Thanks to all of you who have contacted me about recall.
I support recall and the Recall of MPs Bill which received its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 21st October. This provides for recall to be initiated if an MP is sentenced to a term of imprisonment of less than 12 months (the law already provides for an MP’s seat to be vacated if they are sent to prison for 12 months or more) or if s/he is found guilty of misconduct by the House of Commons and suspended for at least 21 sitting days.
In the first case, it will be a judge who in effect takes the decision about recall by deciding whether to imprison a Member of Parliament although, clearly, the judge’s decision should relate solely to the proper sentence for the offence and not have regard to the possibility of recall.
In the second case of serious wrongdoing which breaches the standards expected of an MP, it will be the Standards Committee which takes the decision. There is an argument that because the voting membership of that committee is exclusively made up of MPs, it could be said that it is not sufficiently independent. My colleague, Stephen Twigg, said in the Second Reading debate that we will look at ways to ensure that the process is more independent, for example by increasing the number of lay members. I have pasted below the link to the Hansard record of the debate so that you can read what was said.
On the question of Zac Goldsmith’s amendments to the Bill, I have some concerns about the consequences of what he is proposing.
We, of course, already have recall - it's called a general election - and our democracy works on the basis that on that day MPs can be voted out by their electors for any reason whatsoever. So the question is how often should MPs be subject to recall, for what reason, by whom and using what method, and what would be the implications of a general recall power on the role and function of MPs ?
I have read the briefing note from 38 Degrees. It talks about recall for MPs involved in scandals and refers to 'bad apple' MPs? The Recall of MPs Bill does cover these cases in the sense that being sentenced to a term of imprisonment or being suspended by the House of Commons for serious wrongdoing would both enable the recall process to be triggered.
The remaining question therefore is: are we talking about recall only in cases of scandal or ‘bad apple’ MPs – which is what is implied by 38 Degrees - or is this about a general right of recall for any reason whatsoever ? As far as I can see the proposed amendments to the Bill don't define the circumstances in which recall can be used, so in effect they are proposing that an MP could be recalled for any reason at any time. They would not have to have done anything 'wrong'.
A problem with the Government’s proposal is that there have been MPs who, in the past, have been imprisoned for what they would regard as political reasons; for example Terry Fields MP in the 1980s because of his opposition to the poll tax.
And under the Goldsmith amendments, an MP who was charged with an offence could be recalled before their case ever came to court, and s/he could lose their seat even if they were subsequently acquitted. Would it really be right to subject someone to double jeopardy in this way?
On the other hand, I accept that there is an issue if an MP, after having been elected, fails to turn up to the House of Commons at all, although this is complicated by the case of Sinn Fein MPs who have consistently refused to take their seats for political reasons.
The argument is made that the Goldsmith form of recall power would not be used all that often, but that is not the experience from the United States. Also, there are a number of potential risks. The biggest risk for our democracy is that big interests could spend money, backed by newspaper editors and advertising, to whip up opinion to try and get rid of particular MPs. I wasn’t very convinced by the 'safeguards' and this is a clear weakness of the proposal.
The 38 Degrees briefing note states ”If a wealthy individual or private organisation did try to influence a recall – even of just one single MP – it would cost huge resources.” That is precisely my point because it is possible to envisage big corporate interests, with huge resources, trying to use the process - or the threat of the process - to persuade an MP or a minister to change their mind on some issue which affected their commercial interests. The question is, would this be good for our democracy or not? I have serious concerns that it would undermine our democracy rather than strengthen it.
What about circumstances in which a government is elected and has a small majority of one or two seats? There would be a very powerful incentive on the part of those who had lost the election to try and unseat a couple of governing party MPs in order to change the outcome of the general election that had just been held. There is no safeguard against this happening.
Finally, there is the most fundamental question of all. What is the role of an MP? Are we delegates or representatives? Like many things, this is a question of balance, but I think our representative function is particularly important. After all, we are not blank pieces of paper on which others imprint their view at any particular point in time.
