Report: 2018 recall petition in North Antrim

Overview

From 8 August to 19 September 2018, electors in the constituency of North Antrim were able to take part in the first ever recall petition in the UK. This report covers how the petition was run and makes some recommendations for future recall petitions.

Summary

The North Antrim recall petition was the first to take place across the UK since the Recall of MPs Act was introduced in 2015. It was the first time the legislation was tested and has provided an opportunity to look at lessons to be learnt and improvements that could be made for any future recall petition in the UK.

Our report is based on feedback from those who administered the petition and those who campaigned during the petition period, as well as our own observations.

This highlighted a number of issues which would merit further consideration by the UK Government.

However, it should be acknowledged that these are based on the experience of running only one recall petition, and different issues could arise if a recall petition were to take place in any other constituency in the UK.

Findings and recommendations

Overall we found that the Petition Officer successfully delivered all of her duties as required under the Act. There were no significant problems in the delivery of the recall petition which affected voters or any individuals or organisations wishing to campaign.

We recognise that the decision to use only three signing places was the subject of much debate and criticism. However, we have found no evidence that an increased number of signing places would have contributed to a different result at the end of the recall petition.

Feedback from those who worked and campaigned at the recall petition was that the six week signing period was too long. Concerns were also raised as to whether there was enough awareness amongst electors on how they could participate.

In light of this we have recommended that the UK Government should:

Consider whether a signing period of six weeks is appropriate and whether this should be changed for future recall petitions.
Consider how electors can get information about the recall petition and how they can take part in it if they so wish.
We have also asked the Government to explore what more can be done to improve transparency in the delivery of recall petitions whilst also ensuring that electors can have confidence in the integrity and secrecy of a petition

How the recall petition was run

Background

On 26 July MPs voted to suspend Ian Paisley MP for North Antrim for 30 sitting days.

This was in response to a report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, which found that Mr Paisley had committed multiple breaches of the Code of Conduct for MPs in relation to two family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

The Recall of MPs Act 2015 introduced a process where a sitting MP can lose their seat in the House of Commons if there is a successful petition to recall them. One of the conditions to trigger a recall petition is if an MP is barred from sitting in the House for 10 or more sitting days.

As required under the Act, the Speaker of the House of Commons wrote to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, in her role as Petition Officer, to notify her that a recall petition should be opened in the constituency of North Antrim for a period of six weeks.

The report

We are required to publish a report on any recall petition after the end of the recall petition period.

For this report we have gathered information from the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland; Electoral Commission representatives who observed at the signing places, verification and count; staff who worked at the signing places; and political parties and campaigners.

Although we did not carry out research with the public we have taken into account any comments made by electors to the Electoral Office, staff at the signing places and ourselves about their experience of signing the petition.

The North Antrim recall petition was the first to take place across the UK and the first time the legislation was tested. It has provided an opportunity to look at lessons to be learnt and improvements that could be made for any future recall petition in the UK.

However, it is important to bear in mind the unique political circumstances that can exist in any one constituency when considering what a recall petition might look like elsewhere in the UK.

How the recall petition was run

Transparency and secrecy

Concerns were raised at an early stage of the recall petition by some campaigners about a ‘lack of secrecy’ which may have stopped some electors from signing the petition.

This was because when an elector entered a room at a signing place it was clear that their intention was to sign the petition to unseat their MP and trigger a by-election. The feedback we received from petition staff was that this seemed odd when compared to an electoral event where the elector’s decision remains secret throughout.

The Petition Officer was aware of this issue and made efforts to ensure there was a balance between privacy and ease of access for electors at the signing places. During the recall petition period the rooms used within some of the signing places did change to address this, but this was often met with further criticism around accessibility and privacy.

In our view, the rooms used were suitable for the recall petition but we recognise that some concerns were raised about the room used in the Ballymena signing place as it was clearly visible from the reception area and close to the front door of the leisure centre.

We received no complaints from electors around secrecy or intimidation at any of the signing places. Anyone who had concerns about signing at a signing place had the option to sign by post or appointing a proxy, which would offer greater secrecy.

Petition Officers at future recall petitions should take into account the need for privacy when allocating signing places within their constituency.

Transparency and secrecy

Further recommendations for change

Throughout the duration of the recall petition, the Commission and the Petition Officer identified a number of inconsistencies and omissions in the legislation.

This may be expected given that this is the first time that the legislation has been tested. While many of these are minor, they can create an additional administrative burden and a lack of clarity that could impact on the successful delivery of a recall petition.

The UK Government should consider opportunities that are available to make amendments ahead of any future recall petition. We have addressed some of these changes in our report, including access to the marked register and observation of proceedings, but draw particular attention to the following:

Further recommendations for change

Last updated: 29 July 2019
Next review: 4 July 2020