Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Could the Commons expel an errant MP? (And why did Conway stay?)

Barnsley MP Eric Illsley has been convicted of fraud. He had been suspended from the Labour party, and has sat as an independent. This is a sad end to the career of somebody who committed years of his life to working for the NUM and the Labour party.

He will automatically forfeit his seat if he receives a 12 month sentence, but will not if he does not.

Illsley should resign in any event - and he should do so before sentencing.

What if he does not?

The Labour Party says it would seek to ask the House of Commons to expel him - seeking cross-party support, and using a process last operated in 1947 for the heinous contempt of selling information to the Evening Standard!

This seems the right move to me. If Illsley were convicted to a shorter custodial sentence yet claimed he could carry on at Westminster, it would be farcical and deeply damaging.

(Now, there are risks to such an approach - though I think a criminal conviction sets a high enough threshold. The 1947 case might be evidence of that. Anybody who knows the history of how the Conservative Party and the Archbishop of Canterbury combined forces in the case of Charles Bradlaugh, to deny the people of Northampton their choice of MP, despite them voting for him on four occasions, even rejecting his offer to take the oath "as a matter of form" might recongnise these risks. I would not want independent or rebellious MPs - perhaps from Sinn Fein, far left or extreme right parties, if elected - to be expelled for any political stance which the majority of the House might find extremely offensive or bordering on "treachery", in examples analogous to Bradlaugh).

So is it possible? We may not find out.

Illsley might well take a decision to stand down - on the grounds that the conviction will make the effective representation of his constituents impossible, or because he doesn't wish to damage the reputation of the party he served for a long time, or simply because it is the right thing to do.

Illsley might perhaps be advised by former colleagues and his legal representatives that this could also be in his own interests too.

I am not an expert on the sentencing guidelines - and appreciate any information from those who are - but fraud by an MP has a particular impact on public confidence in the probity of our institutions. There will be a deep loss of confidence if an MP in prison for fraud had retained his seat. Might that itself be a reason for a custodial sentence which would disbar the MP, should the sentencing be around that boundary?

As with a quick guilty plea, a decision to resign ahead of sentencing could be offered in mitigation, as an expression of remorse, and as evidence that Illsley recognises that the crime should cost him his job as a Member of Parliament.


If Illsey does tough it out, we will find out if expulsion is possible.

If it is, it suggests to me that David Cameron was too lenient with former Old Bexley and Sidcup MP Derek Conway - taking the line that, having removed him from the Conservative Party, he could do nothing else about his staying as an MP.

Indeed, it was argued that this was why (very restricted) "recall" powers were needed.

A larger sum of money was involved in the dishonest "employment" of family members, of whom it was found there was "no evidence" of his son doing any work for his £50,000 pay and expenses package, using Commons allowances intended for staff to support the MPs' work.

Conway was suspended from the Commons for 10 days. But the Conservatives made no attempt to end his career as an MP.

Perhaps this reflected a degree of sympathy for the MP who got caught among his former colleagues.

There was also a surprising lack of media challenge to this. Indeed, the Sun praised Cameron for "effectively ending Conway's career as an MP" by ensuring he could not stand in the next election, which turned out to be another two and a half years away. I would expect it to take a tougher line with Illsley. The Daily Mail was tougher.

The art of Cameron's performance over the expenses crisis - where he was pretty selective, depending on whether chums or "bed-blockers were at fault" - was to gain a public reputation for being tougher than he was.

1 comment:

Mark Pack said...

The Wikipedia article about Garry Allighan isn't really that good (yes, I know I should go edit it...), partly I suspect because so many of the sources on the case aren't available online. But from what I can make of the case, it's rather more complicated and convoluted than that piece makes it - because Allighan was making false allegations in an attempt to cover his own tracks:

It's a good point about Conway, though I think overall Parliament should be very cautious about voting to kick out MPs - as it only requires a simple majority vote. It's the sort of mechanism that should be used in extreme cases, but always remembering the risks of it becoming too common a tool.