By Matthew Barrett
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Over the last few days, Zac Goldsmith MP has noted the mysterious disappearance of the Coalition's proposed "recall" system for MPs.
The point of recalls is for constituents to be able to remove their MP if he or she has committed a crime, or claimed suspicious expenses, etc. However, the Coalition's proposals for a recall system would mean a by-election could only be triggered if the MP has either been sentenced to more than a year in jail, or if a Commons committee decided a Member's behaviour was bad enough to warrant a by-election. Then if 10% of the MP's constituents signed a petition calling for a by-election, one would take place.
There are two obvious points to make here:
- MPs being sentenced to more than a year in jail already cause a by-election. The Representation of the People Act 1981 provides for this (although the 1981 Act was designed to deny prisoners like Bobby Sands election to the House, rather than to deal with misbehaving MPs).
- It is hard to imagine a Commons committee having refused to subject the worst expenses offenders to a by-election at the height of the scandal. It is hard to imagine a Commons committee refusing to subject a Member to a by-election now, even some time after the scandal. But regardless of the likelihood of a committee blocking a by-election for a misbehaving MP, there should be no possible impediment to a recall.
If legislation allowing recalls is to be worthwhile, there should be no committee standing in the way of a by-election. Frivolous complaints against MPs – in other words, nakedly partisan attempts by members or supporters of a rival party to force a by-election out of political spite – can be protected against by robust wording in the recall legislation. The percentage of constituents' signatures required can be increased from 10% to 15% or even 20%. Mr Speaker could also intervene in an emergency case where a petition is manipulated for political purposes.
"…you could, by accident, break one of those codes – not registering a bottle of wine given to you by a friendly constituent, for example – which could be a genuine error. But that might be an excuse for the committee to qualify you for recall because you might be a unpleasant character and not popular in the House."
A final issue is the fact that the Coalition Agreement states: "We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall". The Coalition has had the second half of 2010 and all of 2011 to bring forward such legislation. Can it still count as "early legislation"?
This morning, the Independent notes the Coalition's lack of movement on open primaries for the selection of Parliamentary candidates. The newspaper notes the cost to the Conservatives of the one primary to take place so far – in Totnes, £40,000 – and therefore the considerable cost of funding 200 such primaries would be £8million. However, the Coalition Agreement (p27) states:
"We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election."
This makes it clear that such primaries would be publicly-funded, and therefore the cost to CCHQ cannot be the main issue. Perhaps more likely is that voters might choose the "wrong" candidates. The Member for Totnes, Dr Sarah Wollaston, is a Eurosceptic, and raised concerns about the Coalition's Health Bill.
The Cabinet Office is quoted by the Independent as saying saying the proposed boundary changes must be taken into account before primaries can be brought in. Given the boundaries proposals won't be voted on for more than a year, the primaries policy could easily be dropped in 2013 without much public uproar.
These two developments – a lack of progress, if not cancellation, of open primaries for Parliamentary candidates, and an approach to recalls which allows for huge abuses of the intended system – are disheartening. We should be especially wary of the recall plans. Should a committee of MPs be allowed to decide who has committed wrong and who has not, it is easy to see how Parliamentary behaviour could degenerate into subservience to the elite, increased party-line voting, and unwillingness to take a stand on an issue unpopular with influential colleagues. Douglas Carswell summarises it correctly: "Instead of doing what recall should do, which is make all of us more outwardly accountable to the people, I think it will make us inwardly accountable to Westminster grandees."