Recall of MPs Act 2015

Prior to 2015, there was no power of recall in the UK. In fact, removing an MP from office at all was very difficult. Under the (Representation of the Peoples Act, 1983) the only circumstance under which an MP could be removed from office was if they received a prison sentence of 12 months or longer. Lesser prison sentences did not meet this threshold. For example, Labour MP Terry Fields was imprisoned for 60 days for refusing to pay the Poll Tax in 1991 and yet retained his seat. The last MP to be removed from Parliament due to a prison sentence was Conservative MP Peter Baker who was imprisoned for seven years for forgery.

The background to the Recall of MPs Act (2015)

The MPs expenses scandal of 2009-2010 bought the discussion of recall into focus. This was because there were MPs who had clearly acted illegally or immorally and yet could not be removed by their constituents. It was clear that in the public consciousness, some kind of mechanism for recall of MPs was needed. It is notable that in the 2010 General Election, the manifestos of all three major parties called for some form of this:

Conservative: “At the moment, there is no way that local constituents can remove an MP found guilty of serious wrongdoing until there is a general election. That is why a Conservative government will introduce a power of ‘recall’ to allow electors to kick out MPs, a power that will be triggered by proven serious wrongdoing”

Labour: “MPs who are found responsible for financial misconduct will be subject to a right of recall if Parliament itself has failed to act against them.”

Liberal Democrat: ” [We will] Give you the right to sack MPs who have broken the rules. We would introduce a recall system so that constituents could force a by-election for any MP found responsible for serious wrondoing”

Following the election the a commitment to a Recall Bill was included in the Coalition Agreement:

We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents.

In June 2012 the Constitutional Reform Select Committee published a report which listed a number of reasons why a recall system was not advisable. They summarised that:

  1. The Government had not made the case that introducing Recall would increase public trust in Politics.

  2. There is no job description of what makes a “good MP” and if constituents believe their MP is a bad MP they can already remove them at the next General Election.

  3. Introducing Recall may deter MPs from taking decisions that are electorally unpopular in the short-term but are in the national interest.

  4. There was already scope within the House of Commons disciplinary procedures to expel members who were guilty of serious wrong-doing.

This report, along with other factors, indicated that the Coalition would seek a ‘watered down’ bill from that proposed in the Coalition Agreement.

Zac Goldsmith’s Private Members Bill

Disappointed with the approach of the Government, Conservative Backbench MP Zac Goldsmith put forward an alternative Private Members Bill called the Recall of Elected Representatives Bill. This bill had the support of more than 70 MPs, including David Davis, Frank Field, Caroline Lucas and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Goldsmith’s bill would require just 5% of constituents to initiate petition of recall and then 20% of constituents to sign the petition in order for a by-election to be called. In Goldsmith’s bill, the voters of a constituency could initiate a recall petition for any reason – thereby giving power over the process directly to the voters. However, Goldsmith’s bill did not make it past Second Reading.

The Recall of MPs Act 2015 is an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that makes provision for constituents to be able to recall their Member of Parliament (MP) and call a by-election. It received royal assent on 26 March 2015 after being introduced on 11 September 2014.

Unlike recall procedures in some other countries, the act does not allow constituents to initiate proceedings. Instead, proceedings are initiated only if an MP is found guilty of a wrongdoing that fulfils certain criteria. This petition is successful if at least one in ten voters in the constituency sign. Successful petitions force the recalled MP to vacate the seat, resulting in a by-election.

To date, three petitions have been made under the act; two of these received sufficient signatures to trigger a by-election.

the Speaker of the House of Commons would trigger the recall process, namely:

  • A custodial prison sentence of a year or less (longer sentences automatically disqualify MPs without need for a petition due to the Representation of the People Act 1981);

  • Suspension from the House of at least 10 sitting days or 14 calendar days, following a report by the Committee on Standards;

  • A conviction for providing false or misleading expenses claims.

Once one of the conditions outlined in the act is fulfilled, the Speaker informs the petitions officer of the constituency (in most cases this would be the returning officer or acting returning officer). The petitions officer is then required to make the practical arrangements for the petition so as to open the proceedings within ten working days after the Speaker's notification. This involves selecting up to ten signing locations where petitioners can sign in person, these function in a similar manner to election polling stations. As with votes in elections, voters are able to sign via post or proxy. Campaigning for or against recalling the MP is regulated by spending restrictions.

The petition remains open for six weeks. No ongoing tally is reported by the petitions officer and it is not revealed if the required threshold of 10 per cent of eligible voters threshold has been reached until the close of the petition period. During the petition period the MP remains in office. The petition is successful if the required threshold of 10 per cent of eligible voters threshold has been reached the seat then becomes vacant and by-election procedures begin.

The Recall of MPs Act 2015 is a law which was designed by MPs not to be used. Yet so far it has been used to recall of the former Labour MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya who did nor run in the subsequent by election .

In July 2018 then Labour MP Fiona Onsanya was charged with perverting the course of justice in relation to two incidents of speeding. It was alleged that she had lied to the police about who driving in relation to two speeding tickets. In December 2018 Onasanya was found guilty but appealed the verdict. In January 2019 she was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Following the failure of her appeal, the recall process was initiated. This petition had the support of the Labour Party who had already removed the whip from Onasanya. The recall petition was opened on 19th March 2019 and comfortably reached the 10% threshold with 27.6% of constituents signing the recall petition. Onasanya was therefore recalled and replaced by Lisa Forbes who won the subsequent by-election as Labour’s candidate.

A second recall process against Conservative MP Chris Davies resulted in him losing the seat in a by election. A third, in Antrim North, was unsuccessful against the DUP’s Ian Paisley in 2018. In February 2019 then Conservative MP Christopher Davies was charged with two accounts of making false expense claims. In April 2019 he was convicted and given a community order. As he had been convicted of an offence relating to false expenses claims, a recall petition was initiated. A total of 19% of constituents signed the petition and Davies was subsequently removed as an MP. Bizarrely, Davies retained the whip and ran as the Conservative candidate in the subsequent by-election. However, he lost out to Jane Dodds of the Liberal Democrats by 1,400 votes.

A fourth petition would have been triggered in October 2019. The then MP for Leicester East, Keith Vaz, was suspended from the service of the House for six months following on from a report and recommended sanction from the Committee on Standards. However, the early general election of December 2019 meant that the Speaker was not required to issue the notice of a petition.

How is the power of recall used internationally?

Canada – There is no law allowing recall on a Federal (national) level in Canada. However, in British Columbia, a representative can be removed from office if they have held their seat for at least 18 months and 40% of their constituents sign a recall petition. This law has been in force since 1995 and has been invoked 26 times.

Germany – There is no federal law allowing recall. However, in the Bavarian Landtag (Parliament) the entire Landtag can be dismissed by referendum if 1 million citizens sign a recall petition.

United States – The United States has no federal recall laws. However, recall has a strong history in state politics and 19 states have recall laws. Recall powers vary depending on the state. In some states, for example Alaska or Georgia, specific grounds of misconduct are required to recall officials. However, in other states, like California, there are no such requirements. In California, all that is required to initiate a recall is the signature of 12% of registered voters in any given electoral district. In April 2020 a recall petition was successful against the Governor, Gavin Newsom. A recall election will take place in September 2021.