Clause 1: How an MP becomes subject to a recall petition process
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 4, leave out “10” and insert “15”
My Lords, it would be an abuse of procedural arrangements at Third Reading for me to go into great detail on issues that we have raised during previous stages of the Bill. At Second Reading, I set out the principles driving the amendments that I tabled; in Committee, my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton set out her views and further embroidered my own; and on Report, we dealt in great detail with the 20 days and 10 days amendment. It suffices to put to the House the bare essentials of the argument.
The Government’s original Bill provided for a suspension of at least 20 days before the second trigger provoked a petition for a possible by-election. The Labour Opposition then moved an amendment—which I have repeatedly opposed—reducing the period of suspension from 20 days to 10. Supporters of my amendment have argued that the Labour amendment in the Commons would lead to a cluster of penalties of under 10 days, even where penalties of more than 10 days and fewer than 20 days are more appropriate. We have argued that there will be pressure on members of the committee from all sides of the House of Commons, and perhaps from people on the payroll, to ensure that decisions are taken in that committee to avoid petitions and by-elections. The committee will, in our view, be transformed from a quasi-judicial one into a political one, where even a lay membership will inevitably be compromised. I set out my reasons for thinking that on Report.
The 10-day amendment, when considered in the Commons, was supported by only two members of the Standards and Privileges Committee and was opposed by another four—if I recall correctly—while a further three abstained. It was opposed by all those on the Conservative Benches in the House of Commons. My amendments, at previous stages, would have restored the 20-day provision that was in the original government Bill. I fear that my case has not been helped by the Rifkind-Straw affair over recent weeks.
Today’s amendment is a compromise—better than 10 but not as good as 20. However, there is ever increasing anger over the fact that this amendment was carried in the House of Commons by Members of Parliament themselves, the great majority of whom did not know what they were doing. The few who have defended the 10-day provision have deployed a new argument, which I will address very briefly. They say that my amendments would weaken the Bill by reducing the number of petitions and by-elections. The idea is rubbish. Indeed, my amendments strengthen the Bill, and I will explain how. There will be cases that require more than a 10-day suspension but do not require a possible by-election. My amendment enables the higher penalties of longer periods of suspension to be imposed on Members of the other place who sin.
Finally, I need to repeat that I have supported recall for nearly 30 years, following my 15 years’ experience as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee in the Commons and its predecessor, the Select Committee on Members’ Interests. I beg to move.
My Lords, very briefly, I support the noble Lord in his amendment, although I am not sure that I entirely support him in his argument. He suggests that the very unfortunate circumstances of Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have weakened his argument but, on the contrary, they have strengthened it, at least in so far as my own opposition to the Bill is concerned. We have argued throughout these proceedings against the basis on which the Government have introduced the Bill. Where people have done something wrong—or, in the case of these two Members, appear to have done something wrong; we have not yet heard the facts or the circumstances of each case—the immediate reaction of the parties will be to withdraw the Whip, which is what happened to both Mr Straw and Mr Rifkind, making it impossible for them to face their electors as Conservative or Labour candidates. I do not for the life of me see how this Bill will operate in circumstances where the leaderships of political parties rush to judgment before they have the facts and remove the Whip.
The noble Lord’s amendment is sensible in that it extends the range of penalties so that the penalty can fit the misdemeanour. By making the range of penalties so slight, it puts the committee in a difficult political position, which it most certainly should not be in. I have no hesitation in supporting the noble Lord’s amendment, although I do not share his views on the wisdom of recall. Members of Parliament should be able to face their electors. However, in the case of Malcolm Rifkind, we are on the eve of a general election, and if the Government really believed that it was up to the voters of Kensington to decide, he would have been able to go forward as a candidate and put his case to the voters. In practical terms, that is not what has happened, and I believe that that would be the case in every circumstance where this legislation may be required, which is why I do not support the legislation but do support the noble Lord’s amendment.
My Lords, I think we are all agreed that this is not the time to discuss recent matters in the press. It is certainly not the time for your Lordships’ House to be apparently trying to make things easier for recalcitrant or erring MPs. I stress, as we all have, that none of us has any time for MPs who transgress the rules or MPs’ discipline in any form.
When we were arguing the case for 15 days rather than 10, it was not a matter of protecting MPs; it was a matter of justice. Things have to be done properly, which is what this House is about. In passing, I will say that I welcome the amendments that we will be discussing later when they are moved by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, if only because they destroy the defence he offered that we cannot change what has been done in the House of Commons. The refrain we have heard throughout the amendments is that, whatever the case, the other place has decided and we must not seek to overturn it.
I know a lost cause when I see one and I appreciate that the chances are that the Minister will not accept this amendment. However, may I suggest to him a novel procedure? Would he perhaps accept the amendment on the understanding that the reason for doing so would simply be to allow the other place to look at the matter again? This is the last opportunity for that to be done; there is no other way for this to be discussed further unless the Minister accepts this amendment. If he accepts my suggestion of accepting the amendment on the understanding that it is purely and simply to allow further discussion in the other place, I give him my personal guarantee—and, I believe, the guarantee of everyone on this side of the House—that when it comes back there will be no opposition whatever if the Government decide to press on with 10 days.
My Lords, I would like to add just a few words because this is an extremely important issue. I am very grateful that my noble friend has raised it again. The remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, show how complex the issue is, and yet it is treated as very simple. His comments about the withdrawal of the Whip and the inability of someone subsequently to stand in a by-election have not been discussed and fully thought through. I think that that shows how hastily this legislation has been pushed through despite the fact that people have been talking about it for many years.
However, I support the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Hughes. In all the times that we have discussed this matter in the House, the Minister has never said why the Government have changed their mind and why they are sticking now to 10 days when they thought that 20 days was appropriate. Like my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, I have served on the Privileges Committee in another place. I can vouch, as he does, for the fact that the discussions on that committee—in my day it was under the chairmanship of the late Lord Newton—were never political. Discussions never led to a schism in the committee along political lines. I think that there is a very real danger that that is what will happen if we do not seek some changes even at this late stage.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours for persisting with this theme, and for bringing this issue back once again at Third Reading however forlorn the prospect of acceptance of his compromise amendment may seem to be—and it is. As other noble Lords have said, the issue that it deals with is one of very great importance for the House of Commons. I believe, in any case, that by introducing these provisions for the recall process, the House of Commons has demonstrated a catastrophic lack of self-confidence. Specifically, the means of policing its own affairs that the House of Commons has traditionally used is the operation of the Standards Committee. Through the provisions in the Bill, and particularly through the amendment brought in by the Labour Party to reduce the period of suspension from 20 days to 10 days, which would trigger the recall process, the effect will be greatly to reduce the practical capacity of the Standards Committee to perform its proper function.
