military options, and there is seriously enhanced concern for the well-being of members of our armed forces—there is a purpose in maintaining the tradition. It indicates that many right hon. and hon. Members across the House—I see that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), in particular, is in his place—have served themselves, which sends out a message to the nation. I am a traditionalist, but surely tradition serves the House and the nation in this case.
Members may agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is why they deploy the term. I certainly could not disagree with the latter part of the point of order. Indeed, the word “traditional” could have been invented to describe him, and he is none the worse for that. I thank him for what he has said.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.
This topic allows me to mention to you, Mr Speaker, that just fewer than 60 Members of this House have served in the armed forces at some point, either in the regulars or the reserves. That is almost one in 10 Members of the House of Commons. We hold a service every year for veteran MPs, so that they have an opportunity to pay tribute to the fallen. We had one recently, which some 30 colleagues attended. I apologise to the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) because he was not on the list. We will rectify that and invite him next year. I very much hope that he will be minded to come.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order that the Prime Minister has made an announcement to the Australian Parliament about a future counter-terrorism Bill and the Home Secretary has, this morning, made a detailed speech about the contents of that Bill before it has been announced to this House?
I have not yet read the Home Secretary’s speech, although that delight awaits me ere long. I feel sure that if a significant policy announcement is contained therein, she will want to communicate it to the House sooner rather than later. If, for some reason, that does not happen—it seems to me inconceivable that it will not—the hon. Lady is experienced in the use of parliamentary devices to ensure that Ministers are held to account in a timely way on the Floor of the House.
We will leave it there. I am grateful to colleagues for their very full appetite for points of order today.
Recall of MPs Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Committee
New Clause 2
Recall condition: method of petitioning an election court
‘(1) This section applies when persons allege conduct by an MP which constitutes misconduct in the office of member of parliament.
(2) A petition under this section may be presented if signed by at least five hundred persons who are registered as electors in the constituency of the MP named in the petition.
(3) The petition shall be in the prescribed form, state the prescribed matters and be signed by all the petitioners, and shall be presented to the High Court, or to the Court of Session, or to the High Court of Northern Ireland, depending on whether the constituency to which it relates is in England and Wales, or Scotland or Northern Ireland.
(4) The petition shall be presented by delivering it to the prescribed officer or otherwise dealing with it in the prescribed manner; and the prescribed officer shall send a copy of it forthwith to The Speaker and to the MP therein named.
(5) The election court shall be constituted as if it were constituted under section c123 (constitution of election court and place of trial) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and sections 124 and 126 of that Act shall apply as if were so constituted.
(6) “Prescribed” has the same meaning as in section 185 (Interpretation of Part III) of the Representation of the People Act 1983.’—(Dr Huppert.)
This new Clause establishes a further recall condition or trigger, independent of Parliament or criminal conviction, whereby five hundred or more constituents may petition an election court alleging improper behaviour on the part of their MP.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 3—Recall condition: consideration by election court—
‘(1) This section applies when a petition alleging conduct by an MP which constitutes misconduct in the office of member of parliament has been received by an election court as properly presented under section (The third recall condition: method of petitioning an election court).
(2) The court may consider such conduct wherever it is committed, and whether or not it is committed directly in carrying out the office of member of parliament.
(3) The court must examine evidence adduced of misconduct, and any evidence produced in rebuttal by the MP.
(4) The court must consider whether, on the basis of such evidence, it is reasonable to believe that the MP has misconducted himself or herself, to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the MP, without reasonable excuse or justification.
(5) If the court considers, on the basis of such evidence, that the allegation of misconduct is—
(a) not supported by the evidence; or
(b) trivial or vexatious in nature; or
(c) brought for party political purposes;
then the court must dismiss the petition.
(6) If the decision of the court is that the alleged behaviour is such as to satisfy subsection (4), then it must notify The Speaker that it has so determined.
(7) Nothing in this section shall be construed as affecting any provision of the Bill of Rights 1689.’
This new Clause establishes the process by which constituents’ allegations of improper behaviour by an MP may be considered and adjudged. It provides for fair and due process and seeks to avoid conflict with the provisions of the Bill of Rights.
New clause 4—MP’s pledge—
‘(1) Each MP shall at the start of each Parliament subscribe to the Pledge set out in this section.
(2) An MP subscribing to the Pledge may do so—
(a) in writing; or
(b) in person at the same time as taking the Oath required by the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866.
(3) The Pledge shall be—
“I solemnly undertake that, in the course of my duties as a Member of Parliament and service to my constituency, I shall act in adherence with the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament and uphold the standards of public life with selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.”’
