The government’s proposals for recall of MPs: moving in the right direction, but further still to go

Alan Renwick

Last week, as promised in the coalition programme, the government published its proposals for allowing voters to recall MPs who are found guilty of serious wrongdoing.  The draft bill and accompanying white paper set out procedures whereby a recall petition will be opened either when an MP is jailed for up to twelve months (longer jail sentences already lead to automatic expulsion) or when the Commons itself decides that a miscreant MP should be censured with the threat of recall.  The petition will be administered by returning officers.  If at least 10 per cent of eligible local voters sign the petition within an eight-week period, a by-election will be held.  The sitting MP will be allowed to stand in the by-election, but will have to prove his or her continuing local support in order to retain office.

Before getting into the detail of these proposals, it’s worth remembering what has sparked them.  Recall was a complete non-issue in the UK before the scandal over MPs’ expenses.  As I’ve written elsewhere, when Californian governor Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 and replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the British press was almost united in its condemnation of what it viewed as populist theatre.

That began to change in early 2008, when, in a precursor to the main expenses furore, Derek Conway was found guilty of serious abuse of the allowances system.  Many – notably including a group of backbench Conservative MPs – complained that there was no mechanism for voters to get rid of their wayward representative.

Little more was heard, however, until May 2009, when the Telegraph began publishing its dossier of expenses claims.  By the end of the month, recall had leapt from obscurity to become received wisdom.  All three main party leaders had backed it.  Polls had indicated overwhelming public support.  The momentum was carried forward to the 2010 election manifestos and the coalition agreement that followed.

Two main questions are being asked about the government’s proposals.  First, is it right to restrict recall only to cases of “serious wrongdoing”?  Shouldn’t voters be able to remove their MP whenever they feel that MP is not up to scratch?  Second, if the restriction is justified, is it right that MPs themselves should be the arbiters of when wrongdoing has occurred?

Some say that recall should be an option at any time.  Peter Facey, from Unlock Democracy, writes:

A proper recall system empowers citizens, not MPs or the courts. It should be up to local people to decide what issues should trigger a by-election.  By contrast, the proposals only allow MPs to be recalled if they are convicted by a court or hung out to dry by the House of Commons.  In their present form, these proposals are not worth the parliamentary time it will take to debate them.

During the protests over tuition fees last year, the National Union of Students began to campaign for the recall of Lib Dem MPs.  One student leader was quoted as saying, “in a democracy, when someone makes a pledge, you expect them to honour and fulfil that pledge. … If they flip-flop or do a U-turn on this issue, they are betraying the electorate.  It is a fundamental democratic principle that we should be able to remove them.”

A rule that allowed recall when pledges are broken would certainly not be helpful: election manifestos would need to become legally enforceable documents, which would only lead politicians to strip them of meaningful content.  So presumably the claim here is again that voters should be able to recall an MP whenever they see fit.

Several arguments suggest this course would be undesirable.  First, the presence of mavericks on the backbenches – people who are willing to swim against the tide and say unpopular things – greatly enlivens political debate and can help to save us from sclerotic groupthink.
Second, we should not want our political leaders to be slaves to public opinion.  It would be absurd to suggest that public attitudes are always well grounded.  Politicians sometimes need to take decisions that will make them unpopular in the short term.  Third, allowing recall of cabinet ministers on policy grounds would give undue power to the voters who happen to live in those ministers’ constituencies.  As I wrote in A Citizen’s Guide to Electoral Reform, “the good people of Witney are as entitled to their views as the rest of us, but the prime minister should be formulating policy for the country, not for one wealthy part of it”.

It clearly isn’t healthy for democracy when politicians break promises.  But a better solution is to scrutinize the promises more effectively when they are made.  It was always clear that the Lib Dems’ pledge on tuition fees was undeliverable, and that should have been exposed at the time it was made.  None of the parties made their spending plans clear during last year’s election campaign, because they knew that honesty would cost them votes.  Before we demand extra means of exercising control over our politicians, we should make sure we don’t punish politicians for telling us the truth.

A linked concern is that introducing recall in a restricted form will discredit the system.  Peter Facey says, “For all its promise, it does not in practice offer the voter any more power over their MP than they have at present.  By raising people’s expectations, it can only entrench cynicism.”  Michael White worries, similarly, that “the bill will create expectations that cannot easily be fulfilled”.  He draws the opposite conclusion from Facey: it would be better, he says, not to have recall at all.

