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 being declared in this place or in the House of Commons, it is published on the internet. That sort of strategy would not work now.
Issues such as abortion are such that they cannot be left out. Although this Bill is simply described as a recall Bill and it has been emphasised time and again by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that it is a conditional recall Bill, the fact is that once it is triggered, it will no longer be a conditional recall. It will become a de facto total recall Bill. Nothing can stop other issues being brought in to the detriment of the Member of Parliament concerned. What is even worse, of course, is that unless the noble Lord’s amendment about counterpetitions is accepted, it will all be one way. There will be no possibility of a change of mind. For example, over the eight-week period in the Bill, people could sign a petition quite early on, then have further discussions with colleagues or parents and say, “I made a mistake. How can I retrieve it?”. They cannot.
The actual numbers are very important because the smaller the number, the greater the chance of error. People say that it is okay because the MP can stand at the by-election, but this is all compounded by the fact—and the various discussions have made it clear—that in the event of an MP losing a recall petition, the chances of him getting the party’s backing to stand in the by-election are very low indeed.
This is not just a Bill about recall petitioning—it is in effect about getting rid of an MP. It is very serious because no one could say that in their lifetime as an MP they had not upset somebody one way or another. The figure of 10% is far too low and it should be much higher. That gives us a better chance of getting a result. Without the changes to voting only one way, the dice are stacked against an MP who may have transgressed but not in a hugely serious way. I agree that someone who has committed very serious offences ought to be brought to book but we may be careful that the legislation is right so that it works. I support the amendment which increases the percentage.
I thank my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom for his serious and persuasive speech, and the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, for his support for this amendment. However, in both cases they passed over the critical part of the scenario, which was otherwise very plausible. It is that the Member of Parliament concerned has to have triggered the clauses in the Bill before any of these processes could take place. In other words, they have to have been sent to jail, found guilty of breaking the expenses laws or been suspended by the Standards Committee for more than 10 days. In those very limited circumstances, the trigger would be operated.
When the trigger is operated, it is certainly true that politics will take place. People will make arguments, spend money and try to persuade other people to sign a petition. The choice that we have in this Bill is whether to have an extremely low trigger where it is easy to trigger recall but very difficult to gather the signatures in the petition, or, what has been chosen by the Government against the wishes of the MP for Richmond Park, to have an extremely high barrier before recall could happen but then a reasonably low barrier in terms of signatures. It is naturally a subjective matter, but I think that is the correct balance. I am sure this House would have a greater objection were it to be the other way round and we had followed the advice of the Member for Richmond Park. As we have gone through various amendments, we have often had the discussion as if the triggers did not exist and this was to be aimed at people merely on the grounds of their opinion. However, this will happen in an extremely limited number of cases where very serious wrongdoing has taken place and where the electorate are being given a chance to think about it.
There then comes the question of the counterpetition. The by-election constitutes the counterpetition and if the recall mechanisms—a very high bar—are triggered and a petition is gathered, at that point people who are against the MP being recalled would have the ability to pitch themselves against those who were in favour. At the end, we could add up who had more. A by-election is a much better procedure for doing that than what would otherwise be a sort of Heath Robinson mechanism of counterpetition. While I can see that this is a serious proposal and I understand that any figure could be picked, the balance between this very high barrier, which I think the House would prefer, when coupled with a relatively low number of signatures, is better than the other way round.
It may be that he or she would be deselected by their party but I did not really understand the relevance of the argument, even though I comprehended what my noble friend was trying to say. A Member of Parliament can stand in the by-election caused by this trigger. I cannot, nor can any noble Lord, compel a political party or anybody else to support them in that by-election. If they have a good case and feel that they want to put it to a by-election, they can. It is not the business of the Bill, or indeed the mechanism, to consider whether they might hypothetically have the support of a political party in that by-election appeal.
Will my noble friend not consider that a by-election cannot be an anti-recall petition in the 85% of constituencies where a majority of votes are cast against the sitting Member? It can hardly be an anti-recall petition when it is assumed that the number of opponents of the MP at the previous election normally greatly outweighs the number of their supporters.
I understand the point that the noble Lord is making. It is not a pure mechanism, merely on recall; that point has been made by other Members. But it is a better mechanism for testing the broad support for the Member than a counterpetition which, under this proposal, has only to reach 10% before it cancels the petition in favour of having the by-election at all. The by-election is a better mechanism for the Member of Parliament’s attributes to be debated and considered by the electorate than a counterpetition, which would not even have the merits of constituting the whole of the constituency.
My Lords, Amendments 41 and 51, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Epsom, both seem good amendments and I hope that the House will accept them. Amendment 41 deals with moving the petitioners’ threshold of more than 10% being in favour of a by-election up to 20% before the by-election will occur. That 10% threshold is nugatory. As the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, made clear to us in what I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, to have been a plausible scenario, it could be all too easy for a well organised campaign to secure that 10% of votes to precipitate the by-election. Indeed, if we raised that threshold to 20% the team that the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, envisaged would need to secure only two signatures an hour. That is hardly very hard work or a really difficult threshold to cross either, so raising the threshold to 20% is the very minimum upward movement that would be needed.
I very much like Amendment 51, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, because he would even the scales of justice. That seems sorely needed in this situation. With the procedure that the Bill proposes, we would otherwise see a Member of Parliament hung out to dry for a period of eight weeks, during which the media would engage in political blood sports and an animus against the sitting Member of Parliament would be all too easy for his critics and enemies to beat up. On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, argues that the Bill is tightly drawn and that only three triggers could precipitate this process. In every one of those cases, the MP would have had to have been judged guilty by his peers in the House of Commons of serious wrongdoing. I take that point but the noble Lord has asked us on a number of occasions to draw comfort from the fact that the Bill is thus tightly drawn.