For example, when we look back at how what I would regard as progressive change occurred through legislation in Parliament, there are countless instances of MPs voting in favour of measures that were very unpopular with their constituents at the time; for example, abolishing capital punishment, abortion law reform, and stopping putting men in prison because they were gay. Would it have been better for our democracy and our freedoms if those MPs who voted in favour of these measures, despite a significant proportion of their constituents opposing them, if a recall law had been in place at that time which would have allowed them to be recalled for the way they had voted on a particular issue? I think not.
Or take another example. At times, MPs are faced with very difficult decisions which need to be taken but which constituents may not like. Should a Cabinet minister be subject to recall for a decision that s/he has taken in the national interest which is unpopular with his/her constituents. Would recall have a chilling effect on the ability of MPs to do their job?
I realise that there are different, strongly held views on this matter and my point is that we should consider all of these views in deciding what to do. That is exactly what will now happen as the Bill goes into committee for detailed examination and consideration of amendments. Having reservations about Zac Goldsmith’s amendments certainly does not mean that I want to protect those involved in scandal or ‘bad apple’ MPs. Far from it ! But what I am saying is that there is a difference between recall in cases of proven bad conduct by MPs (eg criminal activity and serious wrongdoing) and recall simply on the basis of the way a Member of Parliament has voted or proposes to vote. That is why I support recall in the former case, but not in the latter.
I do worry a great deal about the loss of confidence in our political process and the growing prevalence of cynicism. The truth, however, is that we all have a responsibility to do something about. I offer as an antidote to the notion that nothing good has ever come out of Westminster an article that I wrote a couple of years ago entitled “In defence of MPs” (pasted below).
In Defence of Members of Parliament (written in 2012)
A recent survey showed that public confidence in Members of Parliament has fallen steeply in the last two years. It made very uncomfortable reading. The percentage of people in England who think MPs are dedicated to working well for the public dropped from 46% to 26%; the proportion who feel most MPs are competent fell by ten percentage points (from 36% to 26%); and there was a 14 point decline in those who said that most MPs are in touch with what the public thinks (down from 29% to only 15%). Commenting on the results, the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that they reflected the public’s concern about "self-serving behaviour”.
In the wake of the expenses scandal, perhaps these results aren’t all that surprising. So are we condemned to ever lower ratings for MPs? Why is there such cynicism about party politics? Why is being an MP sometimes seen as a strange activity practised by people who are separate from the rest of us? And is this an accurate or complete picture of our MPs and what they actually do?
I don’t think that it is. Politics is, in fact, an honourable profession and we need to stand up for it. Not out of self-interest, but because of its proven capacity to achieve things and to change lives. Politics is about public service; doing a job for the benefit of society. And in my experience the vast majority of politicians come into the job to improve life in our country and our world.
And yet the nihilist critics who cynically try to undermine politics are interested only in destruction. They have nothing positive to say, they will not acknowledge the dilemmas that elected representatives sometimes face, they never express any appreciation, and many of them would probably be incapable of doing the job themselves. Most people instinctively recognise this truth. Tony Blair used to recount that the thing people said to him most often was “I wouldn’t have your job for all the money in the world”.
Ask any MP what’s worthwhile about their vocation, and a common reply will be ‘helping people with their problems’. If something is worrying us then what we want - more than anything else - is someone to listen and to help. That’s why lots of people contact their Member of Parliament. We can’t solve every problem, but we can always promise to do our best to assist. And what enables us to do so is the voice we are given by being elected. Being a local representative – having the initials ‘MP’ after your name – means that we can get answers on our constituents’ behalf. Whether it’s a problem with housing benefit, a utility company, righting an injustice or changing a law, MPs can often do something.