If the House of Commons is to rehabilitate itself in the public esteem, it must be seen to be able to take responsibility, and to provide effective means to take responsibility, for matters of internal discipline and for disciplining Members of Parliament who transgress or commit serious wrongdoing. In so reducing the realistic scope for disciplinary sanctions that the Standards Committee can recommend to the full House, the House of Commons has portrayed a lack of self-confidence and done itself a deep disservice.
So I add to the plea from my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside that the Front Bench will accept the amendment simply to allow Members of the House of Commons to think again about this. Very few of them participated. Very few of them voted in the debates. Many of them did not realise the import of what was approved by the House. They ought to have that opportunity to think again, in their interests and in the interests of parliamentary democracy. I think that we in your Lordships’ House are fully entitled to offer our advice to them on this matter. As another House of Parliament, and as citizens, we have an interest in the integrity, good name and good functioning of the House of Commons.
My Lords, I am very sympathetic indeed to Amendments 1 and 2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for the very specific reason that I have followed the progress of the Bill throughout its stages in both Houses and I can confirm to your Lordships that a whole number of implications which have arisen in this House were not addressed there—for one very simple reason: all the votes were on a free vote. I am very enthusiastic about free voting in both Houses, but of course when there is a free vote there is not the same guidance from the parties about the full implications of the measures in front of the House—whether it is this House or that House.
I can confirm absolutely the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Hughes of Woodside and Lord Howarth, that this issue of what could easily happen—in the terms that have been so forensically analysed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours—in the Standards Committee, simply were not addressed in the debate in the other place. I suggest to my noble friend Lord Forsyth that if the recall mechanism was in place, for example, I do not believe that party leaders would feel that it was appropriate to appear to prejudge the outcome of an inquiry by removing the party Whip. I think that they would be inclined to leave it to the commissioner, the committee and then to the recall process—and eventually, of course, to the electorate, as is the intention behind the Bill.
On those grounds, I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will be prepared to think very carefully about how we must give the House of Commons another opportunity to think through the implications of this part of the Bill.
My Lords, I have felt all along that this is a very ill conceived, ill thought-out Bill, and one that does no credit to Parliament in general or to the House of Commons in particular. I have briefly made similar points to those made by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, in previous debates.
I feel that this is such a bad Bill that it is, frankly, unimprovable and unamendable, but I salute the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. He is sometimes a controversial figure but nobody can deny that he is a parliamentarian of real status who is deeply concerned about the reputation of Parliament. He is trying very hard with this amendment and, in so far as anything could improve the Bill, it is probably this, if it were passed, because it would give that chance for another place to think again.
What concerns me more than anything else—I alluded to this a few seconds ago—is the status and standing of Parliament. This great and free country of ours depends above all on two things: the rule of law and the sovereignty of Parliament. In eroding the sovereignty of Parliament, we do no one any service. This Bill is in fact the erosion of the sovereignty of Parliament Bill. This House is clearly not going to stand in the way of the elected House, but it does behove us constantly to remind the Members of that elected House that by their lack of confidence in themselves they are doing no one any service.
My Lords, your Lordships will know that we do not support the amendments that stand on the Marshalled List today, despite the arguments that have been made by people who, as I think they all said, fundamentally do not like the Bill.
Some of them have admitted that they do not like the Bill—we have just heard that it is fundamentally wrong. There is another view, of course: that the status of Parliament depends not simply on the good behaviour of its Members but on the ability of constituents, where there has been serious misdemeanour, to hold their Members to account. That is the thrust and drive of the Bill, and it is for that reason that my party has supported the idea that, where someone has been found—differently from the case in front of us now—guilty and sentenced to imprisonment, or it is found by their peers in the other place that they should be suspended for a time from the House, they should not automatically be able to continue in the job of representing their constituents.
I understand my noble friend’s position as leading for the Opposition, but I know of nowhere in any election manifesto or decision where we stand or fall by a matter of 10 days, 15 days or 20 days. The principle is not being attacked in any sense by this amendment. I beg of her, as I have asked the Minister, at least to think about the possibility—without committing the party at the other end to change its mind—of looking at the matter afresh, just to give it a chance.
I am coming to the matter of days in a moment. It is right to reiterate what many people outside Parliament feel about when someone is judged to have done something that even their peers in the other place consider inappropriate behaviour. In most other walks of life, one would not automatically be able to continue in one’s job. Therefore, there should be a possibility for recall at that point.
The second point is whether the particular number of days, which is what we are discussing in this amendment, is the right one. A different proposal was made by the coalition Government at the beginning. It was debated in the other place, although it may not have been debated at great length, and it has certainly been debated here, in Committee and on Report. A judgment has always to be made.
My point is that it was debated there and the case was made for why it should change. The point I am trying to make is that the proposal for 20 days, 10 days, 15 days, five days or 30 days is a matter of judgment. There is no right or wrong answer. It is a judgment on what is the appropriate connection between a decision in the other place and its Standards Committee and the point at which that should trigger a recall petition. That is a difficult judgment and one that I say needs to be made by the House of Commons, which is where this decision was taken.
Is that not the whole point—that the House of Commons needs to be able to take a decision? A story in the press over the weekend suggested that people should be expelled from the House of Commons for three days for boorish behaviour. Is it three days or 10 days? What about not declaring an interest? Should that be 10 days or should it be between three and 10 days? By having a broader spectrum, it is possible to provide a sanction that will be seen to be appropriate for the offence. Does she see that it is not about whether it is 10 days or 15 days but the spectrum that is open to the House to show its displeasure when Members behave badly?
I do not disagree that it is for the House of Commons to do that, but it has have taken a decision. My noble friends say that the Members did not know what they were doing—I would not make that comment—but they took a decision by 203 votes to 124 that this was the figure that it should be.
I understand the difficulty that my noble friend is facing, because she has been given a position and she has to try valiantly to defend it, but I do not think that anyone at any stage has explained why 10 days is appropriate. If, as my noble friend on the Front Bench is saying, it is for the House of Commons to make a decision, what is wrong with giving it the opportunity to reflect on this issue again?
Could I finish what I was saying? Whatever it finally decides, the point is that it has taken that decision. The argument has not been made to my satisfaction that its view is so wrong and our view so right that it is only us who are right and not it.
My noble friend is very kind to give way. She says that the House of Commons has taken that decision and she thinks that it would take the same decision again. In the figures that she just gave, less than half the Members of the House of Commons voted. Is it not the role of this House to invite the other place to think again in appropriate circumstances? Is that not exactly what we should be doing here?