New clause 5—Complaint of breach of MP’s pledge—
‘(1) This section applies when persons complain that an MP has acted in a way that represents a significant breach of the MP’s Pledge as set out in section (MP’s Pledge).
(2) A petition containing a complaint under subsection (1) may be presented to the electoral court if signed by at least five hundred persons on the electoral roll within the constituency of the MP named in the petition.
(3) The Secretary of State may by regulation prescribe—
(a) the form, content and process relating to the submission of such petitions; and
(b) the manner of constitution of an electoral court to adjudicate.
(4) The electoral court must examine evidence submitted of the alleged breach of the MP’s Pledge, and any evidence produced in rebuttal by the MP.
(5) The court must consider whether, on the balance of evidence, it is reasonable to believe that the MP has acted in a way that amounts to a significant breach of the MP’s Pledge, without reasonable excuse or justification.
(6) If the court finds in favour of the petitioners, then it must notify the Speaker, and the MP named in the petition, that it has so determined.
(7) Nothing in this section shall be construed as affecting any provision of the Bill of Rights 1689.”’
Amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out “the first or second” and insert “a”.
This amendment provides for a further recall condition but is neutral if no such condition or conditions are agreed to.
Amendment 14, page 1, line 18, leave out subsection (4) and insert—
‘(4) The second recall condition is that, following on from a report from the Committee on Standards, the House of Commons order the suspension of the MP from the service of the House for a specified period of requisite length.
(4A) A specified period is of requisite length for the purposes of subsection (4) if—
(a) where the period is expressed as a number of sitting days, the period specified is of at least 10 sitting days, or
(b) in any other case, the period specified (however expressed) is a period of at least 14 days.’
Amendment 2, page 2, line 9, at end insert—
‘( ) A further recall condition (misconduct in the office of member of parliament) is that—
(a) an election court has considered a petition claiming that the MP has committed an act which constitutes misconduct in the office of member of parliament; and
(b) the court has determined, prima facie, that it is reasonable to believe such an act may have been committed; and
(c) the court has notified The Speaker of its decision under subsection (b).’
This amendment provides for a further recall condition.
Amendment 15, page 2, line 9, at end insert—
‘( ) A further recall condition (misconduct in public office) is that—
(a) the MP has, after becoming an MP, been convicted of the common law offence of misconduct in public office, and
(b) the appeal period expires without the conviction having been overturned on appeal.
Sections 2 to 4 contain more about this recall condition.’
This amendment provides for a further recall condition.
Amendment 24, page 2, line 9, at end insert—
‘( ) A further recall condition (section 10) is that—
(a) the MP has, after becoming an MP, been convicted of an offence under section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 (offence of providing false or misleading information for allowances claims);
(b) the appeal period expires without the conviction having been overturned on appeal.
Sections 2 to 4 contain more about this recall condition.’
This amendment provides for a further recall condition.
Amendment 34, page 2, line 9, at end insert—
‘( ) A further recall condition is that the MP has been adjudged by an election court (as set out in section (Complaint of breach of MP’s Pledge)) to have acted in a way that is contrary to the MP’s Pledge as set out in section (MP’s Pledge)’.
This amendment provides for a further recall condition.
Amendment 16, in clause 2, page 2, line 18, leave out “The reference in” and insert “In”.
This amendment and amendment 17 ensure that a recall petition may be triggered by an offence committed before the day Clause 1 comes into force where an MP is convicted of the offence on or after that day and after he or she last became an MP.
Amendment 25, page 2, line 18, leave out “(the first recall condition)” and insert
“and ( ) (the first and section 10 recall conditions)”.
This amendment ensures that the provision made in Clause 2 in relation to the first recall condition regarding offences committed before, and convictions on or after, the commencement of Clause 1 also applies to the section 10 recall condition.
Amendment 17, page 2, line 18, leave out from “to an offence” to the end of the subsection and insert—
‘(a) the reference to an offence includes an offence committed before the MP became an MP and an offence committed before the day on which section 1 comes into force, but
(b) the reference to an MP being convicted of an offence is only to an MP being convicted of an offence on or after that day.’
Amendment 26, page 2, line 21, at end insert—
‘( ) The reference in section 1(3) to an offence does not include an offence mentioned in section 1(5A).’
Amendment 27, in clause 3, page 2, line 43, leave out “(the first recall condition)” and insert “and (5A) (the first and section 10 recall conditions)”.
Amendment 28, page 3, line 3, leave out subsections (2) to (4) and insert—
‘( ) “Relevant appeal”, in relation to the first recall condition, means—
(a) an appeal that—
(i) is in respect of the conviction, sentence or order mentioned in section 1(3), and
(ii) is brought within the usual period, or
(b) an appeal that—
(i) is in respect of the determination of an appeal that was itself a relevant appeal, and
(ii) is brought within the usual period.
