Recall of MPs Bill
Charles Walker expresses concern about proposed amendments to the Recall Bill.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I put in to speak in this debate with righteous indignation because I thought I was going to be entertained to a ghastly speech from the Deputy Prime Minister, who tries to make himself look big by making this place look small and who persists in talking about broken politics. Unfortunately, that task fell to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who talked about our broken Parliament. We must not conflate our political parties with Parliament. Our political parties may come and go, but hopefully Parliament will remain a constant.
I see this as an opportunity to talk about what I still respect, admire and revere about this place. We need champions of Parliament, and I must say that the thing that still excites me most about this place and what it offers our constituents is accountability. Is it not extraordinary? We take it for granted that a member of the public can write to me, their Member of Parliament, because they are concerned about a policy—an education policy, or a transport policy, for example—and I will take that concern up and write to the Minister. And here it is: we get a response from the Secretary of State for Transport, the Secretary of State for Education or, on occasion, the Prime Minister. We diminish that in this place, but it is truly remarkable. It is not replicated in many parts of Europe and it is scarce around the world.
Let us be careful before we use the Bill as an opportunity to attack this Parliament. Parliament is not broken. I have seen many colleagues in this place achieve remarkable things, not just for their constituents but for the nation at large, and I have the utmost respect for them and the power this place provides them with to do those wonderful things.
Conor Burns: I share my hon. Friend’s reverence and respect for the institution of Parliament, and I very much agree with the points he is making. However, does he agree that one reason why this place has fallen into some disrepute is that we have given so many powers away? In exercising our constituency responsibilities, we are finding that powers have been given to the European Union and unelected quangos. This place needs to take more power back.
Mr Walker: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Institutions are only as powerful as the trust that people have in them, and I am concerned when our sovereign Parliament is overruled by supranational bodies, as that undermines faith in the institution. It is the same with our courts. My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point.
Let me also touch on a couple of other things that have been said today. We are often told that we are out of touch by our constituents, but in reality that is code for, “You disagree with my point of view.” I understand that, but I am not out of touch with my constituents. They might not like me and they might not like what I stand for, but every morning I travel in from my constituency and every evening I go back. I am pleased to meet my constituents on the platform and, in the main, they pretend to be pleased to meet me. I spend numerous weekends out and about in my community, not just having surgeries but going to the shops—I am an ordinary Member of Parliament. Let us take all of this with a pinch of salt and let us not self-flagellate constantly about our standing and the standing of Parliament.
I shall not detain the House much longer, but let me just make a point that I touched on in an intervention. In 2010, the Bill that became the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was introduced in this place. I did not support it and, in reality, it made it much more difficult for us as Members of Parliament to recall the Government. I found that extraordinary, and I find it even more extraordinary now that a recall Bill is being promoted by those on the Front Bench that will, in essence, further entrench the power of the Executive as opposed to the interests of Back Benchers.
I have some concerns. I accept that the Minister is here with good intentions, but there are genuine concerns about the Government’s proposals, as there are about the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I hope that we can reach a solution that carries the confidence of this House and of our constituents. Let us not forget that we all serve in a wonderful Parliament and one that many would like to replicate around the world.
Charles' other interventions in the same debate
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): My right hon. Friend has said that there are people who have been sentenced to prison to whom this Bill would directly apply. Who are those people?
Greg Clark: Clearly, this Bill would not apply retrospectively, but the two people who would have been caught are Chris Huhne and Eric Illsley.
Mr Charles Walker: I would take the Government’s position more seriously if, at the start of this Parliament in 2010, they had not made it almost impossible for this House to recall a Government.
Greg Clark: My hon. Friend takes us on to an area that could detain us for the rest of the day. He and I would prefer to be implementing all the Conservative party’s manifesto commitments, but the electorate did not give us a majority, so we formed a coalition, which I think has made great achievements, not least by turning around the economy through its effective, long-term economic plan.
Mr Charles Walker: I have great admiration for members of the public—after all, they are my electorate—but could the shadow Minister define “genuine members of the public”?