As many noble Lords will know, I have helped defeat the Government and sent stuff back where I have believed that the other House was wrong and I wanted it to rethink. We have done that on a number of Bills. We have had victories. We have sent things back and occasionally there has been movement. It is always a judgment call. On this issue, however, my view is that we have the right figure. As I have said before in this House, it is a very delicate balance. What we do not want is such a low number—
She says she has the right figure. Let me put to her a scenario. Imagine a case of non-declaration of interests that is worthy of a penalty of more than 10 days but not 20 days. I can remember some pretty difficult cases of non-declaration of interests. Are we saying that in such a case we should invoke a procedure which could lead to a by-election that costs hundreds of thousands of pounds both to the political party and the local authorities, with all the inconvenience of bringing in vast numbers of party workers to defend the party interest, because of a case of non-declaration where the Member’s defence may be that they simply made a mistake but where the committee realises that it has to invoke a punishment of at least 10 days?
The answer is yes. If the MP’s own colleagues—I do not want to use the word “peers”, as it is a bit confusing—believe that the issue is serious enough for a suspension of at least 10 days, they would do so, although I find it hard to believe that they would so for a mistake. That is what this Bill is all about. The trigger may be 10 days or my noble friend may be right and perhaps it should be 12 days or nine days—I do not know exactly because it is a judgment call—but this Bill is about saying that, where their fellow Members of Parliament consider that the issue is serious enough, that is the trigger for a recall.
It is also important that the figure is not so low that we undermine in any way either the sort of normal protest that could happen in the House of Commons or the mistake—although I doubt that it would apply for a mistake—or misdemeanour that so offends other MPs that they take the MP to the Standards Committee. The essence of the Bill is that a recall will be triggered when the suspension is for a certain length of time.
There is another, separate point. Whether the threshold is five, 10, 15 or indeed 40 days, there will always be the difficulty—as happens when magistrates hear cases—where the knowledge that the decision can trigger a by-election will add an extra dimension to the judgments that are taken. That applies both to magistrates in a court case, if it is about whether there should be a sentence of imprisonment rather than a fine, and to those dealing with these situations. That is tough. Decision-making is tough. I recognise that, but I do not think that the number of days minimises that effect.
We will deal later with a very helpful amendment from my noble friend about the Standards Committee, which I hope will address some of the challenges that will be before members of the Standards Committee. On this amendment, the decision has been taken by the other place and I think it is right. I hope that my noble friend will withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the commitment and care with which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has pursued this issue. The Government have of course therefore actively considered it over some period of time.
I have to say that I do not recognise what the noble Lord described as the widespread anger in the Commons over all this. I have just been checking with my noble friend Lord Gardiner and thinking that through. During the period when the Bill has been going through its Lords stages, I have met members of my own party in the Commons and my noble friend Lord Gardiner has met members of his own party there. We have met people from the Labour Party, our opposite numbers and the Bill managers within the Commons on a number of occasions. It is remarkable to me that what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has heard has not managed to reach our ears. It has been relatively public knowledge that we were indeed managing the Bill through this House.
The suggestion that the House of Commons voted on a substantial change to the Bill without understanding what it was doing seems to be stretching matters a little. It may be that this was a catastrophic mistake of the Labour Party in the Commons, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said. I recognise the strength of feeling among a number of Labour Peers within this House that it was a catastrophic mistake by their own party. All I can say is that this has not reached the Government’s ears. We have not had protests, or suggestions that we need to save the Commons from itself in the way proposed.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, talked about eroding the sovereignty of Parliament and how we have again to protect that dimension. However, all those of us who have been out campaigning in recent weeks know that what those of us who are attached to the traditions of the British constitution think of as the sovereignty of Parliament is thought by too many of those on whose doors we knock as the Westminster bubble. We have great difficulty in persuading them that it is worth voting at all. They think that all politicians are in here for themselves. This is part of why the recall Bill has gone through a series of consultations over the last three years and is now going, not hastily, through both Houses.
We have considered at length this question of the proper period of suspension which should trigger recall in this House and in other discussions outside the House. We do not see a strong case for reversing the decision which the House of Commons took on an amendment from the Labour Opposition and, having considered it, we are therefore not willing to accept the noble Lord’s amendment.
The decision of the other place was clearly based on the precedent of past suspensions for misconduct recommended by the Standards Committee. The Standards Committee has in the past recommended 10-day suspensions for receiving payment to ask questions in the House, misuse of access to the House and breaching the Code of Conduct—cases which should undoubtedly be considered as serious wrongdoing. We are not considering cases of innocence or unproven allegation.
I am listening carefully to my noble friend’s argument, but surely the Government considered these matters very carefully when they came forward in the first place with their proposal for 20 days. Can he explain to the House why the Government thought that 20 days was appropriate, with all the knowledge about previous penalties imposed by the Standards Committee?
The noble Lord knows very well that the choice of the exact number of days is a matter for judgment. We recognise that the House of Commons took a judgment on that and we are accepting that judgment.
The question of the role and composition of the Standards Committee is also tied up in this. Looking at the next group of amendments, we will continue discussing the important question of the Standards Committee, on which I recognise that a number of members of this House have served. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for his considerable efforts, which I respect, but I nevertheless ask him to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, how can I answer that? I am at a loss. The noble Lord says that he has consulted with his colleagues on the Liberal Benches in the Commons, but I know for a fact that a number of Liberal MPs have expressed concern on whether even they were aware of what they were voting for.
I say to my noble friend Lady Hayter on the Front Bench that many people behind her who support my amendments do not like the Bill. I have always liked the idea of a Bill that deals with recall, and many of us who support the position that I have taken on the Bill support recall. We are arguing about a very small but highly significant detail in the Bill which we believe will have effects which the House of Commons has not as yet taken into account. As I said in an intervention, there was almost no debate apart from a couple of sentences.
I warmly thank my noble friends Lord Howarth of Newport and Lord Hughes of Woodside for their argument that we should just give the other House another opportunity. I am absolutely convinced that everyone who supports 10 days will back down in the event that this matter is put before the Commons. Therefore, although the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, says that he felt that the Rifkind-Straw affair does not weaken the position, it does so in the sense that it has put the fear of God into many Members of Parliament that they cannot meddle with the decision. They would have meddled with it, but they do not want to. That is why that has somehow changed the agenda and made it much more difficult for us to get the amendment through today.
My noble friend Lady Taylor, who spent some years on the Privileges Committee with me, drew on what is at the heart of our amendment. The committee in the Commons will now be politicised; some in the Commons will think, “Well, if we can change it and get more of a lay membership, somehow the climate within the committee will change”, but I am afraid that is not the case. The fact that by-elections can now be precipitated simply by 10 days’ suspension will infect that committee, whether it has lay membership or otherwise. They will be conscious of the debate going on in Parliament more widely on what happens as a result and what happens during the course of a by-election with all the expense involved.
