House of Lords
Monday, 19 January 2015.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
Imperial War Museum
My Lords, the Government have received a number of representations about the future of the Imperial War Museum’s library. The museum is considering changes to its library service provision and the future of the Explore History centre as part of its forward review. The department is in discussions with the museum about the review. The museum’s programme of digitisation of core collections is well in hand.
My Lords, I know that the Minister appreciates what a very special place the Imperial War Museum is and how anxious people are that it should not lose its worldwide reputation as the authority on conflict. That is why around 19,000 people have signed a petition asking that the proposed £4 million cuts be reconsidered. Can he give an assurance that scholars will continue to have access to the material in the library in the Imperial War Museum? Is there any hope that the walk-in centre can be retained for public access as well?
My Lords, the Imperial War Museum and the new galleries are an exceptional place. I would very much encourage noble Lords to go to the galleries: they are extraordinary. This is part of the modernisation approach; I spoke to the director-general of the museum about the library and the Explore History service. There is going to be much more digitisation. The core collection is all going to be put in digitised form so that many more people, without having to come into the museum, can look at it. I can assure noble Lords that scholarship is very important. The service will remain open for scholars to come and undertake research, but this is very much about a modernisation.
My Lords, I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord has said, not being very proficient with the modern techniques myself, but this is about ensuring that scholarship can be undertaken by young people of many generations, who are increasingly using digitalised form. But of course books, which are part of the core collection, will remain and will be accessible.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former trustee of the Imperial War Museum. Does the Minister think that these cuts will have an impact on the viability of Imperial War Museum North, which is the one footprint that that museum has in the northern part of our nation?
My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that although tough decisions have had to be taken, there are no plans at all to close any of the five sites. I am surprised that the noble Lord did not mention HMS “Caroline” in Belfast. All five sites will remain open.
My Lords, on the theme of modernisation, I know that all parts of the armed services are providing, for the Imperial War Museum online by the end of this calendar year, details of their soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. I understand that some of them are even cross-linking with National Archives information, including census, to provide as wide a picture as possible of the individual soldiers. I ask my noble friend, first, whether this excellent practice will help the public find out information about their family members, not least online, and, secondly, whether there might be other projects in the future, for example on World War II.
My Lords, what has come about with the commemorations of the First World War is an extraordinary interest in localities and for people. Indeed, the Imperial War Museum has only recently launched its “Lives of the First World War” online programme precisely to help people around the country find their own connection with the First World War.
My Lords, about 10 years ago I took my children to the Imperial War Museum, where, through the digital records, we could see that their grandfathers and a great-grandfather had served in the Armed Forces in World War II. Alongside the World War II exhibitions, this had a great impact. In 15 years’ time will I be able to take my granddaughter to the Imperial War Museum to do the same, for what will be her great and great-great-grandfathers? I know that all this might be able to be found online but, as the noble Lord has just said, the greater, lasting impact is being able to do this in the setting of the Imperial War Museum.
I very much hope that we are going to get the best of both worlds: that the core collection will of course remain accessible but that there is a greater opportunity for future generations who are not able, perhaps, to come to London or attend the other museum sites. I should say, however, that with regard to the educational services, £8 million has been found through the LIBOR fines fund, which will enable the Imperial War Museum to ensure that throughout the commemoration period its formal education services are retained.
My Lords, it is fair to say that the changes will reflect a number of changes in the library and Explore History service. That is the whole purpose of what the Imperial War Museum is seeking to do, which is to cut its costs and provide a modern service. As I say, there will be access, but it will also be undertaking a review and consulting, and that is what is currently taking place with the unions and staff.
Does my noble friend agree that we really should commend the Imperial War Museum most warmly for its very significant contribution to the commemoration of the First World War, not least through its partnership scheme linking it to galleries and museums throughout the country?
My Lords, the Imperial War Museum must be congratulated. It has been the catalyst to the partnerships, which have enabled us to broaden our links not only within the United Kingdom but across the world, so that both enemies and allies can work together in commemoration of four dreadful years.
Armed Forces: Family Life
My Lords, service personnel are aware that the nature of their job is such that their family life could be different from that experienced by civilians. Harmony guidelines are set to ensure that there is a balance between the competing aspects of the lives of service personnel. These are: time with families; operations; time recuperating after operational tours; personal and professional development; and unit formation training.
I thank my noble friend for that Answer. The charity Give Us Time is working hard to help service men and women reconnect and engage with their families after a tour of duty. Yet they are coming up against hurdles and inequalities; for example, leave time does not always coincide with school holidays and a soldier was fined £500 for taking his children on holiday during the school term. I ask my noble friend: given the difficulties of tour cycles and not always being able to give advance notice, will the Government encourage schools to show leniency towards military families by allowing their children short periods of absence from school during term time, and perhaps even amending the law to include these cases as exceptional circumstances?
My Lords, head teachers already have the discretion to grant absence from school in exceptional circumstances and, in this instance, they have been given NAHT guidance. The MoD has been in discussion with the Department for Education in England on leave of absence from school, including on the operational needs of the Armed Forces preventing families taking leave during school holidays and relating to before, during and after deployment. Similar guidance is well established within the devolved Administrations.
My Lords, if members of the Armed Forces feel that they are not being given the opportunity and support to spend sufficient time with their children and families, they can lodge a complaint. The Bill to replace the existing Service Complaints Commissioner with a Service Complaints Ombudsman, with greater powers and more independence, completed its passage through this House three months ago and was sent to the other place. If my information is correct, it has not been heard of since. Why has the Bill been delayed, since such a delay would not appear compatible with a commitment to the military covenant? Can the Government give an undertaking today that the Bill will be given the required time to complete all its parliamentary processes and become law by the time both Houses finish prior to the general election?
My Lords, would the Minister not agree that one of the main reasons for pressure on servicemen and service families is the ever increasing rate of rotation in ships or whatever, because we have too few ships and there are huge pressures on manpower anyway? Some easement in resources to allow more money for recruiting and retention, plus some more ships and aircraft, might help dramatically.
My Lords, the noble Lord asked about the legislation that seems to have disappeared. When that comes into sight again, will the Government take on board the points made by my noble friend Lady Benjamin about school holidays, which did not appear in the original Bill?
Higher Education: Overseas Students
My Lords, our reforms have clamped down on the student migration abuse allowed under the last Government, while ensuring that our excellent universities continue to attract the brightest and best students. Ensuring that immigrants leave at the end of their visa is just as important as controlling who comes here to study in the first place.
My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister used the term “abuse” in this context. There has been much criticism, including by eminent businesspeople and economists, about,
“shutting the door on some of the very individuals who help the UK’s unique global service economy to thrive”,
to use the words of the British Chambers of Commerce. I tabled the Question in the Recess, when the proposal referred to appeared from the Home Office—I am glad that it seems not to be making progress—but can the Minister tell us what current Conservative thinking is on visas for new graduates?
I can certainly inform my noble friend what government thinking is on the position. In the same spirit, I reflect that it seemed to be the position of her party that we ought to count people in and count them out. Last year we counted 121,000 students in and 51,000 out. That leaves 70,000 people who were here without an appropriate visa, and we think that that is wrong. If you are here on a study visa, you should be studying. You should not be working. If you want to come here to work, you are very welcome but you ought to apply for the right visa to uphold that.
My Lords, it is of course entirely appropriate to ensure that the administration of student visas is being carried out effectively, but that should not diminish the contribution that overseas students make to this country culturally, academically and financially. There are examples all over the world of economies that benefit from overseas students not just when they are studying but from the contribution that they can make following graduation. Will the Government drop this plan to limit the access of overseas students to the United Kingdom after they complete their studies, and will they look at proper examples elsewhere in the world where people stay on, contribute to entrepreneurial activity and eventually return home to help to develop the economies of the countries they came from in the first place?
Let me underscore that absolute commitment. When people are coming here to study, they are coming to invest in the UK and they will be welcome. There is no cap on students coming to the UK, provided that they are bona fide students in bona fide universities and they have the funds necessary to complete their studies. We are talking about tier 4, which is the student visa, and whether people ought to be able to stay on. There are some examples of abuse of that system under the previous Government, and we are trying to tighten up on that by simply saying that they ought to have an appropriate visa. We have opened up new routes through tier 2 and tier 1 particularly to entrepreneurs and those in high-skilled occupations. They will continue to be welcome in this country, as in others around the world.
My Lords, as a member of the UCL Council, may I say how delighted I am that the Chancellor scotched the rumours before Christmas about further curtailment of the post-study work route? At London First, we have again issued a report showing how important the relationship with emerging economies is. Is the Minister aware of a study by Loughborough University which showed that nearly half of international students thought that the post-study work route was an important or the most important factor in deciding whether to study in the UK? Will he consider reinstating the two-year post-study work route for postgraduates and STEM graduates?
STEM graduates—graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—are certainly in demand. They will have no problem, if they have a bona fide employer, in meeting the criteria for tier 2, so there is no problem in ensuring that that opportunity will remain open. We want to welcome them. The question is whether 100,000 people ought to be able to stay on, as was the case before, without any limitations, doing jobs as baristas or making pizza deliveries. That is in no way to diminish the value of those jobs, but simply to say that that is not making best use of their degree and that they are jobs which could be provided to people who are here legally in the domestic market.
Does the Minister agree that there are two areas where the ability to stay on for two years after completing one’s graduation is of great significance? One is adding to scientific teams, where the addition of a graduate who stays on for the time being to work on a team in an area such as cancer research is vital. The other vital area is that in the past students studying medicine have stayed on and worked in A&E before they returned to their own countries. That does them well because they gain experience; it does us well because it makes it easier to get a quick response in A&E.
I totally agree with my noble friend. Those are exactly the types of profession where we want to see more places occupied by highly skilled and qualified graduates in this country. They would have no problem securing employment and meeting the criteria under the tier 2 provisions in either of those examples. Information released last week on the number of students in the past academic year showed that the number of postgraduate students staying on for research had risen by 9%, which we should all welcome.
My Lords, the noble Lord has tried hard to reassure your Lordships’ House on the Government’s policy here. Obviously, no one wants there to be abuse of the system, but the noble Lord must understand that there is a great deal of doubt whether the Home Secretary even tries to understand the benefit and the value of overseas students to the UK for both universities and the economy. The plan to require all students to return immediately would, as the noble Lord has heard, lose the talents of doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs to the UK economy and UK society. If the Home Secretary cannot even convince her Conservative colleagues in the Cabinet of that policy, surely it is time to think again. I ask the noble Lord to take a message back to the Home Secretary: can we have less rhetoric and more practical common sense?
My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is absolutely committed to opening the doors to genuine students, but not to the bogus students that we were talking about before. When she spoke, it was about a policy that was in the Conservative Party manifesto on page 21, which is that the best way to ensure that we keep a grip on the fact that people are here on the appropriate visas is through them returning to their country once they have completed their study visa and then reapplying for a work visa. That is not the position now. The position now is that they can do that in country. We encourage people to do so where they have high-skill jobs or they want to stay here to set up a business.
My Lords, will the Minister explain how he can be so sure how many students return when we have no proper border controls on people leaving this country? Does he not agree that forcing students who have completed their studies to go back to their home—at very considerable expense to themselves—before reapplying to come here is an astonishing way to try to fill that lacuna?
The noble Lord is sharp, as ever, in spotting the issue. We will have exit checks in place by the end of this Parliament, as was promised. Of the figure which I gave—about 70,000 people going missing—some of those will have reapplied to go onto the tier 4 system. Some of them will be here and working illegally. The point is that at the moment we do not know. If we counted them in and counted them out and made sure they were on the appropriate visa, we would be able to know.
In his first Answer the Minister spoke of a policy to attract “the brightest and best” to study in our higher education institutions. Does that mean that the policy is to attract academic high fliers and people of outstanding personal virtue? I do not think that is the limit of the policy, is it? What does he mean by the phrase “the brightest and best”, which Home Office Ministers invariably use when talking about this subject?
It simply reflects that such is the quality of education institutions in this country that they attract some of “the brightest and best” academic and skilled people from around the world. We want to continue to ensure that they do that and, in so doing, contribute to the success of the growing British economy.
Given the Government’s ambition to make this country the best place in which to practise science, will the Minister tell us whether they have heeded the warning from Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, that the present anti-immigration rhetoric coming from some Members is damaging the ability of this country to recruit leading scientists?
That is all the more reason why we need to ensure that we give a warm welcome and send out a very clear message to those people that we want to come to this country to study and to contribute to the economy that we will not stand by and see our system abused by people who do not want to come here and study but instead want to come here to work.
