The Daily Mail yesterday reported the continuing defiance of Barnet councillor Christopher Harris who, despite spending the last three months on an extended holiday in Australia, continues to claim his monthly allowance. Cllr Harris’ behaviour has drawn criticism from colleagues and constituents alike, but he remains unrepentant and ludicrously insists his absence has no impact upon his role as a public servant.
While Cllr Harris’ behaviour is clearly deplorable, and demonstrates nothing but contempt towards his electorate, possibly the most worrying element of this unsavoury affair is to be found in the impotence of the council to deal with such behaviour. Barnet council leader Mike Freer has withdrawn the Conservative whip, meaning Cllr Harris now serves as an independent, but lamented this was “the strongest response available” to the council. Currently, only the failure to attend any council meetings within a six-month period provides grounds for the removal of a councillor, and only then with the consent of their colleagues. This is, quite simply, unacceptable.
In the face of overwhelming public anger, a consensus appears to be emerging on the necessity of the right to recall. It is repeatedly stated that MPs have acted within parliamentary rules, and yet few genuinely believe their actions have been entirely moral. A power of recall affords the public a valuable opportunity to pass ethical judgement on such behaviour. So long as a significant proportion of the electorate believes their MP is unfit to hold public office, it would be possible to require them to stand for immediate re-election.
Under the current British system of representative democracy, having handed over the right of governance to their representative the role of the voter is then severely limited, with only the occasional opportunity to exercise our concerns. Allowing voters the right to change their mind without having to wait for the electoral cycle to run its course doesn’t undermine but rather strengthens the legitimacy of our democratic system. Furthermore, it ensures that elected officials would be more closely obligated to accurately reflect the views of their constituents, and that those who stand do so in the public- rather than self-interest. Ultimately, while the right to recall errant MPs may not solve the problems that currently pervade Parliament, it does allow us to do something about it.
In light of Cllr Harris’ behaviour, and other such transgressions, is it not vital that such a mechanism be extended to local government, whose participants necessarily require more direct involvement with their constituents than their Westminster colleagues? We’ve previously detailed the need to wrest the accountability of our elected officials away from the parties and back to the electorate. This need, in Westminster or elsewhere – very far elsewhere, in Cllr Harris’ case – remains as pressing as ever.