4 The rationale for introducing recall |
Increasing public confidence
in the political process
64. The Government's reason for introducing recall
is to provide an additional disciplinary mechanism to increase
the accountability of MPs to their constituents in the wake of
the expenses scandal. The White Paper suggests that recall will
be a means of "restoring faith in the political process"
and argues: "It was the behaviour of individual MPs which
rocked confidence in Parliament over the expenses scandal and
it is right that constituents should be able to express their
view on their MP when they have committed serious wrongdoing."
This comment emphasises the participatory nature of recall as
an accountability mechanism, suggesting that making provision
for voters to express their opinion on whether their MP should
be recalled is likely to increase their confidence in the political
65. Proponents of recall attribute a number of
benefits to its use. These include the improvements in accountability
and in engagement of voters which the Government wants to achieve.
For example, Professor Zimmerman, of the University at Albany,
State University of New York, asserts: "The availability
and use of the recall in the United States of America reduced
voter alienation... and thereby helped to restore public confidence
in state government elective representatives".
66. Polling carried out by YouGov provides some
support for the idea that a system of recall in the United Kingdom
would be likely to increase people's confidence in politics.
The survey involved a sample of 1,723 adults and was held between
6 and 7 March 2012. It should be noted that the survey was conducted
using an online panel of people who agreed to take part and therefore
may over-represent people who are particularly interested in the
issue. There is no reason to think that this would bias the survey
in one direction more than the other, but it is worth bearing
in mind that the views of the general public may be less strong
than those indicated in the survey results. The full results
are included in Appendix A.
67. A large majority of respondents79%thought
that the Government's proposal to allow constituents to vote on
whether to recall their MP was a good idea. This contrasted with
10% who thought it was a bad idea and 11% who did not know. Respondents
were also asked to say how the proposals, if introduced, would
affect their confidence in MPs and Parliament. A total of 64%
said that it would increase their confidence, of whom 15% said
that the proposals would increase their confidence a lot and 49%
said that it would increase their confidence a little. This compared
to 24% who said it would neither increase nor decrease their confidence,
3% who said it would decrease their confidence a little and 1%
who said that it would decrease their confidence a lot.
68. A significant majority of those who gave
evidence to us, however, said that the proposals, as they stood,
were unlikely to achieve the Government's aim of restoring faith
in the political process. There were three main reasons given
for this view of the proposals: first, because they were not genuinely
participatory; secondly, because they would rarely, if ever, be
used; and thirdly, because, even if they were used, they would
be unlikely to have a significant impact on the political landscape.
We shall consider each of these propositions in turn.
How participatory are the proposals?
69. First, a number of witnesses told us that
the Government's proposals were not as participatory as they might
at first appear. Professor Twomey, of the University of Sydney,
said that the proposals created "illusory promises of empowerment".
She stated: "It is a proposal that is intended to make
it look like the people will be directly empowered to recall their
member of parliament, while ensuring that this will probably never
70. We were told that voters might feel disillusioned
when they discovered that they were not able to initiate recall
and that their confidence in politics would not be increased if
the use of recall was controlled by the courts and by politicians.
Professor Judge, of the University of Strathclyde, argued that
"the restricted nature of the Bill...would do little to assuage
public perceptions of a 'unique constitutional framework' that
is consciously (and in the case of the draft Bill deliberately)
In other words, it might make people feel less involved in the
political process, rather than more involved. Zac Goldsmith MP
suggested that the promises which the coalition parties had made
about introducing recall while in opposition had been reformulated
to become less participatory now that they were in power because
it "was possible that people might actually make a decision
for themselves, and that is a terrifying thing for a government."
How often would recall be used?
71. The second reason given for the view that
the Government's proposals were unlikely to increase public confidence
in politics was that recall, if introduced, would rarely be used.
Democratic Audit said: "We...doubt that the government's
proposals will ever result in a recall election taking place"
and argued that the window of conduct which would open an MP to
recall was "very narrow and possibly non-existent".
Opinions differed as to whether it would matter if a recall mechanism
was introduced but rarely used. Democratic Audit suggested that
this could undermine public confidence in the recall system.
On the other hand, Dr Renwick, of the University of Reading, told
us that, based on the evidence of recall elsewhere, he thought
that the effect on public confidence of a rarely used recall system
would not be "particularly strong".
What impact would the proposals
have on the political landscape?
72. Thirdly, several witnesses told us that even
if the Government's recall mechanism was used, it would make little
difference to the UK's political landscape. It could be argued
that the new expenses regime and other changes introduced in the
wake of the expenses scandal have already improved the rigour
of MPs' expense claims and the robustness of the disciplinary
procedures, with a corresponding increase in public confidence
in the system. Changes
have included: the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards
Authority (IPSA); a new scheme for MPs' allowances; a review of
the code of conduct; and the inclusion of lay members on the House's
73. The Clerk of the House of Commons, Robert
Rogers, noted that since The Coalition: our programme for government
had been formulated, the attempt by three former MPs to avoid
prosecution for charges relating to expenses, by virtue of parliamentary
privilege, had failed, demonstrating that MPs guilty of serious
wrongdoing could not escape punishment.