My Lords, is it possible to distinguish among non-scientists—people like me—who come to this country to study and then stay on? Non-scientists may not find immediate access to jobs but very often, in areas like post-war reconstruction, they have a great deal to contribute. I would have been very sorry if I had been sent home and not allowed to sit in your Lordships’ House.
Exactly, and that is another fine example of how the system works. We want to encourage people. The system is far wider than students of science and technology. We simply give an example of those as people who we particularly want to stay on and contribute to the workforce and the economy, but of course there is a wider cultural benefit and value in having that interchange between people of different nationalities more widely in the arts and other subjects across our universities.
Meals on Wheels
My Lords, the Health & Social Care Information Centre does not collect comprehensive data on numbers receiving meals; it only collects a subset of this group: those receiving meals as part of a formal package of care. I understand from the information centre that in 2013-14, 31,950 people received meals from councils with adult social services responsibilities as part of a formal care package. Some 29,605 were older people aged 65 or over.
My Lords, as I have indicated, there are a variety of reasons for this. The data collected by the information centre include only people who receive meals in their homes as part of a council-arranged formal package. They do not include informal arrangements such as the provision of meals at day centres or via daycare, or indeed those who pay the council for their meals, as many do.
My Lords, I declare an interest as patron of the National Association of Care Catering. The association recently did some research that showed that, over 10 years, the numbers of people receiving meals on wheels has gone down from 40 million to half that number. That is really very worrying. Can the Government explain whether it would be better to have a statutory requirement for someone to provide these services to the huge numbers of older and vulnerable people within the community?
My Lords, I do not recognise the figure of 40 million that the noble Baroness mentioned; perhaps she and I could confer after this Question. I think that what matters here is that those with eligible needs receive the service they require. It is up to local authorities to determine eligibility criteria, but the latest available data from ADASS show that all local authorities are setting their eligibility criteria to ensure that they meet at least critical and substantial levels of need.
My Lords, some years ago I was a chairman of social services, and many elderly people did not like the meals that came. I wonder whether that is still the position. I also wonder whether the position in hospitals is similar, as we have found that more people suffered from malnutrition after they had been in hospital than before. That happened because people could not feed themselves adequately and the maid or carer who delivered the food to them would come in and say, “Oh, you didn’t like your lunch, dear”, and take it away. Of course, they have found ways round that, but have they found ways to ensure that people are getting meals that they like, and is someone seeing that they actually eat them?
My noble friend makes a series of important points. I do not have information on how many people dislike their meals on wheels, but the fact that many purchase them must indicate that the quality of those meals in many areas is of a high standard. There is also charitable provision, which I should have mentioned as well. The context here is surely the new regime that will be ushered in by the advent of the Care Act, which builds support around the individual and their needs and preferences.
My Lords, the figures used by my noble friend Lord Touhig were obtained by freedom of information means from local authorities in England. Those figures cover years in which there was a substantial rise in the number of over-65s in the United Kingdom, yet they show a decline of about a quarter of a million in the number of people receiving meals on wheels. I repeat my noble friend’s question: why?
My Lords, I was not seeking to doubt the figures obtained through a freedom of information request; they just do not happen to be available to my department. However, it is worth noting that the data on the numbers using services also reflect longer-term trends. For example, the proportion of older people in receipt of local authority-supported social care has been declining steadily for the last 10 years. Among those receiving meals on wheels, the numbers have also been declining steadily over 10 years.
My Lords, Age UK County Durham runs an innovative scheme called “Come Eat Together”, which addresses not only the issue of older people having the right food but matters such as loneliness as well. Does the noble Earl consider that that is the sort of innovation that local authorities should bring to social care under the Care Act?
My noble friend makes an important point—that it is not only the value of the meal that is important to elderly people; it is the relief from isolation and loneliness. Many of the solutions to that lie with local authorities. However, what the Government centrally have been able to do is to raise awareness of the impact of isolation and loneliness and encourage local commissioners to tackle that. To that end we have funded a digital toolkit for local commissioners, which has been supporting them in understanding and mapping commissioning for loneliness and social isolation in their communities.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of Age Scotland. May I try to answer my noble friend’s question for the Minister? The reason why there has been such a dramatic reduction in the number of meals on wheels is the swingeing cuts imposed by the coalition Government—and, indeed, the Government of Scotland—on local authorities and voluntary organisations, and it is about time they were reversed.
My Lords, local authorities’ funding through central revenue support has indeed reduced, but spending on adult social care has been relatively protected compared with nearly all other local authority services. In cash terms, councils have reported only a small reduction in money spent on adult social care since 2010, despite the tough public funding climate. It is up to the party opposite to explain where the money would come from—if it will increase local authority spending—given that the shadow Chancellor has ruled out increasing local government spending if Labour is elected at the general election.
My Lords, local councils do not have to charge for meals; they may provide them free of charge or at subsidised rates if they want to. If they charge, they must—as is the case for any non-residential social care service—follow the statutory guidance. That guidance ensures that, where they do charge, the charge is consistent and fair.
Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Control of Horses Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Transfer of Tribunal Functions (Transport Tribunal) Order 2014
Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (Amendment of Functions) Order 2014
Motions to Approve
Olympic Lottery Distribution Fund (Winding Up) Order 2014
Motion to Approve
Recall of MPs Bill
Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 11th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 7th Report from the Constitution Committee.
Clause 7: Where and from when the recall petition may be signed
37: Clause 7, page 5, line 39, leave out “maximum” and insert “minimum”
My Lords, the enthusiasm for this Bill is perhaps clear from the movement around the Chamber; we could be discussing the Recall of Lords Bill, but I do not think that is what it is meant to be. I shall speak also to Amendment 66 in this group.
Our major question is to ask the Government why they chose the figure four for the number of signing places, and after what consultation with the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Commission, given that they have totally failed to respond to what either of these two organisations recommended. If we are to have a recall petition, surely in the interests of fairness it should be equally easy for any constituents to sign, whether or not they live in the centre of an urban environment or in the country, whether or not they have a car and whether or not they have the time to make a two-hour round journey for the privilege.
The exact number of signing places required to meet the needs of individual constituencies, as well as the practical considerations surrounding staffing levels and availability, will surely depend on each constituency and should be left to someone who knows that geography and demography. Our amendment to Clause 7 would simply mean that where at present the number of signing places is limited to four, the petition officer would not be able to allocate fewer than four. The very fact that the Electoral Commission categorises the constituencies into boroughs and counties indicates that the demography of each varies enormously.
The largest constituency, Ross, Skye and Lochaber—I hope I have pronounced the latter correctly—is some 12,000 square kilometres, while Islington North, the smallest, is just 735 hectares. I therefore ask the Minister why it would not be better, as advocated by the Electoral Commission, to leave the responsibility for determining the number of venues to the petition officer, who will have far better knowledge of the area than either he or indeed I. The Electoral Commission states:
“We have previously highlighted its concern that 4 signing locations may not be enough to allow reasonable access for voters in every constituency given the diverse geographical nature of some constituencies … Petition Officers should be given the power to determine the appropriate number of signing places based on the characteristics of their constituency in order to provide more reasonable access for voters to sign a recall petition”.
The example of my home constituency of Brecon and Radnor that I used at Second Reading highlights this point exactly. As a county constituency, it has more than 90 polling stations at a general election. Having only four during the petition process will leave some electors facing the prospect of a round trip of an hour or more—and that is for people with a car. Those who have to rely on rural public transport could spend half a day out and about in the Welsh countryside—something that I would recommend, particularly to older people with pensioner passes, but hardly conducive for a busy parent with three children.
Having so few signing places will then tend to lead to a higher demand for postal votes, with consideration needed not just for the logistics of this but to provide safeguards to protect against fraud and double signing. Amendment 66 in this group would require the staffing requirements and opening hours of the locations to be set out in regulation. The Government’s memorandum states that in order,
“to keep costs low and to make use of convenient locations a petition officer may wish to use council owned buildings,”
and that they,
“anticipate that signing places will be open throughout the usual business opening hours of the premises used”.
Given that such timings will not suit everyone, the memorandum goes on to say that other options for some out-of-hours signing will be looked at. I therefore ask the Minister to set out the form that these considerations will take, whether stakeholders will be consulted, how frequently the Government anticipate out-of-hours options being available, and what the effect will be on costs of such extra hours. Furthermore, because no final decisions have been taken regarding the availability of signing venues, the Government admit that they will not be able to include provisions in regulations allowing for the emergency proxy of applications. Does the Minister recognise that that could have been avoided had the delay in bringing forward this legislation been used to give greater consideration to the logistic considerations? If the regulations will not cover emergency proxies, we need to know what provisions and guidance will be given.
My final point relates to staffing arrangements and training. At a general election, polling station staff are appointed by the returning officer and are responsible for the conduct of the ballot, making sure that the proper procedures for voting are followed. The Bill contains no such provision for the training of staff at signing venues, and the amount in the impact assessment is woefully inadequate to allow for any decent training. Indeed, the Government’s recent document on regulation indicates that the reception desk within the council building might be sufficient for issuing and receiving signing sheets.
Apart from concerns about security and secrecy, can the Minister confirm whether staff who run the signing venue would be required to be trained—including on eligibility, how much information may be given to an elector, and what assistance they are able to give to disabled electors—and who will be responsible for ensuring that the petition officers have the resources they need for all this? We seek assurances on how signing venues are to be managed over that two-month petition period, and in particular we urge the Government to rethink the limitation of signing venues to just four per constituency. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendment 37. I am very well aware of this issue from my own experience in north Cornwall, where we have very large, scattered communities with inadequate public transport, and of course in the holiday season there is the additional problem of getting to any centres of population. That is replicated, as it happens, in a number of the Highlands and Islands constituencies, of which I am very well aware because they are represented by honourable colleagues, as well as of course in rural mid-Wales, as the noble Baroness said.
The number of signing venues is a serious issue. By this comparatively small change to the Bill, which would give more responsibility to those who are on the ground and can take the appropriate decision, we could make a huge improvement. A minimum of four places would give that flexibility. It may be that only a couple of dozen constituencies in the whole country would wish to go beyond four, or substantially beyond four, but they happen to be ones that have, as I say, the additional problems of inadequate public transport, difficult road links and, very often, the complexity of additional traffic during the holiday period. I very warmly support Amendment 37.
My Lords, I did not speak at Second Reading, although I attended much of the debate and followed closely last week’s first day in Committee. I share many of the concerns that have been expressed so far about this legislation.
At Second Reading, my noble friend on the Front Bench flagged up in her excellent and detailed speech a number of practical difficulties with the Bill, and she seeks to address some of them with these amendments. I support what she said in moving the amendment. In its report on this legislation the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concern about the many unanswered questions and gaps in the Bill and said that the Government do not explain,
“why they have not ensured that the provisions about petitions in the Bill itself are complete”.
Those comments are relevant to a number of amendments that we will consider in the course of this debate.
In my few remarks this afternoon I wish to address in particular the provisions in the Bill about the number of signing places. Like the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who just spoke, I am influenced both by the area where I live now and by the constituency where I lived and which I represented in another place for a number of years. The constituency in which I now live, Berwick-upon-Tweed, is England’s most northerly constituency and the second largest in area. It is a sparsely populated area, and certainly to limit the number of signing places to four places in such an area seems unrealistic, particularly if you are talking about people who do not have access to a car—to their own private transport. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said that he felt that probably a small number of constituencies would be concerned with the amendment, most of which are in rural areas. The urban area that I used to represent, although compact, would also have faced challenges under the four-place limit in this Bill and I shall explain why.
The constituency that I used to represent had the title of Gateshead East and Washington West. If you think about it, that already sounds as though it covered two local authority areas, which it did. It also represented an area that had no obvious town centre. In fact, the most convenient signing places for the people of that constituency were either the Sunderland civic centre, which was not in the constituency, or the Gateshead civic centre, which was not in the constituency either. Although the constituency was small and compact, it did not have a public transport system that would have given access to one signing place in the centre: there was no central point in either of the two parts of the constituency.
For that reason, if I was trying to work out where it would be convenient for people to sign a petition, I would probably think of about three places in the Gateshead area and four in the Washington area in order to have reasonable coverage and allow people to use public transport and get to the signing place in a reasonable time and in a reasonable way.
I do think, therefore, that the Government should very much think again about the proposed provision. A standard solution simply does not work in this situation, as is so often the case, so I endorse very strongly my noble friend’s suggestion that this should be left up to the responsible officers in the different areas to work out what suits people in their area.
However, the Government should say more about the types of premises that would be suitable. Presumably the Government are thinking of council offices, but what would be the alternative in constituencies, like the one I was talking about, where there are no council offices? It could be public libraries, if there were enough that had not already been closed, or schools, but it would be unthinkable to have schools snarled up for eight weeks for a signing process of this kind. It simply would not be feasible and would not work. It could be community centres. What exactly do the Government have in mind for signing centres under this legislation?
