An important item of note concerning political and constitutional reform occurred this week in the United Kingdom.
This was the release of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report on the Government’s draft bill on Recall of MPs. Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of recall – I think it is yet another measure designed to save voters from themselves – but even so, I had issues with the proposals the Government had put forward, and the Committee has largely agreed with me, essentially recommending that the Government simply drop plans for MP recall.
The Committee’s report comes in at an impressive 148 pages, but most of that is written evidence and other documentation received by the committee. As I had noted in my own critique of the Government’s draft proposals, the Committee noted that what the Government was proposing would do little to build public confidence in the political system. Indeed, because voters would not be able to initiate recall proceedings themselves, it might actually further undermine public confidence. There wasn’t really anything the committee liked about the Government’s proposals. The committee’s main concerns with the Government’s proposals are as follows:
- With regards to for the purposes of the first trigger of a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, the Government change its decision not to take account of the motivation of the MP in committing the offence. One possibility would be to enable the House itself to decide whether there should be an exemption from a recall petition in a particular instance because of the political nature of the crime. The committee was particularly concerned with cases wherein an MP or group of MPs might be convicted for civil disobedience, for example.
- With regards to a petition triggered by a resolution of the House of Commons, this too was problematic because the Government did not want to define what would constitute a “serious wrongdoing”. If these were limited to breaches of the Code of Conduct for MPs, this might not take into account actions or behaviour that the public would consider serious wrongdoings and worth of recall.
- If a recall petition were launched, the Government proposes that it be in one central location for signing. The committee believes this too restrictive and would be a deterrent for voters in large constituencies, particularly rural ones. The Government should replace the requirement for a single designated location for signing the petition with arequirement for at least two and no more than four designated locations, and even send out signing sheets to those who are registered for postal voting.
- The Committee also had reservations about the 10% threshold for a successful petition and recommended that if the Government takes the steps the Committee recommended to make signing the petition easier—having several designated locations and those who have an extant postal vote automatically being sent a postal signature sheet—it should raise thethreshold from 10% to at least 20%, which would represent a significant level of dissatisfaction with the sitting MP.
While these are just some of the concerns the Committee has with the mechanics of the recall procedure as proposed, perhaps most damning was their verdict on the Government’s justification for recall (p. 26):
76. The Government has not made the case for introducing recall. We have not seen enough evidence to support the suggestion that it will increase public confidence in politics, and fear that the restricted form of recall proposed could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled. The aftermath of the expenses scandal has shown that MPs can be, and are, removed by current processes as quickly as they would be by recall.
The Committee noted that the majority of witnesses who gave evidence rejected the Government’s proposals. Witnesses fell into one of two camps: those who favoured total recall, and those who felt recall wasn’t at all necessary. Concerning the arguments in favour of total recall, the Committee noted some important concerns, such as MPs who have dual roles: local MP and cabinet minister. With recall, there might be “a danger that Ministers might be less willing to make decisions in the long-term national interest if they feared that they could face a recall petition because their decision would be unpopular in the short term or unpopular locally.” (p. 27) Also, recall could be used against the person, when it was really the party and its policies that had upset voters:
There is not a single, clear job description for an MP and everyone will have their own idea about what behaviour constitutes being a “good MP”. To an extent, individual MPs must decide for themselves what their job entails. If their constituents disagree, they have an opportunity to vote for someone else at the next general election. Differences of opinion about what constitutes the proper role of an MP should not be allowed to trigger recall petitions.
84. We believe that a system of full recall may deter MPs from taking decisions that are unpopular locally or unpopular in the short-term, but which are in the long-term national interest. It may also discourage them from taking on powerful interests, or expressing controversial or unusual opinions. The Government argues that a recall mechanism should not leave MPs vulnerable to attack from those who simply disagree with them. We agree. For these reasons, we cannot support a system of full recall. (p. 28)
Ultimately, the Committee agreed with those who don’t think recall is necessary:
89. We do not believe that there is a gap in the House’s disciplinary procedures which needs to be filled by the introduction of recall. The House already has the power to expel Members who are guilty of serious wrongdoing. This should be regarded as an active option; rather than a theoretical possibility. We note that expulsion would not prevent the person concerned standing in the resulting by-election. We recommend that the Government abandon its plans to introduce a power of recall and use the parliamentary time this would free up to better effect. (p. 29)
I must say that I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that recall be abandoned. However, I urge you to read their report for yourself and come to your own conclusions.