What is a Recall Election?
A relatively new democratic tool in the UK. The recall process allows constituents to hold their MPs to account outside the regular electoral cycle.
History of recall
Whilst since 1981 MPs would lose their job if they were given a criminal sentence of over a year, if a sentence was less than a year then there was no legal process by which a MP could be removed. In the wake of the expenses scandal many people, pressure groups and other MPs wanted a change in the law.
Becoming law in 2015, the Recall of MPs Act gave more power to voters; who up until then could not trigger a by-election to remove their MP.
How recall works
MPs can be recalled under the following circumstances:
- If they are convicted in the UK of an offence and sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained and all appeals have been exhausted (and the sentence does not lead to automatic disqualification from being an MP);
- If they are suspended from the House of Commons following report and recommended sanction from the Committee on Standards for a specified period (at least 10 sitting days, or at least 14 days if sitting days are not specified).;
- If they are convicted of an offence under section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 (making false or misleading Parliamentary allowances claims)
If one (or more of these) is found to be the case, a ‘recall petition’ is opened. This petition will be available to constituents for six weeks at locations across the constituency, and is administered by the local returning officer.
After six weeks, if 10% of eligible registered voters have signed the petition, the returning officer informs the Speaker of the House of Commons that the recall petition has been successful, giving of that notice the seat has become vacant. A by-election is then required.
The recalled MP may even stand as a candidate. The timing of a UK Parliamentary by-election is determined by custom of the House of Commons: the party that previously held the seat will usually decide when to trigger the by-election.
If the required number is not reached the petition fails and the MP remains in post.
Criticism of the recall process.
Key supporters of recall elections includes Zac Goldsmith (Conservative London Mayoral candidate in 2016), who at the time said the act doesn’t go far enough. This was because a by-election can only be triggered when an MP is convicted for less than a year or when they are suspended by the House of Commons for a minimum of 21 days. It is argued that this allows MPs to have too much control over a process that is meant to hold them accountable for their actions.
Those who oppose the act being more open (i.e allowing constituents to trigger the recall process at any time), argue that it would prevent MPs speaking out on controversial topics or MPs being recalled for simply a difference in opinion which could be exploited in marginal areas or by powerful pressure groups.
Uses of this act
Since the passing of the act it has only been used 3 times (as of September 2019). Firstly, in North Antrim after Ian Paisley (DUP) was suspended by the House due to his expenses. The 10% threshold was not reached so he retained his seat without election.
The second use has featured heavily in the news. This occurred when Fiona Onasanya (Labour) was convicted for 3 months for perverting the course of justice. The 10% petition threshold was reached and the by-election campaign in Peterborough began. Fiona Onasanya did not stand but the Labour party managed to retain the seat with Lisa Forbes becoming the new MP.
The most recent use was in Brecon and Radnorshire (Wales) where the Conservative MP Chris Davis was convicted under the Parliamentary standards act. A by-election took place, Chris Davis was re-selected by the local Conservative association. He, however, lost the by-election to Lib Dem Jane Dodds.
Overall, the recall process is not particularly widespread across the world and varies in how it works and at what level it operates at. Some countries allow it at local, regional and national levels whereas other countries only allow it at certain levels. Whilst in theory, giving citizens the ability to directly hold their representatives to account is a good idea outside the regular election cycle; there are many complexities in practice which mean it has to be managed carefully to ensure representatives can still do their jobs effectively.