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Recall of MPs Bill

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015

Consideration of Lords amendments

I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendment 18. If the House agrees to that Lords amendment, Mr Speaker will ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

Clause 1

How an MP becomes subject to a recall petition process

The amendments in this group relate to the circumstances that would trigger a recall petition. They were tabled by the Government in the House of Lords to ensure that the important changes made to the Bill in this House are reflected throughout the Bill, ensuring that the legislation works in practice. The Prime Minister made it clear that the Government would be open to Parliament changing and improving this Bill, and that has happened. We had a free vote on amendments brought forward on Report, and I am pleased that the provisions have been strengthened as a result.

Hon. Members may recall that on Report in this House, Members voted to add to the provisions in the Bill to trigger a recall petition following a conviction for expenses-related offences under section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, irrespective of sentence. The House also changed the second trigger so that a recall petition would be opened if an MP were suspended on the recommendation of the Standards Committee for 10 or more sitting days, rather than the 21 or more sitting days in the original Bill. As only the lead amendments were moved at that time, the Government tabled amendments in the House of Lords—amendments 1 to 6, 8, 9, 12 to 15, 17, 21 and 22—which are required to give full effect to the changes.

Amendment 7 gives effect to an amendment agreed in this House to ensure that offences committed before the Act comes into force can trigger the opening of a recall petition so long as the conviction and sentencing take place after the Act comes into force. Amendments 10 and 11 further define the allowable appeal period in the case of a conviction that would trigger the opening of a recall petition under the first or third recall condition. That ensures that an MP has the opportunity to appeal against a conviction, but that the recall petition process can also begin in a timely manner. Amendment 27 is a technical amendment, clarifying the definition of “overturned on appeal”. Amendment 16 corrects a minor oversight, by removing the requirement for the courts to inform the Speaker of a sentence that would lead to recall if the person in question had already ceased to be an MP—in such circumstances, it is clearly no longer necessary for the Speaker to be informed.

The amendments in this group are therefore largely consequential and technical, and give proper effect to changes that were made with considerable support in this House. I look forward to the debate on these amendments, which I commend to the House.

We welcome and support these Lords amendments. On Report, it was a Labour amendment that added a third recall condition of conviction for an offence under section 10 of the 2009 Act, so we particularly welcome these amendments from the other place. As the Minister said, they are minor and technical amendments, but they ensure the Bill will work by making this third recall condition fully operational.

The group also contains helpful amendments concerning the second recall condition. For example, when an MP is suspended from the House, the report of the Committee on Standards which precedes the House of Commons’ order for a suspension must relate specifically to that MP, not to general behaviour. As the Minister said, the House of Lords has also tidied up certain elements of the Bill. Amendment 7 ensures that a recall petition can be brought for offences committed before the day on which the Act comes into force, so long as the conviction and sentencing took place after that date.

Amendment 10 ensures that the third recall condition—on conviction for an offence and sentencing—would begin once all relevant appeals had been determined. That is a sensible but important provision. Other amendments make welcome technical changes to tidy up the proposed legislation. Amendments 23 to 25 would remove the power of the Speaker to appoint a person to exercise the Speaker’s functions under the Bill in his or her absence, and instead allow the elected Chairman of Ways and Means or Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means to do so if the Speaker is unable to perform them. As the Minister explained, these are technical and consequential amendments, and the Opposition are happy to give them our support.

I rise to support the amendments, such as they are, from the House of Lords. They clearly strengthen the Bill in a minor way. Members may recall that we expended a fair amount of time and effort trying to strengthen the Bill in a more concrete way when it was before this House by giving access to a non-parliamentary route for recall. I am sad that we did not find a solution acceptable to both Houses to enable that to happen. Having said that, I do not agree with the argument that it would be better not to have a Bill at all. This Bill is a substantial step forward. It does not go as far as I would like, but I recognise that if we have it in place and it receives Royal Assent, as I assume it will, there is a substrate on which we can build—not me, but successor Parliaments—in order to provide a more acceptable position for the future.

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) mentioned an amendment in the next group, I hope you will afford me the latitude of saying, Madam Deputy Speaker, that amendments 23 to 25 were ones that I tabled originally in this House. I am very pleased to see that the Government have accepted them in the Lords, so I will not need to say anything about them when we get to the next group.