I suggest that the Bill, without any of the Front Benches intending it to be so, will be a battering ram that will beat down doors through which Mr Goldsmith and those who think as he does—many people outside in the country will be egging them on—will seek to advance in the next Parliament so that they can introduce at least one more trigger, a fourth. That would transform the model of recall that we may be about to legislate into something much more like the American model, in which people who do not like the politics of the sitting Member will have the opportunity to use this procedure to unseat a Member of Parliament of whom they do not approve and whom they resent. That seems massively dangerous. If we are to establish in this legislation a model which could then be used in a much more wide-ranging set of opportunities, that is very dangerous.
The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, said that the by-election would itself be the counterpetition. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, offered some words of caution on that, drawn from all his enormous experience in the way that elections actually operate. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, indicated in his response to his noble friend, such a by-election will not be fought on the narrow issue of what the MP charged with serious wrongdoing has done. It will be fought, as all by-elections are, on a large range of issues so that the MP will be liable to be scapegoated for all the unpopularity of his Government—the brave Government doing the unpopular things that the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, described. That seems to be a formula for injustice and I hope that we will accept both these amendments.
My Lords, I do not intend to go through all the arguments as I have dealt with them on previous amendments and they have been dealt with eloquently by my noble friend Lord Howarth and particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who did a splendid job in moving the amendment. I am not sure which Minister is going to reply. It will be good if it is the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, as we might get a straight answer. Perhaps, in his reply, the Minister could say why it is 10%. That is all I want to know. Why is it not 5% or 20%? My amendment has it as 20% because I do not want to make it too easy to unseat Members of Parliament, but it could be any figure. Why did the Government alight on 10%?
My Lords, I think that only these Benches could participate in these petitions since we have a right to vote in general elections, although there is a convention among us that we do not. I think that the last person who did so was Archbishop Runcie, who simply could not resist voting against Mrs Thatcher. He was found out and promised not to do it again, so there is a convention that we do not do it but we could.
As I have listened to the debates and read the previous transcripts, I have thought that there is a difference between the theory and the reality of what we are talking about. The theory that an MP would be subject to this petition, which would have reached the 10% or 20%, and that he or she would stand in the subsequent by-election backed by his or her party is pure make-believe. That is simply not going to happen but that is the theory and it is why a by-election would not be a counterpetition. It simply seems unreal that that is going to happen and, for that reason, there is therefore an argument for increasing the threshold from 10% to a higher figure. It corresponds to the reality of what we are talking about, rather than the theory.
My Lords, I argued at Second Reading that this Bill would not achieve its purpose, which is to restore trust in politics. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place made exactly the same point. In fact, in some respects, the Bill could be quite dangerous. By focusing on sanctions to deploy in response to bad behaviour, it detracts from the need to encourage strong and positive leadership.
I developed the point at Second Reading that if it is a true recall, electors would be in the driving seat. By that, however, I meant electors—not just a small proportion of electors. I take the diametrically opposed view to that of my noble friend Lord Finkelstein. I would argue for low triggers but a high percentage of electors who would have to trigger a recall. I take the point that it should not be a small number of electors, who could be the opponents of the Member, just being able to sign up and trigger recall.
If someone is elected in a general election and gets 40% or 50% of the vote, I do not see why a further election should then be triggered by 10%, who, as my noble friend Lord Hamilton was arguing, could be comprised of supporters of the opposing parties. There is a compelling case for a very high threshold. To some extent, Amendment 41 might be rather generous in being as low as it is. I can see a stronger case for a much higher percentage. If electors in a constituency really want to remove a Member, I think there should be a much higher threshold. I would move in that direction. It would not achieve what I was arguing at Second Reading in terms of a proper recall vote, but at least it would make a bad Bill less bad.
I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Hamilton because there is a lack of equity in the arrangements embodied in the Bill. Although I do not think that allowing a counterpetition would necessarily restore trust in politics, it would probably increase interest in politics. It would allow voters who have a view one way or the other to get engaged. If we got that far, that would be the preferable way to go. But, as I say, what we are debating is amendments designed to render what is a fairly bad Bill somewhat less bad.
My Lords, this is a heroic attempt to create, as my noble friend said, a level playing field. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, would acknowledge that Amendment 51 could be tidied up but the objective or principle behind the amendment of trying to make some provision for fairness is an important one in a very extended procedure. We know about the time between the Speaker and the petition officer and then the eight weeks that is in the Bill which will all have been preceded by lengthy considerations in perhaps a court or in the committee of the House of Commons, during which time the only case that will be heard is the specific case against the Member of Parliament. During the eight weeks, if the Bill stays as it is at present, the drama, at least at constituency level, will be all about how many have signed so far, “Have enough signed so far? Roll up! Sign up! We’re nearly there”. What is the defence against that? There is no defence.
The principle behind Amendment 51 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, is an impeccable principle. I hope that the Minister, even if he does not like the particular wording of the amendment, will at least acknowledge the importance of the principle.
My Lords, I found the travels of the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, around the highways and byways of Richmond Park interesting. When this Bill was first thought of, we were thinking it was going to be a Sheffield Hallam one with the NUS bussing in its students. So we have come further south from that early discussion.
Amendment 51 is interesting. As I said earlier, although I think the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, was not in his place at the time, the amendment could answer the queries that I had raised about whether the process is secret or effectively open. It is another way of dealing with that by allowing people to vote against and not just in favour of a recall by-election. It would certainly be a clearer option for electors who know that they have a choice. They can express that choice, having thought about the issue.
It is not, of course, what the Bill proposes so I am not able to offer support for it, particularly as it would negate a by-election simply if 10% voted against. You could have 30% wanting a by-election and 10% against. Under the amendment as drafted, the 10% would trump the 30%, which I am sure would not be a desirable outcome.