And while some claim that politicians are remote and don’t help, the daily experience of many people who seek the assistance of their MP is actually very different. This probably explains why the one, slightly encouraging statistic in the same survey was that the public had a less damning – or, to put it another way, a more favourable - opinion of their own MP than they had of MPs in general. This reflects other research. One response is based on our personal experience; the other on what is reported in the papers or on television about what we think everybody else's experience is. The same is true when you ask people about their own use of the NHS or what their child’s school is like; in both cases you get more positive answers than if the question is about the state of the NHS or education in general. This raises an important question - what is it about the mirror that we hold up to ourselves as a society that produces such contradictory results?
Having constituencies represented by individual MPs is one of the great strengths of our system and one reason why MPs take casework seriously. I have constituents from other countries who are astonished that in Britain they can just turn up at a surgery, wait their turn and see their MP. This link means that MPs get to know their area and people get to know their MP. It is why the Government’s determination to rip up the constituency map every 5 years - by sacrificing place and relationships on the altar of mathematics - is such a mistake and so damaging to our democracy.
This role as a constituency caseworker has grown enormously in recent decades – you can’t imagine Disraeli or Gladstone doing surgeries. It is an important part of the job, and I have no time for those who argue that MPs shouldn’t bother with this. It’s what we’re here for, and most MPs – and councillors - are committed and hard-working. And yet while individual constituents will express appreciation, these efforts are rarely recognised by society.
MP’s also have a unique role as leaders in their community and more widely. Just look at the leadership shown by David Lammy in Tottenham in the wake of this summer’s riots, above all in giving voice to what his constituents felt about what was happening to their community. Or Tony Cunningham’s dedication to his constituents when terrible flooding struck. Or Paddy Ashdown arguing for the world to act in both Bosnia and Kosovo to protect those who were suffering, at a time when many voices said it was all too difficult or none of our business. Chris Mullin’s championing of the wrongly-convicted Birmingham Six. John Randall’s commitment to marine conservation that paved the way for legislation to protect the wonders that lie beneath our seas. Mark Pritchard’s determination to press ahead with a backbench vote on banning circus animals in the face of, first blandishments, and then threats from No 10. Graham Allen’s pioneering work on early intervention, Stella Creasy’s campaign against loan sharks and dodgy lenders, and Jack Straw’s highlighting of the scandal of referral fees that have made car insurance more expensive. All examples – and there are many, many others - of individual MPs making a real difference.
A lot of great causes have been advanced by private members bills. Many of the social changes which we now take for granted were the result of long and determined campaigns by courageous MPs who stood up for things that weren’t popular at the time. The abolition of capital punishment in 1965 and the passing of the Abortion Act two years later were brought about by the efforts of Sydney Silverman and David Steel. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 – championed by Marion Roe - extended the law to make it illegal for UK nationals to take girls out of this country to perform this despicable practice. These bills, and countless others, were the result of years of campaigning in which individual MPs played an honourable and decisive role. Private members bills can also respond to sudden events. While swift legislation can sometimes turn out to be bad legislation, that was not the case with Jim Sheridan’s Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 which followed the Morecambe Bay disaster in which 21 Chinese cockle pickers were left to drown by their employer.
Parliamentarians are, however, more than just individuals. Our party affiliation is the reason why we are elected, and party politics has a proud record of changing our country for the better. To take but one example, the creation of the NHS in the wake of a terrible world war – and at a time of economic crisis – is a reminder of the astonishing power of party politics to transform people’s lives. The health service didn’t fall out of the sky one morning. Labour MPs and a Labour Government brought it into being then, and we still bless it now.
One other caricature of MPs is that they just robots, doing what their parties tell them. Party loyalty does matter, but the truth is more subtle. Nor is politics just about votes in the House of Commons. An endless flow of debate and argument within, and between, parties influences what Governments do. The recent scrapping of the plan to sell off the nation’s forests – after a particularly uncomfortable urgent question in the chamber – came about because neither the public nor back-bench Conservative MPs would have it. The reintroduction of the maintenance grant for low-income students in higher education was the direct result of debate between Labour MPs and ministers as the legislation went through Parliament in 2004. More controversially, the Iraq war debate in March 2003 did actually reflect the views of people outside Parliament, both for and against military action. The number of MPs who spoke and voted against war showed that it was a genuine debate in which each MP made up their own mind. And if you look at the evidence on backbench rebellions – what others might describe as MPs doing their job - there have been more of them in the last forty years than in the previous forty; a fact that puts some nostalgic pining for ‘more MPs like we used to have’ into perspective.
