Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Councillor Recall

Charlie Bolton blogs about how last night's council meeting found a couple of minutes to deal with his motion to set up a 'recall' system when, as occasionally happens, wards lose confidence in their councillor.

Yes, said Charlie's fellow councillors, it's a fine principle. Then they went on to amend the motion so that nothing will be done to make it happen in Bristol. That would be far too complicated!

[Added 30th July]

The amended (and passed) motion:

Council endorses the concept supports in principle the idea of 'recall' for Bristol City councillors.

Council calls on the whips and Councillor Bolton to include in their discussions - as agreed at the full council meeting of 31st March - a proposal for the recall of councillors via a voluntary code. Once the details of such a code have been established, all councillors will be invited to subscribe to such a code.

Council further calls on the leader to write to our local MPs and the Prime Minister urging them to bring forward proposals to make 'recall' a requirement at both local and national government levels.]

OK, lets simplify it a bit for them. Recall means the electorate demanding the resignation of a councillor so that a further election can be held. That means a petition being raised among the electors; a figure of 20% of the electorate signing seems about right to demonstrate that the dissatisfaction is real, though that's negotiable.

Here are a few suggested rules to govern a 'recall' procedure.

1. It's voluntary on the part of councillors to commit themselves to 'recall', though the party groups could make it a condition of their backing. If, when elected, a councillor makes a commitment to accept any valid 'recall' bid, that commitment cannot be changed.

2. Any recall petition must be raised by the electorate at its own expense, and in a form that makes it practicable to check signatories' names against the electoral register.

3. Any person, or group, instituting a 'recall' bid should register their intention with the council - and the councillor concerned - beforehand

4. Any promotional literature inviting electors to sign should also be made available to the councillor concerned

5. The costs of mounting the 'recall' bid should be capped in the same way as candidates electoral expenses are.

6. No 'recall' election should be called if the councillor's term of office has less than a year to run.

That's off the top of my head. and no doubt it could be improved. But it's demonstrably do-able. Like me, experienced councillors also gave Charlie's motion some thought, but all they came up with was agreement on the drafting of their disabling amendment.

So why has the council ducked it?


TonyD said...

From what I can gather Mark Wright stood up and in the 10 seconds or so that he had to propose his amendment mentioned something about Charlie's motion not being legally enforceable.

Perhaps we can encourage Mark to offer a more detailed clarification on here without the clock ticking?

Cllr Mark Wright said...

Hi Tony, challenge risen-to...

Can I first say that we didn't delete all the actions. We left in the key action of lobbying the Govt to implement this nationwide.

Can I second say that what we achieved (by a bit of negotiation with the other two parties) was a unanimous declaration of the council that it supports the principle. If you can tell me another city that has done that, I'd like to know it. That sends a strong signal to the outside world and to Govt.

Third, can I say that it's very easy for a party of 1 councillor to talk about it being easy to get cllrs to sign up to voluntary agreements about how they might be sacked. If Charlie was 35 people, many of who have a long history of being attacked politically and personally by other parties using the standards system, he might have a different opinion of how easy that is.

Below is the speech I would have given if I had more than 10 seconds to speak:

Thank you Lord Mayor. I rise to propose an amendment to this motion.

I want to start by saying that Lib Dems support the principle of “recall” of discredited politicians. Nick Clegg has repeatedly backed the idea since he became leader, starting back in March 2008, and again more recently as one of the points in his “A 100 Day Action Plan to save Britain’s Democracy” during the expenses scandal.

It's absolutely right that voters should have the power to quickly eject those politicians who are found guilty of criminal conduct, frauds, and other behaviour that brings disgrace on themselves, or their position, or this council. Such an ability would empower the people, and also act as a serious deterrent to politicians before they engage in any such behaviour.

Nick Clegg was very clear that the mechanism would be for MPs had been formally suspended and been through due process in the Commons. And this is where it starts to get a bit tricky in local government. All we have in local government is the Standards Board. Now, I might be tempted to ask everyone in here who has been reported to the Standards Board for something to put there hand up, but I wont, because the reality is that lots of people in this chamber have been reported to the standards board, and nearly all the time it was for petty and trivial, politically motivated reasons.


Cllr Mark Wright said...


The reality is, the Council's standards board is not the mechanism that recall can seriously be implemented with. And not only that, but the motion asks the Council to implement a “voluntary” system. We need to think about that for a bit: a voluntary system to decide if councillors lose their jobs. This is legally impossible. The fact that it's voluntary means that not everyone will sign up to it. I'm pretty sure that nearly all of the people in this chamber who have already been reported to the Standards Board for trivial and petty reasons will say “no way!” to joining a voluntary system based on the Standards Board that would allow their political opponents to try and kick them out of here between elections. This is absolutely unworkable, and would stir up even more antipathy between the groups, which is hardly what this city needs.

Imagine a scenario where several councillors are suspended over some issue that blows up, and the members of one party have signed up while the members of the other party haven't. We could have the situation where cllrs of one party end up sacked by recall for the misconduct, while those of the other party don't. That would be legally absurd, almost certainly open to legal challenges if enforcement was attempted, and the reality is that in that case those who signed up would simply say they “weren't going” and the whole system would collapse.

We support the principle of recall, but the reality is that this is legally impossible with the Standards Board in the form that it is at the moment - it's impossible with a voluntary scheme. This has to be a mandatory system that is the same in every council, and this has to be coupled with reform of the whole standards system for local government, which has long been abused politically. We need Parliament to introduce a national system of recall, hopefully at the same time as they introduce it for themselves.