With regard to the increase to 20%, what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester was saying was interesting. From that, I might take the other view; if you get the 20% you have lost a fifth of your electorate. Effectively there will be no by-election. After having 20% against them, no one will possibly contest the by-election; so there would be a by-election, but not with the MP there. The purpose of the Bill, as it has been drafted, was that there should be the possibility of a by-election at which the MP refights that seat and tests the issue as to whether, despite whatever they have been found guilty of, they are nevertheless able to represent their constituents. My concern about the 20% is that it undermines the difference between a by-election and a recall petition.
I acknowledge that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended 20% but I do not think that we should pray that in aid given that it wanted no sight of this Bill whatever. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. The interesting thing is why on earth 10% was chosen and not 5% or 15%. The problem of 20% is that it effectively gets rid of the idea of having a by-election that the MP would fight. In that sense, it goes against the spirit of the Bill.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate and I have listened carefully and seriously to all the points that have been made. I know I am repeating this point, but it should not be forgotten that for a recall petition to be opened in the first place a Member of Parliament would have had to have committed serious wrongdoing and to have met one of the three conditions in the Bill. All of your Lordships know very well what those three triggers are.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, raised the concern that a future Parliament might do this or that with other triggers. We obviously cannot bind what another Parliament might wish to do. This Bill before us is about three triggers which involve serious wrongdoing. That is the right balance. That is the point which the other place had come to as well. We believe that reaching the figure of 10% of constituents signing the petition would show a significant level of support for a recall and would trigger a by-election in which the sitting MP could stand.
The noble Lord is invariably fair-minded. Is he really relaxed about and content with arrangements whereby someone could be subject to a petition by 10% of their electors precipitating this trial by ordeal, which would then take the process beyond the eight week period through to a by-election, while it is entirely possible that 90% of their constituents thought that there should not be a by-election and that recall was the wrong thing to do but have no opportunity under the Government’s proposals to express that view?
I understand that, of course, but the whole purpose of the legislation is for the three triggers to be for serious wrongdoing. If a Member of Parliament has been found guilty, convicted or suspended up to the level, it is a view that there should be an opportunity for constituents to decide whether there should be a recall and then, if a certain threshold is reached—noble Lords have made different points about the level of that threshold—there will be a by-election. It will then be for 100% of the electorate to come to a view about what they want to do for their future representation.
Does the Minister accept the very powerful point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester that in reality it is hardly likely that an MP who had been subject to everything that will have occurred in the run-up to the result of the petition would actually want to contest a by-election? Is he not actually being drummed out of Parliament through this process in a way that must leave the Minister deeply uneasy?
My Lords, perhaps I may just add to my point. I take what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, and I can see the argument both ways. I do not think that any political party would support a candidate in those circumstances. Maybe I am misreading this but, given the dynamics of the media, I simply cannot see the reality of a political party supporting the MP in those circumstances.
My Lords, I think this goes to the heart of the issue. If one believes that the three serious triggers for serious wrongdoing that have been set and agreed in the other place are to be adhered to, there would be this opportunity for the electorate in that constituency to have another opportunity. We are obviously at the heart of whether or not there should be legislation. The Government believe, as I think do the opposition Front Bench, that for certain conduct there should be an opportunity for the electorate of that constituency to have their say again on who represents them.
We have almost got to a point where I know that there are noble Lords who are very unhappy about the Bill, but the point is that the Government and the other place feel that there should be triggers whereby recall should take place. It is perfectly respectable for noble Lords to oppose this, but I am afraid that I disagree with the view that there should be no opportunities for recall—hence this Bill.
I am afraid that the Minister misunderstood what I said. The recall provision can be triggered only if one of the three things is invoked—there is no question about that. It then goes to the petitions commissioner—no question about that. However, the Minister and I, and indeed all noble Lords in this place, know that the discussion that takes place during the 20 days or however long it is will not be about the trigger at all. It will not be a discussion about how well or badly the MP has behaved; it will be entirely about political matters not connected in any way with the triggers. That is the dilemma that we are in. I am afraid that the 10% level makes it all too easy for that to take place. It is not a case of saying that there has not been wrongdoing, or that it has not been triggered. The question is: what will be discussed during the 20 days? If there are 20 days from the moment when the matter is referred to the petitions commissioner, the debate will take place entirely outside the Member’s individual behaviour.
I understand that. That is why I say that it comes to a different view and a different impression of whether there should not be a recall because of the issues that the noble Lord outlines. However, I think that there should be opportunities, where there has been serious wrongdoing, for there to be recall. That was in the manifesto pledges of the three main political parties and in the coalition programme. We are getting into a discussion—which I respect entirely—with noble Lords who do not like this Bill, but the point is that the other place, the Government and the Official Opposition are of the view that there should be certain opportunities, with safeguards so that representative democracy is not thwarted; of course we should defend that very strongly.
I am most grateful to the Minister, who is long-suffering. Even if we accept that there should be scope for recall, how does he, speaking on behalf of the Government, justify that a by-election should be precipitated on the say-so of just 10% of the MP’s constituents?
My Lords, I will continue and I hope that it will then unfold. Obviously there can be moot discussion as to whether it should be 5%, 30% or 40%; all sorts of figures could be suggested. However, if I may outline a bit more, the by-election itself would determine who was the MP; the petition would simply trigger the by-election. So while it could be argued that 10% of constituents signing the petition could mean that 90% of them wanted to keep the MP, if that were indeed the case, they would have a chance to show that at the subsequent by-election.
On average—I think this goes to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, was seeking to wrestle with me about why 10% was chosen and not 15%, 20% or 5%—a constituency has around 70,000 to 75,000 constituents. With a threshold of 10%, around 7,000 to 7,500 signatures would be required to trigger a by-election. That is one of the reasons why the Government came to the view that that was about the right number; it was a serious number of people. Increasing the threshold to 20% would obviously require between 14,000 and 15,000 constituents to sign in order to trigger a by-election. Again, this is a matter of balance, but there was a feeling that raising the level to 20% would make it more onerous for constituents worried about an MP after serious wrongdoing to hold that MP to account.
