After the expenses scandal, politicians from all parties promised that voters would be given the power to recall their MP between elections. Five years and several false starts later, Parliament will debate the Recall of MPs Bill this Tuesday. But if you're looking for real accountability, look elsewhere. As David Cameron revealed at PMQs this week, this Bill is the "minimum acceptable" form of recall.
The government's plans will create the illusion of accountability while ensuring that recall is almost never used. The power to recall will be kept in-house rather than empowering voters. MPs who are imprisoned for less than 12 months will automatically face recall (more than 12 months and MPs are already excluded from the Commons), but in other cases of misconduct a committee of MPs will decide whether voters can recall their elected representative. Only then will voters have their say. There are only a handful of cases where MPs would have been subject to recall under these strict rules. The majority relate to MPs imprisoned for political protests; only two MPs since 1949 would have been subject to recall for financial misconduct - none during the expenses scandal.
The government has treated recall as a tool for MPs to discipline other MPs for misconduct, rather than making them accountable to their constituents. The alternative is real recall: giving voters the power to recall their MP for any reason. If a majority of constituents lose confidence in their MP, they should be able to vote to remove them. Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith has proposed that if 20% of the registered voters in a constituency sign a recall petition, there should be a referendum where a majority recalls the MP.
Under the current system, MPs are not strongly individually accountable to their electorate. Voters know that at a general election they are not just choosing a candidate, but a party and a government as well. This means that MPs rise and fall on the basis of their party label, not their individual performance in office. Even MPs implicated in the expenses scandal faced few consequences at the ballot box. The majority of MPs who sit in safe seats have little to fear at an election.
Recall would strengthen the link between an MP and their constituents, which is at the heart of our representative democracy. Real recall would mean MPs who are involved in serious misconduct, fail to represent their constituents (think Nadine Dorries or George Galloway ditching the Commons for reality TV), switch parties without triggering a by-election or break electoral promises could face recall if enough of their constituents demand it.
At Unlock Democracy we've just published a report looking at the experience of recall in the US and Canada to show how it could work in the UK. We looked at claims that recall would give powerful interests a tool to attack individual MPs. In the US, where recall campaigns are staffed by paid canvassers and bankrolled by billionaires, there are real dangers. In the UK, where spending is strictly regulated and paid canvassing banned, the situation is different. There is little evidence that recall would disrupt the work of MPs or stop them from speaking out on unpopular issues.
The government's plans will neither empower voters nor rebuild public confidence in Parliament. It's time for MPs to trust voters and support real recall.