Julian Huppert MP writes… Recalling MPs – how to let the public recall MPs who have committed misconduct

Today, the Recall of MPs Bill comes back to the House of Commons for further consideration.  During its Committee Stage, David Heath and I proposed improvements, which would ensure that constituents could access the recall process without the involvement of any parliamentary committee (link to previous article).

Greg Clark, the Government Minister responding to our proposals, told MPs that it was an “important suggestion [with] much to commend it” and that he would “reflect carefully on the amendment.”  This is usually parliamentary parlance for “I like this idea and will bring it back in my own name at the next stage”.

However, somewhat mysteriously, the government has not brought forward any amendments, and is instead allowing a free vote on the proposals David and I are putting forward.  Since Zac Goldsmith’s proposals were roundly defeated in October – and he is not having another try – our amendments will therefore represent the main alternative to the unamended Government’s Bill.

The Bill presently contains two triggers which can start the recall petition process – imprisonment for a criminal offence, and significant suspension by the House of Commons Standards Committee. That leaves it open to MPs to mark their own homework, so we have proposed an extra approach.

It would open an additional route by which constituents can start a recall petition.  Our refined amendments – on which much discussion has taken place in the last three weeks – would allow 500 constituents to petition an electoral court, alleging misconduct by an MP.  The constituents would adduce their evidence, and the MP would have an opportunity to refute it.

If the court were satisfied that it was “reasonable to believe that the MP has misconducted himself or herself, to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the MP, without reasonable excuse or justification”, then a recall petition would be opened in the MP’s constituency.  If 15% of constituents sign up within eight weeks, there would be a by-election.

This test of “reasonable to believe” allows an MP to show that the allegations against him are not substantiated, but would mean a high chance of success for the petitioners unless their evidence was very weak*. The Court could also dismiss cases which were clearly trivial, vexatious or party political.

Additionally, we are supporting amendments which:

  • would automatically trigger a recall petition where an MP is convicted of the specific offence of abusing House of Commons allowances (embodied in Section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009), or of committing misconduct in public office
  • shorten the length of a suspension which would need to be imposed by the House of Commons Standards Committee in order for them to trigger recall.  The Bill suggests 21 sitting days or 28 calendar days.  The amendments would reduce this to 10 and 14 respectively.

Of course, since today’s votes will not be whipped, I cannot quite predict what will happen.  But I am encouraging all my Liberal Democrat colleagues – and MPs in all parties – to support this package of amendments.  Together they represent significant improvements to the Bill, ensuring no allegation of misconduct could be dismissed simply by MPs “marking their own homework” and adding several additional circumstances in which MPs can be recalled.

I hope we will win this vote, and that Labour and Tory MPs will decide to support us to make sure we reach the right outcome.

I also think it is important that the Commons decides. We cannot just kick it all to the Lords to make choices about how MPs can be recalled. It’s up to us.

*The original text of this paragraph was as follows and it has now been amended for clarity.

This test of “reasonable to believe” puts the burden clearly on the MP to disprove beyond doubt the allegations against him or her in the first instance.  It would mean a high chance of success for petitioners unless their evidence was very weak indeed.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • I preferred the Zac Goldsmith amendments, albeit with fewer steps. But since these are no longer in play, this seems the best alternative on the table. The “election court” seems a way of getting round deciding whether it’s up to MPs or the electorate to trigger the process. The risk there of course is that as soon as it makes the “wrong” decision, it will lose all credibility and the recall process with it.

    15% seems a reasonable threshold, in a constituency of 80,000 voters that’s 12,000 people. If you’ve got that many who want a by-election, there probably should be one. (15% of my ward is about 1500 people – it would take something exceptional to get those sort of number so surely high enough.)

    Any movement on Councillors, PCCs, MEPs etc. facing the same process? Should be equitable for all.

  • What is the point of the ‘electoral court’ step? Just to make it clear that the electorate cannot be trusted to make their own decisions (which is, we know, the Liberal Democrat position on most things: the public are uninformed and venal, and need to be guided to the correct course by their enlightened Liberal overlords)?

    Why not just have a single step: if 15% of the electorate sign a recall petition (with signatures expiring after eight weeks) then there is a by-election?

  • Dav

    “Why not just have a single step: if 15% of the electorate sign a recall petition (with signatures expiring after eight weeks) then there is a by-election?”

