Why are suspensions from the Commons on the rise?

By: Angus Brown

Since the 2019 General Election, sixteen Members of Parliament have been suspended from the House of Commons, with some suspended for up to six weeks. Of that number, three were subsequently recalled by their constituents, and one more, the MP for Blackpool South Scott Benton, currently faces a recall petition in his constituency. By contrast, only nine MPs were suspended between 2010 and 2019. And in fact, these figures are somewhat deceptive, since a further five MPs have resigned from the Commons since 2019 after facing charges of serious impropriety. Notable amongst this number is the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is widely believed to have left the Commons in 2022 to avoid a long suspension and potential recall. 

Although the expenses scandal in the late 2000s saw a similar increase in suspensions and resignations, it was limited to the perpetrators of a specific set of offences linked with a particular scandal and did not augur a noticeable subsequent increase in MPs leaving Parliament. By contrast, the current wave of MPs removed from Parliament have been suspended for a fairly heterogenous set of offences, and there are good reasons to believe this trend will not abate in the near term. This should prompt serious reflection.

To start, we might say the increase in the number of suspended MPs probably has less to do with changes in behaviour than with recent reforms to the rules and processes governing Members’ conduct. For most of Parliament’s history the suspension of Members was limited to temporary expulsions by the Speaker for disorderly or unbecoming conduct in the chamber, permanent expulsion by Parliament itself (usually in response to serious criminality), or disqualification of Members found to be ineligible. These processes are outlined here in a useful note from the Commons Library. With the passage of the Representation of the People Act (1981), the rules were changed such that all Members imprisoned in either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland for more than a year are now automatically disqualified from serving in the House and their seats are thus vacated. 

The 2010s saw the beginning of a gradual process of reform which has greatly increased the range of offences for which MPs can be suspended from the Commons and introduced the possibility of recall for those suspended for more than ten sitting or fourteen calendar days. The first set of reforms changed the way in which Parliamentary standards are enforced, including by the creation of ‘arms length’ institutions to oversee MPs’ conduct. This process has been slow moving, and its roots can be traced back to the1990s and the establishment of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee and the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. But it was in the 2010s in the wake of the expenses scandal that change really began. After that blow to public confidence in Parliament, the Standards and Privileges Committee was divided in two to facilitate the appointment of non-Parliamentarian ‘lay members’ to oversee MPs’ conduct whilst maintaining Parliament’s autonomy in regulating Parliamentary Privilege. 

In 2020, a new ‘Independent Expert Panel’ was established to take over Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, itself only established in 2018 in the wake of the MeToo movement. The ICGS and Independent Expert Panel deal with cases of bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct independently of Parliament, following the advice given by Dame Laura Cox’s Inquiry into Bullying, Harassment and Sexual Harassment in Parliament in 2018. Although this panel can recommend the suspension of MPs from the Commons, this can only be actioned by a vote of the House. An unpopular attempt to undo these reforms in the wake of the Owen Patterson lobbying scandal in 2021 was unsuccessful and helped bring about the end of the second Johnson Ministry the next year. It seems quite clear that these changes are the driving force behind the recent increase in Parliamentary suspensions, a product of the new levels of scrutiny which have been brought to bear on MPs personal and professional conduct. These much-needed reforms have undeniably improved the way our parliamentarians are held to account. 

Alongside these reforms, the introduction of a ‘recall’ process for MPs suspended from the Commons has changed the politics of the parliamentary suspension. Indeed, since the passage of the Recall of MPs Act (2015) by the Coalition Government, prolonged suspensions have become a more serious concern for MPs, who may now be recalled and lose their seat. To date five petitions for the recall of suspended MPs have been held, out of which only one did not result in a by-election. 

