The much anticipated Recall Bill is currently making its way through Parliament.
I strongly support voters having the power of recall over MPs who let them down. MPs should face the music if they have abused their position or neglected their basic duties. I am very pleased the Government has introduced legislation, particularly since the Lib Dem Manifesto in the run up to the last General Election outlined our intention to make sure MPs could be recalled by their voters for ‘serious misconduct’.
Last week, the Bill passed its Second Reading, and on Monday this week, it had its first day of debate in Committee. I listened carefully to the discussion on both occasions. At the end of the debate on Monday, I voted against one of forty nine separate amendments which had been suggested to improve the Bill. There are many amendments still to be discussed, and I am sure many more will be put forward as the Bill is debated in the days to come.
The amendments which have attracted the most publicity are those from Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park, so I have set out my thoughts about these in this letter. If your interest in this Bill related to a different amendment or amendments, then please do not hesitate to let me know and I will write to you separately about your concerns.
Zac’s proposals are quite complex and long-winded. They require firstly a Notice to Recall, signed by 5% of the electorate within the constituency. Following this, 20% of the voters would then have to sign a Recall Petition. Once that threshold was met, a Referendum would be held on whether or not the MP should be recalled, and a majority of voters would have to vote in favour of doing so to move the process to the next stage. Then, and only then, would a by-election be triggered. These four stages could prove a very long and drawn-out affair, particularly when appeals might be launched at any stage, delaying the process even further.
Another problem with Zac’s proposals is that they actually made it harder for voters to recall an MP if he or she was found guilty of a serious criminal offence. Interestingly, the current system used to sanction MPs actually deals with that eventuality swiftly and summarily, although it falls short in a number of other respects.
Additionally, Zac’s version of recall allows for MPs to be recalled on any grounds, at any time. Whilst appearing on the surface to be attractive and democratic, this would, in reality, challenge the whole basis of our representative democracy. Our MPs vote on matters in Parliament and represent those who live in their area as they think best. I for one would not want to see Caroline Lucas recalled because she had been arrested and faced a Court hearing after campaigning against fracking in Sussex. It would be perverse, in my opinion, if MPs were subjected to the potential of repeated challenges and recall by the electorate for their views and votes on contentious matters. Over the years, many MPs have spoken out for societal change on matters considered unpopular at the time, like abortion, homosexuality, ending the death penalty and more recently, equal marriage. It would not be wise, surely, if MPs could be recalled for their views on policy? We all have that opportunity already, as we recall MPs every five years already, at each General Election.
Allowing the recall of MPs on any grounds, at any time would also be a gift to wealthy people, prosperous organisations and well-funded interests. They would be able – purely on political or sectional grounds – to attempt repeatedly to expel an MP from his or her seat. Unless that MP had substantial financial resources to defend, counter-claim and advertise his or her justification effectively across the electorate, the power to wreck an MP’s reputation through continuous repeated suggestions or allegations would lie solely with the wealthy few. In my view, this is not democratic and does not give power equally to constituents.
Zac’s proposals would also allow a party whose candidate lost by a small number of votes to recall the MP repeatedly until the he or she was finally defeated. Vexatious recalls would lead to a constant state of campaigning and ‘election fever’ in marginal seats, rather than allowing an otherwise untarnished MP to get on with his or her job of representing his or her constituents – until the voters had their say at the next General Election.
Interestingly, what the Government’s Bill proposes is simpler than the system preferred by Zac. Only 10% of the voters have to sign a petition before an MP is recalled.
However, in the Government’s Bill there is another threshold which must be reached to start that petition. This requires the Parliamentary Committee for Standards to judge whether ‘wrongdoing’ has taken place. However harsh the Parliamentary Committee’s judgments may be, MPs will be accused nonetheless of ‘marking their own homework’, and I believe the use of this mechanism is completely unacceptable.
It is clear to me that the Government’s Bill should be improved and I have been working with some of my Lib Dem colleagues to ‘sharpen up’ several areas of the legislation, preparing our own amendments. We have been exploring the idea of using an Election Court – a completely independent third party – to judge whether or not an MP has a case to answer on the grounds of misconduct, should there be a request for recall from the voters in his or her constituency. I have had a short discussion with Zac Goldsmith this morning and hope that we can find some common ground on this proposal in the days to come.
I am pleased that both the Labour and Conservative front benches and many backbench MPs from all sides of the House supported our amendments.
I will issue furher updates as the Bill progresses through Parliament.
4th November 2014