( ) “Relevant appeal”, in relation to the section 10 recall condition, means—
(a) an appeal that—
(i) is in respect of the conviction mentioned in section 1(5A) or of any sentence or order imposed in relation to that conviction, and
(ii) is brought within the usual period, or
(b) an appeal that—
(i) is in respect of the determination of an appeal that was itself a relevant appeal, and
(ii) is brought within the usual period.’
Amendment 29, in clause 4, page 3, line 34, after second “MP” insert—
Amendment 30, page 3, line 36, at end insert
(b) is convicted of an offence mentioned in section 1( ) (relating to the section 10 recall condition) within the meaning of that provision (see section 2).’
Amendment 31, page 3, line 37, after “order”, insert “in relation to the conviction”.
Amendment 32, page 4, line 4, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—
(i) in a case within subsection (1)(a), the conviction, sentence or order has, or has not, been overturned on appeal;
(ii) in a case within subsection (1)(b), the conviction has, or has not, been overturned on appeal, and’.
Amendment 3, in clause 5, page 4, line 16, leave out “the first or second” and insert “a”.
This amendment provides for a further recall condition.
Amendment 18, page 4, line 16, leave out “or second” and insert “, second or section 10”.
This amendment is consequential to the agreement to the section 10 recall condition.
Amendment 19, page 4, line 43, after “first”, insert “or section 10”.
Amendment 4, in clause 9, page 6, line 36, after “10 per cent.”, insert
‘in a case in which either the first or second recall conditions have been met, and 15 per cent. in a case in which the misconduct in the office of member of parliament recall condition has been met’.
Amendment 5, page 6, line 38, after “10 per cent.”, insert
‘in a case in which either the first or second recall conditions have been met, and 15 per cent. in a case in which the misconduct in the office of member of parliament recall condition has been met’.
This amendment increases the support required for a valid misconduct in the office of member of parliament recall petition, following the steps proposed in New Clauses (method of petitioning an election court) and (consideration by election court), due to the “reasonable to believe” test to be used by the election court.
Amendment 20, in clause 13, page 9, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) The fourth condition is that, in a case in which the section 10 recall condition was met in relation to the MP, the conviction in question is overturned on appeal.’
Amendment 6, page 9, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) The fourth condition is that, in a case in which a misconduct recall condition was met in relation to the MP, the MP is subsequently charged with an offence, the penalty for which may be imprisonment or an order to be imprisoned or detained, for the conduct, or any part of the conduct, stated in the petition to the electoral court.’
This amendment seeks to reduce the risk of double jeopardy.
Amendment 21, page 9, line 13, leave out “three”.
Amendment 7, in clause 14, page 9, line 41, leave out “at least 10 per cent of the number of eligible registered electors” and insert—
‘(a) in a case in which either the first or second recall condition is met, at least 10 per cent. of the number of eligible electors; and
(b) in a case in which the [misconduct in the office of Member of Parliament] recall condition is met, at least 15 per cent. of the number of eligible electors.’
This amendment increases the support required for a valid (misconduct in the office of Member of Parliament) recall petition, following the steps proposed in New Clauses (method of petitioning an election court) and (consideration by election court), due to the “reasonable to believe” test to be used by the election court.
Amendment 8, in clause 22, page 14, line 29, at end insert—
‘“misconduct in the office of Member of Parliament” means conduct by an MP, whether or not it is committed directly in carrying out the office of member of parliament, which is misconduct to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the MP, without reasonable excuse or justification.’
This amendment establishes an offence of improper behaviour on the part of an MP, using the definition of the English common law offence “misconduct in public office” as its starting point.
Amendment 22, page 14, line 33, after ‘appeal”’, insert
‘, in relation to the first recall condition,’.
May I apologise to the House for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath)—not yet a right hon. Member, despite the praise that was heaped on him in Committee—who is currently acting as our trade envoy in Africa and is unable to be here? My apology is that Members will have to put up with me arguing the case, rather than him.
This is an important Bill. It delivers on the manifesto commitments of most of the parties in this House in some way or another. It means that it will be possible for MPs who are sent to prison to be recalled, no matter how long they are in prison, and that MPs who are suspended by this House for long enough may also be subject to recall.
