Paula Keaveney.

Earlier this month (February 2024) the voters of Wellingborough went to the polls in a by election. This was not the result of a resignation or death, but of the application of the Recall of MPs Act (2015). Former MP Peter Bone was suspended from the House of Commons for, among other things, bullying. More than 10 percent of his constituents then signed a petition for his recall. And so, his days as an MP were abruptly ended.

At the time of writing, politics watchers are waiting for another potential recall incident, with the verdict expected on whether Blackpool MP Scott Benton will face a similar fate or whether his appeal against suspension will succeed.

Some would argue that the 2015 legislation, which can lead to the dumping of MPs, is democratic. It gives constituents the chance to remove MPs between elections when there has been serious wrongdoing.

Others however see the relatively new processes as fraught with danger. Could scores end up being settled? Isn’t a General Election the proper time to decide who should or should not represent each area?

Concerns about the way the Act operates are now part of an ongoing Inquiry by the House of Commons Standards Committee.

To understand why the committee is keen to look at this, we need to look at little closer at the rules.

There are three triggers for a recall. The first is when an MP is found guilty of expenses fraud. This was the case for Chris Davies in Brecon and Radnorshire.

Another trigger is a custodial sentence of up to a year. (MPs jailed for more than this automatically lose their seat). The sentence can be suspended, or the MP can serve actual time in jail. We have an example of this in Fiona Onasanya.

The final trigger is a suspension from the House of Commons for wrong-doing, which could be breaching the Code of Conduct or other offences. If the suspension is 10 sitting days or more, a recall petition is triggered. Peter Bone is the most recent example, but it is the earlier suspension of Margaret Ferrier which raised anxieties.

Ferrier was found guilty of a range of Covid rule breaches. She travelled from London to the constituency knowing she had Covid. She met other people. She was not entirely straight about it when speaking initially to her SNP whips office.

Yet when the standards committee met to discuss and agree her suspension[1], there was anxiety from some about whether she actually deserved the recall petition as well as the time out of the House. Alberto Costa tried to organise a shorter suspension with the longer loss of pay. He tried to add material to the minutes about mitigating factors. These two attempts failed. However, Bernard Jenkins’ point, that the Recall Act should be reviewed, was accepted by the other members.[2]

It is clear that those making decisions about guilt and penalties will be keenly aware of the implications. And while this is unlikely to affect the overall result because of the presence of lay members, this factor can’t be ignored.

The whole principle of Recall has been controversial in UK Politics. Back in 2012 the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said the idea should be abandoned. This would have been a problem because Recall was part of the 2010 Coalition agreement. It was clear in the early days though that politicians could see pitfalls and problems and the second reading debate showed reluctance, including on the Government benches.

Recall has been controversial in other ways too. At the time of the Bill’s passage some said it simply didn’t go far enough. The then Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith argued that what was needed was a proper Recall Bill not the “shenanigans conveying the impression that they give people recall powers without actually giving them any power at all”[3]

Perhaps one of the problems is that the principle of Recall is rather foreign for us. In his contribution, Goldsmith quoted a range of countries with a version of the system. High profile examples come from the US. It was a Recall process that meant Arnold Schwarzenegger could become Governor of California. Failed, but high profile, Recall attempts took place against Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Gavin Newsom in California.

It can however feel as if Recall doesn’t sit very well with UK political culture. Despite the handful of instances, it is not something we are used to. Stronger rules could lead to constant campaigning to overturn an election result. Weaker rules would be, well rather weak.

So, what next for this political experiment? The Electoral Commission has recommended changes in the way the recall petitions are run. But is more fundamental change likely?

The Recall of MPs Act (2015) does not have a sunset clause. It will be there until it is changed or taken away. To find Parliamentary time for a Bill making a major change or for a Bill to revoke, a Government would need to see this as a priority. That means a priority compared to education, health, crime and immigration. Imagine you are a member of the public with a suspicion of politicians. Would an end to the Recall Act, however imperfect, make you more or less likely to trust MPs. “They just want to protect their own” is a likely reaction. I can see the newspaper headlines now.

So, while any review will be interesting. It would be a brave politician who tried to dump Recall.

Paula Keaveney is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Edge Hill University.