One can have all sorts of interesting discussions about what the right percentage would be. The Government set out 10% in the coalition programme for government, and that was the figure contained in the draft Bill and which the other place was content with as the correct level at which to set the threshold. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked me for a straight answer. Those are the sorts of considerations that came into it.
My Lords, I apologise that I was not here for the earlier part of the debate; I was attending the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. I do not think my noble friend really understands the practical point being made, which is not about the merits of the Bill; it is that if someone finds themselves in a position where they are subject to a petition, they are already dead and their political party will no longer adopt them as a candidate. In those circumstances, they are not going to get elected. So, as was pointed out at an earlier stage in our proceedings, the sensible thing for any Member of Parliament in those circumstances to do, if they still have the support of their party, would be to create a by-election and stand as a by-election candidate.
By creating this procedure, if a Member of Parliament is subject to this procedure and they still have the support of their party, then if the threshold is set at the lower level of 10%, all the people who do not like the Member of Parliament because he is a Tory or whatever will be able to campaign and undermine him. So this does not actually deliver what the Government say they want, which is a procedure that allows the electorate to decide, rather than the party machine or the House of Commons, whether someone should be deprived of their seat in the Commons. It just does not work.
My noble friend is of course entitled to his opinion and has made the point a number of times about whether a party would reselect the candidate. I do not think that any of us can say, and it would depend on every circumstance that came forward. As I say, this is the Bill that is before us, and I think that the three triggers are reasonable. If they were not reasonable I would feel very uncomfortable, but serious wrongdoing is a point—
One point of clarification would help me. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, put the case that cars—and quite luxurious ones for that matter—could be used during the course of seeking petitioners. Can the Minister say whether there will be a financial limit on the amount spent for that petitioning purpose? In every other democratic system there is a limit, and a very strict one at that.
I thank the noble Lord for that point. We will come to amendments on precisely those sorts of matters, so I am grateful to him for raising that.
Those are the points on the 10%. I turn to the new clause proposed by my noble friend Lord Hamilton about the counter-recall petition, which would be available for signing alongside the recall petition. That would allow constituents to indicate that they did not want the MP to be recalled from the House of Commons, and for a by-election to be held. The proposed new clause provides that, if the counter-recall petition were to be signed by at least 10% of the constituents, regardless of how many people had signed the recall petition the MP would not be recalled and a by-election would not be held.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised the figure of 30%, but I will take it further. If up to 90% of the constituents signed the petition calling for recall, yet only 10% signed the counter-recall petition, despite a much higher percentage and overwhelming public support for the MP’s recall in this case—and I use a hypothetical case to show our concern—a by-election could not be held.
The proposals in the Bill are not for recall on any grounds. Although it is fully understood what those triggers are, a number of noble Lords have brought forward concerns about whether it was on the case of any grounds. These provisions in the Bill are for recall in cases of proven serious wrongdoing; I emphasise that deliberately because those are the triggers that would have to be met. Such is the seriousness of them that all those three triggers—
For the last hour or so, led by the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, everyone has gone on about serious wrongdoing. We are talking about any period of imprisonment. When one appears before a magistrate, they can decide either to say, “Seven days in prison” or “A fine of £500”. It is entirely in the magistrates’ gift to do that. Some magistrates have political views as well, by the way. Someone could be put in prison for seven days instead of being fined £500, and this trigger would take effect. Is that not correct?
The legislation is very clear that if a Member of Parliament were convicted and sent to prison for seven days, they would be deemed to be in breach of criminal law. The point of the legislation is to enable a constituency or the electorate of that constituency to decide by the recall trigger and then by the by-election. The noble Lord is absolutely right: whether the figure is seven days or 11 months, as one knows, after 12 months there would be a disqualification under the Representation of the People Act.
That is an automatic disqualification—I understand and accept that. However, the situation is that the magistrate has discretion as to whether to fine someone or send them to prison. I do not know if the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, has been a magistrate; I have. That could be a political decision, which could decide whether to trigger the recall petition. Therefore if I was sitting in the court and a Conservative Member of Parliament appeared before me, I could say, “I’m not going to fine him £500—that would be pointless. I’m going to send him to prison for seven days and immediately trigger that recall petition”. Is that not correct?
My Lords, I would be surprised if any magistrate did that—I think of the requirements to be a magistrate. The noble Lord was a magistrate. I would be very troubled if a magistrate put themselves in a position where they could be accused of taking a political decision. That would be a very serious accusation of the magistracy to think that it would take a political decision of that sort. I am also concerned about the suggestions about the Standards Committee that we heard. Those are very serious matters.
I will finish this—I am sorry. It would be a very serious accusation to suggest that people in public office who have very serious responsibilities, or those in the courts, were taking political decisions. I would be extremely worried by that. The Bill deals with the situation in which someone is imprisoned for up to 12 months when there is a trigger if someone is convicted. That would be a trigger, but it would not remove the Member of Parliament. If such a case arose, it would be very interesting to think what the nation thought. If it was suggested that a political decision had been taken by a magistrate, that would be a very serious matter.
I have great respect for the Minister, but I am afraid that he is exhibiting a little bit of naivety with regard to that. If he thinks back to some cases in the past, he will see that on occasions decisions have been challenged as being made for less than dispassionate and objective reasons, so that can arise. I am saying that it is very easy for that trigger to be pulled in that kind of instance: a seven-day sentence would initiate it. That is not—as other noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, have described it—a very serious wrongdoing. It could happen because of a series of parking or speeding offences, or some other matter. All sorts of things could trigger that—such as getting your wife to say that she was driving your car.