However, the Bill has rightly been criticised for allowing MPs to mark their own homework, as it were. Unless there is a jail sentence—a threshold that was not mentioned in the manifesto commitments of any party in this House—it is ultimately us who will have to decide whether someone has behaved so badly that they should be subject to recall.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) —it is good to see him in his place—proposed one solution to that problem in Committee, but many of us felt that it would have caused more problems than it solved. There was a concern that it might lead to trivial or vexatious complaints, or complaints based on political or policy differences, rather than complaints about genuine misconduct. There was extensive debate about that in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome and I proposed another route, by which a court would assess whether there were grounds reasonably to believe that an MP could have committed a common law offence of misconduct in public office. If there were, that would lead to the same recall process as the Government have described for those who are suspended or sentenced to jail. That amendment was tricky to write. We were clear in Committee that there were technical challenges in writing it. We therefore did not press it to a vote at that time.
We were encouraged by the cross-party support for our proposal. For example, the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), said that he was drawn to our ideas and that:
“In principle, giving the power to the people to bring a case against their MP before the election court is a good idea.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2014; Vol. 587, c. 134.]
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) said that our proposals
“have appeal because they enable a public trigger that is still based around wrongdoing.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2014; Vol. 587, c. 77.]
It is good to see both Opposition spokesmen here.
We also had support from the Government. The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), said that he had
“a great deal of sympathy with the thinking behind the amendments”. —[Official Report, 27 October 2014; Vol. 587, c. 98.]
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), praised it as an “interesting idea” that should be returned to on Report. That is what we are doing now.
I had hoped that the Government would take over the work of doing the drafting and that we would now be looking at Government amendments that had all the benefit of parliamentary counsel’s detailed advice. Sadly, that is not the case. Indeed, it is striking that not a single Government amendment has been tabled for debate today—not even those of a technical nature to fix the errors that were highlighted in Committee.
My hon. Friend has managed to shower his proposal with praise from a number of people. May I demur from that and ask, at this time when the public rightly have a lot of frustration with the establishment—be it the political elite or other elites—what is the benefit of including the judicial elite in determining issues that should rightfully belong to the people?
I am wary of straying into the debate we had in Committee because there was a huge amount of discussion about that and the House reached a decision. It is about finding a balance and ensuring that we avoid trivial or vexatious cases, while capturing the power for the public. The other deficiency in the proposals by the hon. Member for Richmond Park was that it was a complex, multi-stage process—possibly too complex to be workable. I respect his views and those of many Members who supported him, but that amendment was defeated by the House and we are trying an alternative approach.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking about extending the scope of recall. I declare an interest as a lawyer, but would not new clauses 2 and 3 be a charter particularly for lawyers, meaning that the system becomes unduly litigious? That will detract from the original intention of recall, which is to give real power to the people.
I am not a lawyer; I dropped out of studying law after my first year because my exams coincided with the general election, so I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s expertise in how litigious lawyers can be and how they will seek to make money out of whatever proposals there may be. I do not agree, however, that the new clauses will lead to a huge amount of litigation, so allow me to outline how I think they would work. If the hon. Gentleman has proposals for improving the Bill, I would be happy to hear them.
No Government amendment contains all the required measures, so my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome and I worked on the amendments and adjusted them in the light of criticisms from right hon. and hon. Members across the House. Although we do not have the Government’s seal of approval, we believe this is a workable approach that can, if necessary, be tweaked in another place, which has more specialist constitutional lawyers than this House. We feel that we should not simply hand the Bill over to the Lords unamended and say, “Try to sort the whole thing out”, without giving them a strong steer. Recall applies to Members of this House; the other place can consider the detail, but it should not be considering the principles.
Our proposed option would be in addition to triggers already in the Bill and would mean that 500 electors could sign a petition alleging misconduct by an MP. An election court would hear evidence of that misconduct and any rebuttal by the MP, and decide
“whether, on the basis of the evidence, it is reasonable to believe that the MP has misconducted himself or herself, to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the MP, without reasonable excuse or justification.”
If the court upheld the allegation, that would act as another trigger for a recall petition in the same way as a suspension by the standards Committee of this House would do. However, because there would have been no proof of misconduct, only evidence of reasonable belief, we would require a slightly higher hurdle for the petition—15% rather than 10% of the electorate. That change is one of a number that we introduced, and we hope that the new clauses answer the criticisms that were made.
Let me highlight our other changes. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) both felt that 100 petitioners, as in the original proposal, was too low a number and too easy to achieve, so we increased that to 500. We are not keen to go higher because the court’s role in ruling out unsubstantiated trivial or vexatious cases is best before the complaint has built up a large head of steam. Otherwise, it rather obviates the point of the later petition phase, which needs 15% of the electorate. The provision also simplifies the rules on expenses. Five hundred is a substantial barrier to a small or trivial claim—one annoyed individual, for example—but not if there is a real sense among the public that an MP has done something wrong.
The hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Liverpool, West Derby pointed out one serious flaw in our previous drafting—my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome was explicit about this. We were trying to apply the common law offence of misconduct in public office to Members representing Scotland and Northern Ireland, where that common law offence does not apply. We sought to get around that by stipulating that courts would act as though the offence were in England and Wales, on the basis that the House is in England, but that was inelegant and we accept that it was flawed. We solved the problem by specifying in the Bill the definition to be used, which is taken from the Attorney-General’s advice on common law in England and Wales. We are therefore no longer asking a court to determine anything based on a jurisdiction that is not its own, and we can still benefit from existing case law for that wording.
I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that the House, when in Committee, was sympathetic to the view that there should be a mechanism by which members of the public in a constituency are able to initiate a recall process, but it has to be one that we understand will work. Is the test, which the new clause intends to apply, analogous to the offence of misconduct in public office, or is it something less than that? If it is that, why will it not, if a court determines there is prima facie evidence, trigger a prosecution?
The wording is exactly the wording there would be for misconduct. First, that offence does not exist in Scotland or Northern Ireland. I will come on to that later with an example, but there are some issues. We would want Members to be equal, broadly speaking, regardless of where they have been elected from. The other issue is that although the offence of misconduct in public office is used quite regularly against police officers—there are a number of other cases—it has never actually been used against a Member of Parliament. There is a question of whether we trust the Crown Prosecution Service to be the deciding factor, particularly when there could be questions about how it would interact with various Members and Ministers.
Drawing on the previous intervention and my point about litigation, does this not then become a shadow trial in a line to what perhaps should be a criminal trial in relation to the common law offence? That is the danger, because we are raising not only a civil but criminal liability that may become very protracted and not lead to the end result of a proper recall process.
We have put in provisions so that, in the event of criminal proceedings, they would take precedence and the recall process would be stayed while that was happening, so I think we have addressed that. As I will go on to say, there is a very similar model already in use in the US and that does not seem to have the same sorts of problems that the hon. Gentleman describes.
On other changes we have made, the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and for Liverpool, West Derby were concerned about a phrase we included relating to gross dereliction of duty as an MP perhaps being considered as misconduct in public office. They both highlighted the point that there is no definition of our duties as Members of this House. We accept that point and have removed it from the revised amendment. However, I think there is general agreement in the House that there should be some provision in the code of conduct to deal with that. The well-known case of the Member of Parliament who spent most of his time running a pub in Ireland is not one that I think any of us would consider acceptable or wish to see emulated. We should try to ensure that the code of conduct is updated so that, for example, an MP who chose not to attend the House for months or years on end with no good reason, could not continue in that way. Local councils have a rule that councillors have to attend a meeting within six months, with a provision for extensions when there is good reason, for example illness.
The hon. Gentleman touches on non-attendance. Labour Members supported the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which makes attendance compulsory at least once a Session. What does he say to those MPs from Northern Ireland who choose not to take their seats, but whose electorate understand fully that that is their principled position?
First, just because somebody can be recalled does not mean they would automatically be recalled. How to phrase that in the code would be an interesting question. Trying to have repeated recalls of those Members would be a somewhat futile and repetitive exercise, as it was with the case of Charles Bradlaugh, the Member for Northampton. He was elected three times as an atheist and refused to take a religious oath. The rules were eventually changed because it was made quite clear that his electorate wanted him. I think that, in the case of the Members the hon. Gentleman is referring to, there would have to be some sort of accommodation that there would not be recall elections for that process.
I would certainly give no guarantee of that kind. It is important to say that the proposals we are making at the moment do not deal with this issue. I am suggesting that the code of conduct should be updated. I am very happy to have a discussion on the details of that, but it is not germane in detail to this amendment—they are separate processes.
New clause 3(7) reads:
“Nothing in this section shall be construed as affecting any provision of the Bill of Rights 1689.”
However, if the House of Commons were to introduce a new code of conduct and that were to be interpreted by—effectively—an election court, would it not risk contravening the Bill of Rights?
As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, but the new clause does not suggest changes to the code of conduct or making it subject to court proceedings, so his point does not apply to this new clause.
I think that new clause 2 has been substantially improved to address the criticisms levelled in Committee —we can have the discussion about the code of conduct at another appropriate time. Furthermore, as I said earlier, it is not a unique proposal. The state of Minnesota has a similar scheme under which 25 petitioners submit a proposed recall petition stating the grounds for the recall, whether it be malfeasance, non-feasance or serious crime; and a public hearing is held by a judge within 21 days who then reports to the Supreme Court on the test of
“whether the persons proposing the petition have shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the factual allegations supporting the petition are true; and…if so, whether the persons proposing the petition have shown that the facts found to be true are sufficient grounds for issuing a recall petition.”
