Recall of MPs - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

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."[79] 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 system.

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".[80]

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 respondents—79%—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".[81] 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 occur."[82]

70.  We were told that voters might feel disillusioned when they discovered that they were not able to initiate recall petitions themselves[83] and that their confidence in politics would not be increased if the use of recall was controlled by the courts and by politicians.[84] 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) exclusionary."[85] 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."[86]

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"[87] and argued that the window of conduct which would open an MP to recall was "very narrow and possibly non-existent".[88] 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.[89] 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".[90]

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.[91] 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 Standards Committee.

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.[92] 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."[93] 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."[94] 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.[95]

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".[96] This again raises the question of whether the recall mechanism is necessary.

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".[97] 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."[98]

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".[99] In some other jurisdictions, recall is allowed for any reason, including "political" reasons. Arguments for allowing full recall—also known as real or true recall—include 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 proposal was

...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 prevent—being 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 democracy.[100]

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.[101] 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 address.[102] Unlock 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".[103]

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 cities".[104] 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."[105] 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."[106] 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."[107] 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".[108] 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 issues.

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."[109] 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 recall.


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 powers—and particularly the stronger sanctions open to it, such as expulsion—than to be given a new statutory power of recall. Democratic Audit stated:

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.[110]

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.[111]

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 effect.

79   Recall of MPs, p 5 Back

80   Ev 105 Back

81   Ev 101 Back

82   Ibid. Back

83   Q 4 [Peter Facey],Q 25 [Zac Goldsmith] Back

84   Ev 101 Back

85   Ev 98 Back

86   Q 6 [Zac Goldsmith] Back

87   Ev 76 Back

88   Ev 77 Back

89   Ev 76 Back

90   Q 17 Back

91   Ev 93; Ev 98; Q 133 [Lewis Baston] Back

92   Ev 56 Back

93   Ev 89 Back

94   Ev 102 Back

95   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

96   Q 185 [Mark Harper] Back

97   Qvortrup, M, Hasta la vista: a comparative institutionalist analysis of the recall, Representation, 2011, 47:2 p168 Back

98   Q 15 Back

99   Recall of MPs, p 17 Back

100   Q 1 Back

101   Q 2 Back

102   Recall of Elected Representatives Bill Back

103   Ev 52 Back

104   Ev 97 Back

105   Q 15 Back

106   Ibid. Back

107   Q 138 Back

108   Q 129 Back

109   Ibid. Back

110   Ev 77 Back

111   Ev 94 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 28 June 2012