Committee (1st Day) (Continued)
5: Clause 1, page 1, line 18, leave out subsection (4)
My Lords, the amendment is grouped with Amendments 7, 8, 12 and 36. The amendment deletes the whole of subsection (4) because I wanted to delete the second recall condition. I drafted the amendment when I was feeling thoroughly scunnered—if noble Lords will excuse a Scots word—with the whole concept of the Bill, and thought that one of the ways to have a discussion about it was by proposing to remove one of the offending provisions, for reasons that were made clear during our discussions on Amendments 7 and 8. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours dealt with this issue so eloquently at Second Reading, in cols. 184 to 186 of the Hansard report. I want just to say how sorry I am that he is not able to be with us today; he has had a very serious operation and I am sure that the whole House will wish him a speedy and full recovery, and to be back with us.
I detected earlier that in spite of my delectable and mellifluous Scots tones, noble Lords might have heard quite enough of them, and that it might be more appropriate for me to conclude my speech now. The points that I might otherwise have raised could well be taken up by one of the other signatories to the amendments in this group—in other words, my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton. I beg to move.
My Lords, after that introduction by my noble friend, I rise to speak to Amendment 7 in particular. As my noble friend said, my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours is very much behind my amendment and we all, as the Committee has made clear, regret very much that he cannot be here this evening. At Second Reading, his was probably the most powerful, and certainly the most impassioned, speech of the evening.
This amendment seeks to reverse an amendment that was moved by the Opposition in another place. I regret that very much, because I think that it is a big mistake. In many ways I should not really be talking; I should be saying that we should all take a few minutes to re-read the speech of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. It encapsulated why the decision to move that amendment in another place was wrong. My noble friend has referred to cols. 184 and 185 of Hansard of 17 December.
The amendment in another place looked at the second group of trigger conditions—the second mechanism. Those were the days when a Member was suspended by the Standards Committee. The Government had proposed that the trigger should come into operation if a Member was suspended by the House, following a report from the Standards Committee, for 20 days.
The Opposition proposed 10 days and that amendment was carried, because of the atmosphere about which we were talking earlier, where no one in another place feels that they can stand up for reason, as they would be accused of having something to hide or wanting to let MPs get away with some form of bad behaviour. I regret that atmosphere. It is evident on all sides of the House and has not been helpful either to the reputation of the House or people’s willingness to look at politics in a reasonable way.
When I was shadow Leader of the Commons some time ago, I was a member of what was then the Standards and Privileges Committee. At the time, it was under the chairmanship of Lord Newton of Braintree, whom we all miss in this House. He was Leader of the Commons. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours was on it at the same time.
It was a significant time, because we had difficult cases to deal with. There were concerns even then about the activities of just a few Members of that House. Noble Lords will remember the cash for questions incident and other things. It was also the time when the committee, under Lord Nolan, was looking at new ways forward. People working on the committee spent a lot of time trying to be constructive. I have followed its workings ever since.
When I became Leader of the House in 1997, I did not take up the chairmanship of the committee, because we felt at that time that it should be chaired by a Back-Bench Member. That was an important vote of confidence in the House. I just wish that that confidence could be maintained in that way. Members of the committee were then—and indeed are now—serious about that kind of work. The chairman and all the members take it extremely seriously.
It is a quasi-judicial committee—or at least it is at the moment—and all members are genuine in the work that they try to carry out. They look at the issues and evidence carefully. They hear and question Members very directly about the issues. But, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours said at Second Reading, the amendment passed in another place will change the role and nature of that committee. If we have a 10-day period as the trigger, it is inevitable that the committee will be more prone to being party-political. The key to its success over many years has been that its inquiries have not been along party lines. It is not divided in that way. Genuine, serious, senior members have looked at an issue, if not dispassionately—people get very annoyed when anybody does something wrong—then at the facts and making a proper determination. If we change the nature of the committee it will not do anybody any good.
My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours read out the list of those who are now members of the committee and the way in which they had voted on this amendment. It was clear that the current members are not happy with the amendment, because they realise the dangers. It is obvious. Member A has transgressed and is given a suspension of nine days, because either he or she is popular or their party has a majority on the committee. Then somebody else, Member B, comes along; because they are not popular or their party is in a minority on the committee, they get 11 days. If that happens, you are ending the career of that second person. Once people start talking about a recall position of any individual Member, those in their own party will find it very difficult to defend them or even explain the situation—so recall will not be productive in that way.
There will be a momentum that makes it inevitable. The use of social media and so on will increase the pressure all the time, which is very unwise. I have already expressed my reservations about the Bill. If we are to have it, let us have a Bill that at least has a chance of working and not one that will destroy some of the good workings of the House of Commons: namely, the Standards Committee as is.
My Lords, I have huge sympathy with these two amendments because, of course, Amendments 7 and 8 go together. That is not just for the reasons put so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton. As she has said, she has experience not only on the committee but as Chief Whip and as Leader of the House. In both respects I had a minor role—one of the minor tributaries of the usual channels—in putting colleagues on to those committees. I think that we are all considerably concerned that the current arrangements have met the test of time, but that does not mean that they cannot be put under extreme pressure in the future, which would be devastating. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made an eloquent point in addressing the House at Second Reading when he explained that not one single member of the current Standards Committee supported this particular provision.
My only misgiving is one that I have already discussed with the noble Lord, and I am sure that he would not mind me mentioning it. Asking the members of the Standards Committee to decide between 10 days and nine days puts them in an invidious position, but in these circumstances it is just as invidious to decide between 20 days and 19 days. That is why I have attempted in earlier debates to try to find a way around this. I still think that the Government must think very carefully indeed about the invidious additional pressure that will be put on the current structure of the Standards Committee.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I agree with his point that it is very difficult to decide between 20 days and 21 days. I am not saying that the amendment is perfect and that 20 days is fine. As I have said, I do not want it at all. But actually the Standards Committee would only go anywhere near 20 days if there was a serious offence, so this mitigates at least a part of the problem.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness and that is why I support the amendment. However, it is important to put on the record the fact that if this Bill goes through in its current iteration, we will be imposing a new and potentially difficult situation upon the Standards Committee.
I do not know whether the noble Baroness has been involved in discussions with colleagues at the other end, but there has been a recognition that it could be in the Bill. Under the Standing Orders of the other place, it would be possible to reconsider the respective roles of the lay members of the committee as opposed to the elected members, whether the lay members could take a more active, initiative role and make recommendations to the full committee, whether there should be more lay members, and so on. All of that is outwith the Bill and unfortunately we cannot deal with those issues, but we should at least put on the record our request for Ministers to consider and to discuss with colleagues in government and in the other place whether there should not be some review of the mechanism. I am quite clear—the noble Baroness has reinforced this from a much more experienced position than mine—that if the current Standards Committee is reluctant to take on this responsibility in its current format, that should be taken as very serious evidence indeed that the Bill is not effective, and is not likely to be seen to be effective by the people who would actually have to implement it.
Too often we in this building do not take sufficient account of the views of those who are going to have to interpret and deliver what we decide. There is clear evidence from what was said at Second Reading by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, that that is precisely the situation in this case. On those grounds at least, I hope that the Government will review this issue.
My Lords, it is an important principle that the punishment should fit the crime. Although a criminal act may not have been carried out, it is important that the committee has a range. I do not know enough about the workings of the committee to know what would have merited five days, 10 days, 15 days or whatever, but it strikes me that 10 days is far too narrow a spectrum. Someone may have done something which is pretty unacceptable but not sufficient to justify them being recalled. If the committee decides on nine days or eight days, I can just imagine what the hue and cry might be from certain sections of the media.