This then leads to the recall petition, in which case the system requires the signatures of voters equalling 25% of the most recent turnout, which is roughly the same as the 15% we are proposing. This system exists, therefore, and it seems to work, as shown by its operation since it was introduced in 1996.
It still starts with 500 people and ends with 15% of the public making the decision. We have to strike a balance—we discussed this in Committee, and I do not want to give a blow-by-blow account of that very long debate—over whether there should be any constraints at all and whether there can be any trivial or vexatious cases. That is the difference.
In Minnesota, several cases have been deemed to be unreasonable. The two most recent cases involved State Representatives Ward and Radinovich, both of whom supported same-sex marriage against the wishes of their constituents, and in both cases, the court concluded that it did not constitute malfeasance, saying:
“Constituent disagreement with how their elected representative exercised discretion, through public statements made or votes taken, does not equate to malfeasance by the representative.”
That is surely a principle the House would want to stick to.
In 2001, the state attorney-general did not take steps to ensure that a ban on sodomy was not struck down—again there were complaints, but the court did not conclude that he had failed to do his job; and in 1999, Governor Jesse Ventura was accused of having done well out of his book by virtue of being governor, but again the court felt the accusation was unsubstantiated and struck it out.
It has been brought to my attention that earlier today the hon. Gentleman published an article on Lib Dem Voice about his test stating:
“This test of “reasonable to believe” puts the burden clearly on the MP to disprove beyond doubt the allegations against him or her in the first instance.”
Now, he takes a clear and principled stance on terrorism legislation, so some of us are surprised he is reversing the burden here. Is he not contradicting himself by leaving it up to the MP to disprove the allegation, rather than the petitioners to prove it?
I will have to check the wording of the article—[Interruption.] Sorry, I am not challenging the hon. Gentleman; it is possible, in writing it so speedily, that I miswrote it, because that is certainly not what it ought to say. That is not how it ought to work, and if I wrote that, it was my mistake and I apologise to him and anyone else who read it. I will check it as soon as I have a chance.
The system in Minnesota, which is similar to what we are suggesting, seems to work. Our proposal would protect MPs from trivial recall petitions, but allow the public a route, not mediated by the House, to recall MPs who have committed misconduct. I hope, therefore, that the House will support new clauses 2 and 3, along with the consequential amendments, when I put them later today.
I wish to turn briefly to the other amendments in the group, many of which are in my name and that of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and others.
Before my hon. Friend moves on to other amendments, I would find it helpful if he explained whether new clause 3(1), which says that the conduct that has to be alleged by the petitioners to a court must constitute
“misconduct in the office of member of parliament”,
is consistent with subsection (2), which says:
“The court may consider…conduct…whether or not it is committed directly in carrying out the office of member of parliament.”
We would be in the curious position where conduct unrelated to the office of a Member of Parliament and duties consequent on that office might be used to allege misconduct in that office. Is that not contradictory?
I think the right hon. Gentleman’s point is answered by amendment 8, which has a fuller definition of misconduct. I hope he will have a chance to take a look at that precise point.
Amendment 24 adds another recall trigger: if a Member has been convicted of an offence under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009—providing false or misleading information for allowances claims—whether or not it has led to a prison sentence. The amendment was proposed in Committee by the Opposition and, given the particular sensitivities of the issue, we fully support the proposal. It is a good idea. Similarly, amendment 15 provides another trigger: if any Member is convicted of misconduct in public office, whether or not they are imprisoned—something that has never happened to a Member before, but which does happen on a semi-regular basis, sadly, to police officers in particular. It seems inconceivable that an MP convicted of such an offence could be immune from recall, so I hope the House will support that amendment too.
Amendment 14 tackles the time frame for suspensions from the House to count and ensures that only suspensions after the Committee on Standards has produced a report are involved, thus excluding those from the Speaker alone. Again, this was an idea proposed by the Opposition in Committee and it is sensible. The other amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) and I have supported deal with a range of technical details—not least the need to add words such as “third”, “fourth” and “fifth” to legislation that frequently enumerates conditions—as well as more substantial matters, such as historical offences, which I will leave to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife to explain.
Lastly, there are the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the amendment to his new clause 4, from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). I have particular sympathy for the amendment to the new clause, which follows on from the work of Charles Bradlaugh to expand the oath to allow more Members to take it honestly. I am therefore supportive of the ideas of the amended new clause 4. However, I am concerned by the proposal in new clause 5, even though I recognise much of the wording has been taken from my new clauses. It is reasonable to ask a court to consider misconduct offences, but it is much harder to ask it to judge abstract conceptions such as leadership. Do we have any idea how a court could judge whether we in this House had displayed adequate leadership?