My Lords, I am sure that the Government do not wish to prolong this debate unduly, but that is a very important point. In our society a dumbing-down effect happens because of a lot of legal provisions. I am thinking of suffragettes, who were sent to prison, or people who protested against nuclear weapons in certain circumstances. Alternatively, it may be about ethical issues where we have changed the law, such as same-sex relationships. One can think of all sorts of situations in which a limited period of imprisonment might well have arisen. If an MP thought that if that happened there would be a petition process and you would need only 10%, I fear that it would result in a certain dumbing down. Some issues here need to be carefully teased out.
With the greatest respect, both to the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—and I have great admiration for both of them—is not the real problem that a person of unimpeachable character could be sentenced to 14 days’ imprisonment for a motoring offence with regard to a momentary lapse of concentration over a span of two or three seconds? That is the reality—it happens every day.
I do not believe that the danger of judges or magistrates acting in a cynically political way is at all a real one. If Mandy Rice-Davies were alive she might say, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”. But be that as it may, that is the real point. One is assuming that even a short period of imprisonment is of necessity to be regarded as a serious matter even if it does not involve moral turpitude at all, given that it is a serious matter from the viewpoint of the law, perhaps because of serious injury done.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that further contribution. The Bill is about these three triggers. The Government believe that they are the correct triggers for recall. Whether they are for serious wrongdoing or wrongdoing obviously is a matter of opinion; but the Government’s view is that these are three triggers that the other place viewed as being examples and the three triggers for recall.
I ought to make some progress on this. The intention of establishing the recall petition is to allow constituents to hold their Member of Parliament to account. We believe that 10% of constituents is the correct figure. In most cases that would be over 7,000 constituents. Under this Bill, the level of popular support that the Member of Parliament has would be properly tested at the by-election, not through a counter-recall petition.
I am most grateful to noble Lords for this debate. The Government remain of the view that the 10% threshold is the appropriate level, and therefore I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I am very disappointed with my noble friend, because I think that we proved very conclusively how very easy it is to reach this threshold. My other worry is that I suspect that this Bill is just a start for more recall Bills, given that—let us face it—people who believe in the recall of MPs are not remotely satisfied by the Bill and will be coming back with additional ideas of circumstances in which Members of Parliament can be recalled. In the mean time, we will have the 10% threshold locked into the Bill, which will be virtually unchangeable and, as I hope we have proved pretty conclusively, very easy to reach. However, although I am very disappointed with my noble friend, I will of course withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 41 withdrawn.
Amendment 42 not moved.
43: Clause 9, page 7, leave out line 5 and insert “as a result of the petition and therefore no by-election will be held.””
Amendment 43 agreed.
Amendment 44 not moved.
Clause 9, as amended, agreed.
Clause 10: Persons entitled to sign a recall petition
45: Clause 10, page 7, line 14, leave out “18” and insert “16”
My Lords, Amendments 45, 46 and 48 are further attempts to try to improve the Bill, not to challenge it—although, as noble Lords will realise, I have some fundamental questions about it. I say to the Minister that, although I have tabled about a dozen amendments, I could have tabled 100 amendments that would have helped to improve the Bill. It really is a terrible Bill; it has been badly drafted and needs huge scrutiny, but we do not have time to do that.
My first amendment relates to 16 and 17 year-olds. Given that both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party are in favour of allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in general elections, Scottish Parliament elections, local elections and others—just as they did in the Scottish referendum—and to sign the recall petition if they wish, the amendment is anticipating that that legislation will take place.
Amendment 48 would change the position about withdrawing a signature from the petition. Under the Bill, it would be impossible for someone who signs the petition to withdraw their signature. If someone signs it at the beginning of what is still going to be an eight-week period, and during the course of that eight weeks realises that the MP is not as heinous and awful after all—because all he did was incur a motoring offence and get sent to prison for 14 days, as we heard from a former judge might be the case—and changes their mind, they cannot withdraw their signature. I do not understand why: there is no explanation.
The amendment suggests that people should be able to withdraw their signature from the petition on giving a reason. How that reason was taken account of, who agreed to it and so on, would need to be looked at. But given that we are going to have weeks, months or perhaps years to look at the regulations anyway—from what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said earlier—there is no reason why this cannot be looked at as well. It seems strange that if someone changes their mind about the petition they cannot withdraw their signature.
Amendment 56 was drafted by my noble friend Lord Hughes, with his long experience and wisdom, so I am sure that he will be able to speak to it himself.
My Lords, I speak to Amendment 56. It states:
“After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause … ‘Early publication of number of signatories … (1) Petition officers shall not make public a running total of signatories to a recall petition until the final result is announced … (2) Any breach of subsection (1), or any publication purporting to reveal a running tally, shall render the recall petition null and void.’”.
Having reread the amendment, I admit that saying the recall petition would be rendered null and void may be a bit severe. On the other hand, it is probably necessary.
Throughout this debate it has been repeated that the recall petition can take place only if one of three triggers is pulled. That is the beginning and end of the matter. We have tried to say to the Government and to our own Front Bench that whatever cold print is in the Bill, what it describes is not going to be happening in the real world outside. That is because—I am sorry to repeat this—as soon as the matter goes to the Procedure Committee, the question of recall will be raised. If that trigger is agreed to by the Procedure Committee, a notice goes out to the petition officer that the debate will immediately start. Some 90% of the time the discussion will not be about the actual offence that has triggered the recall petition. The argument will be about other things entirely.
Therefore, as we have said, the dice are loaded entirely against the MP who is the subject of the recall petition. As we know, on the day of a general election, agents for the candidate can go to the polling station and get the numbers who have voted, every hour or whatever the agreement is. Of course, that is the precise purpose of making sure that one gets one’s core vote out before the closing of the poll. That is a perfectly legitimate and normal thing to do, because people will not be convinced to go and vote by the numbers who voted at 10 o’clock; they will be convinced to go and vote if they think it is the right thing to do. However, if there is a running tally, on day one the petition officer might say, “Ten people voted today”, and the next day might say, “This is ridiculous. Get more out; do your job as citizens; get rid of the MP; get the recall”.
