Recall of MPs - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

1  Introduction

1.  Recall describes a mechanism designed to allow the removal of elected representatives following a special election that takes place between scheduled elections. All three of the main political parties in the UK promised in their manifestos for the 2010 general election to introduce some form of recall for Members of Parliament.[1] The Coalition: our programme for government, published by the incoming Government in May 2010, included the following commitment:

We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents.[2]

2.  The Government published a White Paper and draft Bill on Recall of MPs on 13 December 2011. On 15 December, we agreed to undertake the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and published a call for evidence. Our witnesses included academic experts, campaign groups, MPs, House of Commons officials, a representative of the electoral administrators who would be required to implement the proposals, and Ministers. We are grateful, as ever, to all who contributed to our inquiry. We are also grateful to YouGov who undertook a survey about recall on a pro bono basis.

3.  This report scrutinises the detail of the Government's proposals, examines the Government's rationale for introducing recall, and asks whether its proposals are necessary and likely to achieve their intended benefits.

Overview of the Government's proposals

4.  The Government proposes that constituents would be able to sign a petition to recall their MP in one of two situations:

a)  if the MP were convicted in the UK and received a custodial sentence of 12 months or less (MPs who receive custodial sentences of more than 12 months are already disqualified under the Representation of the People Act 1981); or,

b)  if the House of Commons resolved that the MP should face recall.

5.  Once one of these two conditions had been met, the Speaker would give notice to the relevant returning officer that a petition should be opened. In the case of an MP subject to a custodial sentence, a petition would be initiated only once his or her right to appeal had been exhausted. Constituents would be able to sign the petition for eight weeks, either by post or at a single designated location in the constituency. If at least 10% of eligible voters on the electoral register for the constituency signed the petition, the MP's seat would automatically be vacated and a by-election would ensue, in which the recalled MP would be eligible to stand.

International comparisons

6.  The Government states that it has "drawn on the experiences of other countries" but proposes a new model of recall "which is suitable for our system of representative democracy" and will "work within our unique constitutional framework."[3] It is worthwhile, therefore, briefly to consider the international context, before discussing the detail of the Government's proposals.

7.  Recall mechanisms are comparatively unusual throughout the world, and particularly rare at national level. The first examples of recall mechanisms were introduced in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as part of reforms intended to increase levels of civic participation.[4] By the beginning of the 21st century a form of recall was in use at some level of government in around 24 countries worldwide, including six of the 26 Swiss cantons, the Canadian Province of British Columbia, Venezuela, the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina and Taiwan. [5]

8.  Recall as a mechanism is now relatively widespread in the United States, where there are currently recall provisions for state-level politicians in 19 states, and for individuals elected at a local level in 29 states. However, although the mechanisms exist in the United States, recall has seldom been used successfully and is deployed less frequently than other forms of direct democracy such as citizen's initiatives or legislative referendums which were often introduced as alongside it.[6] At state level, only two attempted recalls of Governors have been successful: the first in North Dakota in 1921 and the second in California in 2003 when, in a single election, voters decided by a majority of 55% to remove the Democratic Governor Gray Davis and by a majority of 49% to replace him with the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

9.  Recall is particularly rare in "Westminster style" democracies. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) suggests that "recall procedure is more coherent with a presidential style of government (with a directly elected executive official) than with a parliamentary system of government."[7] Professor David Judge, of the University of Strathclyde, told us:

Recalls serve as a powerful accountability mechanism in a context of: i) often personalised, low-intensity, or non-partisan elections, ii) low voter turnout, iii) occasionally maverick incumbents, and iv) the absence, or ineffectiveness, of alternative formal mechanisms of control, such as monitoring agencies, or informal accountability mechanisms, such as intra-party discipline. In these circumstances, inter-election direct accountability through recall - of representatives performing functionally specific tasks, for example school board members, sheriffs, soil and water conservation supervisors, etc - has an immediate logic.[8]

Professor Judge's description of the circumstances in which recall is most useful does not reflect the typical characteristics of parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom. General elections are based on parties, as well as personalities, there are effective alternative formal and informal mechanisms of control—in the form of party discipline and the disciplinary mechanisms of the House of Commons—and MPs do not perform functionally specific roles.

10.  Recall is often identified as a mechanism of "direct democracy", distinguishing it from other methods of removing elected officials from office, such as impeachment, where voters are not involved in the process. However, not all forms of recall are equally participatory. The International IDEA states that there are two main models of recall:

a)  the partially participatory "mixed recall" where citizens are involved either in initiating a request that a recall take place, which is then approved by an authoritative body (as in Uganda), or in making a decision by voting on a resolution reached by an authoritative body (as in Austria, Iceland and Taiwan); and

b)  the fully participatory "full recall" where both the initiative for and approval of a recall require the involvement of voters (as in Belarus, Ecuador and Venezuela).[9]

11.  The precise mechanism of recall varies in different jurisdictions, but it usually involves at least two stages. The first stage, which is often a petition, determines whether a recall election should be held. In some countries and states, including the United States, this first stage is entirely in the hands of the electorate: if a specified proportion of the electorate sign a petition, which can be initiated by any voter, then a recall election is triggered. The threshold for the number of signatures required varies. In some places a petition can be initiated for any reason at all, while in others, particular circumstances are required. In other countries and states, it is up to politicians to decide whether a recall election should take place. Only eight of the 19 US states that permit recall for state-level politicians require specific grounds for a recall petition. In the other 11, voters can initiate a recall petition for any reason.[10] Recall petitions can also be initiated for any reason in the Canadian province of British Columbia.[11]

12.  If the first stage is "successful" (a petition reaches a certain threshold of signatures or politicians decide to initiate recall proceedings), then a second stage, a recall election, takes place. In some places, the ballot to decide whether a representative should be recalled is combined with a vote for their successor (effectively a by-election), while in others the two votes are separated. There are a number of further variations on this model, including that used in British Columbia, where a recall petition is in itself sufficient to remove an elected representative. Some countries and states place a limit on the point in an elected official's term at which a recall can be initiated.

13.  Seen in an international context, it is clear that the Government's proposals for recall are relatively tightly drawn. According to the International IDEA's definition, they are a form of "mixed recall". Voters themselves would not be able to initiate a recall petition, and the circumstances in which a petition would be triggered are limited. This reduces the risk of vexatious attempts to remove MPs, but leads us to question whether such a narrow form of recall is worth introducing at all.

1   Conservative Party manifesto- Invitation to join the Government of Britain, 2010, pp 65-6; Liberal Democrat Party manifesto, 2010, p 89; Labour Party manifesto, 2010, p 9:2. Back

2   The Coalition: our programme for government, May 2010, p 27 Back

3   HM Government, Recall of MPs Draft Bill, December 2011, p 5 Back

4   Alan Renwick, A Citizen's Guide to Electoral Reform, (London, 2011), p 151 Back

5   House of Commons Library Standard Note, Recall Elections, Charley Coleman and Oonagh Gay, January 2012, p 4; International IDEA, Direct Democracy: the International IDEA Handbook, 2008, p 115  Back

6   International IDEA, Direct Democracy: The International IDEA Handbook, 2008, p 112; Ev 96 Back

7   IDEA, Direct Democracy, p 110 Back

8   Ev 96 Back

9   International IDEA Direct Democracy: The International IDEA Handbook, 2008, p 114 Back

10   Recall of MPs, p 44 Back

11   Recall of MPs, p 45 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 28 June 2012