It is not clear to me that introducing limited recall would, on its own, make such a difference here: after all, students were already demanding recall of Lib Dem MPs last year, before even a draft bill existed.  What does matter is that the mechanism for triggering recall command public confidence.  If public demands for recall are perceived as being blocked by an illegitimate process, further cynicism will indeed result.

That leads on to the second big question.  The government does not propose to interfere with current Commons procedures for disciplining MPs.  Thus, whether an MP is guilty of such “serious wrongdoing” as justifies triggering the recall process will be decided by a committee of MPs – the Committee on Standards and Privileges – whose report will be subject to endorsement by the Commons as a whole.

We should first clear away two unfounded criticisms of this plan.  The first is that it somehow breaches the coalition parties’ promises.  Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Justice spokesperson, says:

The fact that MPs have a final say in whether a recall petition is triggered, unless an MP commits a crime punishable with a prison sentence, is certainly not what the Tory or Lib Dem manifestos promised. This is yet another broken promise from this Tory-led government.

A range of commentators – including Christopher Hope in the Telegraph and Alex Stevenson at politics.co.uk – have followed the same tune.  In fact, however, no promise has been broken.  Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems proposed in their election manifestos to allow recall in cases of proven “serious wrongdoing”.  Labour proposed recall of “MPs who are found responsible for financial misconduct”.  None of the parties said anything about the mechanisms by which the presence or absence of wrongdoing would be determined.  In fact, as I wrote in A Citizen’s Guide to Electoral Reform, it always seemed likely that the government would propose to maintain the current procedures.  So let’s not get sidetracked by mock outrage about broken promises.

The other unfounded criticism is the claim that the MPs will always protect their own and never allow the public a voice.  Alex Stevenson says the Committee on Standards and Privileges “is one of parliament’s most mysterious, inscrutable committees”.  He adds, “There’s a real fear that behind that screen the independence of its decisions could be compromised.”  Matthew Sinclair from the TaxPayers’ Alliance says, “So long as they have enough friends in Parliament, and avoid doing anything so flagrant it actually gets them sent to prison, they will be safe from these toothless provisions for a recall.”

In fact, the Committee on Standards and Privileges does a good job.  Its work is underpinned by the work of the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who investigates complaints against MPs.  It does regularly sanction miscreant MPs.  Furthermore, MPs have little interest in protecting individual members whose actions harm the reputation of parliament as a whole.  As I noted above, after all, it was a group of MPs who initially called for recall in the wake of the Derek Conway affair.  It seems almost certain that recall would have been triggered in Conway’s case, and probably several others arising from the expenses scandal in addition to those that finally led to custodial sentences.

Nevertheless, for two reasons, in independent procedure for establishing wrongdoing would be preferable.  First, the procedure should be one that is free so far as possible from any danger that political considerations or ties of friendship will play a role.  It may be all too tempting for MPs to cast out colleagues who have been publicly vilified, even if their misdemeanours have been minor.  It may be tempting to retain a colleague whose future prospects seem particularly bright.  An independent process would offer a better guarantee of focusing solely on the relevant facts.

Second, an independent procedure would stand a much greater chance of commanding public confidence.  Popular cynicism towards politicians is often unfounded, but it is not about to disappear.  MPs will be shooting themselves in the foot if they cling on to the principle of self-regulation in the face of such public attitudes.

There is much talk in the government’s white paper of the Glorious Revolution and the enshrinement of parliamentary self-regulation in the 1689 Bill of Rights.  Even more anguish on this point is expressed in a recent report by the Commons Procedure Committee on the innocuous idea of adding two lay members to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.  But the Bill of Rights is intended to protect parliament from interference from the executive and the courts.  It is not intended to protect a cosy club.  The club currently does rather a good job of governing itself, but that is not good enough in our modern democracy.  It is high time that MPs, like the rest of us, were subject to independent adjudication of allegations of wrong-doing.

Taking this route would enhance their reputation.  It would also strengthen the government’s proposals for recall.

Alan Renwick’s current research into political reform debates in the UK is generously funded by the Nuffield Foundation, to whom he is grateful.  All views expressed herein and any errors are, of course, his own.