Nick Cowen, a policy researcher, commented that the eventual
conviction of the MPs guilty of theft and fraud offences relating
to their expenses demonstrated that "the system already worked
at removing MPs democratically, albeit slowly."
He argued that if it was to add anything, the recall process
would need to operate more rapidly than existing procedures.
This seems unlikely, particularly in the case of the first trigger
of a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, because all legal
avenues for appeal would need to be exhausted before a petition
was even initiated. Professor Twomey suggested that the length
of time it would take for a recall petition to be initiated, which
she estimated would be at least two years, would mean it was "likely
to be regarded as too little, too late."
She, and others, observed that an MP might well choose to stand
down prior to the completion of a prolonged recall process, rendering
that process void.
74. The Minister also agreed that the existing
system had worked in removing "those people who committed
the worst excesses" during the expenses scandal. He commented:
"They either did not stand at the election or they were not
re-elected, or, in the most serious cases, the criminal law took
effect and people have gone to prison...People have seen that
the existing processes we had actually did work".
This again raises the question of whether the recall mechanism
75. Dr Renwick, of the University of Reading,
told us that there was a lack of evidence about recall because
it was not used in many places and few political scientists had
chosen to investigate the subject. In a comparative analysis
of the use of recall, Dr Matt Qvortrup of Cranfield University
says that "there is little solid evidence that the recall
fundamentally changes the political landscape" and "there
is only limited evidence to suggest that the recall has increased
the accountability and responsiveness of elected representatives".
Dr Renwick stated that "such evidence as we have suggests
that the introduction of recall, either in the restricted form
that the Government propose, or in the more extensive form proposed
by...other witnesses...would not transform anything significantly
in any direction."
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.
What are the alternatives?
77. The majority of those who gave evidence to
us rejected the model of recall proposed by the Government. Several
witnesses put forward alternative ideas, which, they argued, would
have the positive effects on accountability and engagement that
the Government was seeking. These fell into two main camps: those
who argued that the Government should introduce a much more participatory
form of "full recall" in which petitions could be initiated
by voters, and those who suggested that an additional mechanism
for the discipline of MPs was unnecessary, and that it would be
preferable for the House of Commons to make better use of its
existing disciplinary powers.
78. The Government argues that it would be inappropriate
for an MP to be recalled for "purely political reasons".
In some other jurisdictions, recall is allowed for any reason,
including "political" reasons. Arguments for allowing
full recallalso known as real or true recallinclude
claims that it: ensures that officials remain accountable throughout
their term and must be responsive to the wishes of their electorate;
increases the power of voters over their elected representatives;
diminishes the hold of donors and political parties; and increases
voter engagement because voters know they have the power to recall
their representative if his or her behaviour proves unsatisfactory.
79. Several witnesses told us it would be better
to allow voters to initiate petitions at any time and for any
reason. For example, Douglas Carswell MP told us that the Government's
...deeply and deliberately flawed. Instead of doing
what recall should do, which is to make all of us as Members of
this legislature outwardly accountable to the people, the proposal,
I think, will make us more inwardly accountable to Westminster
grandees. It will lead, possibly, to the very thing that it's
designed to preventbeing judged by what you might call
the wrath of the mob, rather than assessed deliberately, calmly
and measuredly through a renewed and enhanced system of local
He proposed an alternative model of recall, which
would involve three stages. MPs would face a recall ballot if
20% of their constituents signed a petition, which could be initiated
by any voter. MPs would be recalled if a majority of those voting
in the recall ballot called for them to lose their seat, and a
by-election would then be held.
Zac Goldsmith MP introduced a Private Members' Bill which provided
for a recall petition to be triggered in a number of different
circumstances, including if an MP broke a promise made in an election
Democracy proposed that a recall referendum should be held if
10% of constituents signed a petition calling for one within an
eight week period and that constituents should be able to initiate
the process based "on any issue of their choosing".
80. A system of full recall, initiated by an
MP's constituents, has some drawbacks. Almost inevitably, MPs
would be more likely to face recall, and to face it more often,
under the full system than under a system with the double lock
that the Government proposes. Professor Judge, of the University
of Strathclyde, commented on the effect that being subject to
recall had on those involved. He quoted Tom Cochran, Chief Executive
Officer of the United States Conference of Mayors, who noted:
"Most mayors survive recall elections, but the effort drains
them of time and energy better focused on problems facing their
The problem of the negative impact of repeated recall attempts
is not insurmountable. There could, for example, be a limit of
one recall attempt per term in office, which would ensure that
MPs were not subject repeatedly to the process. Other drawbacks
are, however, more intractable.
81. Dr Renwick, of the University of Reading,
drew attention to one such drawback. He noted that some MPs have
a dual role: "They are not just MPs for a particular constituency;
they also have national offices, in which they ought to be concerned
about the national interest."
