Is the Recall of MPs Act (2015) really effective?

The Recall of MPs Act was passed in March 2015 under the Coalition Government. It was sold as a way to enhance democracy, by allowing the removal of MPs by their constituents. It is an example of direct democracy being employed in the Units Kingdom. However, it is arguable that the Recall of MPs Act does not do the job for which it was intended and is an ineffective piece of legislation.

When the Coalition Government was formed in May 2010 there was no mechanism by which an MP could be recalled. In fact, MPs could only be removed from Parliament if they had been jailed for more than one year.

The MPs expenses scandal of 2009-2010 bought the discussion of recall into focus. This was because there were MPs who had clearly acted illegally or immorally and yet could not be removed by their constituents. It was clear that in public consciousness, some kind of mechanism for recall of MPs was needed.

As part of the Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats it was agreed that putting a recall mechanism into place would be explored. In June 2012 the Constitutional Reform Select Committee published a report which listed a number of reasons why a recall system was not advisable.

The bill eventually bought forward by the Coalition was extremely limited in scope:

  1. The Speaker of the House of Commons will contact a Petition Officer in the relevant area if an MP has:

a) Been convicted of a criminal offence and has received a prison sentence.

b) If they are barred from the House of Commons for 10 sitting days or 14 calender days.

c) If they are found to have provided false expenses claims.

The Petition Officer then opens a petition in the MPs constiuency which last for six weeks. If 10% of constituents sign the petition, the seat is declared vacant and a by-election is held.

Conservative Backbench MP, Zac Goldsmith

Whilst the bill was making its way through Parliament, Conservative backbench MP, Zac Goldsmith, proposed an alternative Prvivate Members Bill, which more than 70 MPs across all parties supported. Goldsmith’s Private Members Bill would require just 5% of constituents to sign a petition of recall before 20% being needed to enforce a by-election. Importantly, in Goldsmith’sbill, it would not be down to Members of Parliament to decide if an MP hadbreached the rules and would therefore be open to recall.

However, Goldsmith’s bill did not get enough support and the Coalition Bill was given Royal Assent on 26th March 2015.

Ian Paisley Jnr was the first MP to have a recall petition opened against him

The Recall of MPs Act had its first chance to be used in 2018. In September 2017 a Daily Telegraph investigation found that Ian Paisley Jr, a DUP MP, had received hospitality from the Sri Lankan Governmentin 2013 and had failed to disclose this to Parliament. As a result, the House of Commons Standards Committee suspended him from the House of Commons for 30 days, the longest suspension since 1949. The Speaker of the House of Commons =confirmed that he would write to his constituency returning officer to initiate the Recall of MPs process.

However, on September 20th 2018 it was announced that the recall petition had fallen 444 votes short of the numberneeded to trigger a by-election and Paisley escaped the dishonour of being the first MP in British history to be recalled by his constituents.

Despite its limitations in Britain, recall elections have been a common electoral device in the United States. In the Federal System (Congress) there is also no mechanism to recall a Congressman or Senator. However, in nineteen states there are recall procedures in place, including California, Calorado and Wisconsin.

The Recall of MPs Act had the chance to increase democracy in Britain and was hailed by the Coalition as a major constitutional reform. However, in reality, it is extremely limited and the power to remove an MP remains with Parliament, not with that MPs constituents. It cannot really be argued to enhance democracy that much.

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