In all four cases of recall, the candidate either declined to stand or was defeated, and no recall by-election has ever been won by the party of the recalled member. A further five members have resigned rather than face recall, whilst in 2021 Conservative MP Rob Roberts avoided a recall petition in Delyn via a ‘loophole’ in the Recall Act. This loophole has since been closed. In the same year, Labour MP Claudia Webbe avoided the threat of a recall petition after a ten-week prison sentence for harassment was successfully appealed and reduced to a non-custodial one. Both still sit in the House, although they have been expelled from their parties and neither has been re-selected to fight for their seats at the next election. 

Both the increase in suspensions and these two exceptions, as well as the significant number of MPs suspended from their parties, might lead us to conclude that further reform to Parliament’s disciplinary procedures is needed. Indeed, the chair of the Standards Committee, Labour MP Chris Bryant, has called for the next government to implement sweeping reforms to how MPs’ conduct is regulated. Similar changes have been advocated by the Institute for Government and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy in their 2023 ‘Review of the UK Constitution’ and the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe in a 2021 report on ‘Parliamentary standards and MPs’ behaviour’. But in all three cases these suggestions remain somewhat vague, although the IfG and Bennett Institute specifically propose involving Citizens’ Assemblies in monitoring MPs’ conduct. By contrast, the Conservative MP Charles Walker has called for the suspension and recall process to be reformed to make the removal of sitting MPs less common. 

At least within the current framework, there seem to be three major avenues for reform: 

  1. A resuscitation of the Commons’ largely dormant power to expel its members 
  2. An increase in the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and/or the Independent Expert Panel
  3. Reform to the recall process giving voters greater latitude to recall their representatives. 

Yet all three of these have significant drawbacks. 

In the first case, expulsion has almost always been regarded as an extreme and dangerous power, historically used only in cases of criminality, and now largely obviated by the reforms introduced in 1981 which automatically disqualify members serving all but very short custodial sentences. It cannot be ignored that under the wrong circulenes this power allows significant latitude for abuse in the form of politically motivated expulsions. At present, MPs have only been expelled from the Commons twice in modern history and the power has largely fallen into abeyance, although there was some discussion of its use at the time of the expenses scandal. 

In the second, while there may be some benefits to taking the entire process of holding MPs to account out of their hands and giving independent bodies the right to suspend members for misconduct, these are probably outweighed by the drawbacks. Although Members of Parliament should be held to the highest standards possible, Parliament is not an ordinary workplace from which its members might be fired. Independent experts cannot be given the right to dismiss duly elected Members of Parliament: even if no abuse of power were ever committed, doing so takes power away from the people who elect their representatives and places in the hands of the unelected. Such a move would violate the elementary principle of our constitution that Parliament is sovereign, independent, and answerable only to the people whom it represents. 

This might, then, suggest that we should expand the right of recall and give the people a greater say in holding their MPs to account. Yet there are also good reasons to oppose allowing voters to initiate recalls, as outlined in Parliament’s own report on the issue from 2012. Indeed, we should be sceptical of expanding the power of recall too far, lest the prized independence of MPs be disrupted, and locally unpopular but nationally vital (or temporarily unpopular but ultimately prudent) legislation be stymied, and MPs reduced from representatives to delegates. 

So, while the increase in suspensions from the House of Commons and the concomitant increase in recalls and resignations of suspended MPs, is troubling, greater reform has its challenges. Beyond this, though, the rise itself is in fact an indication of the success of the reforms in the 2010s and early 2020s designed to increase the accountability of our parliamentarians. 

Issues surrounding the quality of our representatives have produced a measurable decrease in faith in standards in public life, including declining perceptions of both Parliamentary and ministerial (and Prime Ministerial) conduct, according to a new report by the Committee for Standards in Public Life. But these changes have as much to do with candidate selection and other factors outside Parliament as with the present disciplinary process. Moving forward, we must continue to strive for a process which strikes an effective balance between the independence of House of Commons and the need to hold those who govern us to account. 

Angus Brown.

Angus is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Cambridge, where he works on debates about constitutional guardianship and the emergence of modern constitutionalism in the eighteenth century.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.