He continued: "It would be rather undemocratic for the constituents
of one small part of the country to be able to recall someone
on the basis of what they did in national office, denying the
wider public any participation in that process."
Ministers are also local MPs and should be held accountable as
such. However, there is 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.
82. Lewis Baston, Senior Research Fellow at Democratic
Audit, commented: "The risk of a more generalised power of
recall is people will use it against persons whereas it is actually
the party and their policies that are responsible."
He also noted that getting enough signatures to trigger a recall
petition "is not just a matter of members of the public coming
individually to a decision to do something", but "a
matter for campaigning" and a way in which "powerful
interests can take people out who are opponents of theirs".
He pointed to the concomitant danger that a system of full recall
may deter MPs from speaking their minds and taking on these powerful
interests. It may also deter them from tackling controversial
83. Professor Judge, of the University of Strathclyde,
also stated that a system of full recall would ensure that "the
ambivalences and ambiguities of representation in the UK would
rapidly manifest themselves."
He commented on the complexity of defining what MPs do, and
what their constituents expect them to do. The existence of what
he describes as "multiple theories of representation prescribing
what an MP should do" makes it difficult to see how a system
of full recall could work fairly and consistently in practice.
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
THE EXISTING DISCIPLINARY POWERS
OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
85. The House of Commons already has a range
of disciplinary powers at its disposal when it considers that
the conduct of an MP merits some sanction. It is open to the
House to reprimand or admonish MPs, to withhold their salary for
a specified period, to suspend them from the service of the House
for a fixed period (during which time their salary would be withheld),
or to expel them. Expulsion results in the MP vacating their
seat and a writ immediately being issued for a by-election. It
does not, however, prevent the person concerned from serving again
in the House of Commons, if re-elected.
86. In the past, MPs were expelled for a wide
variety of reasons, but recently this power has been little used.
As the Government's White Paper notes, only three MPs were expelled
by the House in the last century:
- August 1922, Horatio Bottomley
(Independent, South Hackney) following conviction for fraud and
a sentence of seven years imprisonment;
- October 1947, Garry Allighan (Labour, Gravesend)
after lying to a Committee and for gross contempt of the House
after the publication of an article accusing MPs of insobriety
and of taking bribes for the supply of information;
- December 1954, Peter Baker (Conservative, South
Norfolk) after receiving a custodial sentence of seven years following
a conviction for forgery.
87. Some witnesses argued that it would be preferable
for the House to make better use of its existing powersand
particularly the stronger sanctions open to it, such as expulsionthan
to be given a new statutory power of recall. Democratic Audit
The House has probably not used its powers of expulsion
and discipline sufficiently in recent decades, with relatively
minor suspensions being the punishment for even quite severe transgressions
such as the cases of Conway (2008), Riddick and Tredinnick (1994)
and Browne (1990). We wonder whether exposure to recall petition
might be regarded as an alternative to the House of Commons exercising
adequate internal discipline in the most serious cases; that a
recall petition and election would merely drag out an inevitable
process, at cost to Parliament's reputation, where a clean expulsion
may be justified.
88. Professor Judge argued: "An alternative
to recall...would be for the House to revisit the use of the expulsion
procedure." He went on:
Working from an investigation by the Parliamentary
Commissioner for Standards, and after consideration by a reconstituted
Standards Committee (if proposals for the inclusion of lay members
is accepted), a motion to expel a Member would be moved. Depending
upon the circumstances, and in accordance with established custom,
a Member would be ordered to attend the House to offer an explanation.
If the House accepts the motion the Member would be expelled and
a writ moved for a by-election. An expelled Member would be able
to seek re-election to the House.
He commented that the advantage of this option was
that it simply updated the historic disciplinary powers already
possessed by the House of Commons.
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
79 Recall of MPs, p 5 Back
Ev 105 Back
Ev 101 Back
Q 4 [Peter Facey],Q 25 [Zac Goldsmith] Back
Ev 101 Back
Ev 98 Back
Q 6 [Zac Goldsmith] Back
Ev 76 Back
Ev 77 Back
Ev 76 Back
Q 17 Back
Ev 93; Ev 98; Q 133 [Lewis Baston] Back
Ev 56 Back
Ev 89 Back
Ev 102 Back
Ev 102; Ev 77. This has been the case elsewhere. Of 24 recall
petitions filed in British Columbia since 1997, only one resulted
in the removal of the politician in question, and he resigned
before the process to verify the petition had concluded (Ev 87). Back
Q 185 [Mark Harper] Back
Qvortrup, M, Hasta la vista: a comparative institutionalist analysis
of the recall, Representation, 2011, 47:2 p168 Back
Q 15 Back
Recall of MPs, p 17 Back
Q 1 Back
Q 2 Back
Recall of Elected Representatives Bill Back
Ev 52 Back
Ev 97 Back
Q 15 Back
Q 138 Back
Q 129 Back
Ev 77 Back
Ev 94 Back