I have listened to my noble friend. I would love to divide the House today, but I will not do so. There will be an incident, a decision and a public row, and those who argued in defence of this 10-day nonsense will come to regret what they have done—and that applies to all Dispatch Boxes in both Houses. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.
3: Clause 1, page 2, line 13, after “Commons” insert “(which may include members who are not Members of Parliament, whether or not those members are entitled to vote in the committee’s proceedings)”
My Lords, this amendment was born from an undertaking given by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in winding up in the last debate on Report, at col. 1144 of the Official Report of 10 February 2015, when he said that he would consider my Amendment 6, which dealt with the issue of lay membership of the Standards Committee. My amendment draws on a report of the Procedure Committee on lay membership of the Committee on Standards and Privileges from November 2011. The report states that the Procedure Committee in the Commons concluded that,
“if lay members were to be given voting rights, legislation should set the matter beyond a doubt. The Committee believed that appointing lay members in the absence of such legislation would carry a ‘strong element of risk’, in that it could ‘lead to conflict between the House and the courts and might have a chilling effect on how the Committee conducts its work even before such a challenge emerged’”.
That comment in the report came in response to a Commons resolution of 2 December 2010 inviting the Procedure Committee to bring forward proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life for lay membership to be appointed to the Standards and Privileges Committee, which, indeed, is precisely what has happened.
However, the voting aspect is not a new issue for the House of Commons to consider. It was first considered in 1876, when Sir Thomas Erskine May, then Clerk of the House of Commons, argued that it was not an illegal act to appoint lay members with full voting rights to committees on Private Bills. However, since then, I understand that both the Clerk of the Commons —I think in the last Parliament, but perhaps even earlier in this Parliament—and the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege opposed lay members being given the right to vote. I have therefore tabled this amendment to give the Government the opportunity to clarify their position on that matter.
I consider that this is an important issue. That is why I am moving this amendment. On 10 February, at col. 1131 of the Official Report, I argued for a very different approach to the handling of complaints by the Commons Standards Committee based on a majority lay membership—which I support—with a right to recommend, but not vote, and with its recommendations being either accepted or rejected by a committee minority of elected Members of Parliament—as elected Members of Parliament, they would enjoy full parliamentary privilege—as against the majority lay membership. If the Minister has difficulty addressing all the points I am making on this matter, I will perfectly understand if he wishes to write to me after the debate. However, it is very important that at some stage in the near future—certainly in this Parliament—we establish the Government’s attitude to lay members of the Standards Committee being given that right to vote. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak to Amendment 5, which is linked with the amendment just moved by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. I am delighted to follow his forensic and forceful analysis of the very serious issues arising from this part of the Bill and have considerable sympathy with his views.
Ever since Second Reading, the noble Lord, and indeed noble Lords on all sides of the House, have rightly raised concerns about the effects of the Bill on the fragile, non-partisan nature of the Standards Committee in the Commons. I think that many Members of your Lordships’ House remain concerned about that. Indeed, it was a theme of the debate we have just had on previous amendments. I note that a number of prominent former Members of the Commons expressed those concerns, particularly those who, like me, have had to deal with the Standards Committee in a variety of official roles.
In the same vein, and right from the start of this Bill’s passage through Parliament, beginning in the other place, there have been cross-party endeavours to ensure that the process for triggering a recall petition is independent of MPs and is seen to be independent of MPs. My noble friend Lord Norton raised this issue in the early stages of the Bill’s consideration here, and it was the theme of the important report of the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House. In my view, and that of my colleagues across the House, it remains the one crucial weakness at the very heart of the Bill, and it has been the subject of widespread concern in both Houses.
Ministers have been open throughout to suggestions for improvements and I am extremely grateful, as are my colleagues, to them and officials for being so ready to discuss changes that might be made. The Minister in charge of the Bill, Greg Clark, made a promise at the end of the Commons stages that,
“the Government were clear on Second Reading that we are open to ways to improve the Bill and we stand by that commitment”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/11/14; col. 681.]
He has been true to his promise, and there has indeed been constructive engagement in your Lordships’ House. However, I am sorry to report that attempts to find another route for triggering recall that would have obviated MPs and the Standards Committee altogether have failed. We tried but it has not been successful.
In the interim, the Standards Committee has produced an extremely thoughtful, positive and authoritative report on its own future and role. As Members who were here on Report will recall, the report was published that very morning. It is therefore not surprising that few of us were given the opportunity to read it in detail. For that reason, I hope that I will be forgiven for reading a critical paragraph of the report, paragraph 34 on page 40, in full:
“A number of criticisms are levelled at the House of Commons disciplinary system both by outside observers and parliamentary insiders: MPs sit in judgement on themselves; the Commissioner is not truly independent; there is incomplete separation of powers with the Commissioner acting as investigator, prosecutor and to some extent adjudicator; the system is disproportionate; the rules are not clear; MPs cannot get advice; the sanctions are insufficient. It is these criticisms which this Report considers and, where appropriate, makes recommendation for addressing”.
Every Member of your Lordships’ House who has been following the progress of the Bill must recognise that that paragraph and the whole report are critical to the way in which the recall Bill is supposed to proceed; they are vital. That is why we have tabled new amendments to make sure that there is a direct linkage between action that is taken to fulfil the recommendations of the Standards Committee and the implementation of this part of the Bill.
The Standards Committee also says in terms that it needs a more robust, more sizeable independent element. This is why it links so well with what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has just been saying about the lay members. The committee’s recommendation at paragraph 90 is:
“After considering various Committee sizes we recommend a marginal increase in Committee size from thirteen to fourteen, with seven lay and seven elected members”,
thereby building the independent role of those lay members in all matters that would be relevant to the recall Bill. The report, and that specific recommendation, is the inspiration for Amendment 5, for which I am grateful to have the support of my noble friends Lord Norton and Lord Lexden and the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
It is in that specific section of the Standards Committee report that we should be putting our faith, trust and confidence if we are to make sure that the Bill has any credibility in the outside world, let alone fulfils the full obligations of the committee and deals with the problems to which so many Members of your Lordships’ House have been referring. Our amendment would ensure that the committee’s key recommendation was implemented before the Committee on Standards was asked to get involved in this potentially invidious way in the recall process. Alongside the other committee recommendations, such as that,
“the body of any Report makes clear whether or not the lay members agreed with the Report”,
this change would at least be a start in showing that the recall process is reasonably independent from MPs, and is seen to be so.