If the recall threshold is 10%, the figure may start at 5%. The hysteria of getting more and more people will mount up. As we approach day 19 or 20, there may still be 2% to get, so this huge momentum may be built up to get people to sign the recall petition. Huge pressure builds up for that to be done. In this, the Member of Parliament subject to the recall is totally powerless. He is like a rabbit in the middle of the road with the lights of a car approaching—totally impotent in these matters.
It has been said that former Members of Parliament have a vested interest in the sense that we are overprotective of existing Members of Parliament. However, it is not a question of being overprotective. No one—certainly not me—has suggested that triggers are wrong and should not be discussed, or that there should never be a recall petition. That is not the case at all. We suggest that there should be a level playing field and the possibility of a fair trial, if you like. I fear that it is the other way round, given the way the Bill is drafted. It will not give the MP concerned a reasonable possibility of keeping his or her seat.
As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, if an MP loses a recall petition, there will be no prospect at all of him being re-elected, or reselected by his party to stand. We are discussing not so much the cold print on the paper as the realities. So I hope that—
I am grateful to the noble Lord—what he said is absolutely right. If someone found themselves in a position where this whole procedure was initiated, it is unlikely that a political party would retain them as a candidate. Even at the first stage there would be great difficulty getting a signature from their party, so their career would be over.
I accept that entirely. Of course, the decision will be made by the constituency party, not so much on the basis of the seriousness of the offence but of whether they think they can win the by-election. I despair at the way in which the Bill is drafted and at the lack of any respect for the MP concerned.
I do not wish to divert down difficult roads, but there has been a lot of discussion in the press recently about the right of a person to return to his or her chosen profession. That has been intensified in the debate about a certain footballer who committed a very serious offence. I will not enter the argument at all about the rights and wrongs of that. However, throughout that debate, rehabilitation has gone out of the window in many respects. I fear that MPs will be subject to the same kind of attack and that, if they commit an offence, they will beyond the pale for ever. So some safeguards have to be built in. I understand that the Minister may not be able to accept the amendment in its present form. However, I hope that he understands its seriousness, and that something can be done to prevent a bandwagon building up not on the merits of a case but simply on getting the numbers out.
My Lords, I sympathise with the argument put forward so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, but I wish to return to Amendments 45 and 46, to which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, just referred. As he said, I and my party have been committed to extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds for a very long time. I am delighted that the Labour Party now supports that position. He will know that I had a Bill before your Lordships’ House to extend the franchise to that age group for all elections, which would apply also in the case we are discussing. That Bill received a Second Reading. I had cross-party support from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who had advanced a similar Bill previously from the Conservative Benches, and from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey.
However, I worry that we are now in a position of complete ad hocery on this issue. The franchise was successfully extended to 16 and 17 year-olds in the Scottish referendum. They registered in far greater numbers than anybody anticipated and took a very lively and constructive approach to the issues raised by that campaign. I think there was a general acknowledgement that in some ways they were rather more realistic, down to earth and sensible about the issues raised than some of their elders. It was noticeable that middle-aged men in Scotland—not the 16 and 17 year-olds—seemed to fall for the blandishments of the separatists. That was a classic and very effective demonstration that some of the concerns that Members on all sides of your Lordships’ House had about extending the franchise were actually ill founded because those young people took a very active role and responsible attitude to the decision they had to take. As Members of your Lordships’ House who followed the proceedings on the then Wales Bill will know, since then we have managed—with the Government’s help and encouragement in the end—to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds, subject to the Welsh Assembly agreeing to any future referendum in Wales. Those were the first and second steps in this regard.
The third step is that the Prime Minister has apparently agreed with the new First Minister of Scotland that at the next Holyrood elections the franchise should be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds. For me, the franchise is an absolute basic foundation stone of our representative democracy. I find it difficult to accept that we should have this process of attrition. I accept that each step forward is a step in the right direction, but surely we should have a comprehensive approach to this. Following these three important steps forward, I very much hope that the Government will now acknowledge that there is an absolutely irrefutable case for extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds for all elections, all referendums—or referenda, depending on your pronunciation and syntax—and, indeed, for petitions of this sort. It would surely be absolutely ludicrous to say to the young people of Scotland—and, in future, of Wales—who have experienced taking a full adult role in our democracy, when it comes, for example, to a referendum on the future membership of the EU, “Sorry, you’re not in on this one”, which is, of course, just as important in terms of the future governance of our country.
It is time to step back from this ad hoc, piecemeal approach to the franchise. It is too important to be treated in this way. I hope that a holistic approach will be taken in the future. That may have to await the outcome of the general election, but at the very least I hope that Ministers will acknowledge that, given the three important steps that have already taken place in this direction, they cannot ignore this issue with regard to this Bill. I hope they will at least be prepared to indicate that they have an open mind on the issue and acknowledge that at some point or other we will have to address it.
My Lords, I take a contrary view. Indeed, I strongly opposed the idea of giving 16 year-olds a vote in the Scottish referendum, not because it was necessarily a bad idea in itself—although I thought it so—but because it was the thin end of a wedge and people like the noble Lord would argue that we have already done it in Scotland, so we have to do it in Wales and at the general election.