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, let me say, as I said in my opening remarks, that these amendments are sensible modifications, ensuring that the Bill works effectively. I hope the House will support them, I am grateful for the Opposition spokesman’s comments on them and I commend them to the House.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 17 agreed to.

Clause 7

Where and from when the recall petition may be signed

The amendments in this group relate to the way in which recall petitions will be run. They pick up on a number of points made in debates in both Houses and are designed to make improvements to the operation of the recall petitions for the benefit of constituents, administrators and campaigners. The amendments also ensure that the Electoral Commission plays a greater role in reporting on the operation of recall petitions in practice. I will describe the amendments briefly and will also address the more technical amendments that form part of this group.

Amendments 18 to 20 relate to constituents’ engagement with and access to the recall petition process. Lords amendment 18 increases the number of signing places that the petition officer can designate from a maximum of four to a maximum of 10. This amendment addresses concerns expressed during previous debates in this House and the House of Lords about accessibility for constituents living in rural areas who may wish to sign the petition in person. In setting the number at 10, we consulted the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and the returning officers for the Western Isles and for Argyll and Bute. They were clear that a limit of four could pose particular challenges in large rural constituencies or in constituencies with a number of islands, and felt that a raised limit would afford them helpful flexibility.

The increase in the maximum number of signing places has enabled the Government to consider whether a reduction in the signing period would be sensible, given the improved access to the signing process. Having considered the issue carefully, the Government brought forward Lords amendment 19, which reduces the signing period from eight to six weeks. That means that the constituents and the MP in question would get the result of the petition much quicker than we originally proposed. A slightly shorter period will have practical benefits for the administration of petitions and means that campaigners do not need to sustain their activities over quite so long a period.

The increase in the number of signing places and the reduction in the signing period strikes the right balance between tightening the process and enabling proper access to signing. It allows sufficient time for electors to consider the campaigns for and against signing a petition and enables those who wish to sign by post to make an application.

Lords amendment 20 improves the final sentence of the wording to appear on the petition signing sheet, making it easier for electors to understand that, if fewer than 10% of the registered electors in a constituency sign a petition, the MP will not lose his or her seat and a by-election will not be held.

Members will remember that my right hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) tabled an amendment on Report to improve the wording on this point, and, having reflected on the helpful contributions made in the debate on that amendment, the Government brought forward a comparable amendment.

Amendments 23 to 25, which relate to clause 19, make provision for the recall process to start if the Speaker is unable to perform his duties as set out in the Bill. Clause 19, when originally drafted, mirrored existing legislation in permitting the Speaker to appoint a deputy to carry out those functions.

During the debate in this House, the question of whether that is necessary was raised, as we now elect the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. The amendments update the Bill to reflect that important change in the House’s arrangements by making it clear that, where the Speaker is unable to perform his functions under the Bill, they will transfer automatically to the Chairman or Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. I thank my right hon. Friend for flagging up that matter during earlier debates. On behalf of everyone here, let me say that his expertise in this area will be greatly missed in the next Parliament.

Amendment 24 clarifies that the Speaker will be unable to carry out his functions if he is himself the subject of a recall petition, in which case the function would pass to the Chairman or Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.

Briefly, Lords amendment 26 was made in response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report on the Bill. A power to amend the Act through secondary legislation was originally included to allow it to be easily updated with regard to reforms of existing electoral law, such as the move to individual electoral registration. Those reforms were outstanding at that point but have now been made. There is therefore no longer a need for the power to amend the Act itself through regulations. Amendment 26, therefore, removes this power in accordance with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s recommendation.

Lastly, Lords amendments 28 to 30 and 32 relate to the role of the Electoral Commission in the recall process. The amendments build on those tabled by the Opposition on Report in the House of Lords.  The Government are grateful to the Opposition for their support on Third Reading. It must have been something of a novelty for the Opposition to see the Government so readily accept amendments during the progress of this Bill.

During the Bill’s progress through the House of Lords, noble Lords expressed their concern, which the Government share, that the rules for regulating the campaign must function in practice. These amendments will require the petition officer to forward all recall petition returns to the Electoral Commission. That will support a further amendment requiring the Electoral Commission to produce a report after every recall petition. That alters the original provisions in the Bill, which required the Electoral Commission to report only on its own initiative.