I certainly accept that this small change, which says that the minimum number of signing places should be four, is a much more sensible way forward. I hope that the Government will look at that sympathetically, give the system some flexibility, and avoid the situation where we have a postcode lottery and some constituencies are far better served with signing places than others.
My Lords, I apologise to the Committee: I have to go to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy later this afternoon. No doubt, the Minister will be disappointed that I am not here to support him. I very much support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. During the last session in Committee the Minister appeared to be telling us that we should really mind our own business and that this was a matter for the House of Commons.
The thing that I find remarkable about this Bill is that if it has been designed and put forward by the House of Commons, it shows an extraordinary ignorance of what it is like being a Member of Parliament and how the process is carried out. Extraordinarily in my old constituency of Stirling, for example—I cannot do square metres, but know that it was 800 square miles—it took me from 6.30 in the morning to 8 at night just to drive to every polling station to thank the people standing there. Even then, people had difficult journeys and it was quite an expensive operation to do this. Quite what the cost, which is not accounted for, would be if one had to provide that kind of coverage over a longer period, I know not.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right: if this is an exercise in democracy and is to be carried out fairly, you have to make it possible for people to cast their votes in secrecy at a reasonably convenient opportunity and near where they live, whether they work or whether they do not. I guess I am with the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, in thinking that this needs to be at the discretion of the local authority. The local authority will have to find the money and the people to do all this, and to train them—and, of course, none of this is costed, so if the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment on cost grounds, I have an elegant solution, which is that he abandons the Bill altogether.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was probably wrong to suggest that such a small number of constituencies—perhaps a couple of dozen—would find it impossible to cope if there were only one to four signing places. The constituency that I had the honour to represent for a number of years—Stratford-upon-Avon—was some 450 square miles in size and had 116 parishes. It is simply unimaginable that people would have been able to use the public transport available to get to one, two, three or four signing places. It is a very scattered constituency, so that is unrealistic.
I strongly echo the point just made by my noble friend Lady Quin. If the Government’s proposals in this regard are to have any credibility, they owe it to us to say what premises would be used. Clearly, public libraries, which are disappearing as we speak, will not provide the solution, nor can it be acceptable for schools to be disrupted for a period of eight weeks. That is one good factor to bear in mind when we come to the next amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Foulkes.
Finally, it would be helpful to the Committee if the Minister would give us a fairly detailed breakdown of costs. The impact assessment tells us that the best estimate the Government have made for the total cost of conducting a recall petition process in a constituency would be of the order of £55,000. I do not think that figure is remotely credible. It would therefore be very helpful if the Minister could give us his analysis of the costs of operating this aspect of the process.
I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayter, although I think there is also much wisdom in simply leaving it to the discretion of the petition officers to determine what is appropriate.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, I have not spoken previously on the Bill although I followed the proceedings closely. Like my noble friend Lord Forsyth, I have read the debates, and listened to them this afternoon, with a sense of incredulity that such an extraordinarily ill prepared and ill considered Bill should have come from the elected Chamber. I find that bizarre.
I agreed with almost every single word that was said by the noble Baroness who moved this amendment, not least because until comparatively recently my home was in Powys. It was literally at the very edge of Powys, yards from its border. I can vouch for everything that she said about the distances involved and the impossibility of complying with this measure. Similar difficulties would have applied in my former constituency of Pembroke, which in those days covered the entire county of Pembroke. It would have been perfectly impossible to implement this measure there. Indeed, I am impressed by what my noble friend Lord Forsyth said about getting round all the polling stations to thank the people involved. I divided my constituency in two and my wife undertook to go round half of it and I did the other half, as it was an impossible task for me to cover the whole constituency adequately.
There was one election at which my majority was only 700 and something. It was therefore all the more necessary to cover every polling station and get to know the constituency. It was only by doing so that I increased my majority to a much more secure one.
Putting history to one side, the simple fact I wish to emphasise is that everything that the two noble Baronesses have said, particularly on the other side of the House, seems to be absolutely unchallengeable. If the Bill is not amended in the kind of way that they have suggested, the whole thing will be a total disaster.
My Lords, I referred briefly to this issue at Second Reading. I confirm my support for the amendment in the name of my noble friends and I agree with my noble friend Lady Quin, who is drawing on her considerable experience as a Member of the other place. I said at Second Reading that four signing places in my former constituency of Bristol East, an inner-city constituency, would have given many people a challenge, because of its geography. It is banana shaped, to the east of the city, and many people would have needed at least two bus rides to get to a signing place. I cannot understand, for the life of me, why the Bill, which is going to cost a huge amount of money, cannot provide for discretion to be given to returning officers—who, after all, know far more about their constituencies than any of us on these Benches—as to how many signing places there should be in order for the Bill, dismal as it is, to have any effect at all.
My Lords, it is a remarkable fact that in the course of debate on the Bill not a single former Member of the other place has said a word in its support. That might be because some of us spent too long down there; it might purely be that we are prejudiced against Mr Nick Clegg, whose name appears as the main promoter of the Bill; or it might just be, as I hope the Minister will accept, that years of experience down the Corridor make us scrutinise proposals such as this, to try to put our fingers on fundamental weaknesses.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I represented a borough constituency. I am speaking from memory, but I think that there were nine or 10 different places for people to vote in that constituency, and even then, there were complaints from some parts of West Bromwich, during the time I had the honour to represent part of that town, that getting to the polling station was a problem. We are to have a maximum of four places to sign a petition under the proposals in the Bill, and a minimum of four if my noble friends’ very sensible amendment is accepted. How would the Minister define a suitable place for this petition? I am aware that the memorandum says that this is a matter for the petitioning officer, but as my noble friends and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, have said, there are not always convenient local government offices where these petitions can be signed. Would licensed premises, for example, be regarded as suitable places? After all, some local authority buildings are licensed for the sale of alcohol. Would that disqualify that building, in the Minister’s view?
Let us not stop at local authority premises. There are a number of working men’s clubs in the constituency that I represented. Would they be regarded as suitable premises under the terms of the Bill? What about political clubs? The last Conservative club in West Bromwich fell by the wayside some years ago—there were probably not enough patrons—but when it was open, would that have been regarded as a suitable place for a petition? Are politically affiliated clubs specifically disqualified under the terms of the Bill? I cannot find any mention of that in the memorandum, if it is the case, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view. After all, if a Conservative club, for example, were regarded as a suitable place, it might be possible to advertise the sophisticated humour of Mr Jim Davidson—“Come along and listen to Jim Davidson and sign a petition to get rid of your local Labour MP while you are there”. There are endless possibilities regarding the premises to be used.
What about staffing, of which mention has been made? Look at the likely procedures for signing a petition. We are all aware that when one goes to a polling station, one’s name is ticked off and one is given a ballot paper. In the privacy and secrecy of a polling booth, one puts a cross against the candidate of one’s choice. What happens regarding a petition? How is it laid out? Is it at the reception desk when one goes in? Is it possible to see who else has signed it? I ask that question because, like other noble friends, I am concerned about the number of staff who may be needed—first, to check the address and so on in order to establish that that person who is anxious to sign the petition is bona fide. Then, depending on the procedures, do we need other staff to ensure that the person signs only once? Over the years, we have all become familiar with petitions with false names that have received lots of publicity. Is it not possible, if there were only one member of staff there, for a would-be signatory to sign more than once? These are all valid questions in relation to the amendment, and I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically at it.
I started by saying that I had not heard any former Member of the other House speak in favour of the Bill. Indeed, the only person I have heard speak in favour of it is the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, who is in his place. As far as I am aware, he has never been elected to anything himself, although I understand that he tried to stand on behalf of the SDP many years ago. He writes an entertaining column in the Times; perhaps he will devote some of his future articles to pointing out—although I appreciate that he supports the Bill—some of the problems that those of us who have been involved in electoral processes over the years can see arising from the way in which it has been drafted.
I hope that the Minister, when he replies, will take these concerns seriously and carefully consider accepting the amendment.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, mentioned that in her erstwhile constituency some people might have to take two buses to get to the polling station. In many rural areas and hamlets there is often only one bus out and one back. In some places, there are only a couple of buses a week in each direction. I am therefore a strong supporter of the amendment.
My Lords, like many others who have spoken this afternoon, I have not taken part in the Bill so far but I have followed it closely. I wish to support part of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, because, like her, I live in the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency—and I declare an interest in that I am married to the local MP. I have spent many a long hour driving him around the constituency as he tries to visit every corner of it.
I should like to back up those comments by mentioning what has happened to the democratic process in the county of Northumberland. Under the previous Government, we had imposed upon us reorganisation, which meant that we reduced the number of principal councillors in the area from more than 300 to 67. I have seen what that has done to the operation of local democracy, and I therefore hope that my noble friend Lord Wallace will look seriously at the democratic issues in areas such as Berwick-upon-Tweed.
My Lords, not long after I came into this place, the Labour Whip approached me and asked me to support a “panic” amendment. I thought, “That’s unlike my noble friend Lord McAvoy”, to ask me to support something that had been drafted in haste because of some emergency that had arisen. To my relief, I found out that it was an amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, so I was very happy to support it.
However, this is a panic Bill. The one to blame for it is not the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, but the Deputy Prime Minister. It is one of the many crazy things that he has come up with. This proposal is so crazy that even the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, cannot accept it. I thank that that shows noble Lords how daft it really is. This particular part has been opposed by everyone who has spoken so far. We are all waiting for the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, to get up; he has been the only advocate of any part of this Bill, apart from the Ministers themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who has tremendous experience as a Minister and a Member of Parliament, spoke against it, as did the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who again has great experience from his constituency.
I want to do the same from my experience in my constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, which was 800 square miles in size. I held surgeries in 25 different centres throughout that constituency; there were even more polling places. No buses went from Cumnock, in the north, to Girvan in the south. There was a long distance beyond Cumnock, right up to Muirkirk and Glenbuck, which was home of the famous Cherrypickers, that wonderful football team that the Shankly brothers originally played for. The constituency stretched down to Ballantrae in the south, which was the home of Lord Ballantrae, who some noble Lords will remember, and where his title came from. It was a big constituency.
My noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws knows Scotland well, and she knows that the difficulties faced in my constituency by having a maximum of four places would be even worse in others. Let us take the Western Isles, for example. Let us suppose that that wonderful Scottish Nationalist Angus MacNeil was subject to a recall petition—that is, if he continues; I doubt whether he will, but let us imagine. It would be possible to have a place to sign a petition on Lewis, one on Harris, one on North Uist and one on South Uist, but what about the other islands? What about Benbecula? What about Rum, Eigg, Muck, Barra and all the other islands? We have heard talk about areas having only one bus: I can tell noble Lords that no buses go between these islands. There are ferries, but think about all the difficulties that this would create for all the people who, understandably, wanted to sign the petition to get rid of Angus MacNeil.
It costs more and more each time, although to be fair costs may go down soon because the cost of oil is going down. That has not worked its way through yet.
There are similar problems on Orkney and Shetland. Everyone thinks that they are just two islands: Orkney is one island and Shetland the other. That is far from the truth. Orkney and Shetland both have huge numbers of islands. It is just impossible. That is why it is so sensible to give the discretion to the petition officer. This is such a sensible amendment.
That is true; we are giving him an impossible task. I hope that the noble Lord is not blaming me for this. This is all part of the Bill. Even the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will have some difficulty explaining this. I was going to say he is just the Bill’s representative on Earth, but he is just the representative in this place of the Bill’s real architect. We know who is to blame.
My Lords, I hesitate again to interrupt the noble Lord in his wonderfully nostalgic speech ranging across the entire United Kingdom. I do not have a copy of the Labour Party’s manifesto for the last election with me but I think it committed the Labour Party to a recall Bill. I am sure that the noble Lord, as a good, strong, Labour loyalist, stands 100% behind that. Does he?
There have been terrible things over the past five years but we lost that general election. I do not think that we necessarily are committed to manifestos for elections that we lost. Even if we had brought forward a recall Bill, I can guarantee noble Lords one thing: it would not have been as daft, stupid, unworkable, unreconstructed and difficult-to-operate as the recall Bill we have today. This is the recall Bill of the right honourable gentleman the Deputy Prime Minister.
This is getting somewhat absurd, even for the noble Lord. The Bill is in the hands of Mr Greg Clark. He is the Minister responsible and he has had broad support from the Labour Front Bench in the other place. Perhaps the noble Lord might like to talk about the merits of this part of the Bill, rather than go off on his ludicrous tangents.
I used to be a junior Minister as well. I know that the Secretary of State, or in this case the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Cabinet work these things out. As a junior Minister I was a foot-soldier. I know exactly what it is like. Sometimes even I had to argue things that were not all that easy to argue on the Front Bench. I may have gone a little over the top.