MPs’ ability to do their job depends on them being free to say what they think. That’s what parliamentary privilege is all about, although it’s a terrible phrase which implies that we want special treatment. We don’t. We just want to be able to speak out freely on behalf of our constituents and the causes we believe in without having to fear being dragged through the courts. In the early 1960s, the MP Ben Parkin used privilege to denounce the activities of the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman. Much more recently, Tom Watson and Chris Bryant’s persistence on phone hacking – using the protection of privilege - ultimately led to the closure of the News of the World, the humbling of the Murdochs, a major police investigation and Lord Leveson’s Inquiry.
I do not wish to paint an incomplete or overly rosy picture. As politicians we get things wrong, sometimes spectacularly as on bank regulation. Criticism and disagreement come with the job, and make us do it better. Trust is vital and it is up to us to conduct ourselves in a way that rebuilds it. The Committee on Standards in Public Life survey showed that the public places particular emphasis on basic honesty, financial prudence and selfless dedication to public service: ‘telling the truth’, ‘making sure public money is used wisely’, ‘being in touch with what the public think’ and ‘owning up to mistakes’ is what they feel matters most. I think we would have a better reputation if we did more of this, and toned down the ‘yah-boo’ which only a minority enjoy. Apart from anything else, it simply doesn’t reflect what we do most of the time, and how we do it. We also have a responsibility to be straight with people, and we need a political culture in which there is a benefit in being so. Shouting ‘u-turn’ every time a politician says ‘we haven’t quite got this right’ is not the way to achieve this.
As to the health of Parliament, it has been revived by the reforms voted through in the final days of the last Labour Government. Select committee members and Chairs are now elected. Thanks to the Speaker, ministers are being called to answer urgent questions much more frequently. And most significantly of all, we now have a Backbench Business Committee which has taken over control of 35 days a year of parliamentary time from the executive. MPs now have the right to decide what to debate and when, and the House – fortified by an able new intake of MPs – is using this new power. It’s being noticed. When the debate on prisoners’ voting rights took place recently, the opening of it was covered live on the news channels – not something you see very often – and the clear view expressed left the Government in no doubt about what Parliament felt. And the arrival of e-petitions will improve the link between the public and their Parliament. I welcome this change, although if the petition to restore the death penalty does come before us, I will argue and vote against it. That’s what we are here for – to listen but also to say what we think – and an MP with a good argument and a powerful speech can still make those listening in the chamber change their minds. All these reforms should encourage everyone who cares about Parliament and the way our democracy works.
Perhaps the ultimate proof of politicians’ worth is that it is to them that we turn at times of crisis and change. Roosevelt in 1933. Churchill in 1940. The creation of the United Nations. The 2005 G8 deal to write off developing countries’ debt. Getting a climate change agreement. Saving the world from global depression three years ago. When faced with challenges of this scale, we know that it is to our elected politicians that we look to show us a way forward.
MPs are proud to do the job. It is a great responsibility, but it is also a privilege to have the chance to represent people. And if we are going to solve the problems of the world, and fulfil our hopes and aspirations for the future, then we need our politics and our MPs to work for us too. So instead of grumpiness and sometimes downright rudeness - even though MPs are just doing a job on behalf of the public – let’s recognise that like plants, our politics needs nurturing. Why? Because if we damage it, then we will have thrown away the best and only hope we have of making progress. The story of the NHS - born at a time when we had a much higher deficit than we have today - is proof that we can, with optimism, determination and spirit, achieve an enormous amount. So the next time you hear someone having a go at politicians, why not tell them about the things that MPs have done that you appreciate and admire?
Hilary Benn is the Member of Parliament for Leeds Central