Thursday 5 June 2014

Recall – Disdain for the Public

Scandal brings change. Scandal was the catalyst for the introduction of the Register of Members Interests. Scandal was responsible for the Code of Conduct that now, albeit insufficiently, guides parliamentary behaviour. Scandal tightens the rules and forces an increase in transparency. In times of scandal, parliament is vulnerable, and when scandal takes place near election time, then it can often prompt promises that would otherwise not be made.

When the expenses scandal broke, the 2010 election was just around the corner. Faced with a huge public backlash, all three parties promised to introduce a policy that would allow for constituents to carry out a petition to recall their MP from office if they were found to have carried out any ‘serious wrongdoing’. The Conservative manifesto, said if such behaviour took place, then it would
act as a trigger that will allow a petition to be raised, and if that petition was signed by at least 10% of the electorate, then this would kick-start a by-election. No longer would the voting public have to rely on an MP having enough dignity to resign from their position or for the local party to de-select them. The Recall policy, which also entered the coalition agreement, would increase the power of the electorate, act as a genuine threat to any MP thinking of acting like a Patrick Mercer and go some way to restoring trust in a parliament often seen as a detriment to democracy.

Such a policy is not new. By the beginning of this century, a form of recall was already implemented at some level of government in around 24 countries worldwide, including; six of the 26 Swiss cantons, the Canadian Province of British Columbia, Venezuela, the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina and Taiwan.’  House of Commons Library Standard Note, Recall Elections, Charley Coleman and Oonagh Gay, January 2012, p 4; International IDEA, Direct Democracy: the International IDEA Handbook, 2008, p 115  Back

The UK government is playing catch up, but they are reluctant to even do that.

A White Paper on Recall was put forward, which was roundly condemned by the select committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, as being so restricted, that under the government proposals, “constituents themselves would not be able to initiate a recall petition.” This intentionally “weakened effort” they said, would do nothing to “increase public confidence in politics…and could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled.” Furthermore, they felt there was no “gap in the disciplinary procedures” that needed filling by the introduction of Recall. Rather, they suggested the power to expel Members who are guilty of serious wrongdoing should be used, which as we know has only taken place in three times in the last century. This they concluded “should be regarded as an active option; rather than a theoretical possibility.”

This too however, would leave the sanction to be imposed on MPs in their own hands.

Part of the problem was their ability to agree on the ambiguous definition of ‘serious wrongdoing’ and what would amount to a trigger for a by-election. A YouGov survey carried out last year asked the public what behaviour they thought should act as a trigger. After all, if this policy was about empowering the electorate, then presumably they would want a say. The survey provided eleven options ranging from ‘a crime serious enough to receive a prison sentence’, ‘taking bribes’, or ‘lying in Parliament.’

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, John Lyon, felt that the best guide to go by would be if anybody breached the code of conduct. However, there is clearly a difference between somebody forgetting to declare an interest in a debate, compared to somebody offering access to policy in exchange for money. One of the other suggested ‘triggers’ for Recall would be if an MP was given a custodial sentence of twelve months or less. Professor Anne Twomey is an expert in constitutional law based in Australia with extensive knowledge of Recall systems in other countries. She suggests the ‘primary types of actions for which voters would like the opportunity to recall Members are those that involve the misuse or abuse of a Member's position and do not usually involve prison terms—such as breaches of entitlements, acts of dishonesty, misuse of parliamentary privilege, nepotism, making decisions that favour family members or business associates, and the like.’

The promise of Recall, made in the face of rising public anger at the widespread abuse of the expenses system, was first weakened, and then dropped, which led to a blame game within the coalition as to where the blame lay. The failure of the Conservative party to keep to their election promise greatly angered one their own MPs, Zac Goldsmith, who had pushed for the policy to be realised and created his own version of the Bill. “Parties can stuff their manifestos full of clever promises” he said, “but if voters don't believe them, they may as well present blank sheets…How is it possible that our leaders still don't understand that the single biggest cause of people's hatred of them is deceit?”

Then up stepped the Queen to announce the government would indeed introduce a Recall bill would be created but the power remains in the hands of MPs who will effectively be able to veto a move for recall.

The hammer blow for democracy, transparency and localism amounts to the equivalent of government laughing in the face of the electorate. When their hands were caught in the taxpayer’s pockets, for flipping mortgages, redecorating, getting media training, hanging baskets, dog food, duck ponds, bath mats, gardening, you name it, then they were only too quick to apologise and promise Recall.

Nobody was saying introducing a Recall bill was simple, but to leave it in the hands of the very same people who created the scandal that required the bill is to laugh in the face of the public and make a mockery of their apology to the public over their excessive and sometimes criminal pilfering of public money.