I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will be able to respond positively to this amendment. Although the composition of the committee is of course a matter for the whole House of Commons, I understand that the Leader of the House and his colleagues are taking this matter of the relationship between these proposals and the Recall of MPs Bill extremely seriously. Surely we can now have a firm assurance from the Government that they would not want to see this recall mechanism operated by a committee with an insufficient number of independent lay members sitting on it.
My Lords, I rise once more in support of my noble friend Lord Tyler, having also done so on the earlier occasions when he brought forward amendments designed to improve this highly imperfect Bill. As my noble friend has made clear, the objective has been the same throughout: to try to find a way of removing or at least lessening the involvement of MPs themselves in the processes by which a recall petition can be triggered. That central issue was underlined in the report on the Bill that was provided by your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, and that report has been much in our minds during these proceedings. No one could expect to be seen to be acting utterly impartially in determining a period of suspension when a heavier penalty will trigger recall and a lesser one will not.
As my noble friend has made clear, he and those of us who supported the amendment have now taken into account a major development that occurred during the passage of the Bill through this House. As my noble friend reminded us, news of a very significant report on the composition of the House of Commons Committee on Standards reached us on the very day that we consider the Bill on Report. It has now become clear that the committee members believe that its composition should be changed to give equal representation to MPs and lay members. Now that the committee has gone that far, it would surely be sensible to wait until the committee has assumed its new form and acquired the greater independent representation that is now proposed before it is given its recall responsibilities. That is what this amendment seeks to do, and I am very glad to support it.
My Lords, I argued in the previous debate that surely the way for the House of Commons to re-establish its good reputation is for it to take responsibility for its own self-government and its own self-discipline. I am therefore opposed to the propositions put forward in these amendments, and indeed by the House of Commons Committee on Standards, not only that there should be lay members of the committee but that there should be equal numbers of lay members and Members of Parliament and that the lay members should have votes. It seems to me that those arrangements would not be consistent with the House of Commons taking the responsibilities that I believe that it should.
I also suggest that what we are being invited to approve is inconsistent, first with Magna Carta, which established the principle of trial by peers, and secondly with the Bill of Rights, which asserts parliamentary privilege and insists that the proceedings of Parliament should not be questioned or impeached by those who are not Members of Parliament. It may indeed be the case that Parliament has power to set aside Magna Carta—even in its 800th anniversary year—and that it has power to discard elements of the Bill of Rights. I would suggest only that parliamentarians should draw a very deep breath and think very carefully indeed before they do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is always Jacobinical—he has a splendid fury in his reforming drive—but the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has a profound knowledge of parliamentary history. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who is not able to be in his place today, is deeply knowledgeable about parliamentary privilege. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, another of the sponsors of Amendment 5, is a very experienced former Member of the House of Commons. I am startled that some of those noble Lords should associate themselves with this kind of drastic change, which, in the present circumstances, when all of us are intensely concerned to see how the good reputation of Parliament can be better upheld, would surely be in effect an abdication of the central responsibility that Parliament has for itself and for its own good conduct. I am deeply opposed to these amendments.
My Lords, not for the first time this afternoon I find myself in complete agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. This amendment, well intended as I am sure it is—I have the highest regard for those who have put their names to it—is damaging to Parliament. It is inimical to the spirit of Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Frankly, like the noble Lord, I am astonished that people whom I regard so highly as doughty defenders of Parliament should in fact be complicit in an amendment that, if passed, could have the effect only of further emasculating Parliament. I also agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, when he expresses concern that the committee in another place should have recommended this lay participation. That is inimical to the whole doctrine of parliamentary privilege, which is of incalculable importance and, when used correctly, is a bulwark of our liberties in this country.
There was no prouder day for me than when I was elected to another place. A number of your Lordships who were there are present this afternoon. It is interesting that those who are expressing particularly acute concerns about the Bill are mostly those who have served in another place. When I entered that place, I felt, in the words of, I think, Admiral Rodney in the 18th century, that there was no higher honour that any Englishman— of course in those days there were no women in Parliament—could aspire to than being a member of a sovereign parliament in a sovereign nation. That we should be whittling away at the very foundations of our parliamentary and civil liberties makes me profoundly sad. I could not support this amendment; I cannot support the Bill in any way, shape or form.
My Lords, I am sorry to part company from my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport, but I support Amendment 5. Perhaps it is a bit of a selfish reason as to why, which is that it helps facilitate the alternative approach that I put forward on Report. The amendment says that the committee should have,
“a number of members who are not Members of Parliament at least equal to the number of members of that Committee who are Members of Parliament”.
Of course, had the arrangement that I proposed on Report been in place, there would be more lay members of the committee than ordinary members. That falls precisely within the definition set out in this amendment, in that Ministers could actually introduce the scheme that I was suggesting in legislation—or indeed the House could, but it would need legislative support.
To remind Members of what that scheme was, essentially there would be 10 members of the committee, with seven lay and three elected. The three elected members would enjoy parliamentary privilege because they are elected. The seven lay members would be effectively advising the committee. They vote and make their recommendation, but it is for the three elected members to decide whether to reject or accept the recommendation of the lay members. The elected members essentially have charge—a responsibility for approving the recommendations so that they can be submitted to the full House of Commons. For that reason I accept the amendment. It takes us partially down the route that I want to go down, and I hope that the Government, at some stage in the future, will finally select that route.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate—and not simply because it is an easier one to respond to. As I said when we discussed this subject in Committee, or possibly on Report, we strongly support having more lay members on the Standards Committee. We believe that it is crucial for that body to have the confidence of the public, so opening up its work to people who are not MPs is an excellent step towards gaining that confidence. In other areas of life—in the medical profession, the legal profession and other professions—outside independent members are now the norm in any disciplinary process. That gives confidence to patients and clients that someone other than the cohort of those whose behaviour is being judged is involved in the decisions. Indeed, I think I am right in saying that in most of those other professions there is now a lay chair of the relevant disciplinary body.
As my honourable friend on the Front Bench in the other place said, we want to see a,
“radical overhaul of the Committee. That would include the removal of the Government’s majority and an increase in the role and authority of its lay members. We propose that at least half the Committee should be lay members and that the Chair of the Committee should not be a Member of Parliament”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/10/14; col. 69.]
