The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Queen’s Speech 2014: The proposed Recall Bill will do little to strengthen the accountability of MPs

2nd June 2014

Leo Oliveira, researcher at Unlock Democracy, discusses implications of the proposed Recall Bill

This week’s Queen’s Speech will see the Government finally announce their intention to bring forward for debate the long awaited Recall Bill. This should be an opportunity for the Government to propose a simple mechanism to empower voters with the right to recall an MP who no longer commands the majority of their constituents’ confidence. Instead, an open letter signed by aggrieved MPs has revealed it to be a watered down provision which would confer the power of recall to a parliamentary committee. Moreover, this committee’s remit would be limited to the consideration of cases involving the most serious financial offences only.

The key to any genuine recall mechanism is that it is voters that determine the reason for recalling the MP. This reason could be financial impropriety such as an expenses scandal but equally it could be an MP changing party affiliation or choosing to take part in a reality TV show rather than attending Parliament. Recall is about empowering voters not parliamentary committees.

Some MPs have opposed the introduction of a system of recall that empowers constituents out of fear that potentially they could be recalled from office via so-called ‘kangaroo courts,’ deposing MPs on a whim. The evidence from countries that use recall shows that this is simply not the case. Not only does this display a misunderstanding of the ways in which a recall mechanism could function, it reveals an anti-democratic logic where voters are held to be inherently susceptible to reactionary politics and, therefore, unfit to be entrusted with this right.

Constructing an effective recall mechanism, however, is not difficult. Indeed, the right of recall has been acquired by different electorates across the globe without detriment to the wider political system. In line with the Government’s original 2010 proposal, the standard mechanism in existence internationally requires a petition calling for the recall of an elected representative to collect the signatures of a particular percentage of registered voters in order to trigger an election. How easy or difficult a recall process is to trigger is determined by the number of signatures that have to be collected, how they can be collected and the time campaigners have to collect them. The more signatures that have to be collected in a short timeframe, the harder the process is to initiate. Setting the number of signatures sufficiently high ensures that a significant proportion of the electorate share the grievance against the elected representative. Petitions initiated by narrow interest groups will fail to muster sufficient support whilst specious issues will struggle to mobilise the grassroot efforts needed to collect signatures.

If a petition succeeds in meeting the signature threshold then a referendum is held. The MP has the chance to make his or her case to the electorate and voters in that constituency decide if the issue is important enough to them to want to recall their MP. If they vote in favour of recalling their MP a by election is then triggered, if they vote against then the MP retains the seat and cannot be subject to another recall petition for the remainder of that Parliament.

Recall strengthens the accountability of elected representatives. It provides an important safety valve for our democratic system in between general elections. This is not purely theoretical conjecture. In the USA, where the right to recall exists in several states, the recall mechanism remains extremely popular with the general tendency revealing that voter turnout for recall elections is higher than in comparable regular elections. The exception to this is where states limit the grounds upon which recall can be initiated.

The Government promised voters a recall mechanism but what they are offering is a glorified disciplinary committee. There is a very real danger that raising expectations and then offering such a half hearted measure will simply increase levels of mistrust in our political system.

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