I look forward to hearing comments from across the House on the amendments, but I intend to test the will of the House on all amendments, in particular new clauses 2 and 6, as well as the consequential amendments, and, if they are not accepted, I shall support those proposed by the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), rather than passing the buck to the other, unelected House.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has already touched on new clauses 4 and 5, which stand in my name, and amendment (a) to new clause 4, which has not been selected, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie).
I should clarify that the purpose of new clause 4 is to answer a question that I and other hon. Members posed when we discussed the Bill in Committee and on Second Reading. There is no job description for MPs, so if we are creating the principle of recall—a principle I fully endorse: I believe recall should be possible at the initiative of constituents and the electorate—it is important to have a yardstick. If we are affirming that MPs have and owe that degree of accountability to their constituents, there should be a clear basis on which constituents can rightfully wrest the exercise of that right. We had all sorts of circular arguments about whether having an open petition system could lead to all sorts of specious and spurious grounds that were motivated by partisan or other interests. I believe it was important to create a basis on which MPs could subscribe to the possibility of recall by acknowledging from day one when they take their seats here that they are subject to that degree of accountability and owe service to their constituents. That is why I support the concept of MPs taking a new pledge.
It is rather strange that we are pursuing a Bill that is creating the idea that a strong rule of accountability is to be translated into a recall, yet whenever MPs come here to assume their seats, all they do is issue words in the form of an oath or an affirmation about allegiance to the Crown, which many of them do not actually believe. I am not sure that that does anything for the credibility or reputation of politics when the first thing that politicians do in taking their seats is to recite words that they might not believe. Those who believe in those words should absolutely be able to recite them, but it is important that, regardless of whether Members believe in the affirmation or the oath, we should utter a pledge in respect of our parliamentary standards.
Given that hon. Members proposed amendments in Committee that made reference to the MPs’ code of conduct and given the importance of expenses and other relevant issues that could motivate a recall, we need to recognise the significance of the seven standards of public life, which appeared in the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, for this Bill. Hence the pledge I propose in new clause 4 has MPs, on taking their seats, affirming that they will abide by the MPs’ code of conduct and honour the seven standards of public life as they are now. Those standards could, of course, be revised and extended in future. The new clause would leave the phrasing of the pledge open.
I apologise for not being in my place at the start of the debate, but I am very interested in this Bill. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that there are five absentee Sinn Fein Members who are obviously not going to turn up and take any pledge in this House or assume their seat any time soon, if ever. What would be the sanction for such Sinn Fein MPs who refused to sign any pledge?
I take the hon. Lady’s point, but if she looks at the new clause, she will see that an MP subscribing to the pledge may do so
“(a) in writing; or (b) in person at the same time as taking the Oath required by the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866.”
So anybody elected to this House on the basis of serving their constituents in the way that Sinn Fein Members pledge they will serve their constituents could not take their seats or sign on to take their seats. Sinn Fein Members could fulfil the requirement by signing the pledge “in writing”. That is entirely feasible, so my new clause would not create any barrier or impediment for Sinn Fein Members—or, indeed, for any other Member elected on the basis that they will not take up their seats in this House, but will use their seats in whichever way they won their mandate for.
I am most grateful to the hon. Member for allowing me to intervene a second time. I understood that there were the alternatives of saying the words of the pledge when Members take up their seats here or of making the pledge in writing. My question, however, was what the sanction is for MPs, including Sinn Fein Members, who do not take the pledge either in writing or orally.
I have not gone as far as that; it could mean a further sanction that if people do not take the pledge, they will be deemed not to have taken up their seats. That could be one way of doing it. We could say that expenses and other things would be paid only in circumstances where the MP has signed the pledge.
The standards required by the pledge would include due observance of all rules and principles involving such matters as expenses which relate to the code of conduct or to the “standards of public life”. All the requirements are parliamentary standards. It is possible that a Member’s status in respect of allowances and facilities would kick in only when the pledge was signed, but that is a detail.
I have no reason to believe that the pledge, as currently drafted, would cause any problems for Sinn Fein or anyone else. That is not the point of the pledge. The point of the pledge is to establish the working principle that, from day one of a person’s life as an MP, that person is here to observe certain standards. MPs will be free to exercise and voice their own views in many ways and on many of the issues that arise in the House, and they will be able to do that in terms that fully respect their conscience. After all, the “standards of public life” that an MP will pledge to uphold include
“integrity… accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.”