It is encouraging that today there has been backing from all sides of the House on the need to move forward in this respect. The Government may say that the Bill is not the appropriate place to make such a change—although I note the astute amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others—but whether that is the case or not, we are sending an important message that all the political parties are determined to see the Standards Committee work effectively, fairly and transparently, and in a way that gives voters confidence in its work.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for his references back to the historical developments. My brief says that there is a record of lay members serving on a Commons committee as far back as 1836, and that it was in 1876 that Erskine May laid down that while it was perfectly acceptable for lay members to serve on Commons committees it was not acceptable, within the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, for them to vote on such committees. I understand that that is the position that we still hold. There have been lay members of Commons committees in the past and there are now three on the Standards Committee, whose recent report suggests that the number should increase to seven.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have taken us back to Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and a range of other things. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, that I am currently reading Professor David Carpenter’s very helpful, and massive, book on Magna Carta, and I am becoming a little more doubtful about the beauty of Magna Carta, fully put, than I was. Its treatment of women and Jews, for example, is not exactly in line with modern habits—just as, if one reads the Bill of Rights carefully, as I have also done, one learns that its assumptions about Roman Catholics are not ones that would meet with automatic approval in the 21st century.
Yes, we will make exceptions in some cases—particularly for the sons of Church of England clergymen.
Standards have developed and moved, and we are discussing how we would advise the House of Commons and how the Government should respond to the House of Commons on its proposals to move the Standards Committee further. The recent report calls for an increase in the number of lay members—we have had three lay members since 2013—and in their representation as a proportion of the committee. The Government already have a high regard for the lay members of the Standards Committee and appreciate the very important role they play in the work of the committee. The three lay members who currently serve have clearly made a valuable contribution and add an important level of independence to the process.
The Standards Committee report has only very recently been published and the Government have not found time to agree a formal response—the matter is, after all, in principle for the Commons itself. If I may say as clearly as I can, the Government can see no reason at all why there should not be an increase in the number of lay members of the committee, as proposed in the Standards Committee’s report. The disciplinary procedures of the House of Commons are, in principle, a matter for that House as a whole. It is for the Government to facilitate a debate in which the report of the Standards Committee can be considered in detail and consequent changes agreed.
I would urge this House to ponder carefully any course of action that might be interpreted as pressuring, influencing or leaning on the other place to make such a significant change to its disciplinary procedure. After all, we come up against issues of parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary privilege.
I am grateful to my noble friend and recognise that he is in a difficult position for the reasons he has just enunciated. We do not want to look as if we are telling the House of Commons when it should take its business, but can he at least, say, on behalf of the Government, that it would be the hope and intention of the business managers for the extremely important report from the Standards Committee to be addressed and, I hope, action taken before the Dissolution of this Parliament later this month? May I appeal to the Minister to ignore the pleas from the ultra-conservative tendency in this House, represented by the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Cormack, who I think have not read the report of the Standards Committee which addresses very carefully the issues of parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary privilege?
I am trying to be as helpful as I can on a very recently published Standards Committee report. I remind the House of some of the history. When the Kelly report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2009 recommended that there should be lay members on the Standards Committee, the recommendation was accepted in principle and referred to the Procedure Committee. That committee, in line with parliamentary precedent, reported that, while there was a long history of non-voting lay committee members, there was also a long-established precedent that only Members of the House could vote. The Government do not see any reason why we should override that long-standing precedent.
To add a further dimension on the complexity of the constitutional issues with which we are dealing, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in June 2013 advised very clearly against legislating on the lay membership of the committee. To do so would risk bringing the operation of parliamentary privilege, as it currently applies to the standards and other committees, into question. The membership and operation of the Standards Committee is a matter for the House of Commons and the provisions in the Bill have been designed in such a way as to fit in with its disciplinary arrangements, however they are constituted. The second recall trigger would work in exactly the same way whether there were three, seven, 10 or 15 lay members on the Standards Committee, so it would not be justified to stop the second trigger from operating unless the number of lay members was increased.
The Standards Committee report also specifically says:
“The Committee has said that it will work to implement whatever Parliament decides on recall”.
Whether or not the other place decides to act on the Standards Committee’s recommendations—and, as I have said, the Government certainly see no reason why it should not in respect of the lay members of that committee—the committee’s essential role in holding MPs to account for their conduct will remain unchanged.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked me to guarantee in the remaining short weeks of this Parliament that the Commons will reach that decision before Parliament is dissolved. I am unable, standing here, to give any such absolute guarantee, but I will certainly take that back to my colleagues in the other place and make the point.
Having given as warm assurances as I can to this House, I hope that enables the two noble Lords to withdraw their amendments.
My Lords, I am indebted to the Minister because he has made the position clear. We now know that the Government do not support the Standards Committee’s lay membership being given the right to vote, which brings me right back to my Amendment 6 which I moved on Report, which I now believe is a real option. I was also against the lay membership being given the right to vote informal proceedings, which was what I was trying to flush out, because it makes my amendment more sensible.
All I would like from the Minister is an assurance that the debate that took place on Report, and if I might modestly say in particular the proposal in my amendment, will be considered by the appropriate authorities. I would ask those who are charged with reading these matters in the other place, as invariably they do when we deal in this place with House of Commons business, to read the debate and consider that amendment. I think that my proposal was a very reasonable way to proceed. It would ensure that the lay membership really felt they were making a contribution and it would not take us down road concerning the issue of parliamentary privilege, which my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport was essentially alluding to. On that basis I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Clause 9: Recall petition to be made available for signing
4: Clause 9, page 7, line 19, leave out “8” and insert “6”
My Lords, Amendment 4 would reduce the petition signing period from eight weeks to six weeks. On Report, we debated the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, to reduce the signing period to three weeks. The Government felt that shortening the availability of the petition to this length of time would make the petition process unworkable, especially for those who wished to sign by post. However, it was clear from that debate that the decision to increase the number of signing places to a maximum of 10 could allow us to consider a reduction in the signing period.
We have listened carefully to the arguments put forward for reducing the signing period and believe that a reduction to six weeks is a sensible and practicable step. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and also to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who is not in his place today, whose amendments at previous stages of the Bill’s consideration have raised this question. Having reflected on the issue, we consider that a shortened period of six weeks would strike the right balance between tightening the process and enabling proper access to signing. It would allow sufficient time for electors to consider the campaigns for and against signing the petition and enable those who wish to sign by post to make an application.
Additionally, the revised period would still allow the petition officer to check and approve postal applications in good time for signing sheets to be issued and returned, including making the important check that an elector has not already signed the petition in person. A further benefit of shortening the signing period, which was referred to in previous debates, is that constituents will find out the result of the petition sooner, and if a by-election is to be held, this would enable the election of their Member of Parliament more quickly.