The Electoral Commission’s report will look at how the provisions of the Act, including the rules on spending and donations, operated in practice at each petition. It has indicated that automatically receiving the spending and donation returns will allow it to examine and report on whether the current spending limits and registration thresholds seem appropriate for recall events, and whether they prevent undue influence over the outcome of these processes.

In drafting this Bill, the Government have sought to ensure that, in the event of a recall petition taking place, the process is fair to all participants, that participation is encouraged and that wealthy campaigners cannot have an undue influence.

I have listened with great interest to what the Minister has to say. Does not Lords amendment 19, which reduces the period during which the recall petition would be available for signing from eight to six weeks, make it far more likely that an MP under the recall mechanism will survive the process?

We had to strike a balance between the number of signing places and the number of weeks that a petition was available. We felt that, following the discussions that had taken place in both Houses, the idea of providing a maximum of 10 signing places and allowing six weeks was an appropriate compromise. It is always worth reinforcing the point that postal voting is available, which makes the petition process and the recall process quite open and acceptable.

In the Minister’s opening remarks, he coupled Lords amendment 18 with Lords amendment 19. Would it not be better for Lords amendment 18 to say a “minimum” of 10 rather than a maximum of 10?

That is a subject of debate. If the returning officer in the constituency of Argyll and Bute, which has, I think, more islands than any other constituency, felt that 10 signing places was appropriate, it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which more than 10 would be required anywhere else in the country. There can always be a debate on whether that is the appropriate number. I hope that returning officers will ensure that, for their particular locality, the right number is chosen. I suspect that in my patch, if ever there were to be a recall petition in Carshalton and Wallington, two or three signing places would be the maximum required, as the constituency size is only about four by five miles. However, I have to say that such a petition will not be required in my constituency.

With these amendments, the Electoral Commission will be able to review every recall petition process to help ensure that the spending and donations rules are working in line with the principles. Lords amendment 31 corrects a minor and technical cross-reference in schedule 5 to the Bill.

I look forward to a short debate on these amendments, which I commend to the House.

Let me start by apologising to the House, particularly to the right hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), that I was a little ahead of myself in addressing amendments 23 to 25, which are in the second grouping. I echo what the Deputy Leader of the House said by way of tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his record of work in this House. He has sought not only to work for his constituents but to reconnect the House with the public, which is an important challenge for all of us.

The second group of amendments significantly improves the original legislation. As the Deputy Leader of the House has said, Lords amendment 18 would increase the number of places that the petition officer could designate in their constituency for signing the recall petition, from a maximum of four to a maximum of 10. That is welcome and should ensure that accessing a petition is not an overly difficult process for constituents. Amendment 19 would reduce the length of the period during which the recall petition is available, from eight to six weeks. We support that as it is combined with an increase in the number of signing places. Taken together, those amendments allow for easy access to the petition while giving a realistic time scale for the collection of signatures.

Lords amendment 26 is welcome. It removes the power for the Act itself to be amended by regulations. Lords amendment 32 is especially welcome and important as it requires the Electoral Commission to produce and publish a report on the recall petition process after the end of the petition period in relation to each recall petition. That is important because it enables us to learn from the process as it develops. This is a new and innovative feature of our political system. It is good that the Electoral Commission is tasked with producing and publishing such a report, so that we can learn lessons from each petition and, if necessary, make changes to improve public access to the process.

I agree that the Bill has been improved through the stages of scrutiny in this place and in the House of Lords. I believe it will play a part—probably quite a modest part—in improving the accountability of Parliament and Members of Parliament, and therefore play a small role in renewing our political institutions.

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I say that the amendments follow thorough scrutiny in both Houses and will improve the operation of recall petitions by encouraging participation and ensuring public confidence in the outcome. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their constructive scrutiny of the Bill. I believe the Bill will provide our constituents with a further means of holding us to account—beyond the greater means that happen on 7 May—in the form of an additional tool that can be used where Members of Parliament have committed serious wrongdoing. I commend the amendments to the House.

Lords amendment 18 agreed to, with Commons financial privilege waived.

Lords amendments 19 to 32 agreed to.