Because of that, I am introducing an amendment to delete the penultimate paragraph of the motion, because recall isn't something we can cobble together in the whip's room. We need to lobby the Government to consider this nationwide, and that's what the amended motion does.

Pete Goodwin said...

Mark, I'm amazed.

In all that, you never even mention the people out here who actually elect (and are represented by) the councillor concerned. You see recall only as an extra dimension to the internal politics of the council chamber.

Recall is about whether a councillor should continue to represent the electors in a ward. It's not to be done lightly, it needs safeguards (I've suggested some above), and of course the initiative should come from the electorate in that ward. Do you have a problem with allowing the electorate that kind of licence?

Interesting to hear, though, that you did negotiate the amendment beforehand with members of the other parties, so it was fait accompli before the vote was actually taken.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I was both pleased it got through, and disappointed the 'doing' bit didn't.

Mark is of course correct to say I don't know what it's like to be in a party of 36 cllrs, and may be right that some wouldn't sign up.

I think failing to sign up would send its own message - why won't they?

But he is also right to say this might well be the first time a council anyway has even so much as supported the concept.


Stockwood Pete said...

The mutilated motion that was passed is no more than tokenism. It's engineered to look 'progressive' while making sure (by removal of the key clause) that nothing significant is actually done. Power to the people? Not bloody likely!

The only redeeming feature is that they didn't take out the bit that says "Council endorses the concept of 'recall' for Bristol City councillors." With that still there, and now council policy, perhaps it's still possible to build on it as you'd intended in the original motion.

But if Mark's views, above, reflect those of his fellow LibDem, Labour, and Tory councillors - and there's no reason to think they don't - it paints a dreadful picture of the way the council works.

Not only do they fail to understand the basic concept of 'recall', as a means for the electorate to insist on a new election. They distrust each others' integrity so much that they regard any voluntary system as unworkable. And they're not prepared to use their own party selection and disciplinary processes, freely used for other issues, to expose themselves to recall by a dissatisfied electorate.

Sad. And, given the wording of the resolution they passed on Tuesday, totally hypocritical.

Cllr Mark Wright said...

Pete, your inability to take what people in other parties say at face value; and your unwillingness to respond to the argument given, rather than what you believe the sub-text to be; says more about your attitude to politics than mine.

You would be genuinely amazed at the number of cllrs who have been targeted by opponents (not the public) through the Standards Board. Yes, all the usual suspects are there, but so are a dozen or so people you would never suggest were "misbehaving". The SB is discredited and is not the mechanism for Recall to happen.

A voluntary system is legally impossible and unmanageable locally. Recall has to work from the start. A system that falls apart the moment it is actually tested is nothing but promotional fluff...and you wouldn't want that, would you? Yet you continue to push for exactly such a system.

If you were seriously interested in taking this forward, you would engage with the argument. If on the other hand you are just interested in a media headline...

Stockwood Pete said...


First, rest assured that if I was after a media headline, this little backwater blog is not where I'd start!

Obviously we're coming at this from different perspectives. I've always seen recall as a citizens' initiative. I see little if any role for the Standards Board. On the other hand you seem to see it as central to any recall motion, exercising a quasi-judicial function - presumably to rule whether the councillor concerned is sufficiently guilty to have to face resignation and re-election. If I've got that wrong, I'm sure you can put me right.

I really don't think 'recall' requires a judgement by anyone other than the electorate. The question to be answered is not whether the Councillor is guilty of some misconduct, but whether they should continue as councillor for a particular ward. That was the basis of what I suggested at the start of this thread, and it remains as my understanding of what 'recall' should mean.

Take a hypothetical example (in preference to a real one!) Suppose that some years ago when I moved here, I had been recently elected to the council where I lived on Teesside, and still had three years to serve. Faced with the high cost of living in Bristol, I decide not to resign from that council, but to do just enough to retain my seat and my allowances. I'd make the occasional trip north to fulfil my attendance obligations - but of course, in practice, the people who'd elected me would no longer have my services as an effective councillor.

Unless there was an effective recall system, I'd get away with it. If, however, I'd already committed to a 'recall' system (and as a Green, I probably would have done) then aggrieved residents - no doubt encouraged by other parties, or even my own, who wanted me replaced - could initiate a recall petition, subject to the safeguards already agreed within the council. I could do the decent thing, and stand down, or if I chose I could campaign against it, but if in the end there were sufficient signatories on the recall petition, I'd find it virtually impossible not to stand down.

Does that example, without any role for any Standards Board, make it any clearer?

Anonymous said...

The only redeeming feature is that they didn't take out the bit that says "Council endorses the concept of 'recall' for Bristol City councillors."

Actually, Pete, they watered down that phrase....


Stockwood Pete said...

Thanks Charlie. Well well. Mark didn't mention that, either in his short speech (which I've just seen on the webcast) or in the fuller opinion he gives above.

I've still not seen the wording of the motion as mutilated. It should be in the Minutes in a couple of days, but I'll appreciate it if you can tell us sooner.

Maybe I should draft a press release after all.....

Charlie Bolton said...

To be fair to mark, he spoke to me prior to the motion being put (it was all stitched up before the motion) - anyway, he said he had no problem with the word 'endorse' but the other parties wanted something like 'support the concept of'


Pete Goodwin said...

I've added the final wording, showing how it was amended, to the original post above.

Pete Goodwin said...

... though the detail only shows up in the blog, not in the comments list!