By: Conor Holohan, media campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance
There has been no shortage of MP scandals in recent years. Fifteen MPs are currently whipless for a range of alleged reasons, some of which are of the headline-grabbing variety. By-elections have also been held after MPs chose to resign. In a couple of cases, these resignations were forced by Parliamentary suspensions long enough to trigger a recall petition. Most recently this happened to Margaret Ferrier, whose disregard for COVID rules at the height of the pandemic led to a guilty plea at Glasgow Sheriff Court.
But in other cases where a Parliamentary suspension hasn’t been forthcoming, constituents have been stuck in an unsatisfactory position. They’ve seen their MPs lose the whip, in some cases just months after the 2019 election. In a recent headline-hitting example, Nadine Dorries’ has left her constituents in limbo, promising a resignation that has been as imminent as the end of the world according to certain doomsday cults. Meanwhile, her last contribution to Parliament came more than a year ago.
Once MPs are elected it is ultimately up to them how they spend their time, provided it falls within the rules. But likewise, it is up to their constituents whether or not they think their representative has used their time well. If they think their MP has not contributed enough in parliament or has not held enough surgeries, they can vote them out.
The problem lies in the significant period of time that has to lapse before voters can have their say. In the case of, say Nadine Dorries, voters may just have to wait until the next election, when she will be forced to either stand or stand down. Constituents who are fed up with paying for a politician who they feel has gone AWOL can do little more than grumble while the MP in question soaks up the generous salary.
The remedy would be the ability to recall MPs (allowing the electorate to remove an MP through a referendum). Under the current process, certain criteria have to be met before an MP is put up for recall, such as a parliamentary committee deciding that they should be suspended from parliament for more than 10 days. In this system, only MPs or a court can decide if an MP is recalled. Constituents aren’t able to initiate the process. This needs to be changed. Voters should be able to choose when an MP has acted inappropriately and should be able to remove them before the end of their term. Countries like the US, where constituents have the ability to recall subject to proper rules and thresholds, show that this power is used sparingly, mitigating fears that MPs would face a by-election at the first whiff of trouble or unpopularity.
Recall of MPs should be introduced, perhaps with a high threshold of 30 per cent to help focus minds on only serious breaches, or disregard for constituents. It would leave the decision about MPs’ conduct in the hands of the ultimate arbiter: their electorate.