Claudia Webbe, the independent MP for Leicester East is facing an uphill struggle as she seeks to remain in the House of Commons. She had the whip suspended more than a year ago in September 2020 after being charged with harassment and the Labour Party have requested that she resign her post following her conviction.
For some, this is a remarkable move from her party, considering the risk of fighting another by-election in an area that drastically increased its support for the Conservative Party between the 2017 and 2019 general elections. In the meantime, Ms Webbe has confirmed that she will appeal the conviction and keep fighting for her constituents. Despite being convicted, she has the power to do this and there is precious little that the Speaker of the House of Commons or anyone can do about it under the current recall laws in the UK.
Hence the real question here surrounds the difficulty when it comes to recalling MPs in this country. A recall petition occurs under multiple circumstances. A sitting member must be convicted of an offence as well as being sentenced to imprisonment or detainment. If the custodial sentence is greater than a year, then they would lose their seat automatically and a by-election would be triggered without the need for a recall petition.
In the case of Claudia Webbe, her prison sentence is suspended. Her crime was harassing a friend of her partner. If Webbe had received a sentence of less than a year, she would face a recall petition (if it had been more than a year, she would have been automatically disqualified from being an MP). However, this requires 10% of the registered electorate within her constituency to sign the petition. If the threshold is not reached then Webbe would have remained in her post as an MP, regardless of whether she was in short-term custody.
This hypothetical situation perplexes many and hence there is a desire to change the law. This could occur in many ways, perhaps lowering the percentage of registered voters who must be signatories. After all, if there is a parliamentary election, most people go out and cast their ballot. Even in the widely apathetic population of 2001, the turnout for that year’s general election was 59.4%. Making the effort to find and sign a petition just in the hope it triggers a by-election does not garner the same support.
A solution to this would surely be lowering the threshold to 5%. If people are given the option between re-electing someone who is imprisoned or suspended from the House of Commons or even convicted for an offence under Section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, they will likely choose an alternative member of the community to represent them in the House of Commons.
Many would criticise such a low figure of required signatories, especially because in two out of the three recall petitions in the last four years, the 10% threshold was reached. Such is a valid criticism, but even so, in both 2019 recall elections, the incumbent did not gain re-election, underlining the fact that when an MP acts in poor judgement, there is a desire to replace them.
This does not necessarily mean that 10% of their constituents will sign the recall petition. In Peterborough, Labour put forward a different candidate following Fiona Onasanya’s criminal conviction, and she did not stand as an independent.
Likewise, in Brecon and Radnorshire, Chris Davies failed to remain the MP following on from his own personal expenses scandal. This was despite being the Conservative Party candidate. In addition, with a 9.4% signatory rate in the 2018 North Antrim recall petition, less than 500 short of the 10% threshold, Ian Paisley Jr. would have certainly had a fight on his hands had it been successful: it seems there is a lack of accountability.
The current system of recall was brought in under the coalition government in 2015 and was prompted largely by the MPs’ expenses scandal of the previous Parliament. Clearly, the idea was to increase accountability, yet MPs are the only elected officials in the country who voters have the capability to recall and even at this level, they must commit specific offences to allow a recall petition to take place.
The fear that some MPs express of these measures corrupting democracy is simply invalid because the only way that an MP can be recalled is if they act illegally or improperly to a point where they are suspended from the House for more than ten sitting days.
This of course could all be solved simply by MPs realising when they should leave their post and they could do so with dignity, but this appears to be too much to ask.
Image: UK Government via Wikimedia Commons