The Government presented the issue as being solely about referenda. I agree with the noble Lord that the position we are now in is rather inconsistent. However, the inconsistency that I am concerned about is that, although it is apparently okay for these young people to have a say in whether a Member of Parliament should be dismissed, and okay for them to have a say in who should form the Government of our country, they cannot buy a packet of cigarettes or a pint of beer. It seems to me the most extraordinary distortion. If one takes the view that 16 year-olds are perfectly mature and adult and able to decide these issues, why should they not be able to decide whether they want to have a drink in a pub or buy a packet of cigarettes? What I find very galling, certainly in terms of the Scottish Parliament, is that the people who argued for the franchise to be extended to 16 year-olds were the very same ones who prevented them being able to buy a packet of cigarettes. I think that we all understand what was behind that. For once, in the consideration of these amendments, I find myself in disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on Amendment 45, but I am very strongly in agreement with him on Amendment 48. This is another example of how the Bill has not been thought through and is a complete muddle.
Why should someone not be able to withdraw their name? They may have read in the newspaper about the circumstances that merited a particular Member of Parliament being subject to recall and then found out that the facts were not quite as they thought. The Member of Parliament may have had the chance to make his case to the voters; they may have already signed, why should they not be able to change their mind and withdraw their signature?
That brings me to Amendment 56, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. I do not know what I think about this. I can see his point, that we will get people who are campaigning to get rid of the Member of Parliament for political reasons, or because they feel strongly about whatever the issue is that is being raised. The point was made earlier that it may be a minor road traffic offence and it may be road safety campaigners, or whatever. They will want to know how many signatures there are; they will want to get to the threshold; and I can see that, if there is a running total, that would turn it into something of a campaign. Of course, if one is not able to withdraw one’s signature, then those who are campaigning on behalf of the Member of Parliament, or perhaps the Member of Parliament on his own, would not be able to influence people who had already committed themselves.
The reason I am doubtful about the noble Lord’s amendment is that the Government themselves are schizophrenic on this matter. It seems to me that if one is going to sign a petition with these consequences, one’s name should be public and there should be an opportunity for the Member of Parliament to write to the person concerned to say, “I see you have signed this petition; you ought to be aware that these are the facts”. On the other hand, I can see why people might want to do it in secret and to retain that. I missed the earlier part of the discussion, but I gather there was some idea that one should be able to consult the register. I think that this is unclear. If people are taking the view that someone should be subject to a by-election, which in practice means ending their career, they ought to be seen to take the stand in public and there ought to be an opportunity for the person concerned to make his case to them directly, in the way that we have always done. We knock on doors and make our case directly to the voters. It is for them to decide.
I can see that there might be concerns about intimidation and the rest, but all these concerns arise from this process and procedure which I think is fundamentally ill considered. I know that my noble friend will get irritated at me making this point again, but I do not see how this is actually going to work in practice at all. If there is a decision to set up a petition, I do not believe, in those circumstances, that any serious political party would stand by the Member concerned. Therefore, the Member concerned is not going to go through this whole procedure. If the Member has the support of his political party, then the sensible thing for him to do—and, indeed, for the political party—is to cut the whole thing short, a point which was made by the noble Lord some days ago, create a by-election and not go through this extended death by a thousand cuts. The process is lengthy and it would be an expensive campaign both in terms of resources and reputation.
I very strongly support Amendment 48, put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Hughes, and I am absolutely fascinated to hear the Government’s response on Amendment 56, which I hope will clarify the position of those who sign the petition. Will their names be known? Will their names be made known to the person who is the subject of the petition? Will their names be made known more publicly? Will their names be made known to the local newspaper, or will it just be the numbers? Will there be a running total? We need to have clarity on this.
Before I sit down, I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench, please do not say that this has all been discussed and considered carefully in the House of Commons, because this kind of practical detail has not actually been discussed very carefully in the House of Commons, and it goes to the whole efficacy of the legislation and to the justice of the legislation from the point of view of the individuals concerned.
My Lords, the Government obviously do not want any change to the Bill at all, if they can achieve that, other than the amendments that the Minister himself has put down. However, I urge them to look at Amendment 56, if no other. We cannot simply treat this in isolation from all the other normal electoral practices of our democracy.
Can the Minister point to me anywhere in existing electoral law where, during a general election, for example, there is a running release of the state of the voting—after the postal vote had taken place, for example—and that is made known? Unless Amendment 56 is passed, that will be the likely situation in respect of these petitions. If the Minister disagrees, please intervene and tell me. I will stop speaking.
Yes, it is a very serious offence. But we have been assured by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that the Bill as it stands is entirely in accordance with existing practice. I just cannot imagine the situation in any other election whereby this kind of running total would be available.
I vote Labour; that is what I do. It is in the DNA; it is inherited; it is passed on to future generations—that is how it works. It is like supporting Stoke City; it is what rational people do. I simply put it to the Minister that, even with that pedigree, if I could see the tally in a particular constituency’s voting after the postal votes had been handed in and could see a very close result coming out between two parties which I disliked intensely, but one of which I disliked marginally more than the other, and, sadly, my dear old party was nowhere, clearly there is a possibility that that might affect my judgment. I do not think that it would, actually, but I am putting a hypothetical case here.
Surely the same is true of any kind of running commentary on the numbers of people who have signed the petition. Surely, as my noble friend Lord Hughes has said, it must really render the process void if the returning officer, or whatever he is called, or anyone else, is telling the press, “Oh, it is up to 8% now, and 9%; we only need a few more and there we go”. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has said, this is entirely in line with previous electoral law in the way we hold elections, fine; but if it is not, I do not understand the point.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. I should say straightaway that I am a supporter of voting at 16, and if my party wins the general election in May then it will be introduced. I do not believe, however, that we can have a situation whereby people cannot vote until they are 18 but are able to sign a recall petition at 16. They have to go together, in my opinion, and as soon as legislation is brought forward to give young people the vote, consequential amendments will have to be introduced about such things as the age at which they can sign a recall petition. I hope that my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock will appreciate my position on this issue, though I do agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that the ad hoc, piecemeal approach is not the right way to go about these things.