In considering this issue, we have taken very seriously the views of your Lordships’ House and we believe that the amendment is a sensible improvement to the operation of the recall petition. The amendment has the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for which I am most grateful. For those reasons, I beg to move.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Gardiner of Kimble and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for their characteristic generosity and their willingness to reflect upon the issues that were raised in the debate on Report, to meet me and my noble friend on the Front Bench, and the decision they have reached to reduce the signing period from eight weeks to six weeks.
There were four essential arguments in connection with this. One was that, as a result of the most welcome amendment which the Government themselves brought in on Report increasing the number of signing places to up to 10, there will not be the same difficulty for registered electors to find their way to somewhere where they can sign.
There is also the question of cost. We do not want to prolong this process and its associated costs any longer than is necessary. Maintaining no fewer than two staff, I should think, who will work quite long hours for eight weeks and in up to 10 signing places, with the costs of premises and equipment, will be pretty expensive. Indeed, I would be interested to know if the Government have made any calculation or estimate of how much per week they anticipate this process to cost. Anyway, it is highly desirable that it should be kept to the minimum.
Another argument was very strongly made by my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town that it is most important to minimise the period during which citizens in a particular constituency would not have the services of their MP available to them, whether in the constituency or in the House of Commons.
Finally, what is for me the most important argument is that it is desirable to minimise the period of what I think will be an intensely unpleasant political process. We will see journalistic vultures circling around what they take to be political carrion. As people witness this experience—I hope to goodness that they never will and that the provisions of this Bill never have to be operated in practice—I fear that the unpleasant nature of this political process will deepen the revulsion that many feel for politics and that any gain in accountability will be more than offset by an increase in public disaffection with politics.
While I do not want in any way to be churlish, I think that the Government have perhaps been unduly timid in reducing the signing period from eight weeks to only six weeks. My amendment on Report proposed a period of three weeks and that was perhaps a little optimistic, but I would have thought that the necessary processes could be transacted in four or five weeks. I was unpersuaded by what was a key argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, that ample time should be made available for people who do not already have postal votes but decide that they would like to sign this petition by way of a postal procedure to be able to apply to do so. I think that that is a bit of a luxury that is not really needed. At all events, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, pointed out to us in an earlier debate that a whole general election can be conducted in four weeks; we are about to have a general election conducted over a period of five and a half weeks including the Easter holiday. So I think that insisting on a period of no fewer than six weeks for a petition, which would find its conclusive result if only 10% of the electors sign it, is unduly timid.
However, as I say, I do not wish to be churlish and I am genuinely grateful. A reduction from eight weeks to six weeks is 25% off, and that is pretty good. I thank both noble Lords and I am happy to support the government amendment.
My Lords, I think this is a sensible compromise. I, too, supported the view that the excessive period was unnecessary. Once we had in place the flexibility on places for signing to take account of geography and demography in areas such as the one I know and the one the noble Baroness knows, it was a very sensible thing to move. I do not accept that a further, more drastic reduction to three or four weeks would really have been very practical. After all, this is not going to be an anticipated event in the same way that a general election is. There will be an extension of postal involvement in the process, and therefore six weeks is a reasonable period. A further reduction would be wrong. This is a good compromise, and I am grateful to my noble friend.
I add my thanks to the Minister for tabling this amendment, to which we have added our names. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport, who argued persuasively both on Report and today. Given the move from four to 10 signing places, we really did not need the lengthy period of eight weeks. I hope that, for costs and other reasons, there will now be less need for people to apply for postal votes, and it will be easier for people to arrange to meet one of the signing places. While we would not want to rush the petition, we think that both the MP and the constituents deserve to have as swift a result as possible so that the MP is not taken away from their normal parliamentary duties for an inordinate period, as has been outlined by my noble friend Lord Howarth. We see six weeks as being an improvement on eight and look forward to this amendment passing shortly.
Amendment 4 agreed.
Clause 24: Commencement
Amendment 5 not moved.
Schedule 5: Recall petition returns
6: Schedule 5, page 56, line 41, at beginning insert “(1)”
My Lords, since this is the last group in this debate, I thank those who have taken part for the constructive role that they have played in the very thorough scrutiny that this Bill has had. I was a little upset when the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, suggested that we had done our business hastily. I think that we have done our business—from Second Reading, through Committee to Report, and now to Third Reading—in the appropriate way in which this House behaves. We have met with those who have expressed their greatest concerns on the Bill, and, as the names on the amendment to which I am now speaking show, we have done our best to reach a consensus with the Opposition where they have made reasonable points, which the Government feel should be taken into account.
I am also very grateful that we have had such an extraordinarily good and efficient Bill team for this Bill. Over the last four and three-quarter years, I have met rather more Bill teams than I would like to have done, and on one or two occasions I have realised what you suffer if a Bill team does not do what you need for a Monday afternoon Committee stage—on one particular occasion, the legal adviser had missed the ferry back that morning from the Isle of Wight and we arrived without the full pack that we needed. I am confident in saying that this is one of the best Bill teams that I have had.
Government Amendments 6, 7 and 8 require the petition officer to deliver all recall petition returns to the Electoral Commission as soon as reasonably practicable after the documents have been received. These support the more substantive government Amendment 10, which will require the Electoral Commission to prepare and publish a report after every recall petition. These amendments build on those first tabled by the Opposition on Report, and I welcome their support for our amendments today. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for their constructive engagement on this issue.
In drafting the Bill, the Government have been keen to ensure that we create a regulatory environment that is consistent with existing electoral law. However, we recognise that recall petitions are a new style of electoral event for which there is no one-size-fits-all set of rules that can be applied. That said, we have drawn heavily, as far as we can, on underlying principles from wider electoral law—notably, encouraging participation through proportionate regulation and preventing undue influence by wealthy groups and individuals.
The Government have been grateful to noble Lords for their contributions throughout the passage of the Bill in terms of how the campaign should be regulated. The Government have also been consistent in our view that the spending and donation rules that we have put in place are appropriate to the nature of a recall petition and are fair and workable in practice. We appreciate the desire to ensure that the process is properly assessed in what we hope will be the very rare event of a recall petition taking place.
The Bill as introduced to this House provides for the Electoral Commission to report on the conduct of a recall petition, including how the spending and donation rules work, at its own initiative. Noble Lords have expressed a desire to see a formalisation of this process, requiring the Electoral Commission to report after every recall petition. These amendments will provide for this. Amendment 9 corrects a minor and technical issue with the drafting of Schedule 5 to the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town and I have also put our names to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on the role of the Electoral Commission. As the Minister has described, the amendments have the effect of requiring the Electoral Commission to take a greater role in the scrutiny of recall proceedings, which is to be welcomed. As a general principle, the Electoral Commission needs to move on from its present position of offering advice and guidance to more specific areas that it is responsible for, and to be held account properly by Parliament for its work in those areas. That is my position, although it is a matter for another day.