    Why not go further, 15% at any time, if someone is found to have committed “serious wrong doing” then drop the threshold to 5% in 3 months. It would give a proper recall option and also a form of punishment of “serious wrong doing”

  • I’m afraid that as formulated here, it seems to me that this third trigger is highly open to abuse. Political parties, activist groups and newspapers easily, easily have the organisational capacity to collect 500 signatures in the constituency of a target MP, (with or without evidence of misconduct).

    For an abusive group, simply being able to drag an MP into a judicial process will be an end in itself. This will generate headlines and provide cover to dig through the affairs of the target.

    I haven’t been following this debate very closely – any indication of how this kind of scenario would be avoided?

  • Tony Dawson 25th Nov '14 - 8:31am

    The whole point of ‘recall’ is to let the electorate decide when their MP is needing to address the voters again not just about ‘misconduct’ but to allow the voters to throw out anyone who is in their view so dishonest (politically or otherwise) or useless that they need to face the electorate again. Note: not being thrown out, just required to face a ‘recall election’. Anyone, MP or otherwise, thinking this process would place MPs in a position of constant fear of losing their jobs is in fantasy land. Look at the regimes where such recall already exists. It is used in only a fraction of cases where it would be possible. This is because the effort involved is massive. In Britain, unless an MP was utterly despicable, you would never get more than a fraction of those who voted for other candidates to vote for recall simply becaiuse of political opposition alone.

    Factors to prevent ‘abuse’ include a requirement for everybody to sign up to the same form of words in the recall petition, a high numerical threshold for ‘success’, a precise checking process for signatories and a tight time-frame between commencement and conclusion of the process.

    MPs opposing a recall determined by the electorate open themselves up to even further alienation of the people of this country, a huge proportion of which simply do not trust MPs to judge themselves. They have far too much evidence of the ‘old boys club’ already.

  • @Tony Dawson
    “The whole point of ‘recall’ is to let the electorate decide when their MP is needing to address the voters again not just about ‘misconduct’ but to allow the voters to throw out anyone who is in their view so dishonest (politically or otherwise) or useless that they need to face the electorate again.”

    No, Tony, it’s easy to define a proposal in terms of what you personally want from it, but recall can in fact serve a number of very different purposes.

    I want a system in which voters are able to throw out any MP who is found guilty of breaking the law (whether criminal or civil) above a certain threshold (most easily defined by the degree of punishment applied) or to a much lower threshold where the offence is directly related to their role as an MP (for example, breaches of electoral law, or bribe-taking).

    Others, including you, want a system in which a sufficiently large group of voters can force a by-election for any MP that they consider to be dishonest or just “useless”.

    Personally, I have concerns about Julian’s approach, which is something of a middle way between these two.

    However, it looks highly probable that we will get a recall law that does allow voters, in certain defined circumstances, to start the recall process. I hope we can all agree that this is in principle a good thing even if it doesn’t give us all what we want.

  • Helen Dudden 26th Nov '14 - 9:32am

    If your Party, or any other Party is managed with transparency, and has a strong leadership that should have been enough.

    But when you complain, and like Charlotte Henry the only way forward is to resign, you have a problems.

    I would say to your leader, listen to what is being said, at least listen.

  • If your Party, or any other Party is managed with transparency, and has a strong leadership

    You can have transparency or you can have strong leadership; you can’t have both.

  • Helen Dudden 26th Nov '14 - 12:53pm

    I would say you can. I would say if a leader listened to what was being said, and acted on a given situation that, is being transparent.

  • if a leader listened to what was being said, and acted on a given situation that, is being transparent

    It’s hardly strong leadership, though.

  • Helen Dudden 26th Nov '14 - 6:37pm

    It is, if you listen and act.

  • It is, if you listen and act

    The verb for listening to someone and then doing what they tell you is not ‘leading’, it is ‘following’.

  • Helen Dudden 27th Nov '14 - 11:40am

    act accordingly.

  • Helen Dudden 27th Nov '14 - 11:51am

    Actually after supporting the Lib Dems for over 21 years, I have lost interest in politics. Not supporting any longer, I liked what Charlotte had to say.

    Now I place politics in the same category, as watching paint dry. I think I should say, walk away and leave it.

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