Continuing resentment against ‘establishment’ politicians has brought the right of recall back on to the legislative agenda

Robert Hazell discusses the challenges around developing legislation that will permit MPs to be recalled.

It was not a complete surprise to see the right of recall in the Queen’s Speech. The coalition government had kept open the option of legislating in a series of exchanges with the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee over the last two years.  The proposals stem originally from the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, which led all three major parties to include almost identical proposals for a right of recall in their election manifestos in 2010.  The precise commitment of the coalition parties in the May 2010 Programme for Government was framed as follows:

Image credit- UK Parliament

Image credit: UK Parliament

‘We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP was found to have engaged in serious wrong doing and having had a petition for a by-election signed by 10 per cent of his or her constituents’.

True to its word, in December 2011 the government published a draft bill and White Paper.  But in 2012 the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) produced a very critical report, which led the government to pause.  The committee feared that the restricted form of recall proposed could reduce public confidence in politics by creating expectations that were not fulfilled.  The government’s long pause suggests that it may have shared the committee’s doubts.  But the rise of UKIP in the 2014 elections and continuing resentment against ‘establishment’ politicians tipped the balance: the government felt obliged to be seen to be doing something.

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TIME TO RECALL A SHELVED PARLIAMENTARY REFORM

The UK Parliament was recalled on 10 April to mark the death of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. This post does not discuss whether recall was an appropriate response – personally, I do think it was – but considers how Parliament, especially the House of Commons, was recalled, as it is a good example of the wider, and fundamentally important, issue of the autonomy of Parliament, and its relationship with the Executive.

Parliament’s website announced the recall of both Houses. In respect of the Commons, it stated that “Standing Order 13 gives the Speaker the authority to recall the House of Commons when it stands adjourned, if he is satisfied it is within the public interest.” That sounds fair enough, in keeping with this core democratic body’s standing as the main representative forum of the people. But wait, what it didn’t say was that such a recall by the Speaker can only be done if triggered by the initiative of the Government. What the Standing Order actually says is:

“Whenever the House stands adjourned and it is represented to the Speaker by Her Majesty’s Ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet at a time earlier than that to which the House stands adjourned, the Speaker, if he is satisfied that the public interest does so require, may give notice that, being so satisfied, he appoints a time for the House to meet, and the House shall accordingly meet at the time stated in such notice.” [S.O.no 13(1), emphasis added].

So, at least as regards initiating recall of the Commons, the Daily Telegraph headline “Margaret Thatcher: David Cameron recalls Parliament for ‘remarkable’ former British leader” was probably a more accurate statement. A report in the Guardian suggested that the recall “was the idea of the prime minister and involved him in a lengthy wrangle with the Speaker’s Office. John Bercow felt there was no need to recall parliament, and was taken aback by the request. His office thought the tributes could be paid next Monday in line with precedent for previous deaths of party leaders. At one point, Cameron had to enlist the support of Miliband to overcome the opposition, and Labour sources said they felt faced with a fait accompli and did not want to risk being seen as failing to show Thatcher due respect.”

A useful Parliamentary briefing paper issued on 9 April, discusses the procedural and practical aspects of the Commons recall process; looks at how it is handled (generally differently) in the Lords and in the devolved parliament/assemblies, and proposals for its reform, within and outwith Parliament, especially to make it a procedure in the hands of the House and its Speaker rather than subject to the instigation of Ministers.

In particular, it records such a proposal by the previous Labour Government, in its 2007 green paper, The governance of Britain, and the announcement of an inquiry into this and related issues by the then Modernisation Committee. Despite much trumpeting at the time that the Modernisation Committee was an effective way to get Parliamentary reform – especially because it was chaired by a Government minister, the Leader of the House (!!!) – the Committee never completed its inquiry or took oral evidence, though some of its written evidence was published.

It should also be noted that the 2009-2010 ‘Wright Committee’ on the reform of the Commons – whose work is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee – did not address various  “contentious issues” on the House’s sitting patterns, and had “no collective view” on recall, but it did make a more general point very strongly (para 101): ”But we do recommend that the House should at least decide for itself when it sits and does not sit.” [bold in original].

What a refreshingly democratic notion! How about doing something about it, dear representatives of the people?