The specific amendments address the points that I have argued were lacking throughout the Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for mirroring the amendments that we on these Benches put forward in previous stages of the Bill. The first set of amendments to Schedule 5 ensures that all returns by campaigners are subject to checks by the Electoral Commission and delete the phrase “on request”, thereby requiring the petition officer to deliver a copy of all the recall petition returns when they have been received. We strongly disputed the Electoral Commission’s view that these would be little local events with a local feel. I took the view that that was a silly claim by the commission; we all know that these will be national events attracting enormous media attention. The commission is best equipped to look at the work being done with returns, as it has both the resources and the expertise at its disposal. I did not accept the commission’s note on this when it said that it may need additional resources to make this work. We all hope that these provisions will be enacted very rarely, and I am very confident, as a former commissioner, that this extra work can be done from existing resources.
We believe that these amendments are particularly important, given that the Government have not accepted our concerns about the potential loopholes that have been left open with regards to donations and expenditure received by both accredited and non-accredited campaigners. This at least goes some way towards ensuring that the financial circumstances of campaigns are subject to some level of scrutiny. Although we are disappointed that the Government have failed to address what we from these Benches regard as the inherent unfairness in the equality of arms of accredited campaigners, as well as the lack of safeguards on permissible donors, we are at least glad that we have managed to persuade Ministers that it is paramount that donation returns are checked.
It is hoped that this will go some way to providing confidence in the financial aspects of recall campaign procedures, which we on this side of the House believe could be open to abuse. The Government’s other amendment to Schedule 5 is a technical amendment, which clarifies the Bill, and we support it. The amendments to Schedule 6 require the Electoral Commission to produce a report on the recall petition proceedings once they have been completed. As I said previously, given that this is an entirely new facet of campaigning, I believe that an independent assessment of the process would be greatly welcomed, not only by constituents but by those affected or involved in the process, and by everyone else involved.
In conclusion, the amendments made in your Lordships’ House have been small but significant in making it more workable for all involved. Perhaps the most important inclusion in the forthcoming regulations will be the requirement on the petition notification card to inform electors of the fact that they are signing what could become a public petition. Given that the Government rejected our judgment that this was de facto a public petition, this is at least something to address the issue of secrecy and the availability of the marked register, the details of which still have to be worked out.
Regrettably, little attention has been given to such practicalities or even the principles of the recall process, which explains why so much has been left to regulations —fairly inexcusable, given that the Government have had an entire Parliament to draft a 25-clause Bill. Despite this, the help that we received from the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Gardiner of Kimble, was much appreciated, and we welcomed it very much. They were willing to meet us to discuss the detail and the principle, so I record my thanks and those of my colleagues on these Benches for their hard work. Also, I join them in supporting and thanking the Bill team for their hard work; they have been courteous and helpful throughout the process.
I thank my noble friend Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town. We were friends for many years before we came into the House—we came in on the same list nearly five years ago. It is always a pleasure to work with her. Her leadership and hard work on this are much appreciated by everyone involved. I thank my colleague Helen Williams from the opposition office for her contribution; though it was behind the scenes, it was very much appreciated by me and my colleagues here. I also thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for their work. We have done our job as a revising Chamber, and I am grateful to everyone involved.
We have all expressed the wish that the Bill will never need to be used. However, it is right that it should be as fit as possible in case it is. The Minister knows that we remain concerned about the possible intrusion of big money into the consideration of whether an MP should continue in Parliament. I hope that he is right and we are wrong in worrying about this. That apart, we have made the Bill a bit better than when it arrived in your Lordships’ House. I hope that it can now be moved on so it is an Act of Parliament very soon.
I wish to comment briefly on these amendments. Since the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, signed them, I felt it was only right that he should be allowed to go first, but I endorse everything he said; these are useful improvements. When the Bill first came to your Lordships’ House there was a certain mood that somehow we should not be making improvements to it—not that it was incapable of improvement, but that somehow we should not be looking at such internal matters as those with which the Bill is concerned because they are so clearly matters that intimately affect the Commons collectively and individual MPs. I am delighted that through the whole of the debate, at all stages, that apparent lack of confidence in the role of your Lordships’ House has fallen away and we have had very serious, helpful and, I hope, positive discussions about how to improve this legislation.
It would be ironic if, simply because the Bill affected so intimately the self-interest of Members of the other place, somehow we felt we could not take any view on it, when as a Parliament we clearly have to take a view both about the reputation of Parliament as a whole and about the intricacy and effectiveness of individual proposed legislation. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that it may well be that this turns out not to be entirely fit for purpose. Presumably, it will be tested when, or if, it is used, and that will be an obvious moment for us to review the situation, as my noble friend Lord Norton and I said in a previous debate. If we had accepted the view that because it was of such intricate, direct self-interest concern to Members of Parliament then somehow or other we had to withhold our views, that would surely have given credence to the idea that the form of your Lordships’ House could not be a matter of concern to the other House of Parliament, which would be patently ludicrous. I am pleased that in fact that situation fell by the wayside and no one has pressed that.
I share with the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, my thanks as an individual Member of your Lordships’ House to all those who have taken such trouble within the Government to try to make sure that we had the best possible opportunities to influence the way in which this legislation came before us. In particular, I thank my noble friends Lord Wallace and Lord Gardiner for the impeccable way in which they have treated us, giving us every appropriate opportunity to try to improve the Bill. It is slightly improved, but I suspect that some of the issues that we were dealing with earlier today will come back to haunt us before too long.
My Lords, perhaps I should add that it has been interesting that, in the best traditions of this House, the Divisions on the Bill have not been one party group against another but have often been within and across political party groups. That is how it should often be in this Chamber: it is part of a healthy debate.
I have been sitting here today wondering whether the colour of the coat of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, was intended to be a heavy hint at her preferred post-election coalition, but perhaps we can continue that discussion outside the Chamber. I conclude by thanking everyone for the lengthy amount of time that we have spent on the Bill. I commend the amendment.
Amendment 6 agreed.
Amendments 7 and 8
7: Schedule 5, page 56, line 41, leave out “, on request,”
8: Schedule 5, page 57, line 5, at end insert—
“(2) Delivery under sub-paragraph (1) must be as soon as reasonably practicable after the officer receives the document in question.”
Amendments 7 and 8 agreed.
9*: Schedule 5, page 58, line 5, leave out “1” and insert “2”
Amendment 9 agreed.
Schedule 6: Minor and consequential amendments
10: Schedule 6, page 58, line 32, leave out “may” and insert “must”
Amendment 10 agreed.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.