The very process is apparently designed to improve public confidence in the House of Commons, and indeed my noble friend has talked about the position of the lay members. I see that debate as being another manifestation of the House of Commons not having confidence in itself and its own Members, and responding to that kind of pressure not by putting its own house in order and having systems that are seen to be workable and effective, but by looking to some external body. Let us not forget the arguments we had on the previous amendment.
At one time when I was younger, I was in favour of capital punishment. Two things persuaded me to change my mind. One was that innocent people could be convicted and the other was that juries might not be prepared to convict in those circumstances. I am worried about the Standards Committee finding itself thinking, “Well, if we give nine days, people will say that that is a ridiculously short suspension, so we have to go for 10 days”, which may not be justified. I do not understand why this has been compressed. Given that the Government started off with the view that it should be 20 days, it should be very easy for them to accept this amendment.
I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, with whom I had the great pleasure of serving when I was acting as deputy shadow leader in the other place. We worked together on the Privileges Committee and I came to have a very high regard for her total integrity and judgment. I still have that high regard. What she said this evening was entirely right.
I think that the other place is in danger of talking itself down. That is something that we really need to focus on. I remember reading many years ago a comment by one of the great 18th century admirals—I think from memory it was Admiral Rodney—who, as many others did, served in the House of Commons. He made a remark to the effect that there was no greater honour that any man could have—it was just men in those days—than to be in the House of Commons, representing a constituency. That was long before the days of anything approaching modern democracy. When I was elected in June 1970 I certainly felt that. I am sure that those others of your Lordships’ House who have had the privilege of serving in the other place would have had similar feelings.
In any group of 600 or 650 people you are bound from time to time to have some who transgress. However, it always has been and it is—and please God it always will be—the exception. For the past few years, since the expenses scandal and the witch-hunt that followed—and it was a witch-hunt—there has been a real reluctance on the part of Members of the other place to think highly, not of themselves, but of the institution of which they have the honour to be Members. We are, in fact, playing to that tune in putting this Bill through Parliament. I accept that it is going to go through. I regret that infinitely, because I think it does no service to Parliament in general or to the House of Commons in particular. That is a deep sadness to me and, I know, to many others.
However, if the Bill is to go through, this amendment is essential. Sentences of a few days can be given for offences which are in no sense improprieties in the generally accepted sense of the word. Every institution must have the power to discipline its members. If somebody is consistently failing to obey the Speaker or to abide by the rules of the House, of course they will suffer. We know some who have done so. I can think of the late Lord Bannside as Ian Paisley; Andrew Faulds, one of my dearest friends; Tam Dalyell, who was mentioned earlier; and others, who have, for perfectly honourable reasons, even though I may have disagreed with them, flouted the rules, been named and excluded for a period. But the House of Commons would have been a much poorer place without any of those Members. The thought that anyone like that, for a parliamentary transgression, could be in danger of recall is just too awful to contemplate.
This places a great weight on the shoulders of those who serve on that committee. I am bound to say that I regret that there are lay members on the committee, because I think it should be, as it always was, a committee of Parliament. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness when she said that, as Leader of the House, she decided not to chair the committee and that the chair should be a respected Back-Bencher. I think that that was a very wise and modest decision. It was the right decision. You should be judged by a group of your peers, unless you are transgressing the law of the land, and then, of course, other procedures follow. We all recognise that. However, I would beg my noble friends on the Front Bench—and particularly the Front Bench opposite, because this originated with an Opposition-led amendment—to think again about this. For 20 days, the offence has to be reasonably serious.
The other point alluded to by the noble Baroness, which was a very good and powerful one, was that there could be a danger of politicising these things, in a party sense, particularly in the sort of frenetic pre-election atmosphere that we have at the moment. One of the distinguishing features of the other place, and indeed of this place, is that Members in committee—particularly Select Committees, one of which I had the honour of chairing for five years—look at issues on their merits and seek to have recommendations that address the issues without polarising or dividing the committee. I would deplore anything that led to the former tendency in the Standards or Privileges Committees.
The least that we can do to help mend this very broken vehicle that is being pulled before us is to accept this amendment. I hope we can accept it tonight, without any Division or controversy at all. If not, I hope it can be accepted on Report. It goes just a little way to making a Bill that has come about, frankly, because certain people do not have enough confidence in that great institution at the other end of the Corridor and because party leaders have been rather craven—I use the word deliberately—a little better than it is at the moment. We want to put this right. This amendment will achieve precisely that.
My Lords, I thought that my noble friend Lady Taylor put it very well in terms of the huge significance of a 10-day suspension, with it basically being the end of a parliamentary career. It is rather like the point about the death penalty made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. This is not a marginal decision between whether you give someone nine days or 10 days; it is not even the difference, to use a footballing analogy, between a yellow card and a red card. It is the difference between a yellow card and a ban for life.
We touched on this in earlier exchanges, but it seems to me that being suspended for 20 days clearly indicates a very serious offence. That is shown by the House of Commons Library research paper, according to which there have been just two cases in the last 25 years when that would have happened. As we have all remarked already, that would be even less likely to happen if it was known that it would lead to expulsion from the House because it would trigger a petition—as it would have, had this provision been in existence then. There has to be some doubt whether even the two that passed the test, if you like, would still pass the test, because Members would be very reluctant to impose a 20-day suspension.
Perhaps we are all in danger of repeating ourselves, but surely the position as it stands at the moment is that the House itself can expel someone and that, in effect, the provisions of this Bill—as it stands, a 10-day suspension; as it originally stood, a 20-day suspension—amount to the equivalent of expelling someone from the House. My view is that if that is what the House wants to do, the House has the power to do it now and we do not need a Bill to enable it to do that. To that extent, as with so many of the other provisions of this Bill, the organic mechanism by which Parliament operates tends to deal with these matters without introducing legislation that is not needed. That is the substantial point I want to make, but I want to ask a question to which I should know the answer, and I doubt whether the Minister will know the answer immediately.
I think there may be an odd juxtaposition here. Unless I am completely wrong, the Speaker of the House of Commons can suspend people. I cannot think of an occasion when someone has been expelled for as long as 10 days, but I think that, as my noble friend Lord Maxton says, if someone is suspended until they apologise, heaven knows how long that could be.
Am I then right in thinking—I would love to be told that I am wrong—that we now have a situation where 10 days, as imposed by the Standards and Privileges Committee, results in, “Thank you, goodnight, you are out”, whereas 10 or 11 or 12 or 13 days from the Speaker is, “Come back, all is forgiven and we are off to the tearoom”. I need an answer to that question because I do not know the answer to it myself. If it is the case, that needs sorting out.
My Lords, I regarded it as an immense privilege to be a Member of the other House only for eight years. In 1966 the great, wise, far-seeing electorate of Cardigan saw fit to send me to the House—and then, eight years later, they changed their minds. It still was a splendid experience that I very, very greatly treasure.
I was present in the House on the day that Tam Dalyell, that magnificent character, was hauled before the Bar of the House. It was almost like attending a public execution. There was a deathly hush. He was, if I remember rightly, rusticated for a period of four weeks. It was because he had seen a privileged report relating to Porton Down, and there were certain sidelinings there which he had disclosed to the press. Whether it was Tam’s own idea, or that of his mentor, who shall not be named, I do not know, but I remember that there was a deathless hush in the House that day, and I remember thinking then how serious a matter it was for the House to discipline one of its Members.