These are the merits of the Bill. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made very good points in relation to his former constituency. I have made the same points in relation to mine and they apply a fortiori—ad absurdum, if you like—to Orkney and Shetland, and to the Western Isles. I was merely making that point. I do not need to repeat the comments about what kind of buildings there should be in each of these areas or what provision there should be, for example, for blind and disabled people. There is a whole range of unanswered questions and, with great expectation, we look forward to the answers from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment, which should be read in conjunction with Amendment 39 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. It strikes me that the problem is that there are too few signing places but they are open for too long a time. If the period is shortened, that would presumably free up resources that might help to cover the cost of having more places open within a short period. If the two were put together, it could be cost-neutral but very beneficial to all those who want to take part in the process.
Absolutely, it was absolutely not—it was repetitive. This Bill has been considered by a number of committees. The Government’s proposals for “a maximum of 4” took on board the proposals of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place. That is where this proposal comes from. I have listened with interest and I have been thinking about constituencies in which I have worked. Indeed, in the first by-election in which I worked, as a student, I recall that the constituency of Cambridgeshire had 103 villages and no towns. Without question, there was one very convenient place where everyone might gather to sign a petition, which was outside the constituency in the city of Cambridge. We recognise that that is part of the problem we have with constituencies and their boundaries.
When I was the candidate in Shipley, one of my duties was to hold a house meeting in a place where it was a considerable surprise to those who attended the meeting to discover that they were in the Shipley constituency. They thought that they lived in a different place. I am sure that there are also problems that others here have faced in their turn. Again, I stress that this issue has been considered at some length not only in the other place but by a number of committees. This has not been sprung on the House by a wicked Deputy Prime Minister, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would like us all to believe. I am sure that he has looked at the committee report in some detail. It has been suggested that giving people an eight-week period will allow for a trade-off between those who wish to use postal votes and those who will take the opportunity to sign when they come into the centres in the constituency. That is the flexibility of the trade-off, and we will discuss further the question of whether the period should be of eight weeks or two.
I am conscious of the differences between constituencies in this country. We talked about what is called the Brecon and Radnor question in our earlier discussions, and I am certainly willing to look at whether there is an appetite for a degree more flexibility in all of this. As to the provision of premises, let me stress that traditionally the management of elections in this country is a local matter. It is in the hands of experienced members of local authorities, who look at the provision of appropriate premises. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, that I think licensed premises are extremely unlikely to be used. As I listened to him, I wondered whether we would allow premises that sell liqueur chocolates to be used, since those of us who are also involved in the Deregulation Bill have struggled with that deep and vital matter.
Let us discuss it off the Floor of the House rather than detain the Committee further.
Of course, we will be relying on the discretion of the petition officers, who will be the local election officers, on the use of public premises around each constituency. I note the strength of feeling that has been expressed about four centres not being enough in a number of constituencies, although I also note the section of the Electoral Commission’s report which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, did not quote, which states that, equally, four signing locations may be more than is required in some constituencies. There is, perhaps, a greater degree of flexibility and I am willing to take this away and discuss whether a degree more flexibility is desirable.
Let me touch on a number of other issues that have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, discussed the impact assessment. I can assure him that, under the Bill when passed, the costs of each recall process will be reimbursed to the local authority. The impact assessment covers the fact that the direct and indirect costs, including training, will be reimbursed.
Will the Minister write to us before Report with a detailed analysis of the costings that led the Government to come to the conclusion that they expressed in the impact assessment? It was:
“The cost attributed to one recall petition in the United Kingdom is estimated to be in the region of £55,000”.
It would be very helpful if he would explain how those costs are made up.
I will be happy to promise that we will reconsider that and I will write. Perhaps it is also worth talking at this point a little about regulations. A number of the amendments before us today consider how much should be in the Bill and how much should be in regulations. We have placed in the Library of the House a draft sketch of the regulations, but I should stress that it will not be possible to lay the regulations before either House between now and 7 May. The exact regulations will be the responsibility of the next Government and will come before the two Houses within the first year of the new Parliament.
I am most grateful to my noble friend. If all this has been so carefully thought through, why are the Government not in a position to lay these regulations? I have listened carefully and I am grateful to him for saying that he will look at this again. However, while it is invidious to choose a particular constituency, if you take Argyll, which consists of a number of islands, the idea that this can be done for £55,000 is pie in the sky. Is the Minister basing the costing on discounting it over a long period? Where did the figure come from?
My Lords, since I have not looked in detail at the assessment, I cannot directly answer that. I assure him that I will go back and get that. I am quite familiar with parts of the Argyll constituency; I recall the Daily Mail writing a bitterly critical article on MPs’ expenses the year before last, in which it attacked the current MP for Argyll, who is a friend of mine, for claiming overnight hotel expenses within his own constituency—which merely demonstrated that the Daily Mail had not looked at the atlas.
This is a very serious matter. The Minister said that none of the regulations will be ready before this Parliament finishes. That means that it will be up to the next Government to lay these regulations before Parliament. I am expecting that there will be a different Government. How is it that he, and this Government, can bind a successor Government and Parliament to put these regulations before Parliament?
My Lords, I was not aware that I had said “none” of them. A sketch of the regulations—which I am sure that the noble Lord has looked at—has been placed in the Library of the House, but the final form of the regulations have not been entirely agreed. As the noble Lord well knows—although he is looking in puzzlement at me—things like this have to be agreed closely through consultation with the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission and others. These things need to be done well and they take time, after one has agreed the overall shape of the Bill. That is the process through which we are now going.
My Lords, the Government have been fairly busy with a range of issues. We have perhaps taken longer on this than we should have done, and I note that the House is currently enjoying itself. The question of adequate training is, I suggest, a matter for regulations rather than for inclusion in Bill. I am happy to discuss that with the Opposition Front Bench between Committee and Report. Having said that we will discuss these issues further, I hope that the noble Baroness—
With respect to the Minister, I am afraid that we are discussing the Bill because of discussions between the two Front Benches. They are the cause of the trouble in the first place. Therefore, I do not think the House will be too mollified by the thought of more such discussions taking place. Surely, if the Minister is going to reply properly to Amendment 66 in particular, he ought to be able to tell us how many staff he envisages at these particular places and what training—if any—they are going to get. What guarantees can he and the Government give about security, as far as people wishing to sign a petition are concerned, and what assurances will he be able to give the rest of us that people are signing only once? He has answered none of the questions relevant to Amendment 66. Whether or not the Government have had the regulations drafted after four years is their problem: the House is entitled to a slightly more comprehensive answer from the Minister than it has had so far.
My Lords, I have stressed several things. The details of premises used, and other arrangements, are matters for local election administrators. I have spent some time over the past three years talking to local election officers, and I have the highest respect for those whom I met, both in Yorkshire and in London. That is the way we manage elections; those people understand the local area, including its geography and the sort of premises that are the most valuable. Moreover, facilities for training are a matter for discussion between the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission and the Government. Those discussions have already begun and are well under way, but the final details await the completion of the Bill.
Would it not have been sensible to have had the discussions with the local authorities about how this proposal could work in advance of drafting the primary legislation and in advance of this very late stage, when the Bill has been through the House of Commons and is in Committee in the House of Lords, and we are at the fag end of a Parliament? Surely, this is putting the cart before the horse, which is why the Minister—and I sympathise with him—is in the very embarrassing position of not being able to explain how, practically, this legislation can be made to work.
He is simply saying, “We are going to pass it on to other people and we will make regulations when we have had discussions with them”. But what happens if the other people who have experience in this area come to the same conclusion as every speaker in this debate who has represented a parliamentary constituency: namely, that this is not practical and doable? By that time, this will be an Act of Parliament. Surely it is our duty not to put rubbish on the statute book.
My Lords, the noble Lord is being a little mischievous. There have of course been extensive discussions with the Association of Electoral Administrators and others throughout on these matters. They have not come to a conclusion because the details will need to be worked out as we move forward. For example, this detailed amendment concerns the question of how many places one will have open for signing over an eight-week period. I have just offered to take that back and consider whether we could be a little more flexible. I have also explained that our proposals came as a response to a report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, to which evidence was given by a number of these people—so we are not simply starting from the beginning. There has been quite extensive consultation, with which I am sure the noble Lord is familiar, and on that basis—
My Lords, I do not recollect that. I recognise that all those in this House who have been MPs are deeply unhappy about the Bill. I also recognise that outside the Palace of Westminster there are many who would like the Bill to be a lot rougher and tougher than it is.
The Minister will have to do a bit better than that. Outside the Houses of Parliament there are those who will not be satisfied until Members of Parliament live in a tent on the Thames and pay to come to work. He will have to find a slightly better argument than that to convince the House.
My Lords, as I walked down the main street in Saltaire on Saturday, I saw on the noticeboard outside the hairdresser a scribbled note that said, “Kill politicians, not trees”—we are currently culling some of the trees in Saltaire. I went in and had a minor altercation with the hairdresser about whether or not he would have been equally open to putting “policemen” or “Muslims” on his “Kill politicians” thing. It was a long altercation, and my wife did her best to calm me down. Let us recognise that we are in a situation in which politicians are not among the most popular or respected people in Britain, and the Bill is in part a response to that—and I stress that it was in the manifestos of the three political parties last time. Noble Lords do not like that response, but that is the situation which we are in.
I have heard all these suggestions from various noble Lords that this is completely impossible and impractical. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister might reflect on the United States of America and whether in all the places that are very large—larger even than my noble friend’s former constituency—which have had these petitions, they have all collapsed due to it being completely impractical to organise them, or has it proven in fact that many recall petitions have taken place perfectly simply and not at great expense?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, asked whether we were putting the cart before the horse. At least now I understand the Bill that we gave a First Reading to earlier, which was about the control of horses, which I had failed to understand thus far.
It is interesting that everyone who has spoken in this very interesting and geographically spread debate has supported the amendment tabled by me and my noble friend Lord Kennedy. We now hope that we will enjoy the same degree of support for our other amendments and will look forward to it as we proceed.
My noble friend Lord Howarth pointed out, as I was about to do, that if the best evidence that the Minister could have was from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report in the other House, it was on the basis that this measure should not proceed at all, so the case for four days really has to be better than that. However, I shall not labour that point because the Minister has agreed to take it away and look at whether the provision should state “minimum” or whether we simply leave it to the petition officer, as the Electoral Commission says. We would be content with either as long as there was that increased flexibility.
I am not a former Member of the other place, so I do not come with any of that, but it seems to me that the provisions relating to how you develop the petition, how you set up signing places and the training of the staff will be crucial. As someone who has been a teller at polling stations, I will want to know whether I will be allowed in, how many feet away I will be able to be from someone going to the polling station and whether I will be able to ask where they live—which effectively gives me knowledge of who they are and therefore who they are voting for. These are big issues, and we will need the staff at the signing places to have absolute clarity on that when they are challenged about how close I might be able to go wearing my rosette or my “Vote No to Wallace” badge. Would we be treated as we are at general elections? I can find none of that, even in the draft regulations. Therefore, the training, its length and the type of staff are absolutely key, which is why we wanted it spelt out more.
I thank all those who have given their support to the amendment. I hope that we can look forward to the Government tabling their own amendment on Report. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 37 withdrawn.
38: Clause 7, page 6, line 8, leave out “10th” and insert “21st”
My Lords, I move this amendment with some concern and some disappointment, having heard the Minister’s response to the previous amendment. I would have thought that, if we were dealing with any of these amendments properly, the Minister might say in response to at least some of them, “The Opposition or the mover of the amendment from the Back Bench has made a good point. I’ll have a look at it. I’ll take it away. I’ll discuss it with colleagues and I’ll come back”.
That was not what I took from it, but I am glad that he has confirmed that that is the case. I hope that we will hear the same kind of response to other amendments and that, when he comes back, we will see some changes, otherwise this would be a completely cosmetic exercise.
As I said earlier, the whole Bill seems to me to be a panic exercise. The Minister gave this away when he was talking about walking down the street in Saltaire and being incensed by the note that he saw in the barber’s window. The Bill seems to be a panic response to some of the comments made by people who write in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and even the Times from time to time. I am reminded of someone once asking, “Why are all the people best able to run the country either cutting hair or driving taxis?”, which seemed to me to be a very good question, but I added to that, “Why are all the people best able to run the country cutting hair, driving taxis or writing columns in newspapers?”. If these people know better than us how to run the country, if they can draft better legislation, if they can come with better ideas, why on earth do they not stand for Parliament?
That surprises me. They are not very good jokes, are they? They are not as good as mine anyway, that is for sure.
