On 21 October 2014 Parliament will be debating proposals for a recall bill.
Recall is the process by which the public can force their elected representative to re-stand for election.
I support recall, but I don’ think the government’s proposals go far enough. I support the changes suggested by Zac Goldsmith and will be voting to strengthen the hand of voters in recalling their MP.
Arguments for recall
- It gives the electorate the power to remove elected representatives who fail to perform their role to a satisfactory standard or who grossly neglect their duties.
- Without recall, the electorate has to wait until the next election to voice their opinions on the performance of their elected representative.
- The threat of recall would encourage elected representatives to meet minimum standards of behaviour and to be more responsive to the views of their electorate.
Arguments against recall
- Recall could be abused as a political tool with some marginal seats becoming the target of organised campaigns.
- Elected representatives would spend all their time campaigning against being recalled rather than getting on with the job they were elected to do.
- The threat of recall could force elected representatives to make populist decisions rather than well-thought-through and perhaps more difficult, unpopular decisions.
When we debate the principles of recall, it is important to be clear about what it is we are trying to achieve. When we are putting those principles into practice, it is just as important to avoid unintended consequences.
The principle of recall is to allow people to hold their elected representatives to account between scheduled elections. But we must get it right. We have to balance the needs and wants of the electorate without opening the door to the interests of political parties and large, rich corporations to threaten elected representatives with small majorities into not speaking out on issues.
• The government’s proposals cover only MPs (not Police and Crime Commissioners, for example).
• They suggest that if an MP is sentenced to a prison term or suspended from the House for at least 21 days (when the House is sitting) then a petition is opened in their constituency for electors to sign for a period of eight weeks.
• If after eight weeks, 10% of voters have signed it, the seat is declared vacant and a by-election follows.
• The MP who has been recalled can stand in the by-election.
There are some other details, such as spending limits for campaigns for and against recall to ensure that big business cannot ‘buy’ a recall.
The problem with this is that recall is not triggered by the people who elected the MP.
Zac Goldsmith has made a different suggestion which broadens the reasons for recall but makes the trigger tougher.
• His idea, which I support, is that 5% of constituents have to issue a ‘notice of intent to recall’ within 28 days. This can be in the form of an e-petition or paper petition.
• If the 5% trigger is reached (that would be about 3,500 people in North East Derbyshire), then a recall petition is opened.
• This next petition must be supported by 20% of the electorate.
• If 20% go to designated places (at least four locations depending on how rural the seat is) to sign the petition over a period of eight weeks, then a referendum is held asking if the MP should be recalled.
• If a majority vote yes, there is a by-election.
• The recalled MP can stand in the by-election.
The wider issue
Recall is a process which is used in some other countries and has been discussed in the UK since Derek Conway, a former Conservative MP, was found by the House of Commons Standards Committee to have been employing his son in Westminster when he was in fact a full-time student in Newcastle.
Derek Conway was censured, he had the Conservative Party whip withdrawn, but there was nothing that anyone could do to force him to stand down before the General Election.
More recently we have had the example of the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Shaun Wright, who was implicated in the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal, was expelled from the Labour Party, but again, there was no way of forcing him to stand down until he himself decided to do so.
These cases are, thankfully, rare, and they highlight a flaw in our current electoral system. We practice an extreme form of representative democracy – that is, when someone is voted in, they represent their electors until the next election. There is no real obligation on them to consult the people who have elected them between elections (although representatives who don’t are usually punished at the ballot box at the next election).
Other countries have more participatory democracies – where the electorate is more active between elections by taking part in local referendums and plebiscites. Switzerland is an example where decisions are almost always taken by local referendums rather than by an elected Parliament.
At a time when faith in our electoral system and in elected representatives is at an all-time low, it is important that people feel that they do have a say and that their representatives listen to them between elections. Recall is an important part of that.