We are now in a situation where there is a hysteria of self-flagellation in the House of Commons because of the misconduct of a small number of Members. I still think that the House of Commons is a very honourable institution. The vast majority of its Members in all parties are decent people, worthy of the best traditions of Parliament, but there is a mass hysteria. I support this amendment because I believe, although it is far from perfect, and there are many, many criticisms that can be made of it in a mechanical sense, it looks in the right direction. For that reason, I heartily endorse it.
My Lords, the issue raised by the whole Bill and by this amendment in particular is whether the House of Commons still has the self-confidence and the self-respect to take responsibility for its own self-regulation. If you introduce the principle of recall, it is a very strong signal that it does not. If you then amend the original Bill so that you emasculate the powers and the capacity for useful action of the Privileges Committee, you demonstrate that the process is even more far gone. If you create a state of affairs in which the Privileges Committee has such greatly reduced scope and discretion to exercise its own judgment in relation to the particular circumstances of the cases before it, it becomes well nigh useless.
It is deeply sad—and, more than that, as other noble Lords have said, it is deeply damaging to representative democracy. I hope that even at this late stage it is not too late for the House of Commons to reconsider the matter. After all, there has been great public anxiety about the conduct of certain Members of Parliament and there was a crisis, but the rational and proper response to that is not to give up on the principle of self-discipline and self-regulation; it is to reform it and strengthen it and make it work effectively, and, that way, rebuild the public’s confidence in their House of Commons.
My Lords, I agree entirely. Perhaps I may make one very important point—I had a conversation in the corridor not that long ago with a very distinguished Member of this House, whose name I shall not mention, to this effect: we must always remember that denigration of politics is a denigration of democracy. Democracy and politics are hand in hand; they are opposite sides of the same coin perhaps, but they are the same coin and we should never forget that.
My second point is on the Standards Committee. There is a sense being expressed tonight that it is Back-Bench Members of Parliament who take decisions—they are often the right decisions—but the committee always works on the basis of a report and investigation done by the commissioner. Yes, the commissioner works for the committee, but it does not take a decision just on the basis of some wild allegations that have been made.
As I know to my own cost, the commissioner makes a thorough investigation, perhaps lasting several weeks if not months, and then reports to the committee. In most cases—not all of them—the committee goes along with that report. We should bear in mind that this is not just some ad hoc committee taking decisions on the basis of allegations; it is a serious committee receiving reports from the commissioner and making decisions based on a very thorough investigation.
But does the noble Lord not accept that, if the recommendation of the report is that the Member should be found guilty, the sentence is in the hands of the committee? This is what we are really arguing about, because it is when it comes to the sentence that party politics come into play. Therefore, because there is a party balance in one direction, you shove it over the 10 days, and because it is a party balance in the other direction, you put it at nine days. It is the sentence that is the critical thing, not the verdict.
I agree with the most of that, but the commissioner’s report makes a recommendation on sentence as well. In most cases—not all of them—the committee will agree with that report. However, I accept that, given the circumstances that we are now in—which is why I support the amendments—that might change and the commissioner’s report would not necessarily be upheld in the circumstances that the noble Lord outlined. At the moment, the commissioner gives a recommendation as to what sentence should be given. In quite a lot of cases, that recommendation is that the Member should appear before the House of Commons and apologise for their behaviour; it is often no more than that.
My Lords, this group of amendments contains amendments for which I am able to offer the support of the Opposition Front Bench and amendments for which I am not.
Although the non-government amendments are, I believe, only probing, enabling us to debate issues around this important Bill and the provisions concerning recall that it contains, the Labour Party manifesto at the last general election gave a commitment to introduce a system of recall of MPs for wrongdoing. We support the Bill on that basis.
Amendment 5, tabled by my noble friends Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and Lord Hughes of Woodside, would delete the second condition of recall, as spoken to in detail by my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton. The conditions of recall were debated during the Bill’s passage through the other place. It is right to have a condition of recall that responds to the report from the Standards Committee into the behaviour of a Member of Parliament, where the House of Commons on receiving the report suspends the Member for the requisite period. While I have the greatest respect for my noble friends who have spoken in this debate, I am unable to support the amendment today, as I do not think that it would be right, when the other place has taken a view on a matter of such a serious nature as to suspend a Member, for us to change that.
Amendment 7, which was also supported in addition by my noble friends Lord Campbell-Savours and Lady Taylor of Bolton, increases the period of suspension before the recall provisions are triggered from 10 to 20 sitting days. Amendment 8, again in the names of my noble friends Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and Lord Hughes of Woodside, is consequential and takes the period in any other case up to 28 days. These amendments, in effect, reverse the positions agreed in the Commons on an amendment proposed by the Opposition Front Bench. When these issues were debated in the Commons my honourable friend Mr Thomas Docherty made clear from the Dispatch Box the reasoning for the amendment: that, despite concerns raised inside and outside Parliament and the reputation of Parliament being damaged with Members doing wrong that resulted in a suspension, with this threshold in place over the past 20 years on only two occasions would it have been met, as my noble friend Lord Grocott said. Those Members who were suspended in the 1990s for taking cash for questions, which was hugely damaging to Parliament, would have escaped the recall provisions. My colleagues in the other place thought that was unacceptable and brought forward the amendment that was agreed to reduce this trigger to 10 days’ suspension.
Amendments 12 and 36 in the name of my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock remove the words “or otherwise” in both cases from the Bill. Looking at these amendments I am not sure whether they will have unintended consequences and that is why I am unable to support them. I can see a situation, as my noble friend Lord Grocott said in a previous debate tonight, where an MP finds that they have triggered the recall provisions, maybe by serving a term of imprisonment for one day for demonstrating in support of or with some of their constituents, as other noble Lords have referred to. Rather than waiting for the recall to be triggered, the MP may in fact just resign their seat and fight a by-election immediately. They would certainly in those circumstances have avoided lots of campaigns against them, all spending money to have them recalled, and the by-election would be held with strict election expense limits. It seems to me that by deleting these words in the two amendments we could be denying the Member of the other place that option, and that would be regrettable.
Government Amendments 6, 9 and 10, which have the full support of the Opposition Front Bench and have also been signed by my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, in effect seek to future-proof these provisions as far as possible. We are aware that the Commons is or will be looking at these issues in respect of the processes to deal with Members who have done wrong, and these amendments seek to ensure that, whatever the process, the provisions of this recall Bill apply.
The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said—and I agree with him—that the House of Commons is an honourable institution. Members of Parliament from all sides act honourably, work hard on behalf of their constituents and serve people well. Dishonourable Members are very rare and we are all very well served by Members of Parliament. I also agree with the comments of my noble friend Lord Maxton about the denigration of democracy. I also regret that my noble friend—
My Lords, before the noble Lord finishes his remarks, I take him back to the justification which he gave for the 10-day issue, which was that two colleagues who had committed serious offences in the past would not have been caught. Does he really think in the current climate, whatever the number is—whether it was 10 days or 20 days—that they would not have found themselves subject to recall? Therefore surely the logic of his position is incorrect. By setting it at 10 days, we limit the spectrum of penalties that can be put forward. To argue that because in the past a view would have been taken that was less than 20 days does not actually fit in with the spirit of the age. If this Bill is passed and becomes law, it is inconceivable, I would have thought, that the Standards Committee would not look beyond 20 days. This is a self-fulfilling argument that has narrowed the scope for the House to show that it has taken a tough line.
