Briefing for MPs: Amendments to the Recall of MPs Bill

Creating Real, Voter-Driven Recall

Our democracy is in crisis. People’s trust in politicians and the political process is at an all- time low. Over 75% of people feel they have little or no power between elections and over half of people feel they have no influence over what the government does.

A recent report by the Committee for Standards in Public Life showed that:
• 26% of people have confidence in MPs, a new low and a 20% drop since 2008,
• 26% of people believe most MPs are competent, a 10% drop since 2008, and
• 14% of people think MPs are in touch with public concerns.

Introducing the power of recall will help reverse this and re-engage people in democracy. We cannot afford to have things stay as they are.

But, as it stands, the Recall of MPs Bill will do nothing more than enhance the internal disciplinary procedures of the House of Commons. This runs the terrible risk of causing more cynicism, disillusionment and disengagement in our democracy, not less. When the next scandal happens, and voters realise that they don’t have the power to recall their MP, things will only get worse.

Real recall must empower voters, not Westminster. It must give constituents the right to decide whether and the reasons why to attempt to recall their MP.

This briefing explains how the amendments to the Recall of MPs Bill will create a voter-driven recall process. It has checks and balances that would ensure that it is used very rarely and not subject to abuse. The aim is not for MPs to face frequent recall challenges but to improve dialogue between constituents and MPs that would help re-engage voters and rebuild trust in democracy.

38 Degrees members and the public at large want this. These amendments came about following input from 30,000 people. 173,000 people have signed the petition calling for real recall, 38 Degrees members have been holding meetings with their MPs across the country and 79% of British people support the right to recall MPs.

These amendments are being put down by Zac Goldsmith MP and a cross-party group of over 35 MPs.

The Aim

These amendments aim to create a real recall process that would

enhance the democratic process by improving dialogue between constituents and MPs and not create environment where MPs face regular recalls,

be used very rarely – it would be very difficult, but not impossible, for a recall to occur,

be safe from abuse – strong checks and balances with high thresholds so that powerful interests, campaign groups, unions etc could not abuse it,

be voter driven – constituents decide whether to attempt to recall their MP and the reasons why,

only be successful when the behaviour of a ‘bad apple’ MP had created a huge outcry in their constituency, and

not be a mere enhancement of the disciplinary procedures of the House of Commons.

Global Lessons

Recall is growing quickly in democracies around the world. It exists in 30 countries across 5 continents including Canada, Germany, Poland, Japan, India, South Korea, Costa Rica, Taiwan, Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador.

The USA has had recall for over 100 years and Switzerland for even longer.

In the USA it is used very rarely – only 40 times in over one hundred years despite it being applicable to many thousands of representatives over that period.

Restricting recall renders it ineffective – in US states where recall is not voter driven it has only ever been used on one occasion in over a hundred years.

The Process and the Checks and Balances

These amendments set up the following steps – or hurdles – required for a recall. The thresholds that must be met at each step are checks and balances in the process. These thresholds are deliberately high and will ensure recall happens very rarely.

Step 1 – Notice of Intent
If a ‘notice of intent’ to recall an MP is signed by 5% of voters in a constituency within 28 days then a recall petition is made available. Signatures can be gathered electronically or in person.

Step 2 – Recall Petition
If a recall petition is signed by 20% of voters in a constituency within 8 weeks then a recall referendum will be held. The petition must be signed in person and there will be at least four places in the constituency where this can be done.

Step 3 – Recall Referendum
If the majority of constituents vote for their MP to be recalled at the referendum, a by-election will be held where a new MP will be chosen. The referendum has to happen no less than 21 days, and no more than 27 days, after the issue of notice has been given. A referendum cannot happen within the 6 months leading up to a general election.

Common concerns and how these amendments address them

Frequent recall challenges – “MPs could face persistent recall challenges. MPs should be able to carry out their jobs without facing frequent recall campaigns.”

These amendments establish strong checks and balances (see above) to ensure that recall occurs very rarely.

In the dozens of democracies around the world that have recall it is used extremely rarely. In the USA where recall has existed for over one hundred years it has only ever been used 40 times despite the thousands and thousands of politicians who have served there and could have been recalled over this period.

Abuse by big money, powerful interests, political opponents, campaign groups etc –
“MPs with unpopular views could be recalled by a campaign backed by wealthy individuals. It must not be open to abuse by powerful vested interests or political opponents.”

The checks and balances mean that only in the very rare event where there is very strong and broad local support amongst constituents would a recall attempt succeed. The petition thresholds of 5% and then of 20% and then the need to win a referendum would mean that a private group attempting to influence it would have to commit massive resources on just a single constituency for months, with no guarantee of success and high risks of popular and political consequences against them.

If a wealthy individual or private organisation did try to influence a recall – even of just one single MP – it would cost huge resources and have no guarantee of success. There would also be the risk of a backlash like that seen in the Winchester constituency in 1997: following Mark Oaten’s two vote majority win, a successful electoral petition triggered a by election where Mr Oaten then won by a 21,556 majority.

The evidence from the USA shows that despite recall being used there for over 100 years , ‘big money’ does not influence or misuse the process. In fact recall was introduced in the USA as a remedy to stop the bad influence that big business and corrupt finance had over their democracy in the late 19th century. Every recall in the USA has been about a local issue, such as grave mismanagement of public finances.

MPs would be vulnerable to people who disagree with them – “MPs should be able to speak freely and express their opinions without fear of losing their seat before a General Election.”

The process these amendments establish sets up safety mechanisms with high thresholds (see above). This process has three hurdles that ensure that only when the behaviour of a ‘bad apple’ MP has created a huge outcry in their constituency would there be a chance that they could be recalled.

It would take several months for a successful recall to potentially happen, during which time there would be extensive dialogue and debate. The proposer/s of the recall would have to include a statement giving their reasons. Constituents would have ample opportunity to consider these reasons and decide whether to support the recall or not. Voters have the right to do this at election time so there is no good reason why we cannot trust them to do it in between elections too.

The difficulty presented by the three steps of the process and their high thresholds would mean a better culture of dialogue and discussion between MPs and their constituents. Improved constituency dialogue is the aim here: time and again, after interacting with their MP, people often come away with more understanding, acceptance and respect of their MP’s views.

Cost – “One real recall petition per constituency per Parliament could cost £100m.”

This is an unexplained figure put forward by the Liberal Democrats and makes the outlandish assumption that every single one of the 650 constituencies in the UK would seek to recall their MP at the same time. To meet the recall petition threshold alone this would mean over 10 million people signing local recall petitions across the UK – bear in mind that the biggest UK petition ever raised was on Post Office closures in 2006 which collected 4 million signatures.