Amendments 38 and 39 are very serious amendments. As I said, I hope that we will get some response from the Minister. I was very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for whom I have the greatest respect—he is a great expert on the constitution and these matters— saw the link between those amendments, particularly Amendment 39, and the ones we have just been discussing.
Amendment 38 would change the day on which a recall petition will be available to sign from the 10th working day after the petition officer receives the Speaker’s notice to the 21st working day. The petition officer has other responsibilities. He is usually the chief executive or a senior officer of the local council and has lots of other things to do. The amendment gives him time to start looking for places that could be used for signing the petition and for getting staff organised and everything prepared for the petition signing. I think that 10 working days is asking too much of those hard-pressed individuals and is pushing ahead far too quickly with the procedure. He or she should be given more time.
I then propose reducing the length of the petition signing period from eight weeks to two weeks. In a general election, of course, we have only one day to cast our vote—the postal vote provision gives us other opportunities, but it is very limited. To provide eight weeks for the petition to be signed seems to me to be designed to make life really difficult for the MP. There is an opportunity for a bandwagon to be built up. Later, we will be discussing expenditure and the various organisations that may spend money—political organisations, religious organisations, pressure groups of one kind or another—which could build up their campaign against a Member of Parliament that has nothing to do with the reason why the Member of Parliament has been subject to a recall petition. Again, we will be discussing this later, but it would be possible under the present proposals.
Let us say that when the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was a Member of Parliament for his constituency, he, sadly, suffered a recall petition. It would have been open for other people who did not like his views on the environment or any other aspect to try to get rid of him for those reasons, not for the reasons of the recall petition. Eight weeks gives opportunity for such campaigns to be got up. It would also be possible for people to oppose the Member of Parliament for things that he had done, such as votes that he had taken for or against changing the abortion limit. They might not like his religion or his views on any other aspect. Eight weeks gives the opportunity for that bandwagon effect to take place. Two weeks seems to me to be quite long enough for anyone who pays some attention to why the recall petition has been instituted to think about it and to sign it. Even in the islands, they could get from Canna to Lewis in two weeks to sign the petition. It certainly would not need eight weeks.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, raised the issue of the cost of this whole process, which will be huge. I will be interested to see the reply and the information that the Minister gives to my noble friend Lord Howarth. The Minister said that he would provide the basis on which the £50,000 forecast was based. I must say that I am very sceptical about this, particularly the aim to keep the signing places open for eight weeks. It was originally proposed that the signing places were to be open from 7 in the morning until 10 at night—the whole time when people are normally able to vote. Now it looks as if it will be 9 am until 5 pm. That is still a full day for eight weeks. That is a very substantial amount.
I presume that at each signing place there will be two people to ensure that everything is carried out properly and that there is some check on it. That also raises another question. In elections, different parties are able to keep an eye on things. Will the MP or his representative and the petitioner, or the people who are organising petitions against him, have the right to go and check up at the petition signing places? If they have that right—and I can see that there is an argument that they should be able to do that to ensure that everything is conducted properly—to do that over eight weeks is quite an impossible task. With due respect to the Minister and to the people behind the Bill, whoever that may be—I will not labour the point about the Deputy Prime Minister—very little thought has been given to the practical effects of what we are about to pass.
In conclusion, the Minister is worried about the image of Parliament. I understand that. We are all concerned that we should be seen as a responsible body of individuals, but one of the ways in which we will be seen as such is, as I said last week, through passing sensible, intelligent, workable legislation. If we pass this kind of unworkable and expensive legislation, which is going to create tremendous problems, the reputation of Parliament for considering legislation properly will be reduced. That means that the reputation of politicians in both Houses will be reduced. That would be a great shame.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 39. As my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth put it a few minutes ago, with admirable and characteristic brevity—in contrast to one or two other noble Lords—this is very much linked to the amendment that my noble friend the Minister has said he is prepared to take away and think about again. If we are going to have, in some constituencies, just two or three signing places and only two weeks for the signing, then the pressure on those places will be considerable. To succeed in a recall petition in an average-sized constituency, 7,500 people will have to descend upon those one or two places. So there is a direct relationship. If my noble friend the Minister is able to say that in geographically larger constituencies, where it is more difficult to obtain satisfactory locations in so few places, there will be an increase, perhaps to eight or nine places—or whatever it may be in the islands; I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—or, for example, in my old constituency in Cornwall, to six or seven places, then reducing the number of weeks to two weeks is much easier. Otherwise there will be enormous pressure.
I hope that my noble friend will accept, having generously and sensibly said that he is prepared to go away and think about the issue of the maximum and the minimum numbers of signing venues, that this also applies to the number of weeks that they are active. The numbers otherwise could be extremely difficult to manage.
My Lords, perhaps the Minister can explain to us why eight weeks is thought to be a suitable term. It cannot be to make sure that people know that the recall petition has to be signed, because that will be no secret. Once the Bill becomes law, the very first MP who is referred to the Standards Committee for some misdemeanour will be fastened upon. From day one of the Standards Committee discussions, the press will be going on about demanding a recall. We do not know how long the Standards Committee will take; it could be five, six, seven, eight, nine or 10 weeks, or three or four months. Some discussions have gone on for six months. Everyone will know about it, and once the petitions officer is informed, there are 10 days for him to take action on it. In those 10 days, there will be fierce discussion in the media. What is going to happen in eight weeks? For what logical or logistical reason can eight weeks be satisfactory?
We manage to do a general election by voting on one single day. I am not necessarily suggesting that that would be the right thing—I support the term being reduced to two weeks—but if we vote in those numbers on one day, why has this been stretched out to eight weeks? Again, we are not told why that is the case. I suspect that this is one of those things where somebody had a good idea and said, “We will all look good if we have a recall Bill on the statute book”. This is a limited recall Bill, as I shall hope to discuss in greater detail on a later amendment, but they were saying, “Let us get it on to the statute book”.
The Minister said in a previous debate that we will not have the regulations in time for the general election and they will be sorted out afterwards. Why not leave the whole thing until after the general election and do it properly? It would make much more sense if the Bill were withdrawn and started again. That could be done and would not take up any more time. It might go through much quicker. This is the kind of provision that does not bring any real sense to democracy. What is going to happen during the eight weeks of the signing period? On a later amendment, I will argue what might happen during those eight weeks, but I ask the Minister to have some sense. For goodness’ sake, accept this amendment.
My Lords, there has often been a wonderful use of the words “with due respect” in this Chamber on this Bill, in lieu of actually showing any. The suggestion that people who drive taxis or cut hair are not those who run the country will come as very sad news to the voters, particularly those who cut hair or drive taxis. To suggest that one cannot comment on the recall Bill without being a Member of Parliament would be like suggesting that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, cannot comment on the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals without having been Deputy Prime Minister, which he was never able to be. I do not think that ad hominem points really help.
This is about handing a simple power to voters. Most people viewing this debate would be perplexed as to why we would wish to deny such a power being handed to the voters to remove people who had gone to jail or—
All right, we can see that noble Lords think that it is funny, but I do not think that it is funny at all. The fact is that we are arguing for a sensible Bill which will do the job properly; not the hash and mishmash which has been put before us.
If it is genuinely the case that nobody has questioned the need for the Bill then I have not been paying proper attention. I think that it has been questioned several times. I am glad to see that the noble Lord is not among those who question it, but I am afraid that many of his colleagues—not the Front Bench of the Labour Party—do question it.
This provision gives a limited power to voters in certain, very limited circumstances. I hope that those circumstances will not arise very often. If they were to do so, it would certainly be worth all the money that the Bill is supposed to cost to deal with the problem. If we in fact had large numbers of Members of Parliament who were being suspended for long periods, going to jail or fiddling their expenses, the cost of recall would be worth while. If it is small numbers, the cost will not be very large. This amendment is designed—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, knows this—to make it impractical for people to collect the signatures, and to make it more difficult. There is a reason why, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Snape: the noble Lords who are not in favour of the Bill are all former Members of Parliament. Obviously they will feel that a power to remove Members of Parliament ought to be resisted. I am simply arguing that that power is being given in extremely limited circumstances.
My noble friend has just commented on ad hominem remarks and so on, but I regard that as rather an offensive remark from him. Just because one is a former Member of Parliament and is critical of the Bill, it does not suggest that we are criticising it simply because we think it is wrong that Members of Parliament should ever be removed. I do not believe that for a moment.
The last thing that I would want to do is to offend my noble friend. However, the point was made directly, and by more than one noble Lord, that Members of Parliament understood why this Bill was impractical whereas others did not. Therefore, I am simply arguing that there is a reason why Members of Parliament should feel that way.
My Lords, having taken part in the Second Reading and then read it in Hansard, my recollection is that pretty well everyone who spoke in that debate, particularly former Members of Parliament, said they agreed with the principle of recall but were opposed to this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, has not been paying attention.
Well, I would be delighted to hear the proposals for recall that are not the ones included in the Bill. I believe that noble Lords have opposed almost every practical measure that could be considered for recall, but I would be delighted to be told differently.
I wonder if the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, could help me—he is know -ledgeable about these things. Are there more journalists than Members of Parliament in prison at the moment; and what is the mechanism for recalling those journalists who hack telephones?
That is an excellent question. Somebody who breaks the law and does not sit in the House of Commons can be removed from their job by their employer. I am arguing that that power should be extended to the hairdressers and taxi drivers who constitute the employers of Members of Parliament. When I made the argument that they employed Members of Parliament, I was told that that was a novel constitutional doctrine. I stick to it none the less. This is a simple power that will be used only in certain, very limited circumstances. Those limited circumstances are set out in the Bill. If others have proposals for recall, the Bill is simply amendable with those conditions, since it is a very simple Bill and very simply structured. I can only translate the fact that no alternative proposals for recall have been put forward except for the one from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—which, again, opponents of many of the Bill’s central proposals have found even more complicated and therefore did not like. I know of no other proposals that have seriously suggested that this principle of recall should be advanced.
Yes, I was glad to hear the Minister suggest that he will pay attention to the debate, and I look forward to seeing his proposals. Many very practical arguments were made in its favour. The argument that no practical arrangements can be made to make recall work at fairly limited expense is ludicrous. I am sure that it is not beyond the Government’s ingenuity to come up with those proposals. However, the amendment that we are discussing now is designed to make it almost impossible for anybody to file for recall within a reasonable period. Although the principle of recall has been given apparent support, we have been given no practical alternatives to those of the Government, except for those of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I would certainly welcome the chance to hear some. I believe that the reason we have not is that people do not wish the electorate to be given this limited power, and I think that that is wrong.
My Lords, perhaps I can claim a level of expertise about the recall of MPs because I myself have been recalled as an MP. I think I am right in saying that it is only the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and myself who have had this happen—oh no, I see from looking round that there are three of us, so I had better be careful. The electorate decided that they did not want us as their MPs. I am totally in favour of the recall of MPs.
We have a system that works extraordinarily well; it is called a general election. Sadly, and I am repeating myself now, this Government have decided that we should have fewer general elections and that they should be once every five years instead of once every three years and 10 months, which has been the average period between elections since the Second World War. There is going to be a mass recall of MPs on 7 May, eight or nine weeks from now. Very much in keeping with my noble friend Lord Hughes’s remarks, we know that, so far, at least 80 of those MPs will not be there in the next Parliament. I am referring to those who have announced that they will be standing down, who may have very different views about the merits of a Bill like this than those in the current Parliament, which is well past its sell-by date. There will probably be—I never make firm predictions but I am speaking hopefully—a substantial number of other MPs, in addition to those who are voluntarily standing down, who will be asked by the electorate to spend more time with their families, just as happened to me, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others.
Surely the democrat’s view of this, if we are going to trade democracy across the Chamber, would be to say, given that the Bill has been five years in gestation, with the Government clearly not wanting it but finally feeling that they have to produce some sort of measure: “Look, we’ve waited five years; let’s wait another six or seven months and if necessary, if the mood of the next democratically elected, newly enfranchised and sustained MPs is that we really do want this dog’s breakfast of a Bill, it should be for the new democracy that we will have after 7 May, when the composition of the House of Commons may be very different, to judge, not us in this fag-end Parliament”.
I do not have any difficulty on the grounds of democracy saying that this is a bad Bill that should not be brought in at this time. I have a specific reason, too: the more that you discuss the Bill, the more you realise that no MP in their right mind would subject themselves to this recall procedure. That is why I very much support my noble friend Lord Foulkes’s Amendment 39; at least he is acknowledging the inevitable truth, which is that if there is a period of eight weeks while people sign a petition, why on earth would any sitting MP voluntarily submit himself or herself to that form of torture? If the Procedure Committee and the Standards and Privileges Committees in the other House decide on a 10-week suspension, the MP knows at that point that the overwhelming likelihood is that a by-election will occur in due course because there will be so much negative publicity followed by an eight-week period when people in his or her constituency will have been persuaded by the media at all levels, local and national, that the right thing to do is for this MP to submit themselves to re-election. I would strongly recommend—this is certainly what I would do, heaven forfend, but no longer do I have to worry to the same extent about these things—that the moment they are subject to a disciplinary procedure that will result in recall, they should resign their seat. That is the obvious thing to do.