I do not agree with the noble Lord. The amendment was tabled by the Opposition Front Bench because these are serious matters. Members who committed serious wrongdoing would have got away with not being recalled. By tabling the amendment, we wanted to reflect that their punishment was not enough; they should have been recalled. We wanted to give a clear signal to Parliament and to the country that, in future, 10 days is the right length after which that should be dealt with.
In conclusion, I regret that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours is not here tonight, as many other noble Lords have said. I wish him a speedy recovery.
My Lords, let me speak briefly to the government amendments, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, remarked, are consequential to amendments tabled by the Opposition Front Bench and passed in the Commons by a significant majority. We have also tabled three amendments, Amendments 6, 9 and 10, to future-proof the second edition by ensuring that the reference to the Standards Committee captures any other committee that in future exercises the relevant functions. Perhaps I should mention that the Standards Committee is at present reviewing its arrangements, including the role of lay members—although I suspect that it is more likely to expand the role of lay members rather than to do what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, would like, and dismiss them.
The amendments therefore make it clear that any other committee doing that function, whatever it is called, will continue to be given that function. They also make it clear that it is the report of the Standards Committee from which suspension follows and has to relate to the conduct of a particular MP, rather than, for example, a report about conduct or suspensions more generally.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has tabled several amendments. Amendment 5 is a wrecking amendment, which would render the Bill unworkable by making the first condition ineffective and by removing the second condition. Amendments 7 and 8 would overturn the will of the other place, which voted on Report by 204 to 125 to support an amendment tabled by the Opposition Front Bench to set the threshold at 10 sitting days, as has been remarked on. I suspect that those who were absent were doing other things elsewhere, rather than sitting outside determined to abstain but frightened that the Daily Mail might see what they were doing, which is what I think some noble Lords were suggesting.
Amendments 12 and 36 would amend how the seat might otherwise be vacated by deleting the phrase “or otherwise” from the Bill. Another way of future-proofing the Bill is to emphasise that the seat may be vacated for a number of other reasons—disqualification, death or other causes which the Commons may in future decide for itself. That would of course mean that no recall process was necessary. If the MP’s seat becomes vacant for whatever reason, the MP will not need to face a petition. Those words are therefore needed to stop unnecessary recall petitions being started where the seat has already been vacated.
Perhaps I may say a few wider words on the tone of our Committee so far, because what I hear is a number of noble Lords saying that we have to save the Commons from itself—we know better than the other place. I wish that when we had been debating House of Lords reform, we had the same sense that the other place knows better about us, but I did not hear that sentiment from noble Lords—particularly those here at the time. We have to be very careful not to have nostalgia for British politics of the 1960s as a golden age in which we had two-party politics, mass parties, respect for MPs and Parliament and deference.
Do not Members of both Houses equally have a responsibility to try to ensure the integrity of Parliament and that our institutional arrangements are such that Parliament is effective in the way that we all wish? Is not the right test to apply whether proposed reforms will improve the performance of Parliament or otherwise?
I wish we had heard that sentiment a little more often when we were discussing reform of this House. We have to be very careful about nostalgia. I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, say: “It should be as it always was”. I thought about that wonderful quotation from The Leopard:
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.
We have to be very careful not to abandon ourselves to the same nostalgia for the world of our youth that motivates those who vote for UKIP.
Although the noble Lord might be right about not being nostalgic about things going back to 40 years or so ago, when you talk about separating legal processes from parliamentary ones you are looking at a few hundred years and things like the principles put forward by Burke in the 18th century.
We understand that we are dealing with some fairly fundamental principles. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, made an extremely important point about the denigration of democracy, and the depths of public disillusionment which we now face and how we come to terms with that. The defence of democracy is not necessarily the defence of Westminster as it is now, let alone as it was 40 years ago.
I wish I could entirely agree with the noble Lord. There are many good aspects of the end of deference. People question the elite and the establishment much more than they did. We have to be very careful not to think that the preservation of Westminster in aspic is the way to regain or rebuild public trust in politics. I see that I have provoked a few noble Lords. I call upon the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, to withdraw his amendment.
Before my noble friend concludes his remarks, would he do us the courtesy of dealing with the argument about 10 and 20 days? I listened very carefully to what he said and the only justification he put forward was that this was passed by the House of Commons. There have been a number of speeches making very pertinent points about ensuring that there is public confidence in parliamentary procedures. Will the Minister explain why the Government are rejecting those arguments?
We do take our lead from the House of Commons on this. I remarked that the Commons Standards Committee, of which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, was bitterly critical in a speech that I recall very well, is now looking at its structure and procedures. We should welcome that and, on that basis, the Government support the decision of the House of Commons.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He said, in answer to his noble friend Lord Forsyth, that the Government accepted this because the Commons did. However, the Government supported this in the Commons. What was the rationale for that support? Does the Minister accept the basic point, made by several noble Lords this evening, that there is a really serious danger of the Standards Committee making decisions along political lines?
Politics cannot be entirely dismissed from anything. Going back to that wonderful period in the 1970s, I recall seeing the excellent play “This House”, in which the noble Baroness is portrayed, about how the House of Commons behaved at the time. I suspect that politics was not entirely absent from the Privileges Committee then. The introduction of lay members to the Standards Committee was intended to make it less political and strengthen the safeguards against it being used for political reasons. That is part of the basis on which the Standards Committee is now reviewing its procedures.
Whatever the Minister’s reservations about the rights of this House to try and improve legislation that has come from the Commons when it relates largely to Commons matters, could he please agree that if there appears to be a bizarre anomaly in the Bill, it is our duty at least to look at it? To repeat myself, the anomaly is this: on one day, as the Bill stands, a Privileges Committee report giving a sentence of 10 days or longer could be endorsed, leading to a recall petition being triggered; on the same day, in relation to another Member, the Speaker of the House could—as I understand it—impose a suspension of longer than 10 days. Whatever his reservations about our right to amend the Bill, does he acknowledge that there appears to be an anomaly and that he will, at least, go away and look at it?
I shall assist my noble friend briefly on this because I think there is a potential anomaly, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, says. What it stems from is that the suspension that is handed down from the Chair by the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker or whoever may be in the Chair at that time is, as I understand it, always related to behaviour in the Chamber. A suspension which is recommended to the House by the Standards Committee is, as has been said by a number of noble Lords, on the basis of a commissioner’s investigation of serious wrongdoing. The committee then decides whether that wrongdoing is an appropriate decision and then decides, again on recommendation, what the verdict should be. That is quite distinctly different.
It may be that there have been circumstances—I cannot put my hand on my heart and say—where the Speaker has laid down such a very long suspension. Throwing the Mace around in the Chamber was the big case, was it not? I do not know whether that exceeded 10 days. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, is right to say that it would be very exceptional for the Speaker, in circumstances of that sort, to insist on the suspension of a Member in any way that would trigger the 20-day limit—but it might trigger the 10-day limit. That is an additional reason for this House to ask the other House to think again about the number of days’ suspension that should trigger the recall procedure.
I do not know whether I entirely answered the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, but perhaps I have given my noble friend on the Front Bench time to think about it at least.
I shall make a point which I think illustrates the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. Into which category would Tam Dalyell’s case fall? Was it bringing the House in toto into disrepute or was it something in the Chamber? There must be a situation where one category bifurcates the other.
I do not know whether I am entitled to interrupt myself when I was interrupting my noble friend who has a lot more experience than me, but I think the answer is that at that stage the current procedure did not exist. Previously, the Speaker was the only person who could take that decision. Now, I think such a matter would be referred to the Standards Committee.
