Parliament should be proud of the Recall of MPs Act
The Recall of MPs Act 2015 is a decent piece of legislation – it balances the rights of MPs and constituents. The law should be extended to local and devolved governments, writes Tony Grew
2014 seems such an innocent time. The coalition government was strong and stable, Ed Miliband was leading the Labour party and the Lib Dems were enjoying the trappings of office. It is not mere nostalgia that leads us to mull over the events of five years ago. An issue debated then had an historic impact last week.
Lots of MPs were nervous and even hostile to the idea of allowing recall of MPs by their constituents. While Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems had all offered some form of recall in their 2010 general election manifestos, in response to public anger over the expenses scandal, progress was slow on actually legislating for it. The government had published its white paper and a draft bill in 2011.
The political and constitutional reform committee concluded that there was no need for a recall system. It wasn’t until October 2014, in the last furlong of the coalition, that the government laid the Recall of MPs Bill for second reading. Stewart Jackson expressed “serious worries about undermining not just the sovereignty of parliament but the sanctity of the general election”. Minister Greg Clark said the bill would “preserve the freedom of MPs to vote with their conscience and to take difficult decisions without facing constant challenges from their political opponents”.
After hours of debate, the bill became law. It received Royal Assent on 26th March 2015 and was promptly forgotten. All those concerns expressed about MPs being in fear of being recalled proved to be unfounded. It was only the record-breaking suspension from the House of Ian Paisley Jr for 30 sitting days last July that revived interest in it.
The punishment handed to Mr Paisley had triggered one of the three scenarios laid out in the Act. The first ever recall petition was set up. Over six weeks, North Antrim constituents were able to sign the recall petition. In the event it fell 444 votes short of the 10 per cent needed to remove Mr Paisley and trigger a by-election.
Parliament should look with some pride on the Recall of MPs Act 2015. It is a decent piece of legislation. It balances the rights of MPs and those of constituents. It hands the power to trigger a recall to the courts, in the case of a custodial sentence or a conviction for providing false or misleading expenses claims, or to the standards committee, in the case of a suspension from the House for 10 or more days. It does not allow partisan campaigns against MPs for what they have said or how they have voted. MPs can only be removed if the courts or their fellow MPs find them guilty of wrongdoing.
The process was used again when Fiona Onasanya was convicted of perverting the course of justice and imprisoned for three months. Despite her claims that she was in good Biblical company and that like her Christ was accused and convicted by the courts of his day, her permission to appeal was rejected. The recall petition was signed by 27.6 per cent of her constituents and she was therefore removed as an MP and the seat declared vacant. There will be a by-election on 6th June. Ms Onasanya is free to stand in that election. She has been removed by her constituents but has the option of asking again for their support. The Act does not bar MPs from standing again.
When Chris Davies pleaded guilty to expenses offences in March, it meant that the Act was triggered for the third time. All three scenarios in which a recall petition could be triggered have been met in under a year.
Nobody involved with the bill during its passage through parliament could have envisaged such a scenario, but it is a sign the legislation it is working well. In the cases of Ms Onasanya and Mr Davies, the Commons had no role in triggering the recall petition. It is not a political act. Mr Paisley’s case is slightly different, in that the MPs on the standards committee would have been aware that any suspension of 10 days or more would trigger a recall ballot, but their work cannot be regarded as political.
The efficacy of the legislation is that it leaves the final decision to the voters. If they choose, they can remove their MP. If he or she chooses, they can run again in the resulting by-election. The law should be extended. Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly should be included, along with local councillors. Once a threshold of wrongdoing has been met, it should be up to the people to decide if their representatives should be removed from office.
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