In a sense, the discussion that we are having is entirely academic because I cannot imagine anyone going through the inevitability of this long procedure and period of negative publicity, when at least a by-election is likely to take a maximum of four or five weeks—
May I just clarify something? Is the noble Lord suggesting that if the Bill is introduced, it will imperil MPs who have come under any of these conditions to resign their seats, whereas otherwise they might have remained in Parliament until the end of the period? That would be a very interesting clarification for us to have.
It would not impel anyone to do anything; but if this unnecessary Bill was on the statute book it would be a sensible decision for a Member of Parliament to make. I do not want to see that provision in the Bill—let there be no misunderstanding about that. I have already explained that I am in favour of general elections, not of frequent elections, as the noble Lord is.
Just for further clarification, the noble Lord suggests that one of the advantages of passing this legislation is that it will encourage people to understand that their position is no longer tenable, and therefore it would be an encouragement to those people to recognise the condition in which they find themselves and resign.
I am saying that they would be dealing with the ludicrous situation of an eight-week period—but I am repeating myself. What I am saying is obvious to pretty much everybody else in the Chamber; I am sorry that is not obvious to the noble Lord. Clearly, if that system was in operation—and to repeat myself, I do not think that it should be; it should be up to the electorate in a general election—yes, the least expensive case and, if you like, the more democratic mechanism would be for the electorate to make the decision swiftly in a by-election. However, I hope that this provision does not come into operation.
My Lords, perhaps I can intervene in what seems at the moment like a Second Reading debate. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, mentioned my noble friend Lord Tyler. I point out that although the electorate recalled him, I am pleased to say that they changed their mind a few years later and sent him back, and he served a number of Parliaments before he decided to stand down from the House. That is just for clarification.
My Lords, I will get in eventually. I outlined my alternative to the Bill on Second Reading. Addressing the amendments before us, I reiterate my support for Amendment 39 in particular. I cannot see the logic of eight weeks because I cannot see who benefits from that. Obviously, you can argue that it is unfair on the Member over whom this sword of Damocles would hang for that length of time, but I cannot see any benefit to electors. If there is that demand to recall a Member, they will want the by-election as quickly as possible, and this will just delay matters. If they feel that strongly, they would not want that length of time in which to do it. It would make far more sense to provide a much shorter period but with greater opportunities for those who want to go and sign. Therefore there should be a correlation: the more you narrow the period, the more opportunities you provide for those who want to go and sign, and it benefits everybody involved to do it as quickly as possible.
My Lords, I support Amendment 39. I will follow on from the comment made by my noble friend Lord Grocott against the eight-week signing period. In every election I fought I was preached against from pulpits on the issue of abortion. A general election takes about three or four weeks. I can imagine what would happen to a Member of Parliament in a constituency when an issue such as that moulders on for eight weeks, and the degree to which that single issue could influence the outcome of an election. However, to return more specifically to the issues raised by my noble friend Lord Foulkes on the necessity for returning officers to become petition officers and oversee the recall mechanism, can the Minister tell us in his response what discussions the Government have had with the Local Government Association about the way in which it sees this legislation working—and, if there have been such discussions, what was its response?
My Lords, I support Amendments 38 and 39. I will ask the Minister a couple of genuine questions. He talked about the consultations that have taken place and will take place with local government officials about the administration of the Bill. I presume that the petition officer is more than likely to be the chief executive of the local authority—that is a reasonable assumption to make. Bearing in mind the numerous duties that chief executives have, it would be perfectly sensible for the Minister to look again at Amendment 38.
He has already said that among the matters to be resolved is the suitability of premises in which the petition is to be signed. Obviously, that cannot be done in a matter of hours; presumably it would take up a substantial chunk of the chief executive’s time. I do not want to go over the previous amendment again, but in his reply the Minister indicated the number of matters that are still subject to discussion between the Government and local authorities before the Bill is implemented. So I put it to him that surely, for those reasons, it would make sense for the number of working days to be increased from 10 to 21.
On Amendment 39, I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Norton. My noble friend mentioned abortion and the difficulties she had in her former constituency. Some years ago I was asked to speak about capital punishment on a television programme called “Central Weekend”, which might be familiar to at least one of my noble friends on this side of the House. Shortly before the programme went out there was a particularly brutal murder in the West Midlands. The question of capital punishment was raised—and understandably so—by local and national newspapers, in particular the newspaper covering my own constituency. I received a considerable amount of correspondence and some degree of odium because of the stance that I took. I would hate to think of someone in a similar position facing eight weeks of this sort of barrage, as well as whatever he or she had been charged with in the first place. An eight-week period would allow the media in effect to make the decision for the electorate, by putting on the sort of pressure that my noble friend faced on the subject she has just mentioned, which I faced some years ago and which many of us face. So both the amendments are sensible and I commend them to the Minister.
My Lords, the discussion about the role of different professions is interesting. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, will help me. One of the little pieces of doggerel that I have remembered for years—I am sure that he will know the source of it—is about a journalist:
“I am the daily mentor who
Tells the Premier what to do:
And when he’s done it, I go on
To tell him what he should have done”.
Perhaps by the end of this he will let me know the source of that, which I learnt as a little girl.
The major amendment in this group is of course Amendment 39, which, as has been said, reduces the petition period from eight to two weeks. I have some sympathy with this as a probing amendment, simply to get the Government to spell out why they chose eight weeks rather than two, four, six or, indeed, even 10 weeks. Why was this thought to be the appropriate period? I assume that it was not chosen in the way that the Government chose the figure 500 as the number of seats they wanted in the House of Commons—by plucking the number from the air. I assume that there was more to it than that, but I have failed so far to find out what it was.
As an actual amendment, I am less sure that the two-week period per se would work. Let us think of this as more akin to an election. Before it we have that long run-in, or phoney war, which I am afraid we know too much about at the moment and which alerts people that the election is coming. If there were just two weeks to actually sign in that situation, that would be one thing. As noble Lords have said, the amendment has great attractions in terms of costs. However, as a realistic time for the whole process of alerting people to the issue, their right to sign, where the venues are—whether there are very few or more than few—and, importantly, to get postal votes if they cannot get there, two weeks is not the answer.
My noble friend referred to the long period of time leading up to a general election. However, the moment a Member is referred to the Standards Committee, the whole thing will be under discussion in the constituency. Therefore, there is no need for eight weeks. People do not need eight weeks to make up their minds; two weeks is surely long enough.
There are two different issues here: making up your mind on the matter and the procedures involved. The questions I am asking the Minister are: why did the Government decide on this measure, and what is the appropriate period? Two weeks seems too short to get the whole thing set up and the registers ready. Indeed, we are talking about 12 weeks with a couple in between, given the eight weeks that have been mentioned, added on to a possible by-election lasting another four weeks.
I think that the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, now appreciates what my noble friend Lord Grocott said. The best thing would be to resign straightaway and call the by-election yourself, as the MP concerned, and go straight into a by-election, saying, “Yes, it is true that I have been kept out of the House of Commons for 10 days”—or whatever it is—“but that was because I felt very strongly about a matter; there was a Bill going through that I did not like”, or whatever the issue was. In that case, you are on the front foot. That is the point that my noble friend Lord Grocott was making. That would be a much more attractive proposition and might be the right way to tackle the matter—that is, by putting the MP in the control seat. Sadly, we have not discussed these issues fully and I do not think that the Government thought about adding the time for a by-election when they chose the eight-week period. They have some explaining to do about the choice of this period, particularly with regard to the discussions they have had with the electoral officers and the Electoral Commission on the eight-week period. We look forward to clarification on that.
This debate has ranged a great deal wider than the two amendments before us. I again remind the Committee that a commitment to bring forward a recall Bill was in the manifestos of all three parties in 2010. The draft Bill was published for pre-legislative scrutiny in 2011. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee considered the proposed architecture and did not recommend changes, and it has also been approved by the other place.
I hear noble Lords around the Committee saying, “This is appalling. We have not thought of this before. This must be a last-minute proposal. Why has it not been thought through?”. This is not the case. We have consulted throughout, not with the Local Government Association, but with the society of chief executive officers and the Association of Electoral Administrators, the representative bodies for returning officers. They have not raised particularly difficult issues on this. I stress that the rationale for this measure was that the petition period would be parallel to, and part of, the process of discussion.
As the Minister is praying in aid the committee that gave the Bill pre-legislative scrutiny, he needs to put it on record that it recommended that the Bill should be dropped—I cannot remember another example of this happening—and that the Government should find alternative, sensible ways of using valuable parliamentary time. Can we have it on the record that that was the professional view of the specialist committee which looked at the Bill in its pre-legislative form? I cannot think of any other example of a Select Committee making a judgment of that sort.
I am fully prepared to accept that, but I also note that this Bill passed through the other place in spite of that recommendation. We need to at least start from that assumption when looking at the Bill rather than suggest that it has not been properly considered and ought to be entirely rejected, which I think is the undertone of a number of the contributions being made to this Committee stage debate.
I entirely accept that the Front-Benchers are committed to that and I wish that noble Lords elsewhere were. We have already, in effect, extended the process of elections. The fact that postal voting starts at a much earlier stage is a problem that we now all face in elections. Indeed, we have extended the period, in regulations that I have taken through the House over the past two years, rightly, between sending out postal votes and the election, in order to provide more time for people overseas, people who are going abroad on holiday, or whatever. So the process of elections has now been extended and we have the severe problem, as I felt working at the last election, that by the last week of the election a substantial number of the electorate have already voted. The conversation takes place early. The intention stated in putting the Bill forward for pre-legislative scrutiny was that the dialogue would take place as the petition was opened.
I certainly remember what it is about. I do not remember the exact period. I think we have extended it from three weeks to four and a half or five, but I will write to the noble Lord about that.
On the question of the preparatory period, I note that these two issues are, of course, linked and that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is proposing that there should be a longer time for preparation and a shorter time for signing the petition. I assume that he regards these as intrinsically linked to the provision of a larger number of places at which to sign, so that, in a sense, it all goes together as a package. The proposal which the Government have put forward in the Bill is that, since the electoral officers have not asked for a longer preparatory period than that suggested in the draft Bill and which is therefore provided for here, we therefore open the petition-signing process after 10 days. That gives a considerable period during which people who are on holiday can return, et cetera, in order to provide the maximum amount of time for a campaign which goes in parallel with the petition-signing process and gives the maximum amount of time for those who wish to sign the petition.
I find it difficult to understand what the Minister is saying sometimes. Is he going to accept, if not my proposition, the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that eight weeks to two weeks is linked to the number of polling places? Since he has taken away the number of polling places and will come back, is he also agreeing to take away the question of the eight-week period being reduced and look at that as well? I do not know whether he said that.
I did not say that. The other place has passed this legislation and I am not yet persuaded. The eight-week period ensures that there is enough time for electors to sign in a manner that is convenient for them. I am certainly prepared to raise the questions of how far we wish to go and the cost involved, but I doubt whether I can give the noble Lord the open suggestion at this late stage, four years after the draft Bill was published, that we will look again at something which has actually had very considerable consultation since it was proposed and has not received a negative comment from most of those who were consulted. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I wish the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, were here because I can understand what he is saying. I find it very difficult to understand what the Minister has just said. If I cannot make a case, the noble Lord, Lord Norton—Professor of Government at Hull University—made a perfect case. If the Minister is taking away the issue to look at the number of polling places, it surely goes without saying that the question of the time for which those places are open is linked to it, in terms of not just cost but the availability for people to sign. I am quite astonished that he is unable to consider this matter. To be honest, it shows that Ministers in the House of Lords need to be exceptional and say—like the noble Lord, Lord Newby, sometimes does—“I’ll have another look at that and will go back and argue with the Ministers in the House of Commons because a good argument has been made. Perhaps I can convince those Ministers that it should be taken account of”.
The Minister said, in a sort of gratuitous compliment to my noble friend on the Front Bench, that of course the Government think that the Opposition Front Bench is trying to improve the Bill. The implication is that none of us on the Back Benches is trying to improve the Bill, but this is genuinely an attempt to do so. The compadre of the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein—the Sancho Panza to Don Quixote over there—was shaking his head. If Sancho Panza reads the Second Reading debate, he will find again and again that Back-Bench Members on this side of the House said, “We agree with the principle of recall but do not agree with a number of the provisions of the Bill”. We are trying what one might call a twin-track approach. We are saying, “We don’t like this Bill at all; it is badly drafted and thought out. But it is there and we will do our best to try to improve it”. That is what we have been genuinely trying to do with these amendments—on the Back Benches as well as on the Front Benches.