I have been sitting quietly—unusually for me—listening carefully to what has been a fascinating debate and waiting patiently for the Minister to explain why he is not able to accept the amendment spoken to by my noble friend Lady Taylor, which was the line the Government took in the House of Commons. I can understand that my noble friend on the Opposition Front Bench is constrained, and I respect his position, but I do not understand the position of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. I would have thought he would have accepted it with open arms. It is a Labour amendment putting forward what the Conservatives did in the House of Commons. He has not explained. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and my noble friend Lady Taylor pointed out, not one word addressed the issue of why it should be 10 or 20 days. He can interrupt me if he wants to try to explain that.
The number of days is always in some ways an arbitrary decision. In our amendments, which are consequential on the Commons’s decision, we have clarified the relationship between calendar days and working days, and we have accepted the decision of the Commons. If the Commons wants to change it, I have not heard from the noble Lord very powerful reasons why it should be 20, or perhaps 25 or 30 days.
My favoured amendment is Amendment 5, which would delete this whole provision, because the Member being dealt with is going to be punished twice. To be suspended for 10 days, you lose 10 days’ salary and have the ignominy of being suspended from the House—creating quite a lot of publicity in the national and local press—and then on top of that you have to go through this new recall procedure.
We are supposed to be concerned about the constituents. Can you imagine the constituents in this constituency where this Member has been subject to recall? He is going to be fighting to try and stave off the recall—for eight weeks, is it not? There is the preparation for it and then the eight weeks—the whole period. What is going to happen to the disabled lady who has lost her benefit? What is going to happen over issues such as when Her Majesty’s Government plan to put HS2 through his constituency and he is fighting it? All these issues, all the individual problems, are not going to be dealt with. Constituents are not going to be dealt with because of this recall petition.
I thought that one of the most effective points was made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, over the interpretation and delivery of these things. Look at this Bill, look at the schedules—six in total, with all the details. Work through them, read them page by page and imagine what would be involved in administering this recall, for example counting the expenses of all the people involved. No doubt we will come to that later on. It is a huge thing that we are undertaking.
The noble Lord is again making a Second Reading speech—but that is in a sense appropriate, since Amendment 5 is clearly a wrecking amendment that would destroy the Bill. But now may not be the time, possibly, to make another Second Reading speech.
If the Minister and the Government accepted what I have raised on about 59 other occasions—that we give the Speaker or the Chairman some power to tell us when we are out of order—I might not have been going on for so long. With respect, it is not the job of the Minister to tell me. This is a self-governing House and I can go on as long as I like and say as much as I like within reason, as long as I do not get shouted down by the collective will of the House.
My noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan raised this question. Tam Dalyell—a very good example—has been mentioned on a number of occasions. He had a four-week suspension and would have had to go back to West Lothian to go through this procedure and would not have been able to raise these things. No doubt he would have been put under pressure in relation to things that he wanted to raise on behalf of his constituents.
I would have liked Amendment 5 to be accepted—for striking this out to be considered—but, failing that, I just do not understand why the Government have not accepted the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Taylor. I find it strange when the previous Minister was so sympathetic.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord. Is not the answer to his question obvious? We have had it from the Minister’s mouth. As far as he is concerned, the fact that the Commons has passed this is the end of the matter and it is none of our business—so why are we all sitting here debating this Bill?
Why do we come at all? Why are we going to come tomorrow to discuss the business for tomorrow, or next week or next month? Why are we going to come back after the election to discuss anything? Why are we here at all? The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, attacked me, saying that we do not come up with suggestions for reforming the House of Lords. The irony is that the most radical suggestions to have been put forward recently were by a committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, of which I was a member. The Government are ignoring them. They have paid them no attention whatever and have given them no consideration, yet they would produce radical reform of this House. I have been arguing for some time about setting up a constitutional convention to look at ways in which we can improve it.
I am very disappointed, because I was in the middle of saying that the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, listened very carefully to reasoned arguments and responded in a reasonable way. He has spoken to me informally subsequently about following it up and I am really grateful to him. I am very disappointed, particularly since it is a Liberal Democrat Minister—it says something these days—who has responded so negatively, particularly to the amendment that the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, spoke to. Nevertheless, I am afraid that there is nothing left for me to do but to withdraw Amendment 5.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
6: Clause 1, page 1, line 19, after “Standards” insert “in relation to the MP”
Amendment 6 agreed.
Amendments 7 and 8 not moved.
Amendments 9 to 11
9: Clause 1, page 2, line 5, leave out “in relation to subsection (5)(a)” and insert “where that period is expressed as a number of sitting days”
10: Clause 1, page 2, line 7, at end insert—
“(6A) The reference in subsection (4) to the Committee on Standards is to any committee of the House of Commons concerned with the standards of conduct of individual members of that House.
(6B) Any question arising under subsection (6A) is to be determined by the Speaker.”
11: Clause 1, page 2, line 8, leave out “A further recall condition (section 10)” and insert “The third recall condition”
Amendments 9 to 11 agreed.
Amendment 12 not moved.
Clause 1, as amended, agreed.
Clause 2: The first recall condition: further provision
Amendment 13 not moved.
14: Clause 2, page 2, line 23, leave out “(the first recall condition)” and insert “and (7) (the first and third recall conditions)”
Amendment 14 agreed.
15: Clause 2, page 2, line 23, leave out from “condition)” to end of line 26 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 the day on which section 1 comes into force.”
My Lords, following acceptance of Amendment 14, Amendment 15 has been changed. It is now proposed that it should read: page 2, line 23, leave out from the words last inserted to end of line 26 and insert the new words printed on the Marshalled List. I point out to the Committee that if this amendment is agreed, I will not be able to call Amendment 16.
Amendment 15 agreed.
17: Clause 2, page 2, line 26, at end insert—
“( ) The reference in section 1(3) to an offence does not include an offence mentioned in section 1(7).”
Amendment 17 agreed.
Clause 2, as amended, agreed.
Clause 3: The first recall condition: expiry of appeal period regarding conviction etc
Amendments 18 to 20
18: Clause 3, page 3, line 5, leave out “(the first recall condition)” and insert “and (7) (the first and third recall conditions)”
19: Clause 3, page 3, line 9, 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 third recall condition, means—
(a) an appeal that—(i) is in respect of the conviction mentioned in section 1(7) 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.”
20: Clause 3, page 3, line 31, after “issue)” insert “, or an appeal under section 288AA of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 (appeal on compatibility issues)”
Amendments 18 to 20 agreed.
Clause 3, as amended, agreed.
Clause 4: The first recall condition: courts to notify the Speaker
Amendments 21 to 24
21: Clause 4, page 3, line 40, after second “MP” insert “—
22: Clause 4, page 3, line 42, at end insert “, or
(b) is convicted of an offence mentioned in section 1(7) within the meaning of that provision (see section 2).”
23: Clause 4, page 3, line 43, after “order” insert “in relation to the conviction”
24: Clause 4, page 4, line 11, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—
“(b) that—(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”
Amendments 21 to 24 agreed.
Clause 4, as amended, agreed.
Amendments 25 to 32 not moved.
33: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“Further recall condition: illegal practices in parliamentary elections
(1) It shall be a further recall condition under this Act that on consideration by an election court of a parliamentary election petition it is shown that illegal practices committed in reference to the election of an MP for the purpose of promoting or procuring the election of that MP have so extensively prevailed that they may be reasonably supposed to have affected the result.
(2) Where an election court finds that the condition under subsection (1) has been met, it must notify the Speaker of its decision.
