Plans to allow constituents to sack MPs who behave badly have been condemned as “too weak” after it emerged that the public would need the permission of MPs to trigger the process.
Critics said MPs would remain “judge and jury” when their colleagues were accused of misconduct and would continue to “mark their own homework”.
The Recall of MPs Bill was included in the final Queen’s Speech before the general election after Nick Clegg persuaded David Cameron to revive the measure.
It had been put on the back burner even though the three main parties backed the idea after the 2009 scandal over MPs’ expenses.
The Government said the Bill would allow voters to “trigger a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and has had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10 per cent of his or her constituents over an eight-week period”.
However, the small print revealed that such a petition could be launched by the public only if an MP had been convicted of an offence and sent to prison for 12 months or less.
MPs sentenced to longer than 12 months are automatically expelled from the House. In other cases, people could not start a petition unless the move had first been approved by the Commons Standards Committee, which is composed of 10 MPs and three lay members who do not have a vote.
MPs vowed to try to amend the Bill during its passage to give it more teeth.
Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park, dismissed the proposal as “meaningless”. He warned: “It will be impossible to recall anyone. The danger, particularly on the back of the huge Ukip vote we saw last week, is that people will discover at the very first scandal that they’ve been duped, that they have no more power after this Bill goes through than they do today.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, admitted he felt “uneasy” about needing the approval of MPs. But he argued: “It’s far better to have an imperfect Recall Bill that we can then amend and improve than not have one at all.”
Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, insisted the approval of MPs was needed before a petition to prevent “vexatious, politically motivated” campaigns organised by an MP’s opponent.
There were few surprises in the Speech, which contained 11 new Bills to be pushed through before next May’s election. Labour said the relatively small number showed the Coalition had become a “zombie government”.
But the Opposition’s attack misfired after Coalition ministers pointed out there was a similar number of measures in the final year of the previous Labour Government.
Many previous administrations had relatively thin programmes in the year before an election. The number of Bills is not the only guide to government activity; quality matters more than quantity. And some policies – such as the 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in England announced today – do not require fresh legislation, merely a vote in both houses of Parliament.
The package was trumpeted by Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg as evidence that their Government had not run out of steam.
Commentators said their joint statement listing the Coalition’s achievements was a clear signal they could work together again if next year’s election produces another hung parliament.
Mr Cameron’s spokesman insisted the Prime Minister wants a Tory majority, not another coalition.
The most radical measure was the biggest shake-up of pensions since the system was introduced in 1908. The Pensions Tax Bill will give 300,000 people who retire each year freedom to access their pension as they wish, ending the requirement to buy an annuity. The Private Pensions Bill will allow workers to join new collective defined contribution schemes, pooling risks between members to give them greater certainty about their retirement income.
These were aimed at the “grey vote,” while younger adults were targeted by the Childcare Payments Bill to give tax relief worth up to £2,000 a year per child to 1.9 million families with both parents or a single parent in work.
The Modern Slavery Bill will bring in new powers to prevent slavery and human trafficking and to force perpetrators to compensate their victims.
The Infrastructure Bill will open up exploration for shale gas by giving firms underground access without the landowner’s permission. It will also speed up major projects of national significance.
Political passes: Not in the Queen’s Speech
Campaigners vowed to fight on after a promised ban on wild animals in circuses was unexpectedly left out of the Queen’s Speech.
A Bill had been drafted, to build on a new licensing system to monitor the animals’ well-being. But there was no pledge to turn it into law, and there were suspicions it had fallen victim to the edict from Tory strategist Lynton Crosby that the programme should be stripped of peripheral measures.
Mark Pritchard, a Tory MP who has campaigned for the ban, said: “There will be many who will be surprised and disappointed. But I’m determined, resolute and will not give up.”
Also missing was any reference to the long-standing commitment to enshrine a rise in foreign aid to 0.7 per cent of national income into law. The target is supported by the three main parties but many Tory right-wingers oppose it.
A previous commitment to force tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarettes in plain packages was absent, but Downing Street said the Department of Health would go ahead with draft regulations which did not require primary legislation.
Apart from a pledge to “work to promote reform in the European Union”, there was no reference to David Cameron’s plans to hold a referendum on EU membership. A backbench Tory MP is expected to champion a Bill to turn the plan into law.
Conservative ministers had been pushing for legislation that would jail anyone caught with a knife for a second time, but were blocked by the Liberal Democrats.