Stephen Twigg: I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman is asking that question. Did I use that phrase?
Mr Walker: The shadow Minister agreed with the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) that we should involve “genuine members of the public”, but what does that mean? “Genuine members of the public” is a political phrase like “innocent victims”—I have never come across a guilty victim. What are “genuine members of the public”?
Stephen Twigg: They are those who are representative of the full range of the public.
Mr Charles Walker: My hon. Friend mentioned pressure groups from the left and the right of politics. I have not had a single e-mail from a constituent on this issue that has not been initiated by a pressure group template, so he should not overestimate the public’s interest in the Bill.
Zac Goldsmith: That is interesting. I have been bombarded. I even received a letter this morning that said, “Dear Zac Goldsmith, we very much hope that you will support Zac Goldsmith’s amendments.” I take my hon. Friend’s point, but as is shown by all the surveys on this issue, of which there have been a great many over the past few months, if this proposal is put to members of the public, it is something that they support.
Mr Charles Walker: My hon. Friend and I have had many civilised conversations about this matter over recent weeks. My concern centres on the 5% trigger. He knows full well that he and I could visit his local Sainsbury’s or Tesco on any matter and secure 3,750 signatures. My concern is over that initial threshold. Perhaps a better threshold would be 10% of those who voted at the previous election. For example, if 50,000 votes had been cast, the figure would be 5,000.
Zac Goldsmith: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I think that 5% is about the right level, and that was the consensus of the committee of Back Benchers, which represented seven different parties—5% was the figure that people centred on. I think that 3,500 signatures is a high threshold in one month, but I accept that it is a lot easier than 20% of signatures in person in the town hall. However, I am open to attempts on Report to amend the amendments that I and colleagues will be tabling. A consensus that 5% is too low and that 10% will meet the approval of the House is for me an issue not of principle but of detail. If that is what it takes for the House to be comfortable with the proposals, I will politely go with the flow on that. The principle is what matters.
Mr Charles Walker: The hon. Gentleman said that recall would end safe seat syndrome. How will it do that?
Douglas Carswell: At present, the career trajectories of MPs in safe seats are determined by how obsequious they are to Ministers, and on whether or not the Whips think highly of them and give them promotion. If a Member is vulnerable to a recall election—if he is vulnerable to the views of the voters—he may start to face outward to the voters. Even if he is in a safe seat, he will know that he can lose his position if he breaks his promises and does not do what he said he was going to do. Recall would mean that instead of facing inward and chasing favour with the Whips, MPs would become outward-facing, and I think that that would revive and reinvigorate our democracy.
Mr Charles Walker: Am I right in thinking that the even the Conservative party is having a renaissance in Scotland?
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman might be on to something, but I think that it might have to be called a relative renaissance. Polls have shown that the Conservative party’s figures have not increased much, if at all, in Scotland, although they are above those of the Labour party.
Mr Charles Walker: We in this place all search for a silver bullet and an easy solution to our problems. In 2009 it was the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority that would resolve all these problems. Has it? I do not think so. We must be realistic. Recall may have a place, but the idea that it will somehow restore faith in this place is pie in the sky.
Richard Drax: I agree entirely. What will restore faith in this place is us—the parties and individuals that make up this great place. It is our duty to do that, and I do not think we need a recall Bill to prove that point.
Mark Durkan: I take the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I do not accept it literally. If we are to talk about having a recall power—whether it be in the terms of this Bill or any other—I believe there needs to be a yardstick. If the House of Commons is to adjudicate itself or to ask a select number of us are to adjudicate the rest in respect of standards and privileges, there must be some clear standards.
Mr Charles Walker: As important as recall is, what was much more important in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 was fixing this country’s economy, and ensuring that people could pay their mortgages and remain in work. Let us not overestimate the Bill’s importance, because—dare I say?—the Public Gallery is not doing so.
Mr Lansley: I do not suppose that I am overestimating the Bill’s importance, although it was important that we delivered on our manifesto promises and the coalition agreement. Achieving that was at the forefront of our minds as we set out our legislative programme, for which I had responsibility.