Amendment 48, again in the name of my noble friends Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and Lord Hughes of Woodside, highlights an important issue here, which is: should people be able to withdraw their signature after signing a recall petition before we get to the end of the eight-week signing period? My noble friends’ amendment states that that should be only for a “stated reason”. I should be very interested to hear the response of the Government on this one because if you have campaigns going on and someone has signed the petition, but they are then persuaded by the campaign run by the MP that he should not be recalled, they surely should then have the right to withdraw their name from the petition. That amendment poses an important question for the Government to answer, and has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth.
My Amendments 49 and 50, also proposed by my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, increase the severity of the offence of double signing from being an illegal practice to a corrupt practice. We believe that if someone is found guilty of an offence in relation to the signing of a recall petition, that offence should be in the “corrupt” category and carry the appropriate penalties. I should highlight that election offences such as not having an imprint on one’s leaflet and paying someone to take voters to the polls are illegal practices. Corrupt practices include submitting false returns when one will have signed a declaration that they are correct, bribery, treating, attempting to influence voters by duress, and making a false statement or declaration. Signing a recall petition improperly is compatible with that list of offences termed corrupt in election law, and this offence belongs in that category. There can be no justification for it being placed in the lower band of offences. To try and unseat an elected Member of Parliament by signing a recall petition improperly is corrupt, and I hope that the noble Lord will recognise that in his response.
The final amendment in this group is proposed by my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside and is excellent. One of the most ridiculous suggestions I have heard in the discussions around this Bill is that a recall petition should have a local feel to it. We are all well aware that if this legislation is ever used it will have huge media coverage, and it would be totally unfair if official figures were released, and the media in whatever form—on television, in newspapers or in blogs—reported that only 5,000, then 3,000 and then 1,000 more signatures were needed to get rid of the Member of Parliament. They may say, “We don’t like them. You don’t like them. Let’s get this signed and get them out”. That is no way in which to conduct a petition process, as my noble friends Lord Hughes of Woodside and Lord Grocott pointed out. I hope that the Minister will give important responses to these important points.
My Lords, I was sorry to hear my noble friend Lord Tyler talk about a holistic approach. I criticised the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, the other week for using what I regard as a managerial phrase that was inappropriate for someone of his background.
The noble Lord has not yet used it since. I stress again that we are following the existing law and regulations as closely as we can, and not attempting to take through major electoral changes. The first two amendments in the group are, after all, an attempt to take through a major change, whereby 16 year-olds would be able to vote for a recall, even though they would not yet vote in the subsequent by-election. There are differing opinions among the three parties; indeed, there are differing opinions within the current coalition Government on this issue. This is not the place to address it. It is an issue on which we need to build consensus. I am personally in favour but as a government Minister I am not prepared to accept that we move towards it. We need to discuss the whole question of the franchise at some point in the not-too-distant future.
The amendment to allow a signatory to withdraw their signature also would introduce a major innovation. There is no precedent for returning officers withdrawing ballot papers on the request of electors who change their minds prior to the beginning of the counting of votes.
The noble Lord is talking about two entirely different situations. If one is voting in a conventional election, one is doing so at a single opportunity on one day, and of course one cannot scratch that vote once one has cast it. It is entirely different when there is an eight-week rolling period, during which campaigning is taking place. What argument does he have as to why people should not be allowed to be influenced by these campaigns?
My Lords, I have already said that we have now extended the period for postal voting. Indeed, postal votes may be delivered nearly three weeks before the election. If the principle in the amendment were to be accepted, the question would come up as to whether postal voters might be allowed to change their minds in the light of events they learnt about in the final two weeks of the campaign. That would be a major innovation also. With postal votes, we have slipped from a vote on one day to a vote that takes place over a period. Perhaps the noble Lord has not yet recognised that, but that is the position we are in and the current law is that when one votes one does not have a chance to change one’s mind.
The Minister has already said he will look at the issue of whether the names will be public or secret. There is clearly not a parallel with an election, otherwise the names would all be secret. A petition is different from an election. He has to accept that. He accepts it in terms of public versus private; he ought to accept it in terms of whether the signature can be withdrawn.
My Lords, I am not persuaded by that. There are questions of intimidation regarding giving the name of someone who has already voted to the MP so that the MP can write and tell them not to. I can recall fighting a heavily Labour seat in the middle of Manchester in the 1970s, when Labour councillors were going round to voters saying, “I see you have a Liberal poster up. We have just checked the housing transfer list and you are on it. Are you sure that you want to keep it up?”. There are difficult questions here. I see no reason to change existing electoral regulations in this area.
The Minister keeps saying that he is following general practice as far as possible. This is an entirely new practice. Will he please tell me where, either in my amendment or at any place in the Bill, it is stated that during the eight weeks when people vote the petition officer will make known the names of those people who have voted?
I will come to the noble Lord’s other amendment. I was talking about the amendment on the right to change one’s vote or attitude to the petition after one had voted. I will come to his amendment on disclosure of the number of signatories. The Bill—rightly, as he noted—does not specify whether a running total of the number of signatories should be published. That we intend to be a matter for the conduct regulations. As is the case at elections, petition officers and their staff will be bound by their official duty, and penalties will apply if information is released without proper authority. Again, I stand on regular practice. It is not allowed for those concerned with the conduct of elections—and, by extension, petitions—to release information of that sort. There will be many occasions on election day when releasing figures at one o’clock on how many people had voted would be helpful. That is not the case, and it is similarly not the case here.
Is the Minister then saying, if we are following existing practice, that that would mean it is a secret ballot and nothing is disclosed, and that after the event a marked register may be available to show who has voted? That is the existing practice that applies to normal, conventional general elections. Will that be the position in this respect? It is no good saying that this is a matter for regulations; it is a very important point in terms of the operation of the Bill.