Those who hold a clear and conscientious view on a matter and wish to reflect that in a vote in the House—whether on a Bill or on some other measure—will be able to defend themselves against any charge of inappropriate behaviour on the basis that that is their clear, conscientious view, and that they have voted in a spirit of integrity, honesty and openness. Some have expressed a fear that the more open form of recall mechanism that could be initiated by constituents—the rolling petition model— would lead to Members’ being challenged on the basis of votes that they had cast or not cast, or views that they had voiced, but the terms of the pledge would protect them from the mounting of specious tactical challenges.
I thought that providing for the pledge to be taken either at the same time as, or in place of, the oath under the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 might be outside the scope of the Bill. That is why I limited new clause 4 to the terms in which it appears, but it is also the understandable reason for the tabling by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and two other Members of amendment (a). The amendment would have allowed the pledge to be taken in place of the oath, and failure to take the oath would not have left any Member in peril under the 1866 Act. I think that that is fair and sensible, and had the amendment been selected I should have liked it to be passed, because it would have made it clear that the primacy of membership of the House relates to Members’ accountability to their constituents and the standards and service that they pledge to them, and to the broader public interest, according to good parliamentary standards.
New clause 5 adopts the suggestion, made during our earlier discussions, that a public petition based on evidence that a Member had failed the pledge of office could find its way to an electoral court. Let me level with Members: that is not a method, or approach, that I particularly favour. I still support the rolling petition mechanism that was proposed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) in Committee. I believe in the idea of there being essentially a premise-petition first. The previous proposals were for 5%, and some expressed the thought in the previous debate that it should be 10%. I still favour that option of either 5% or 10% and a threshold petition initiated at 20%—I understand that some people have said that that might be 25%. That is my view. I know that some people have looked at these amendments and said, “These amendments mean that there is a complete stitch-up by all the parties here, big and small, to have no meaningful recall.” I am not part of a stitch-up. Also, it is not a give-up on the part of those of us who believed in that and advocated those amendments at the previous stage. However, I understand from talking to colleagues who supported those amendments in Committee that they had no wish necessarily to see that whole argument rerun here, which is why when we are talking about making the case for a new MPs’ pledge providing the basis or working reference point for any future recall petition, I have gone for the lower-case model of a smaller petition going to the electoral court.
I understand fully what other Members have said, even in their interventions on the hon. Member for Cambridge, about people being reluctant to see this as a matter that goes straight to the courts—the idea that even where there are 500 or 1,000 constituents, the recall would go straight to the courts and the decision would be taken there. I accept that that is not desirable, but I have tried to reflect on the arguments made by other hon. Members and to understand the will of the House, and this is the model I have offered. I certainly believe that it could be better, but I felt I needed to offer some measure alongside the concept of the pledge to show how the pledge might be used and how it might be the central reference point in any recall move.
If we are serious about the principle of recall, it has to be something that goes back to the constituents. Whatever the issues about decisions that might be taken by bodies within this House in relation to standards or breaches—I know that there are proposals in some of the other new clauses and amendments but I will not speak to them now—I still believe that the public will treat the idea of recall as serious when recall is in their ownership and can be at their initiative. I understand, however, that hon. Members feel that if we leave it just to the public initiative, it will be abused. They feel that there will be no bottom line, no standards and no protection. I believe that the idea of the pledge provides that sort of protection. It is the clear reference or standard point to which the public can look and hold MPs to account, and it is also the defence line for MPs.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it can be legal up to a point; there could be some matters on which a clear-cut judgment could be made. I have chosen to offer the route through the court simply because it seemed to me that there was a will or a mood in Committee saying, “Well, if we’re going to allow any element of public petition to recall, then going to an election court could be the way that could be done.” I have simply taken that point and offered this new clause to try to test Members on whether they will follow through on the logic of the argument they made in Committee.
I do not commend the model in new clause 5 above all others. I still prefer the open rolling petition around a clear issue, but, again, I think that the open rolling petition should be on the basis of a pledge. I think the pledge as the basis for those petitions would create a much clearer standard for the public. It would also create a clearer standard for MPs, who would know, if they had committed to the pledge, whether they had abided by the code of conduct and could show whether they had upheld the standards of public life. That should not be too much to ask. MPs should not feel, “Oh, it’s hard to prove that we have upheld the standards of public life or lived up to the code of conduct.” It would send a very dangerous signal if Members felt that a pledge about the MPs code of conduct and the standards of public life would be difficult to uphold or could be abused in some untoward way. Then we would be seen to be trying to find ourselves some highly privileged protection where we decide t