(3) Where the Speaker receives a notification under subsection (2), he must follow the procedure set out in section 5, as though the second recall condition had been met in relation the MP against whom the election court made the decision.
(4) Subsection (1) shall not apply if the election court finds that the illegal practices amount to corrupt practice.
(5) If subsection (1) applies, and the election court finds that the illegal practices do not amount to corrupt practice, the election of the candidate shall not be void.”
My Lords, this is of course a probing amendment, although I would very much like to see it incorporated in the Bill in the fullness of time. However, for this evening’s purpose it is simply to give us a chance to debate the matter.
As the Bill stands, Members of Parliament may be penalised in ways that are described in the Bill. However, the amendment also refers to the work of the election court. We have an anomalous situation, because a Member of Parliament may be penalised by the election court for a lesser offence than might apply under the Bill, and yet the punishment would be more severe without any recourse to voters. That is pretty onerous, it is unfair, and we should put it right. The purpose of the amendment is to bring at least a large element of the work of the electoral court—particularly its conclusions—within the ambit of the Bill.
As I said, a Member of Parliament may be penalised by an election court for a lesser wrongdoing, but the penalty may be much more severe. Indeed, the Member of Parliament may be penalised to the point of losing his or her seat and not being allowed to stand again in the resulting by-election or any election in that constituency for a number of years. The most recent instance was after the 2010 election, when Phil Woolas had to appear for a transgression to do with the way his election campaign was run. The election court dismissed him. He lost his seat as a result and he was not able to stand again. I am not saying that what he did was right or wrong. That is not the purpose of the debate. The purpose of the debate is to say that the election court had a power which is much more than is contained in the Bill. I want to bring that part of the work of the election court within the ambit of the Bill.
In the amendment, I distinguish between illegal and corrupt practices. As I understand it, there is no statutory definition of an illegal practice so we have to be careful about being too precise, but there is a range of illegal practices which might be the subject of decisions by the election court. I will not go through them all now but they are, for example, to do with election expenses in excess of the maximum permissible; paying election expenses otherwise than through the election agent; paying them out of time; or failing to make the return or declarations as to the expenses. Other examples could include disturbing a meeting, making a false statement concerning the personal character or conduct of a candidate, and so on. There is a whole list. They may or may not be serious. How serious they are will depend on the particular circumstances and the way the practice actually happened. In other words, a very minor failure in the accuracy of the return may not be too serious, but a large failure is serious. It depends on the circumstances.
The aim of this amendment is to bring these things within the scope of the Bill. We all know that the judiciary—and for this purpose I refer to those on the election court as the judiciary—does not like being put in the position of having to unseat an elected politician. At least, I believe that is what it thinks. I certainly hope that is what it thinks. If we accept this amendment, a decision by the election court could be used via the Speaker to trigger the petition which—if it received 10% of signatures—could then lead to a by-election. That is a fairly clear-cut way of doing it. The enormous benefit is that in the end, the decision is by the voters. If enough of the voters want a by-election, there will be one; then when they have a by-election, the voters can decide whether or not to chuck the former MP out. It seems to me that this is a much better method than the way the election court works at the moment.
As I said, this is a probing amendment. The Minister may find all sorts of technical points that prevent him from accepting it. That may well be. I had the enormous help of the Public Bill Office in drafting the amendment, but even so, it is quite difficult. A few more weeks of work might have improved the wording. However, the principle is clear. I hope the Minister will give it a sympathetic ear and will say it is worth considering at the next stage of the Bill. I beg to move.
The election court is outside the ambit of this Bill, but my noble friend makes the case for including it. I make a brief point in support of my noble friend’s comments. I believe that my recollection is right that Phil Woolas won his case on appeal, but by that time it was too late. In effect, we had a court taking a decision which resulted in the electorate not being able to select a person who they might well otherwise have selected.
I appeal to the Minister to address this matter. It is an important issue for the Committee to consider. We may not be completely comfortable with any of the amendments that are tabled but, whatever else we may think about this Bill, we should acknowledge that it introduces a new disciplinary mechanism for dealing with MPs who are considered to have misbehaved. I emphasise that it is a new disciplinary mechanism. Disciplinary mechanisms have existed for many years, including the election courts, as was said. Inevitably, I suppose, if you introduce a new disciplinary mechanism, there is a real possibility that anomalous situations will arise and that punishments will be either too severe or not severe enough. As has been recognised, the punishment imposed on Phil Woolas was not just that he had to give up his seat but that he was debarred from standing in any subsequent by-election.
The one thing I do like about this Bill is that it acknowledges that even if Parliament and petitioners think that an MP should have to fight a by-election, he or she will not be debarred from fighting the seat. The ultimate authority lies with the MP’s constituents, as it always should. It is for the voters to decide whether or not an individual is a worthy person to sit in the House of Commons. No one else should decide that—not judges or any other group of people. I think that a great injustice was done in this case. I thought so at the time but I particularly think so now that this new penalty of recall has been introduced. To tell a Member of Parliament that he cannot stand for election to Parliament is like telling a writer that he cannot write or a builder that he cannot build. That is what Members of Parliament do: they stand for election to Parliament. I appeal to the Minister to go back to his officials on this point and at least acknowledge that, whatever the merits of this Bill—he clearly thinks that there are many—it can produce anomalies in relation to existing disciplinary procedures. We could end the debate on this amendment rather rapidly if he would indicate that that is the case, as there would be very little else to say.
I dare to make a brief comment after what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said. I have sympathy with the proposed new clause. It is clearly outwith the current arrangements but it is very relevant for the reasons that the noble Lord gave because it says that the final arbiter in these circumstances should be the electorate rather than a judge. I do not want to repeat what was said earlier but wish to explore whether proposed new subsection (1) of the amendment is relevant to the circumstances that I faced in October 1974. I am afraid that all of us have travelled down memory lane today. I was defending a very small majority in my former constituency. A newspaper was delivered to a large number of households by a pro-apartheid group which alleged that the then Young Liberals leader, Mr Peter Hain, and all those who worked with him or were associated with him in the Liberal Party, including myself as a sitting Liberal MP, were effectively guilty by association of murdering babies in South Africa. That campaign may or may not have been effective.
As I did not have the resources, and because I did not think that it would be fair on my then successful Conservative opponent, I decided not to go to an election court and say that he must be responsible for the relevant leaflet. It had an imprint on it but it was not clear that it had been published by his agent, although it was published by an organisation which was run by a former Conservative MP. However, I thought then, and I think now, that there should have been some way in which those circumstances could be investigated short of effectively seeking to unseat my opponent. I think that some way could be found. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would agree, but I think that this might fall within his first category. In that case, it would be right that, in the end, the final arbiter might be the electorate rather than a judge in an election court. There is therefore some important relevance in what the noble Lord has laid before the Committee, and I hope that it will be further considered.
My noble friend Lord Dubs has, as usual, set out eloquently why he has sought to bring the outcome of election court proceedings and the new ones in the Bill more into line. His arguments were echoed by my noble friends Lord Soley and Lord Grocott, and by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. It might indeed seem very odd to a member of the public if an MP imprisoned for a serious drink-drive offence faced only a recall petition and a possible by-election, which he could then contest, whereas a different court—an election court—has the ability to exclude an MP from Parliament altogether, and even to ban that MP from contesting the seat at a by-election.
We therefore welcome this as a probing amendment, partly to give the Government the opportunity to spell out what consideration they have already given to such issues, what discussions they have had with the electoral court, and whether they are satisfied that these two mechanisms have a degree of consistency that is easily explicable both to Members of the other House and to the public. We look forward to hearing the Minister’s views.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his probing amendment and the debate that we have had on it. As he said, his amendment would introduce a further recall trigger where an election court finds a person or persons guilty of illegal practices in respect of a parliamentary election. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, rightly asked what consideration has, and could be, given to this suggestion.
