Tuesday, 21 October 2014

I will vote for the Recall of MPs Bill tonight after listening to todays debate, but not the proposed Goldsmith amendments next week

Today the Commons has been debating the Recall Bill and we will vote on the second reading of the Bill tonight at 7. The Bill then has various committee days in the Commons next week before it goes to the House of Lords for their Lordships to consider the matter over the winter. I tried to speak today but was not able to. So I will try and set out some points here on the blog.

I stood on a manifesto to bring in a Recall Bill in 2010 following the expenses scandal when several MPs were rightly sent to prison. The Coalition Agreement included a commitment to bring forward legislation to introduce a power of recall, and there has been a draft bill and white paper considered and then assessed by a cross party committee under pre legislative scrutiny. The Government identified recall as a means of restoring faith in the political process, by increasing the accountability of Members of Parliament to the electorate between elections. However, it believed that a recall petition should only be triggered following a finding of serious wrongdoing; it should not be triggered for political reasons – perhaps because MPs had voted in a particular way that constituents opposed. The evolution of the Coalition Government's Draft Recall Bill is well set out here: https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reforming-the-constitution-and-political-system/supporting-pages/recall-of-mps

The actual draft Bill is here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2014-2015/0094/cbill_2014-20150094_en_1.htm
I have also received a campaign email doing the rounds from 38 Degrees to say that the planned recall proposals do not go far enough; as 38 Degrees often do, they have decided to draft their own Bill. As always, in these matters, the devil is in the detail, and having researched the 38 Degrees Bill and listened to the debate today I am going to support the Coalition Governments Recall Bill tonight and will not be supporting the 38 Degrees version. As always, I will try and explain why.
The first issue to sort out is what is recall for? In my view it should be a facility to be used if an MP has behaved badly in ways which damage their work as an MP. I don't think it should be a chance to re-run the election in any given seat, simply because a group of people did not like the result.  
The Bill addresses bad behaviour at clause 2 and looks at criminal offences in particular. Where I disagree most strongly with the 38 Degrees approach is that it encourages recall where an MP makes a decision on a political issue, a matter of conscience, or a local issue with which some constituents do not agree. Many of the examples have been cited in the debate today, whether it is the Iraq War vote in 2003, the same sex marriage vote in 2012, the hunting ban, or issues concerning divorce, abortion or death penalty decisions.  I voted for the same sex marriage bill and then led the campaign against the Coalitions proposed Forestry Bill. Both were highly contentious issues.  
More difficult still is political behaviour. Some constituents think an MP should face recall for breaking his or her word, or reneging on promises made before an election. Tempting though this is, it could prove difficult to enforce and would probably lead to parties and candidates declining to make any promises at all that could later force their resignation. This would be the import of the 38 Degrees / Goldsmith Bill.
Let us take the case of the Lib Dem promise to oppose tuition fees in the 2010 election. It was a clear promise. In the circumstances of the coalition it was subsequently a Lib Dem Secretary of State who then presided over the development and implementation of the tuition fee system. Should there have been 50+ by elections immediately that happened, with a possible change of government and a period of instability? Or is the change of circumstance, a realisation that some promises were unaffordable, given the financial disaster left behind by Labour and Gordon Brown, and the formation of coalition, sufficient reason to change a party’s stance? I, for one, would not support recall in such circumstances, but am certain some would have tried to make it a recall matter under the 38 Degrees / Goldsmith arrangements. The reality is that the Liberals, never having been in government for a century, made a rash promise thinking it would never have to then implement it. None of us also realised how broke the country was going to be after Brown's Boom and Bust. As we have discovered the reality of running a balanced budget is very difficult and very tough decisions have had to be taken. I do not shirk from this, albeit it has been very difficult and not every decision has been got right. But the reckoning in such a case is the General Election, not 57 by elections. 
The issue also arises of what proportion is required to justify recall? The Goldsmith / 38 Degrees proposal seeks only 5% of the electorate as a trigger. I would campaign strongly against such a figure - not least as in a marginal seat there will be at least 40% of the electors who feel very partisan in favour of the main losing candidate. Should they have the right to demand a re-run at the worst time for the incumbent MP? One of the parts of this job I admire most is the fact that we represent everyone, without fear or favour. I have had strong proponents of the BNP - some of whose behaviour was fairly feisty, to say the least, at the last election - come to me seeking my help as their MP: they are treated the same as any Coalition supporter. MPs help all of their constituents, whoever they are. This needs to be maintained.
38 Degrees no longer reply to my emails, or respond to my letters, even though I have gone to great lengths to engage with them, but I will happily set out their amendments to the Coalitions bill here: https://s3.amazonaws.com/38degrees.3cdn.net/5f6fde153d0e49a936_enm6bnzus.pdf
It may be that the Goldsmith / 38 Degrees approach will be carried next week but again this is what a parliamentary debate is about. The Bill will be assessed on several occasions by both Houses of Parliament. That is what parliamentary debate is for.

For the final word do not take my word for it - read the Guardian. The Guardian is not normally na supporter of the Coalition, but is a fairly robust critic of the 38 Degrees / Goldsmith approach: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jun/05/mp-recall-bill-not-meaningless

In his brilliant article Michael White, who cites the Andrew Mitchell MP example very powerfully, makes the wonderful point about the attempt to remove Winston Churchill as an MP in 1938:

"Unfashionable MPs and unpopular causes need to be defended from popular passions of the moment and from majoritarian bullying, orchestrated from tax havens. My favourite example remains Winston Churchill, who faced a campaign to remove him in his Epping constituency in 1938 because he was upsetting Neville Chamberlain's efforts to make lasting peace with Mr Hitler."
As always, on the blog, comments are welcome. But, as usual, I will make the usual point that we in the Commons debate the Bill line by line twice, as does the House of Lords, and that the Bill always evolves with the parliamentary process. Given the Churchill example, and the reasons set out above, I shall be voting for the Coalitions version of the Bill tonight, but not the future amendments.