A Power of Recall is Needed – But this Bill does not go far enough

Today a Bill proposing the Recall of MPs is being debated in the House of Commons. This is the Second Reading debate, in which the broad support of MPs for the bill is tested. The detailed analysis comes later. I will be supporting the bill today, as I fully support the need for recall powers.

This is still the early stage of the bill. It is far from perfect, but I will be seeking improvements to the bill as it progresses through parliament, strengthening it, and making sure it achieves the appropriate balance between real accountability, the ability of MPs to speak without fear or favour for their constituents and for the nation, and the ability for MPs to exercise individual judgment when necessary.

The process of recall, as proposed in the bill, would be as follows: a recall petition would enable constituents to bring about a by-election in their constituency, if certain thresholds are passed (this is a necessary check-and-balance against vexatious political attempts to unseat an MP, including by cash-rich individuals or groups, which could undermine democracy). The Government’s Bill proposes that the petition would be open for signing for eight weeks in total. If 10 per cent of eligible electors sign the petition, the seat would be declared vacant and a by-election would be called. The recalled MP would be allowed to stand in the by-election.

The Government’s Bill as it stands proposes that a recall petition will automatically take place if an MP is suspended from the House for at least 21 sitting days or 28 working days, or if an MP receives a custodial sentence of less than 12 months (by law, an MP must already forfeit their seat if they receive a custodial sentence of longer than 12 months).

I do not believe that this goes far enough. The Government’s Bill only allows recall on an automatic basis when MPs receive custodial sentences or House suspensions. These cases are quite clearly few and far between. Since 1992 only two MPs have received House suspensions that would trigger a recall petition. It is imperative that the power to recall MPs is a real democratic power, and that the public have confidence that this Bill is not merely a case of MPs adjudicating over themselves.

An obvious example of one area which requires strengthening is this: it seems that those MPs who were involved in the “cash for questions” scandal of the 1990s would not fall foul of the provisions in this bill. I feel it is unarguable that those who are caught abusing the power of the privileged position of an MP for monetary gain should be held accountable by their constituents in future (as well as by parliament of course, with its powers to suspend members).

As the bill progresses through parliament, we must ensure that the Bill does contain rules specifying what circumstances warrant an MP’s recall. I agree with the concerns voiced by Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan last month that we need to be careful to avoid a recall system that could give well-funded vested interests the power to unseat MPs “simply because they dislike the way a politician has voted on controversial issues.” Policy disagreements can and should be settled by the electorate at a general election. The recall procedure should not be open to abuse – including by well-organised and well-funded external campaign groups.

So, as an added check on the power of MPs, I fully support the introduction of recall into our democratic process. It is of the utmost importance that MPs are held to account by the constituents that elected them, and to have additional powers to hold them to account where there is serious misconduct in between elections too. Constituents need to have genuine confidence in the integrity of the individual that they have elected to represent them in Parliament, and be able to act decisively between elections where there has been a clear failure of that integrity. The power of recall is therefore a valuable additional democratic tool for constituents to remove their MP in cases where the individual in question fails to act in the manner expected of an elected Member of Parliament in between elections.

The Labour Party’s 2010 General Election manifesto included a commitment to introduce a right of recall. So whilst I am disappointed that it has taken the Conservative / Lib Dem government so long to bring forward any proposals, I will support this bill at Second Reading, and will seek to strengthen the bill to ensure that it gives constituents a meaningful power of recall to remove MPs who have fallen short of the expected standards.