Under the Representation of the People Act 1983 the result of an election can be challenged by any eligible person by lodging a petition with the relevant election court. The election court will first consider whether the MP was fairly returned. If the court, upon hearing the evidence, finds the candidate or other persons guilty of corrupt or illegal practices, it will produce a report. Any report produced will state the names of all persons who have been proved at the trial to have been guilty of corrupt or illegal practices, and it will be laid before the Director of Public Prosecutions.
A candidate or other person reported as guilty of corrupt or illegal practice shall not be able to: register as an elector or vote in any local government or parliamentary election held in the United Kingdom; be elected as an MP; or hold any elective office. In the case of a person reported as guilty of a corrupt practice—for example, personation—these incapacities will apply for five years. A person found guilty of an illegal practice—for example, double voting—will be subjected to these incapacities for three years. The incapacities will apply from the date of the report, and the person must vacate any elected seat held.
Under the noble Lord’s amendment, if an election court found that illegal practices by a person or persons had resulted in the election of an MP, but the MP was not found guilty of any offence, this would automatically trigger a recall petition. However, under Section 167 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, an MP would automatically be guilty if his agents were found to have engaged in corrupt or illegal practices during the election, and would therefore have to vacate his seat.
If the noble Lord believes that an MP should not automatically be found guilty because of the actions of others in securing his seat, that would require an amendment to the Representation of the People Act. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, but it is the Government’s view that the system and penalties that we currently have in place under that Act are sufficient. For that reason, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment. I am most grateful for the comments that have been made. Although I cannot promise to bring anything more back, this has been a very interesting debate.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said. I did, in fact, try to distinguish between illegal and corrupt practices to indicate that there was a degree of severity under the term “corrupt” that would apply less to “illegal”. He has merged the two. I am sorry that he will not look at my proposal in a lot of detail. I genuinely believe that there is an issue here, but unless the Minister can be persuaded to think further, I shall have to call a halt—tonight, at any rate—and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 33 withdrawn.
Clause 5: Speaker’s notice that first or second recall condition has been met
34: Clause 5, page 4, line 23, leave out “or second” and insert “, second or third”
Amendment 34 agreed.
35: Clause 5, page 4, line 28, leave out “6” and insert “3”
I did not know that noble Lords wanted to hear me again this evening, but there we are. This is an interesting amendment. Its impact is that once one of the recall conditions has been met, the Speaker has to give the relevant petition officer notice, whereby a petition can be opened,
“as soon as reasonably practicable”.
In an earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said that we often passed legislation without consideration for the people who had to interpret and deliver its results. This is one of the situations in which we are not taking account of it. There would clearly have to be some time for the Speaker to get all the information together, contact the petition officer—the local returning officer—and get the information to them in order that a petition could be opened as soon as “reasonably practicable”.
We shall come later to amendments on how many polling stations there should be, and how long they should be open for. At the moment the proposal is for there to be four polling stations. In my old constituency, as I shall say in more detail in a later debate, four polling stations would have been entirely inadequate. I used to hold surgeries in 25 different villages in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley because the constituency covered 800 square miles. To expect people to come from Cumnock and go down to Girvan, or to go from Girvan to Dalmellington to sign the petition is entirely unreasonable. There are no buses between some of the towns in my old constituency. Deciding where the four polling stations should be set up would be difficult, as would be the case in keeping those polling stations open for eight weeks and providing personnel to look after them. At one time it was suggested that they would be open from 7 am to 10 pm; that would be terrible. Now they are talking about 9 am until 5 pm. That again would be very difficult, not to say expensive—another matter we will discuss later.
Again, if the excellent amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, is discussed and accepted later, we would have not just the petitions but the counter-petitions to deal with. I do not know whether his amendment had been thought of previously but it has certainly been well devised by him. I would certainly support it.
The whole process would be quite a job. My suggestion in the amendment is that the timing of when this ought to take place should be changed. I am afraid that in drafting this amendment I have not been as acute and sensible as I should have been. I was trying to get over the fact that it will take a long time and that it is a long process, and that there should be more time rather than less to deal with it.
My Lords, I think that I understood that the noble Lord was moving Amendment 35, which is about the reduction in the length of time for an election. I understand him to be talking about a different amendment, which is about the number of polling stations. Are we at cross-purposes?
I was leading up to that. I want the time to be discussed. My amendment changes the time to “3 months”. In fact, “3 months” is not what I had intended. I should have said “13 months”. That was a drafting error when I put the amendment in. I want more time between. It will take much longer because it is such a complicated procedure. If six months only are available it will be difficult to carry out all the procedures and provide the arrangements in time for it to be sensible to carry out this procedure before a general election comes upon us and overtakes the process.
I must apologise to the Committee for the mistake in doing that, but the question about the length of time still stands. Six months is completely inadequate for dealing with the procedure. The general election will overtake it for the reasons about the complicated nature of setting up the polling stations and the other technical arrangements that have to be made, which I was outlining. I hope that the Government will look again at the period of six months and not reduce it to three months but extend it.
I have also suggested in Amendments 54 and 59, which are linked to this, that as well as the Speaker laying the notice of the recall petition process before the House of Commons, the Lord Speaker should lay it before the House of Lords. I realise that it is a matter principally for the House of Commons, but things undertaken relating to Parliament often have a wider importance than just for the House of Commons. In relation to them this House often gets forgotten. On every occasion when it seems to me to be appropriate, the Lord Speaker should look after the interests of the House of Lords and the House of Lords should be equally informed, at the same time as the House of Commons. That is why Amendments 54 and 59 have been tabled.
As I said, I was not immediately ready to move this amendment so late in the evening, so I must apologise to the House, and also for the error in the amendment as drafted. I want to extend the period rather than to reduce it. I beg to move.
I do not think that my noble friend Lord Foulkes should apologise at all. I congratulate him on the way in which he has threaded his way through these thickets.
There is a common theme in this group of amendments. The proposal is that legislation should lay duties on the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker. I would be grateful if the Minister, when he comes to reply in a few moments, would share with the House his understanding of the constitutional rights and wrongs of legislation that lays duties on the Speaker. Are we risking breach of privilege? I refer here to the independence of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Are we once again risking the possibility of running up against the ancient tradition embodied in the Bill of Rights, or not? There may be many precedents in legislation that lay specific duties on the Speaker, but my impression has been that the Speaker should be unconstrained by legislation and that the Standing Orders of the House of Commons may lay duties upon the Speaker. So I question the appropriateness of the measures not only in the Government’s Bill as we have it, but also in my noble friend’s amendments, which refer to the role and functions of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
The position of the Lord Speaker is of course entirely different and is not analogous to that of the Speaker of the House of Commons, but none the less there may already be a body of practice and precedent that establishes certain customs, conventions and proprieties in relation to any attempt to legislate on the role of the Lord Speaker. It would be helpful if the Minister would guide us on these points.
My Lords, perhaps I am slightly out of turn in mentioning this at this point, but it will save time. My suggestion that Clause 5 should not stand part of the Bill is included in this group. I tabled it simply to enable me to make a point that I cannot find a way of making by means of an amendment, but it is something which goes to the heart of the Bill. My view is very simple indeed, because I like simplicity. We have a very good system for recalling MPs—it is called a general election. That is the point at which MPs should be judged and perhaps removed by their constituents; that is, on the basis of their performance over the preceding period of time.