I have been listening carefully to the Minister’s reply for a reason why the period should be eight weeks. Why not seven, six, 10 or 12 weeks? There was no explanation whatever as to why eight weeks has been arrived at. If the amendment is tabled again on Report, I would be minded to test the opinion of the House.
I am really disappointed in the response from the Front Bench. In future, perhaps on my next amendment, I shall encourage someone else to move it to see whether they have any greater ability to convince the Minister of the argument. I feel totally inadequate in my ability to argue a case.
Amendment 38 withdrawn.
Clause 7 agreed.
Clause 8: Notice of petition to be sent to registered electors
Debate on whether Clause 8 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, we have given notice or our intention to oppose the Question that Clause 8 stand part of the Bill. It is an opportunity to raise a fundamental issue about the whole Bill.
The Minister will recall that we discussed at Second Reading whether signing a recall petition was to be a secret or public act. As we noted then, if it was to be public, people must be aware that their identity will become known in due course before they decide to sign it. We gave given notice of our intention to oppose the Question that Clause 8 stand part of the Bill to ascertain from the Government what their present thinking is as to whether a recall will be by a secret vote or by a public petition. At the moment, the Government seem to have come to no conclusion. We would like to suggest a way forward. The Government have had nearly five years to decide on this issue, which is fairly key to the working of the Bill, but have failed to come up with a conclusion. They are therefore in need of some help, which I hope the Chamber will provide.
The Constitution Committee noted that,
“signing a recall petition is a public act”.
Indeed, the Government conceded that,
“whereas at an election the way in which the person has voted remains secret, this secrecy cannot be maintained absolutely through the process of signing a petition as there is only one way in which a person may sign”.
Unlike elections or referendums, on which a large amount of the Bill has been drafted, there will not be an “against” box on the petition signing sheet. Furthermore, if the Government intend for a marked register to be available, the list of “for a recall” will become public, moving away from the notion of secrecy. There is nothing to stop organisations filming who goes into the signing venues or, as I mentioned earlier, stop those of us who lobby for one side or another and mark who goes in and who comes out. Indeed, we would ask for polling cards, as voters will be given polling cards in the same way as normal. I do not need to explain to the House how quickly videos or images can be circulated on a variety of different platforms, digital or otherwise.
It is crucial that a clear decision is taken as to whether this will be, in effect, a public petition or a secret act, which could be done not dissimilarly from the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who is not currently in his place, in Amendment 51, by having separate “for” and “against” forms. Whatever the final decision, it must be clear in the Bill and voters must be informed of it well in advance.
This is a complex issue, about which I, for one, have yet to decide. There are strong arguments on both sides. However, my concern is that this has not been fully discussed and the Government have not, to the best of our knowledge, engaged stakeholders, such as the political parties, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Reform Society, the Association of Electoral Administrators, or anyone else. Indeed, when we met the Electoral Commission, it seemed unaware of this as an issue and had not really paid any attention to it.
We really must have a greater sense of this—of the arguments on both sides and of the views of others—before Report. We simply cannot afford to leave it to the next Parliament—or, even worse, to the triggering of the first ever recall—to take a decision on this. Everyone needs to be clear about the process before the first such petition happens. Therefore, as a Parliament, we need to decide now, but informed by research and consultation, which sadly has yet to take place. After that, we can see the regulations, the information to be given to electors and agree the exact procedures in the light of whether this is an open or closed petition. My suggestion to the Government is that they undertake that consultation before this comes back to the House. They should come back with a clear view based on the evidence of that consultation. That should be in the Bill and the relevant regulations could be so drafted afterwards.
My Lords, I share the concerns expressed. The Government need to think long and hard about the privacy issue. If this Bill had been put before the House in the 1970s or 1980s, there would have had to be a clause making it clear that it did not apply to Northern Ireland. Fortunately, I think we are over the worst of that but, as the Minister knows, it is still a sensitive area and I am not sure whether this will apply to Northern Ireland. I must admit that I meant to check that point but I did not. I also think that there could be real problems as regards the privacy issue in areas where there are ethnic or religious tensions. I am not sure what thinking the Government have had about that.
In view of all the battles, literally, over the centuries to get the secret vote, you can see why people might be worried about signing a petition in public or, worse still, signing without realising that it would be made public after the event. At that stage, people may want to take their name off the petition, to change their mind or whatever. I do not have any confident feeling that the Government have thought this part through. I look forward to the Minister explaining how he will deal with this, particularly in those areas where there are tensions and as regards expecting people to sign a petition but not to change their mind later and desperately try to get their name off.
My Lords, I recognise that this is a very important point. The Government take on board that they have not entirely spelled out the degree of secrecy and publicity that comes with this. Unavoidably, signing a petition is, to some extent, a public act. We all know that someone going into a polling station often can be observed and checked, although those who make postal votes preserve a great deal more anonymity. The mere fact of going to the signing place to sign the petition clearly indicates in which direction you are moving, which makes this unavoidably a less secret activity than the secret ballot.
We recognise that the balance between the public nature of signing a petition and the need to preserve a degree of privacy for those who wish to sign it is one on which we have to give particular care and attention to strike the right balance. On attending the signing place, the elector will have their entry checked on the electoral register to check that they are eligible to sign the petition. They can then be handed a signing sheet and will be able to read the information et cetera. In Northern Ireland, electors will have to produce ID according to the existing arrangements for elections in that country, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, will recall.
Postal signing raises questions about access to the marked register, which will tell you who has and who has not signed the petition. The Government are considering what limitations there should be on access to the marked register. While some of this will have to be left to regulations, I will do my best to come back on Report with a clearer statement on the marked register issue in particular.
We are all of course concerned about intimidation. As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, remarked, it is not purely limited to Northern Ireland. We are all aware of some other areas in the United Kingdom where that has happened or might easily happen. Therefore, when there is only one way in which you are likely to express your opinion in signing a petition, the question of intimidation, as well as privacy, should be fully addressed. Some of that will have to be left to the details of the regulations but I will do my utmost to come back on Report stage with as clear a statement as possible of the Government’s view, taken in consultation with the appropriate authorities.
Will the Minister also tell us whether he has taken or will take advice from the law officers? What would the situation be if someone who suffered harassment or worse as a result of their name being made public when they did not expect it to be took a legal action, whether in the UK or in the European court, under their right to privacy?
My Lords, clearly the Government have still not made up their mind about this. What I most regret is the suggestion that this could be left to regulations. What we probably need is an amendment to the Bill at the Report stage because the question of whether this is going to be a public or a private act has to be clear before the Bill leaves Parliament. That is for us to decide if the Government really are not going to make it clear beforehand.
I think I heard the Minister say that consultations would take place with others outside before they come to a view on this.
In all my experience of petitions, they are public documents. The other place is famous for petitions being laid before Parliament. This is a public record, but now we are discussing the introduction of an element of secrecy about it. The recall of a Member of Parliament is a very serious matter. We are working through a process to remove a democratically elected Member of Parliament and we are considering that some of the petitioners shall be secret. There is an old saying in the trade union movement: you should put your courage where your mouth is. Well, you should put your courage and signature in the one place as well. We are overturning a petition, a procedure which was in place before people had the vote—before we had suffrage. That is a very serious matter.
My Lords, I recognise that, but on the other hand the secrecy of the ballot is also a very serious matter. As I said earlier, it is a question of striking the right balance between the unavoidably public nature of a petition and the principle of the secrecy of the ballot. It is a matter that we will consider further and come back on.
If there is a petition with only one question on it and you sign the petition, everyone must know how you have voted. The idea of secrecy is nonsense. If people sign the petition, it must be known that they have done so, and then we know how they will vote. Again, the idea of secrecy is a lot of nonsense and I have no idea what the Minister is talking about.
My Lords, the question of intimidation has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and others, and that is a matter which we also have to take seriously. We will consider the issues. That is why balance comes into the question. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, and others have some sad experience of the problems of intimidation in issues like this. I have promised to take this back and I will do my utmost to return with a clearer statement of the Government’s view of how we can strike what is an extremely difficult balance, as the noble Lord, Lord Martin, and others have observed. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her opposition at this stage.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9: Recall petition to be made available for signing
Amendment 39 not moved.
40: Clause 9, page 6, line 37, leave out subsection (4)
My Lords, this amendment deletes from the Bill the wording on the petition that will be used when the recall provisions have been triggered. Along with Amendment 44, this amendment enables the wording to be agreed by regulation. The reason for these two amendments is to enable the wording of the petition to be properly tested before it is agreed. Our amendment also ensures that the Electoral Commission is involved in that process. It is the one organisation in the UK that I believe has the experience to test the proposed wording and it has a good track record in this respect.
Noble Lords might be aware that I was an Electoral Commissioner. I served in the group of commissioners appointed by political parties. I saw at first hand how the commission tested the question for the referendum in Wales on additional powers. It then tested the question for the referendum in Scotland. There were concerns that the original question proposed by the Scottish Government was unbalanced and led you in a particular direction. When we did our research and published our report, its recommendations were accepted fully by the Scottish Government and, after that point, the question itself was never an issue during the campaign.
Our Amendment 44 gives a role to the Welsh Language Commissioner. It is important that, in constituencies in Wales, Welsh speakers be given a translation of the question that both they and we are confident about. That shows proper respect for the Welsh language and Welsh speakers. Amendment 43 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, just changes the order of the wording, and we are happy to support it.
In previous debates, the Minister has said that the testing of the question will be undertaken by a professional supplier and completed by the 2015 general election. If they do not plan to use the Electoral Commission for this, will he clearly tell the House why not and whom they are proposing to use? It has the experience and expertise for the job: why would they go elsewhere? If the Government choose to go elsewhere, will there be additional costs to the taxpayer? Why are the Government not following the procedure adopted to test the question in the Scottish referendum, which involved getting the question right, with the result that it never became an issue: people focused on the actual question itself, rather than on the wording of the question? I beg to move.
If Amendment 40 is agreed to, I will be unable to call Amendments 41 to 43 because of pre-emption.
My Lords, I have been thinking very carefully about this idea of the wording in the Bill. As the wording is in the Bill, someone who gets the petition has the choice either to sign it or not to take part in the petition process. In other words, it is a one-way process. There is no opportunity for someone who is against the recall of the MP to say, “No”. Why can we not have a straight yes/no question? That is what democracy is about.
The issues surrounding the recall of an MP will generate much excitement—if that is the right word to use—about the behaviour of the MP, sticking strictly to the three triggers, whichever one is to be used. There will be a tremendous bandwagon: there will be no possibility of the MP defending himself or herself. How is that feeling to be translated? The MP who is faced with this petition may well be extremely popular. There is no possibility of that popularity being translated in any shape or form in the petition—and, as we come to in a further amendment, with the proportion of the electorate that is to take part. But it is all one-sided. I cannot see how this can in all senses be fair or sensible. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment so at least there will be further discussion about how the process might go.
My Lords, I respectfully suggest to the House that the suggestion and proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, is an excellent one. I was thinking about the problem raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Martin, in that there were two principles that were diametrically opposed to each other. One was the principle of the innate secrecy of the ballot; the other was the principle of the innate public nature of the petition. The answer and the compromise may very well be in the sort of suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. What would be wrong in having two questions—yes or no? You would have a hybrid; it would be something of a ballot and something of a petition, but you would be free from many of the disadvantages that would attend a situation where the fact of having voted would mean that you had voted only one way.
When the Minister replies, will he explain to the Committee why the Government have not, apparently, involved the Electoral Commission in this process? It is so obviously the organisation equipped and tasked to deal with matters of this sort and it is a mystery why it is not more fully involved here and in other aspects of the procedure. The commissioners are not normally shrinking violets. I even wonder whether the Electoral Commission, in taking the view that this is a thoroughly ill founded measure, has declined to play a part. I do not know, but in any event is it not really reckless to put the definitive wording of the petition in the Bill before it has ever been tried? If it turns out in practice to be inadequate, everybody will be in very great difficulty and primary legislation will be needed to change it.
My Lords, I hesitate to suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has come to the debate a little less well prepared than he sometimes is. I have here the Electoral Commission’s briefing of 13 January for Committee, which does indeed remark on the consultations that it has had with the Government on the Bill. It says:
“Whilst the Commission has given informal advice on the current wording of the petition card and signing sheet based on our experience of testing referendum questions, we have not undertaken any user-testing of the wording. We understand that the Government plans”—
as has already been said—
“to user-test both the petition card and signing sheet with members of the public”.
