Recall Bill

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) that there has been too much self-flagellation as part and parcel of the process that has led towards this Bill, we cannot dispute that a lot of the concerns that underline these measures are to do with trust—I am talking specifically about trust in the political and parliamentary process. The public appetite for parliamentary recall was turbo-charged by the reputationally ruinous expenses scandal that broke in 2009. That brought to public attention the decades-long scandal of a self-regulated system in which secrecy and opaqueness by the political establishment were the watchwords. That was then compounded by the calamitous rearguard attempts by the parliamentary great and good to use the courts to prevent the publication of details of dubious expenditure claims of public money—a process that was sensationally broken open by The Daily Telegraph

Slowly but surely this place has been dragged into playing catch-up. Ever since the expenses scandal, this House has paid lip service to the importance of restoring public confidence in the political process. A central part of that has been the public insistence for genuinely independent regulation. Yet the centrepiece of this Bill flies in the face of giving our voters, rather than political insiders, the authority to drive recall.

I regret that the coalition’s revolutionary intentions, as set out in May 2010, have been so watered down.

Douglas Carswell: Does the hon. Gentleman have any confidence in his party leadership’s record on political reform?

Mark Field: That is a rather unfair question. It was the hon. Gentleman’s party leadership until a few weeks ago. I have some confidence—perhaps hope springs eternal—that there will be other elements of reform going through. I am afraid that the constitutional record of the coalition Government has been lamentable in the way that it has worked out.

As hon. Members have said, it is entirely understandable that the Government have tried to find a mechanism to weed out trivial or vexatious complaints. For sure, there will be abject disagreement on purely partisan political issues, as well as furious disagreements between an elector and his or her parliamentary representative, but that should never trigger the recall process.

As I am now disagreeing with the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell)—my friend, but my former hon. Friend—I should congratulate him on his recent re-election. I know that he pays the closest possible attention to these issues. Although we profoundly disagree about the desirability of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and about immigration policy—I think it is in the national interest that we have a calm and rational debate, rather than one that plays to members of his current party—we were, as instinctive democrats, in the same Lobby for the November 2011 referendum vote and with regard to House of Lords reform, which would have brought about an elected second Chamber. Our views are similarly aligned on the importance of sound money and the need for a much more urgent emphasis on deficit reduction than seems acceptable to Britain’s political elite.

More importantly, in this era of established political parties being set out in law, surely an elected representative’s decision to switch political parties should automatically trigger a recall. I would support an amendment to achieve that if the hon. Gentleman were to table one. I respect his decision and that of the erstwhile Member for Rochester and Strood to put their money where their mouth is and let their electors determine their future. Why should voters be deprived of the opportunity to hold to account an MP who switches parties but is unwilling to resign? Surely that should be a prima facie reason for recall.

I fear, however, that the Minister has instead boiled down the grounds of recall to just two small conditions, the first of which applies to criminal convictions and will operate along similar lines that already exist for expulsion from the House. However, the second condition, which applies if the Standards Committee imposes a suspension from the House of 21 or more sitting days, is much too open to party managers’ political manipulation. Let us not be naive about the conduct of party leaderships and the Whips Offices. They will, as they have always done, try to manipulate such a process to protect or condemn as they see fit. After all, that is what party managers do, and that is precisely why they must have no part whatsoever in the recall process. The overriding need to restore public trust is the reason why they should have no opportunity to interfere with the recall process.

The Standards Committee is still appointed, rather than elected by the House as a whole, so while its members are often able and diligent, that has the consequence that emollient and obedient MPs may be selected as its members, especially if a helpful outcome to a sensitive case is desired. As we all know, if cases come before that Committee, the House is able to impose penalties ranging from expulsion and suspension, to an order to repay moneys, when appropriate. It is all too easy to see how favoured sons and daughters—errant Ministers perhaps—might be made subject to stringent repayment conditions, but have imposed on them a suspension that is lenient enough not to trigger the second recall condition. I agreed with much of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said about that.

I fear that this is not a wild academic concern. Let us consider some of the matters that have recently come before the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Standards Committee, and then the House. For example, two former Cabinet Ministers were both ordered to repay more than £40,000 in inappropriately claimed second-home expenses by the commissioner. Following long and protracted inquiries, no doubt aided and abetted by an unhealthy interest from party managers, they were subject to a sanction that would not have triggered recall, even though the strength of public opinion meant that they both had to resign their ministerial office.

By contrast, in the past year two independent-minded Back Benchers—Patrick Mercer and Denis MacShane—have resigned from the House after being suspended for long terms, although neither had made similarly substantial personal financial gain requiring the repayment of public money. I do not wish to draw entirely direct comparisons between those sets of cases. I simply ask the House to reflect on the fact that the mere perception that pressure might be brought to bear to favour MPs closer to party leaderships, or indeed to militate against those regarded as more easily expendable, will only further undermine public confidence in this new process.

I very much agree with many of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and look forward to these issues being debated at length in Committee. I do agree with the Minister that there is an increasingly strong case for a mechanism to allow constituents to recall their MP. In my view, there is an almost unanswerable case that we will have to have such a Bill. I am only sad to conclude that this Bill fails to rise to the occasion.