I love the word “anomaly”, which has been used today. It seems to me to be rather anomalous, or perhaps inconsistent, that this Government, who deliberately and as a matter of public policy decided that general elections will be held less frequently, should be introducing a Bill to provide for recall. Of course, if you have general elections every four years instead of every five years, then as we know from Clause 5, the recall does not operate during the six months prior to the election. If there were elections every four years, there would be more occasions when the recall provisions would not apply, which I suppose is a legalistic way of saying what I am arguing. Recall becomes redundant when general elections are held.
If the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is to reply to this debate, I should say that I have found that not many members of his party agree with me on getting rid of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but I am heartened by the fact that I know members of his party—I do not want to disclose names—who think that fixed terms, if they exist, should definitely be every four years, not every five years; indeed it used to be his party’s policy. That is a less bad situation as far as I am concerned, and it is undoubtedly and unarguably a more democratic and accountable system. In trying to appeal to the values that are frequently claimed as being a particular characteristic of the Liberal Democrats, perhaps I may put it to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that on the grounds of democracy and accountability, it is better to have elections every four years rather than every five years. Should that happen, we would have less need to invoke the provisions of this Bill for recall.
That is absolutely right, but of course we know why the five-year provision was enacted in the first place. We owe it to David Laws, who gave us an explanation in his book, which I would recommend noble Lords read, if they have not done so already: 22 Days in May. In it he states that in the course of the negotiations between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives:
“We mentioned that our own policy was for four-year, fixed-term parliaments. George Osborne made the point that five-year parliaments were better, as they allowed governments to get into implementing their plans before having to start worrying about the timing of the electoral cycle. We—
that is, the Liberal Democrats—
“made no objection to this, and Britain was on its way to five-year, fixed-term parliaments”.
So, as described by David Laws, the five years were introduced so as not worry about the timing of the electoral cycle, which I think is a polite way of saying “without having to worry about the electorate”. Will the Minister at least acknowledge that the best way of dealing with this business of accountability may be to have rather more frequent general elections?
My Lords, the amendments and clause stand part in this group look specifically at the role of the Speaker in the recall process; how the Fixed-term Parliaments Act relates to the provisions of the Bill; at what point on approaching the general election do these provisions no longer come into effect; what do we do if the MP who is under threat of recall happens to be the Speaker of the House of Commons; and is there a role for your Lordships’ House and the Lord Speaker in matters relating to the other place?
During my contribution at Second Reading, I raised the point that there appeared to be an omission in the Bill. What happens if the MP subject to the recall provision also happens to be the Speaker of the House of Commons? I am pleased that the Government have tabled Amendments 68, 69 and 70 to deal with this and put provisions in place to deal with this event if we find ourselves in a position where the Speaker has triggered the recall provision. The Chairman of Ways and Means is the principal Deputy Speaker and quite rightly the person who should undertake these functions if the circumstance arises.
Amendments 54 and 59, put forward by my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, require the Lord Speaker to lay before your Lordships’ House any notices required by Clauses 13 or 14 that it is proposed are laid before the House of Commons. Each House of Parliament has procedures that enable it to conduct its business, regulate its affairs and deal with issues and problems. With the passing of legislation, for example, there is co-operation and agreed procedures to get a Bill on to the statute book.
However, the Bill concerns how we deal with MPs who have done wrong and have met the conditions of recall. The procedures for notifying the Commons are clear in the Bill, whether it be notification of the termination of the process or notification that the petition was successful. In those circumstances, I do not see any role for either your Lordships’ House or the Lord Speaker—although I agree with my noble friend Lord Foulkes’s comment in the previous debate that there are other roles for the Lord Speaker to take, and we should look at that another time.
It would be confusing for one House to notify another House about matters that concern one of its Members. I think that we should also remember that this Bill, when it gets on to the statute book, will, I hope, be rarely used. When it used it will receive considerable media attention. This is no local event and it will not have a local feel. I have no doubt that Members of your Lordships’ House will be fully aware of what is going on.
My noble friends Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and Lord Hughes of Woodside have also tabled Amendment 35, the effect of which is to reduce from six to three months the period before a general election when the provisions do not apply, the Member is already subject to a recall petition and the seat has been vacated. I can see that this reduces the time that the Member is exempt from the provisions, but I think that the reduction to three months makes things very difficult in practical terms.
It is proposed that the petition is available for signing for eight weeks and if successful a by-election is held, which can easily take four weeks—we are at three months. For these and similar reasons, the six months on the face of the Bill is the correct length of time, because it deals with the practicalities of this process and allows a reasonable period of time which is in no way excessive to deal with the practicalities we face.
I hope that my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock understands why I am unable to support this and his other amendments—although I have a feeling that they will be coming back in amended form on Report.
My Lords, I will start by answering the question on the role of the Speaker. I will take that away and make sure that we are absolutely correct on that. My understanding is that, unlike in a by-election where a writ is moved, the Bill provides for the Speaker to exercise certain administrative functions to enable the process to work efficiently. It is based on the Recess Elections Act 1975, which also places administrative duties on the Speaker. We will look at that carefully; it is clearly an important point.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, leaves me breathless, in a sense, because if we are talking about 13 months instead of three months, we are in an entirely different world of course. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, we had considered that on the existing basis that six months before the next anticipated election is the point at which local by-elections are not undertaken. I understand that in 1973 the Speaker’s Conference looked at the question of when by-elections should not be called and recommended:
“In the fifth year of a Parliament, some relaxation of these guidelines should be allowed, in order if possible to avoid by-elections being held immediately before a general election”.
We are therefore incorporating into the Bill previous accepted practice.
On the question of the Lord Speaker, perhaps we can have a discussion off the Floor. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, it has not been the practice to inform the Speaker of the other place formally when we take particular actions here. As to whether it should be introduced—it would clearly be appropriate for this to be on a reciprocal basis—I am not sure.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, raised a very interesting, wide question about four-year parliaments versus five-year parliaments—which, again, I would be very happy to talk to him about. I have been doing some quick calculations, which I hope I have got right. There have been, including the election we are about to face, some 19 general elections since 1945, seven of which have led to five-year parliaments. Had we had the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 1945, there would have been 15 general elections including the coming one—just four fewer. If we had had a four-year Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 1945, we would now be past the 17th general election and half way through to the 18th. So we are not talking about a vast difference.
I am sure that the noble Lord does not want to go down to the two-year, Congress style, where electioneering takes over everything and reasonable government has to stop, but let us discuss this further outside the Chamber. The noble Lord raises some very interesting, long-term questions about constitutional reform that we clearly need to discuss further.
The noble Lord is, as always, wonderfully optimistic. The interesting question of how many parties will lose the next election is one which we can return to at a later point.
Government Amendments 68, 69 and 70 deal with the role of the Speaker. The purpose here is to emphasise that we are talking about the Speaker as an institution rather than as a person. The Government were responding to an amendment tabled by the MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, and proposed that this would be properly looked at in the Lords. In the absence of the Speaker, one of the Deputy Speakers—for example, the Chairman of Ways and Means—will deal with those functions that are appropriately held. I end by assuring the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, that I look at the appropriateness of those functions and at the precedents that we always have to look back to. On this basis, I hope that the noble Lord can withdraw his amendment. I look forward to some interesting conversations in the corridors.
Amendment 35 withdrawn.
Amendment 36 not moved.
Clause 5, as amended, agreed.
Clause 6 agreed.
Schedule 1 agreed.