It goes on to say:
“We are not persuaded that this amendment is necessary, given that the wording of the petition signing sheet can already be amended by regulations”.
The Electoral Commission has not been left out of the process, as one would naturally expect.
My Lords, the Electoral Commission unavoidably has a formal role throughout this process and has been consulted throughout. Informal consultations are part of the formal process. We need not batter about words too much. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes of Woodside, that an election or a petition process that generates such excitement would be a joy to many of us. Part of the pleasure, in a sense, of the Scottish referendum was that it did indeed generate a great deal of excitement.
It is the nature of a petition that a petition is one-sided. The noble Lord, Lord Martin, remarked that petitions are petitions—they are not elections. I hesitate to suggest that some wish to turn the recall petition process itself into the by-election that may or may not follow.
I will speak first to government Amendment 43, which would make a small change to the final sentence of the wording to appear on the petition signing sheet that is set out in Clause 9(4). The signing sheet must include this specified wording, as it explains to the eligible constituent that they are signing the petition for their MP to lose their seat and for a by-election to be held.
During debates in the other place, it was suggested that the wording could be improved in relation to explaining when a by-election would not take place. The Government agree and therefore this amendment responds to the debate in the other place by making it easier for the elector to understand that the MP will not lose his or her seat and a by-election will not be held if less than 10% of the registered electors in the constituency sign the petition.
The wording of the petition signing sheet was developed with input from the Electoral Commission before the Bill was introduced, but we have a power to amend the formulation in regulations if that proves necessary after undertaking user testing of the signing sheet and notice of petition with members of the public. In doing this, it will be possible to confirm whether the formulation that we have best serves constituents’ understanding. I repeat that the Electoral Commission was happy with the proposals as set out in the Bill.
Amendments 40 and 44 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, would remove the specified wording of the signing sheet from Clause 9 and replace the power to amend that wording through regulations with a power to set the wording in regulations following further consultation with the Electoral Commission and the Welsh Language Commissioner. The signing sheet must include wording specified in Clause 9, which explains to the eligible constituent that they are signing the petition for their MP to lose their seat and for a by-election thereafter to be held.
There is value in the appearance of the wording in the Bill, as it has allowed MPs to express their views on it. This mirrors the position for UK parliamentary elections, where the form of the ballot paper appears in primary legislation, the Representation of the People Act 1983, but may be amended through regulations that must be approved by a resolution of both Houses. No amendments were tabled in the other place to remove the wording outright, but an amendment was tabled to improve it, so I think we should be mindful of that when considering this issue.
A further modest but worthwhile advantage of the appearance of the signing sheet’s wording in the Bill is that future changes made to it would then be reflected in the text of the parent Act, which helps to make the law as clear as possible for petition administrators, parties and campaigners.
On consultation with the Welsh Language Commissioner, I can assure the Committee that the Government will prepare a Welsh translation of the wording in secondary legislation, as is the practice at other statutory polls, using a power and following a principle established in the Welsh Language Act 1993. This translation will be subject to user testing in the same way as the English version. I hope noble Lords are aware that, throughout this Bill, we are following as closely as possible comparable regulations and comparable legislation in other Acts concerned with our democratic process.
As is usual practice, we will consult the Electoral Commission’s Welsh language experts to ensure that the translation is accurate and will accommodate any changes identified through user testing. One of the amendments suggests that, in addition to consulting the Electoral Commission, the Minister should consult the Welsh Language Commissioner. The Welsh Language Commissioner has an important role in promoting and facilitating the use of the Welsh language, but it has not been standard practice at elections to consult the commissioner directly on Welsh translations of voter-facing forms and notices.
In summary, I believe that it is important that the wording of the petition appears on the Bill but that it is user tested and commented on to ensure that any improvements that are identified can be made. For these reasons, I hope that I have persuaded the noble Baroness not to press her amendments.
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord was listening carefully. I apologise if I did not speak clearly enough for him to follow my argument. The process for the ballot form—and now for the petition form—is that it appears in the Bill so that MPs can reflect on it, but that it is open to amendment by regulation. In the Bill, we are following what already exists in the Representation of the People Act.
Amendment 40 withdrawn.
41: Clause 9, page 7, line 1, leave out “10%” and insert “20%”
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 41 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Hughes, and myself, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for allowing me to move it.
I have always taken the view that this Bill is a lot more about organisation than it is about indignation. I believe that with a bit of organisation, it would be very easy to get 10% of an electorate to sign a petition. The only way that we can illustrate this is by taking a particular constituency and going through the process. If your Lordships will forgive me, we will have to consider a rather hypothetical situation. The constituency is not hypothetical; it is Richmond Park.
As your Lordships will know, Richmond Park was won at the last election off the Liberal Democrats by my honourable friend Zac Goldsmith. As it happens, Zac Goldsmith thinks that the Bill is a little mouse of a Bill. He thinks that it is a pathetic attempt at recall. He wants recall of MPs on demand. Perhaps when he has read the Official Report of this debate, he may have second thoughts. In the 2010 election, he won the Richmond Park constituency with a majority of just over 4,000, with just under 50% of the vote. The Labour Party polled 5% and UKIP just over 1%.
I shall hypothesise—please do not challenge me on the hypothesis; I am just trying to create a scenario on which we can pin the recall process. Let us say that in the 2015 election, Mr Goldsmith’s majority improves, the Liberal position declines, Labour comes up a little bit and UKIP comes up substantially. I will not go any further than that. Oh, and by the way, there is a Conservative minority Government in power. In two years’ time, the Conservative minority Government are having very serious problems. They are wrestling with renegotiation with Europe and they have the new tranche of austerity measures to push through, and that is not making them in any way popular in the country. They have already lost two by-elections and done badly in another one.
Then the whole question of recall for Mr Goldsmith comes up. I apologise to him; there is no question of him being recalled; we just have to hypothesise that he is. Then comes the question of the petition. Of course, those who believe passionately in the Bill, such as my noble friend Lord Finkelstein, think that it is all about the indignation of the people who live in Richmond Park. It is nothing of the sort. The people who will decide whether there is a by-election are down the other end of the corridor. They will make that decision on the basis of whether they think that there is a good chance of winning the by-election.
They will all get together. I suspect that it will be a clandestine meeting in some room either in the Palace of Westminster or outside. It will be made up of what I shall refer to from here on as the unholy alliance.
The Liberal Democrats will not be part of a coalition, because there is a minority Conservative Government. They think that it is about time that they started winning by-elections again, and of course they came second in the constituency. I see my noble friend Lord Rennard in his place. Is this moment not made for him? This will be the moment when he is rehabilitated in the Liberal Democrats, because this is a wonderful situation for him.
UKIP is also very keen on having by-elections, because it thinks that it has a very good chance of winning them as well. I am not sure that Labour will have much of a dog in this fight—it may have—but it would be wonderful for Labour if the Tory lost his seat, whoever won it. So there will be an unholy alliance sitting around that table. They will say, “What we want in this constituency is 100 volunteers to come in”. I go back to our previous discussion: we need only two weeks for this, we do not need eight weeks; two weeks is quite enough.
I apologise at this moment to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. I rather rubbished the idea that money would play a role in this. I take it all back: money will be very important. Let us hypothesise again that the decision has not yet been taken on the third runway at Heathrow and that the people who are very keen on it have found Mr Goldsmith quite a pain on all this, because he opposes it vociferously. So they come trotting along and say, “Would you like some financial help with this by-election?”. “Oh, yes please”, says the unholy alliance, “I tell you what we would really like. We would like 25 upmarket chauffeur-driven cars for the fortnight of this campaign. We want to have them on call at any time so that our canvassers can ring up and call them to any house or anywhere else”. Actually, it also might be a good idea if they hung around outside schools when the mothers were coming out, with two cars already sitting there. Canvassers could say to the mothers, “Look, if you sign this petition, you can go for a lovely trip with your children in this car”. You would pile two or three of them in. You would get six names there without any trouble at all.
The electorate of Richmond Park in the 2010 election was just under 78,000. I shall hypothesise, without any justification at all, that that rises to 80,000. The only reason why I do that is that I believe in round numbers because they make life a little simpler. So we need 8,000 names in Richmond Park. We have 100 volunteers. That is 80 signatures from each volunteer. They are on the scene for a fortnight, so that is 40 signatures a week per volunteer. Heavens, if they are going to operate for 40 hours, that is only one signature an hour. Come on, I am sure that any one of us could get one signature per hour for that petition.
So that comes back to the point that if this ever happens, it will be nothing to do with constituents in a state of revolt; it will reflect the degree to which people outside the constituency organise them into deciding on the by-election and signing up to the petition.
Let me speak also to my amendment, Amendment 51, which says that if we believe in any fairness whatever, it should be possible to counterpetition. That would also, incidentally, answer all the problems raised by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, about the confidentiality of the vote. If it became possible to have both the counterpetition and the petition for a by-election on the ballot paper, when someone walks into the signing centre, or whatever it is called, you would not know which way they had signed. That would cover that whole problem.
It would also, let us face it, be much fairer if a Member of Parliament was allowed to counterpetition. It might mean in certain circumstances that the by-election never happened, in which case it would save everybody money anyway. I hope that my noble friend will seriously consider those proposals.
Has the noble Lord reflected on the fact that he has just undermined the very good case that he has just made? If the second amendment, Amendment 51, is accepted and if, as he said, it is all about money, Mr Goldsmith would have no difficulty in retaining the seat, because there would be far more people signing the petition to keep him than to get rid of him.
Mr Goldsmith would be in a very strong position to hire his own fleet of cars, absolutely. I must confess that the other weakness that the amendment raises is that on the pathetic threshold of 10%, both sides may get 10%, in which case there would be an interesting stalemate to which I do not know the answer.
My Lords, the percentage of people required to trigger the by-election is certainly a very serious matter. As the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, has said, the issue of recall will probably not be decided by the constituents themselves, although they are the ones who will sign the petition. It will be decided, first, in the Procedure Committee. Weaning the Procedure Committee away from a quasi-judicial function will be sorely tempting but we do not want that to happen. Secondly, not even they by themselves will decide which particular trigger will be invoked. The decision will largely be governed in the boardrooms which the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, probably attends quite frequently. The editors of the national press will latch on to this as a good idea, as something which the public have been anxious for.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who is temporarily not in his place, seemed quite taken by the fact that I said that a recall petition would generate great excitement. I perhaps chose my words badly—I should perhaps have said great activity, rather than excitement. By and large the discussions in your Lordships’ House have been sober, serious, not entirely dispassionate but, in the tradition of your Lordships’ House, have looked at matters carefully and seriously. Alas, the real world outside is not like this place—it is going to be governed by people’s particular prejudices.
I do not want to rehearse the speech that I am going to make later about the debate but, in relation to the way in which MPs are perhaps no longer free from the scrutiny as they once were, I remember one Friday in the other place when we were discussing a repeal of the Steel abortion Bill. It was a very difficult subject. Whichever side of the argument one was on, it was controversial. In some constituencies it is hugely important.
I was in the Lobby with a colleague who was unhappy about voting against the amendments to the Steel Bill. He said that he believed that the amendments should not be passed and the Bill should be left more or less as it was, but he was concerned about what might happen back home. I said, “Well, don’t vote. Stay out of the Lobby”. He said he would have to vote because it was the right thing to do. So we went through the Lobby and we voted. When we passed the Tellers, he almost turned to jelly. He said, “I’ve lost my seat. What am I going to do? It’s dreadful—I’ll be hounded out of the constituency”. I told him to nip into the other Lobby and cancel his vote out.
How did I know that that was possible? I knew because my then pair, the late Iain Sproat, had asked me if I would time-pair with him so he could take his wife out to dinner and I agreed. I was in the Library reading—a euphemism for having a snooze—and the Division Bell went off in the Library. My wife says that even now after I have been out of the Commons for 17 years, when the alarm clock goes off in the morning, I throw the blankets off, shout, “Division!” and start running down the stairs. I got up and automatically went through the Lobby and then realised on that occasion I was time-paired. All of us who are former Members of the House of Commons know perfectly well that the greatest sin one can commit in the House of Commons is to break a pair. I asked what I could do and they said, “Nip in and cancel it”. I was in mortal terror for two or three days that the local press would discover it and make a fool of me, but they did not notice. So I had good cause to tell this colleague to cancel his vote out and he did. That much I can vouch for. In those days, we were not under the same scrutiny.
What has been said—and I cannot vouch for this—is that if someone in favour of abortion wrote to that colleague and asked how he voted, he could send them the page of Hansard which showed that he voted the way that they wanted. If someone was against abortion, he could send them the other page of Hansard. It was a wonderful strategy, except that nowadays, within five minutes of a vote