Report on the 2023 recall petition in Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Summary

The petition to recall the MP for the UK Parliament constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West was the first to take place in Scotland. It was also the first recall petition to take place following the introduction of the requirement for people to show photographic identification (ID) when signing the petition in person.

Overall, we found the petition to be well run, and the Petition Officer (PO) delivered their duties as set out in the Recall of MPs Act 2015. There were no significant problems which affected people eligible to sign or wishing to campaign.

However, in line with our reports into the 2019 recall petitions in Peterborough and Brecon and Radnorshire, and the 2018 recall petition in North Antrim, we have again identified challenges arising from the application of election rules to a recall petition process. We continue to recommend that the UK Government review the policy and legislation for recall petitions to improve the process for any future recall petitions. 

Summary

Recommendations for the UK Government

The UK Government should review the policy and legislation for recall petitions to identify changes that would improve the experience for electors and the process to be followed by those administering future petitions. The Government should:

  • Identify the appropriate length for a reduced petition period of less than six weeks.
  • Review the scope of who can observe the process in signing places to extend transparency and scrutiny, while ensuring that secrecy is maintained for people signing the petition.Consider whether eligible electors should be given the chance to complete an equivalent to the signing sheet to indicate that they oppose the petition.  
  • Set out more clearly what time signing places should close on the final day of the petition period, the deadline for receipt of postal signing papers, and when and how the Speaker should be notified of the petition result.
  • Keep the rules for donations and spending by campaigners under review as more experience is gained at future recall petitions, to ensure there is appropriate oversight and regulation of campaigner spending.
     

Recommendations for Petition Officers and Returning Officers

We also recommend that Returning Officers should continue to keep under review contingency plans to include arrangements for delivering any recall petitions which could potentially take place in their constituencies, particularly to identify possible locations for signing places.

Additionally, Petition Officers should ensure they offer some extended opening hours for people to sign the petition, beyond the minimum hours of 9am to 5pm.

Data vis

Most people wishing to sign the petition had done so within the first two weeks of the signing period

Most people wishing to sign the petition had done so within the first two weeks of the signing period

Data provided by the Petition Officer (PO) indicates that most people who decided to sign the petition did so within the first two weeks. 

A total of 9,226 people either signed in person or had returned a postal ballot pack by the end of the second week of the signing period. This amounts to 75% of all those who signed in person or returned a postal ballot pack within the full six-week period.

 

Most people wishing to sign the petition had done so within the first two weeks of the signing period

Most people signed petition by post

While not every signing sheet returned by post or completed in a signing place would be able to be included in the count – for example, if the postal pack signing sheet failed the verification of signatures and date of birth, or the signing sheet was spoiled – It is nevertheless evident that the 10% threshold would have been met by the end of the second week of the petition being open. However, the PO was required to keep the petition open for the full six-week period regardless of the number of people who had signed.

Most people who signed the petition did so by post

Everyone who was a registered postal voter for UK Parliament elections was automatically issued with a postal signing sheet at the beginning of the signing period. People who were not registered as postal voters could apply for a postal vote up until 14 July. There were a total of 14,865 postal ballot packs issued, amounting to 18% of all eligible signers.

A total of 6,869 completed postal ballot packs were returned and 6,807 were included in the count (62 were not included as either their date of birth, signature or both did not match those given at the time of application). Postal signing sheets accounted for 57% of all signing sheets included in the count.

The majority (85%) of all postal signing packs returned were received by the PO in the first two weeks of the petition being open.

Following the recall petitions in 2018 and 2019, we recommended that the length of the signing period should be reviewed because the majority of those choosing to sign had done so early in the period. The experience from the Rutherglen and Hamilton West petition provides further evidence in support of this recommendation.

Feedback from the PO and their staff also highlighted the challenges in securing and staffing appropriate venues for a six-week signing period, particularly as they had only two weeks between confirmation that the petition would proceed and the opening of the signing places. The data provided by the PO demonstrated a clear reduction in the number of people signing after the first two weeks of the petition being open. In two signing places staff reported that on one day each (in the fourth and fifth weeks of the signing period) they had no signer attend despite the signing station being open from 9am until 5pm.

Petition Officers continue to face challenges in securing signing places for the six-week signing period 

POs can designate up to 10 signing places for a recall petition.  Seven signing places were allocated in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. However, the PO faced considerable challenges in securing adequate venues for the duration of the signing period. When the Recall of MPs Act was enacted in 2015, the PO and their staff carried out a review to identify appropriate council venues for signing places in the event of a future recall petition. However, many of the venues identified in 2015, such as libraries, were no longer available. Many existing venues used as election polling places could also not be secured for a six-week period. A reduced signing period could enable a greater choice of appropriate venues which are accessible for people who are eligible to sign the petition.

The PO ensured that every polling district was allocated a signing place. However, feedback from staff in signing places suggested that some voters were confused by the signing place they had been allocated which in some cases was not the nearest signing place to them. Staff and campaigners reported people trying to sign in signing places to which they were not allocated. We do not know if those people subsequently attended their allocated place. 

After the recall petition had closed, the Electoral Registration Officer informed us that 121 people were erroneously included in the register for the recall petition when they were actually resident in the neighbouring constituency. The exclusion of these people would have reduced the 10% success threshold for the recall petition by 12 people. Following our advice, the PO wrote to the Speaker, registered campaigners and the MP who had been the subject of the petition to inform them of the error. We understand that no concerns were raised with the PO in response. 

We recommend that Returning Officers regularly review their contingency plans to include preparations for a potential recall petition and in particular to identify appropriate places for signing. 

People signing the petition made good use of extended opening hours

Signing places must be open from 9am until 5pm, Monday to Friday, for the six-week period. They can also choose to offer extended opening hours. The extended opening hours for the signing places in Rutherglen and Hamilton West are set out in the table below.
 

Number of signing places7
Extended opening hours in the evening (5pm – 8pm)
  • Monday 26 June 
  • Tuesday 4 July 
  • Wednesday 12 July 
  • Thursday 20 July 
  • Thursday 27 July
Saturday opening from 9am – 1pm
 
  • Saturday 1 July 
  • Saturday 22 July 

The data supplied by the PO indicates that signers made good use of the extended signing periods, particularly on weekday evenings.

While a total of 176 people chose to sign across the two Saturdays on which the signing places were open, 1,068 signed across the five days on which extended weekday opening hours were offered. In each week, the day with extended opening hours saw more than twice as many signers attend compared to any other day of that week.

Peaks

Petition officers

We recommend that Petition Officers for future recall petitions should ensure they offer some extended opening hours for people to sign the petition, beyond the minimum hours of 9am to 5pm.

Page history

First published:

Last updated: 7 February 2024