The process to challenge a sitting MP: review of the 2019 recall petitions

Summary

There have been two petitions during 2019 to recall the MPs for the constituencies of Peterborough and Brecon and Radnorshire

Both Petition Officers (POs) delivered all their duties as required under the Recall Act 2015 and provided a high standard of service. There were no significant problems which affected people eligible to sign or wishing to campaign.

Only one recall petition had been held before, in 2018 in the North Antrim constituency. The experiences of these three recall petitions have provided us with valuable evidence about how the existing petition rules work in practice, in different:

  • parts of the UK
  • types of constituencies
  • political contexts.

There are some areas where applying electoral rules to a process which is not an election has led to administrative challenges and issues with transparency and secrecy, and we have made recommendations for changes to the rules and processes for running future recall petitions.

Our recommendations

Recommendations for the UK Government

The UK Government should now review the policy and legislation for recall petitions to identify changes that would improve the experience for electors and the administration of future petitions. The Government should:

  • Identify the appropriate length for a reduced petition period of less than six weeks. This should start by considering whether a four-week period would be sufficient.
  • 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.
  • Review the recall petition regulations for Northern Ireland to ensure there is appropriate access to inspect the marked register if there are concerns about fraud at future recall petitions.
  • 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 and 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 Petition Officers and Returning Officers should review their plans for running future recall petitions:

  • 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.
  • Returning Officers should review their contingency planning to include arrangements for delivering any recall petitions which could potentially take place in their constituencies, particularly to identify possible locations for signing places. 
     

Signing the recall petitions

In both Peterborough and in Brecon and Radnorshire more than 10% of the people eligible to sign the recall petition had done so by the end of the six-week signing period. This meant that the sitting MPs would be recalled and a by-election would be held to fill the vacant seat in each constituency.

Chart 1: Percentage of eligible people who signed the recall petitions in Brecon and Radnorshire and Peterborough

Signing the recall petitions

Transparency and secrecy

It is important to ensure that people who are entitled to sign a recall petition feel able to express their views freely, while also having confidence that petition processes are well-run and that any allegations of fraud can be investigated. 

Restrictions on transparency and secrecy are more significant for a recall petition, compared with an election, because it is obvious what position someone signing a petition is taking: they have made an active choice in favour of the proposal to recall the current MP. By contrast, polling station observation or inspection of the marked register after an election shows only that a ballot paper was issued to an individual elector, and does not indicate whether they cast a vote for a particular candidate or party.

There are some areas of the petition process, discussed below, that could be clarified for POs, electors and the public more widely to ensure that the appropriate levels of secrecy and transparency are in place. The UK Government should review the law in these areas.

The Government could also consider whether all eligible electors should be given the chance to complete an equivalent to the signing sheet to indicate they oppose it. This could reduce the risk of compromising secrecy for individuals, particularly if access to independent observation of the process in signing places were to be extended.

Transparency and secrecy

Running the recall petition

In both constituencies the petitions were well-run. Most people in Peterborough said they were confident that the petition was well-run (87%), with almost all of those who actually signed the petition saying they were confident (96%). 

However, both POs faced practical challenges in running the petitions in their constituencies. These were increased, in the areas outlined below, by a lack of clarity in some areas of the legislation, POs having to take on new responsibilities and difficulties in POs having to use electoral management software to run a petition which is not the same as an election. POs were also faced with planning and delivering other electoral events which impacted on resourcing the petitions.

Running the recall petition

Background

Last updated: 10 October 2019
Next review: 29 September 2020