News 15th Aug 2018

Is recall a useful deterrent against corruption in the UK Parliament?

Steve Goodrich

Head of Research and Investigations

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Head of Research and Investigations. He is responsible for managing TI-UK’s research unit and is our specialist on lobbying accountability, party funding and open governance. Before joining TI-UK in May 2015, Steve worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at the Electoral Commission. He has over five years’ experience working on political finance regulation, legislation and data.

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Last week saw the opening of a new and novel feature in our democracy – the UK’s first recall petition. Whilst widespread in the US – 19 states have this process for their elected officials – recall is a new thing over here, so I thought I’d break down what it is, why it’s happening now and how it can help ensure integrity in public office. 

At its most basic level, recall is the ability for electors to hold their elected representatives to account before the next scheduled election. So long as certain thresholds or criteria are met, a public petition can trigger a by-election, forcing the incumbent to face a de facto vote of confidence in their tenure. There are then two general forms: let’s call them ‘total recall’ (and no, I’m not referring to the film here) and ‘qualified recall’. 

In total recall, the only obstacle to forcing a by-election is a pre-determined threshold of signatures on a petition signed by eligible electors within a specified time period. For example, in Wisconsin the number of signatures needed to trigger a by-election is at least ‘25 per cent of the vote cast for the office of Governor at the last General Election’ collected within 60 days. In 2012, Governor Scott Walker was forced to face an early election after over 900,000 signatures were signed for his recall in response to his controversial labour reforms. He won the subsequent and bitterly-fought by-election with 53 per of votes cast. 

In qualified recall, which we have in the UK, there are more requirements that must be met before a petition can be opened – namely that the elected official must be found to have done something wrong. In essence, qualified recall is an extension of the disciplinary powers of the relevant legislature or executive body. Here, petitions can only be opened if one of three conditions are met: the MP has been convicted of an offence and faced a custodial sentence; they have been suspended by the House of Commons for 10 or more sitting days/14 days if not specified in sitting days; or they have been convicted of false accounting, such as fiddling expenses. 

In the case of Ian Paisley Jr, the MP for North Antrim who is facing the first recall petition in the UK, the Commons suspended him for 30 sitting days after finding he had breached several of its rules. This included bringing the House into disrepute, failing to report an estimated £100,000 of holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government (Paisley claims it was more like £50,000), and breaking its ban on paid advocacy (he had lobbied UK Government ministers to soften its approach to criticising human rights abuses in Sri Lanka around the time of the trips). If over 10 per cent of his constituents (that’s currently over 7,543 people) sign the petition in favour of recall over the next six weeks, a by-election will be called in which Paisley will be eligible to stand. 

This case provides a vivid illustration of why recall can be an important tool in tackling corruption in UK politics. Under previous legislation, serious misconduct like Paisley’s would have faced a relatively limited range of sanctions. Unless he’d been jailed for more than 12 months he could have kept his seat – at least until the next general election, which could be years after the misconduct – and ridden-out the punishments at the disposal of his fellow MPs, such as a docking of pay. Hardly a credible deterrent against further mischief by him and others in this role. Now the people of North Antrim have an opportunity to bring him to book earlier. 

Despite criticism of qualified recall as a watered-down version of the real thing – dependent upon MPs standing up to the behaviour of their peers (something many may be sceptical of, given the recent expenses and sexual harassment scandals) – over the past five Parliaments, at least seven other parliamentarians could have faced the same fate had this legislation been in place sooner. Admittedly, two of these resigned their seats before being disciplined by their fellow MPs, but the point still stands: there is one more avenue for redress than there used to be. That matters. 

However, two important questions remain. 

Firstly, does the current process allow people who want to sign for recall to do so? Some political parties have questioned why there are only three physical places for electors to sign in North Antrim, which seems woefully few given there were 51 polling stations in this constituency at the last general election and the legislation allows for up to 10 places. Eligible electors can also apply to sign via post, but it remains to be seen how many know about this opportunity or take it up in time before the close of the petition on 19 September. 

Secondly, what other routes are available to ensure Ian Paisley is held to account for his actions? Given the extremely partisan nature of Northern Irish politics, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that either the petition will fail or Paisley will win any by-election that does occur. And in any case, there should be broader consideration as to whether his actions could also constitute a criminal offence, such as misconduct in public office or bribery offence. 

As far as I am aware no one has seriously been looking into the latter, but for now there will be close scrutiny as to whether the people of North Antrim will be enabled to have their say.