13/12/2011 06:34 GMT | Updated 13/12/2011 07:10 GMT

MPs Found Guilty Of 'Serious Wrongdoing' Face Recall Elections

MPs found guilty of "serious wrongdoing" risk being kicked out of office mid-term by voters, under plans unveiled the government today.

Draft proposals published by the Cabinet Office on Tuesday would see a by-election be triggered if 10% of voters in an MPs constituency signed a petition calling for them to be recalled.

A petition to remove an MP would be held if the MP was first censured by a vote in the House of Commons and could not be launched by voters themselves.

Under the plans a by-election would also automatically take place if an MP was convicted of a criminal offence and was sentenced to less than a year in prison.

Mark Harper, the political and constitutional reform minister, said he hoped it would help restore trust in the political system in the wake of the expenses scandal.

"If an MP has been found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing, they should not be able to retain their seat with impunity until the next general election," he said. "Our proposals would allow constituents to decide whether or not an MP should retain their seat”.

Under current rules an MP only loses their seat if they are sentenced to more than 12-months in jail. A rule that caused outrage when it emerged it would have allowed disgraced expenses-cheat Eric Illsley to remain an MP even though he was sent to prison.

Ministers say the new plan to allow a petition to be triggered by a vote of other MPs fulfills a commitment made in all three parties election manifestos.

The power hold recall elections already exists in the United States and led to the downfall of Califorina governor Gray Davis. Voters launched a petition against the Democrat over the state's energy problems. Davis said the ballot was "an insult" to the people who had voted for him in the election.

In practice the legislation in Britain will mean a Commons vote will likely only happen on the advice of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which is made up of MPs.

The block on the public initiating a petition themselves is born out of fears among MPs that they would be unfairly targeted by political or personal opponents.

Last November the National Union of Students said it wanted to initiate recall petitions against Liberal Democrat MPs who voted in favour of a rise in tuition fees rise even though they had pledged to oppose it during the election.

Joshua Forstenzer, president of Sheffield University Students' Union, said at the time: "If we have the the power of recall, we should have the power to remove MPs on democratic grounds.

"What we are trying to say is that in a democracy, when someone makes a pledge, you expect them to honour and fulfil that pledge."

However responsibility for the coalition's programme of constitutional and political reform is held by Nick Clegg. It seems unlikely he will want to expand the power of recall in such a way.

"Politicians are held accountable at elections for the way in which they have voted or their record in office," the deputy prime minister wrote in the forward to the draft Bill published today. "MPs must not be left vulnerable to attack from those who simply disagree with them or think that they should have voted a different way on a particular measure."

But Tory MP Douglas Carswell said the plans were "all very well" but were not really about "real recall".

"What real recall is about is trusting the people and trusting the judgement of the people to decide whether to recall an MP, this is about trusting a court or Westminster grandees to decide.

He told the Huffington Post UK that the argument that the people with grudges against individual MPs would be able to unseat them with vexatious claims was unfounded. "Proper recall means you can only be recalled if the majority of voters in your constituency say that you should be recalled," he said. Rather than the one in ten threshold following a Commons vote proposed by the government.

Carswell, who introduced his own private members bill on the issue in 2009, said the public took "a dim view" of unfair attempts to unseat a legitimately elected MP and would not vote in favour of recall unless there was a legitimate grievance.

"Ultimately you've got to trust the people. The same arguments were once wheeled out to say you couldn't have elected lawmakers," he added.