Recall petitions: In context
What is recall?
The process by which voters can remove a politician from office outwith the normal election cycle. Parliaments around the world have such procedures in place, though naturally their use is more common in some countries than others.
The UK passed the Recall of MPs Act in 2015, partly in response to public outcry from the expenses scandal. It came into force in March 2016.
How does it work?
To recall an MP, one of three requirements must be met: either the MP has been imprisoned following a conviction (though a sentence exceeding 12 months leads to automatic removal); or an MP is suspended from the House for more than 10 sitting days or 14 non-sitting days; or an MP makes false or misleading allowance claims. If one of these conditions is met, the Speaker must notify the local returning officer.
This then leads to the opening of a petition. Constituents have six weeks to sign that petition and if 10 per cent of registered voters do so, a byelection is called. The sitting MP may contest that election.
When has it been used?
There have been three recall petitions so far, two of which have been successful. The first was targeted at the DUP’s Ian Paisley in 2018, but the petition did not gather enough signatures so he remained an MP. Labour’s Fiona Onasanya was ousted in 2019 after a quarter of voters signed a recall petition – she did not contest the byelection. Tory Chris Davies was also removed in 2019. He did contest the subsequent byelection, and lost.
Margaret Ferrier may face the fourth recall petition, as the Committee on Standards has recommended she be suspended for 30 days for breaching Covid rules. Rutherglen and Hamilton West would be the first place such a byelection has happened in Scotland.
Does the Scottish Parliament have a recall process?
No. As things currently stand, there is no way for voters to remove an MSP from office between elections. This caused some controversy after Derek Mackay continued to collect an MSP salary for over two years despite not taking part in parliamentary business.
Conservative MSP Graham Simpson is aiming to rectify this with his proposed Removal from Office and Recall Bill.
What’s in the proposal?
Simpson is attempting to introduce a recall procedure for the Scottish Parliament, though it’s a bit more complicated here due to Holyrood’s combination of constituency and regional MSPs. The Non-Government Bills Unit is now drafting this legislation, which he hopes he’ll be able to introduce formally before the end of the calendar year.
As well as recall, he also wants to introduce new grounds for automatic removal. That includes not participating in parliamentary proceedings without a valid reason or receiving a prison sentence of less than a year (a sentence of more than a year already results in automatic removal).
How will recall work?
In his initial consultation, he said he would only proceed with this part of the bill if there is a way to do it fairly. He has confirmed to Holyrood he will take that section forward.
The bill will propose the same system that’s in place at Westminster for all constituency MSPs. If a recall petition is successful, an MSP could therefore choose to stand in the subsequent byelection.
A slightly different process is needed for list MSPs to ensure they also have an opportunity to contest an election even after a successful recall petition. The bill will therefore seek to introduce a second stage.
Simpson explains: “There would be a separate vote. It would simply be: ‘should this person stay or not?’ It’s not a traditional byelection, it’s almost a referendum on the individual member concerned.”
If the MSP loses that election, then the next person on that party’s list would be elected – the same as happens now if an MSP resigns.
Will it pass?
While Simpson won the right to introduce his bill formally to parliament last year, only his own colleagues and two Scottish Labour MSPs supported it. But Simpson says he didn’t “badger” MSPs to support it at that stage and he thinks the chances of it passing is high.
“I’m pretty confident because I just don’t think it’s controversial. It’s certainly not party political. It is all about restoring some trust in politics, which is surely a benefit to every party. And it’s one of these bills that you hope is never used.”