Just after 7.30 pm on the night of Monday 24th November, the Recall of MPs Bill 2014 finished its passage through the House of Commons.
The House of Lords will now have the opportunity to consider a Bill enabling the public to recall an MP who has been found guilty of serious wrongdoing and subject them to an election – in effect to vote them out of office.
For some MPs that marked a significant step along the road to increasing their accountability to the public, yet for others it was ‘sham and bogus’ and not ‘real’ recall at all.
Varieties of Recall
Those in favour of ‘real’ recall advocate a version of direct democracy in which members of the public initiate the recall process themselves – with constituents firing the trigger, rather giving the Commons Standards Committee control of the gun.
Some, like Zac Goldsmith MP, sponsor of the separate Recall of Elected Representatives Bill, argued for recall initiated by voters on the basis of cause as well as conduct. This would mean that constituents could trigger recall on the grounds of an MP’s public statements or voting record on a particular issue, for example where an MP campaigned on an issue but then voted against it once elected, or where an MP took a stance on a controversial issue that was not popular in the constituency.
For some MPs, anything less than direct power of initiation and determination by voters, with some safeguards to prevent capture by the media or interest groups, would render recall ‘sham and bogus.’
A number of MPs also argued for powers of recall to be extended to other elected representatives, such as local councillors and Police and Crime Commissioners. Indeed, the Home Affairs Select Committee recently published a draft Bill setting out a mechanism for recalling elected Police and Crime Commissioners, and the Home Secretary has asked for more work to be done exploring this possibility.
In the end, after much debate, the Bill that went to the House of Lords stuck to recall for MPs and kept types of misconduct or wrongdoing, determined by third parties (namely a court, and the House of Commons, through the Commons Standards Committee) and not the public, as the triggers for the recall process.
Leaving aside the role of the court in determining criminal convictions, the question of the ‘independence’ of and the public confidence in these third party organisations is surely one that will be explored further in future debates.
Police and Commissioners - what should accountability look like?
The question of recall for Police and Crime Commissioners raises a wider question of accountability in public life, a question that the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) is looking at as part of its current inquiry into Local Policing – accountability, leadership and ethics.
CSPL has long advocated the principle that accountability is not something that is just tested periodically – such as through elections – but something that is addressed continuously, transparently and in ways that commands public confidence.
Day-to-day accountability involves demonstrable compliance with standards of conduct, propriety and performance, tested and verified by independent scrutiny, with failures addressed by appropriate and timely sanctions.
Recall provides one mechanism for delivering accountability, but as the Parliamentary debate has shown, the act of voting someone out of office takes place in wider context of determining the standards of conduct, or matters of cause, that trigger that election and who should be determining it – the public or a Committee of Parliament itself.
And as the voter turnout for PCC elections indicates, the legitimacy of a result determined by a very low electoral turnout may call into question what really constitutes ‘democratic accountability.’ Recall, of itself, does not always equal accountability.