3 Conduct of the recall petition |
39. Once one of the two triggers had been met,
the recall petition process itself would begin. In the White
Paper, the Government states: "Our general approach is that
the provisions for the conduct of the recall petition should mirror,
as far as possible, those in place for the conduct of parliamentary
Under the Government's proposals, the formal start of the recall
process would be when the Speaker gave notice of the petition
to the relevant returning officer, who would then be responsible
for conducting the process. The petition would be opened two
weeks after receipt of the notice and would remain open for eight
weeks. Constituents would be eligible to sign the petition if
they were on the electoral register for the constituency. They
could sign by post, or in person or by proxy by visiting a single
specified location in the constituency. There would be individual
signature sheets in an attempt to preserve anonymity. If 10%
of those on the electoral register for the constituency signed
the petition, the MP's seat would be vacated and there would be
40. Democratic Audit told us: "The procedure
proposed by the Government for administering the petition process
seems to be a reasonable one."
Other witnesses, however, were critical of the Government's proposals.
Peter Facey, Director of Unlock Democracy, commented: "It
is one of the most restrictive forms of recall I have seen, not
only in terms of the issues you can be recalled for...but in the
way in which you can sign the petition."
Nick Cowen, a policy researcher, stated: "I can think of
few other processes that would make a petition less likely to
be signed than the one proposed in the consultation document."
We discuss the main issues raised by witnesses who were critical
of the process in more detail below.
SINGLE DESIGNATED LOCATION
41. The Government proposes that returning officers
must provide a single designated location within the constituency
at which people eligible to sign the petition may do so. Professor
Zimmerman, of the University at Albany, State University of New
York, commented: "The designation of a single location for
signing the petition contained in the Government's proposals for
the conduct of the recall petition process will inhibit to a degree
voter participation in a geographically large constituency."
The Association of Electoral Administrators stated: "A single
location would be more straightforward to administer but would
not be convenient or accessible for all electors particularly
in large rural constituencies."
42. The Association proposed an alternative whereby
there would be multiple designated locations and "each of
the returning officers with responsibility for the parts of the
constituency within their respective local authority areas would
take responsibility for the administration of the process in those
areas under the general direction and control of the lead returning
a small increase in the number of designated locations would be
likely to increase participation. The Government should replace
the requirement for a single designated location for signing the
petition with a requirement for at least two and no more than
four designated locations. The locations should be selected with
regard to making signing the petition in person as convenient
as possible for everyone in the constituency. Provision must
be made to ensure that duplicate signatures are discounted.
43. Scope raised the issue of the accessibility
of the designated location for disabled people. They commented:
"We recognise that the White Paper sets an expectation that
Returning Officers will be required to take accessibility into
account when deciding which location to choose. However, this
expectation is not reflected in the draft legislation."
They suggested that the final Bill contain wording similar to
that used in section 16 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006,
which puts a duty on local authorities to "ensure that so
far as is reasonable and practicable every polling place for which
it is responsible is accessible to electors who are disabled."
In the case of recall, the duty would be on returning officers,
rather than local authorities. The
Government should include in the final Bill a specific duty on
returning officers to ensure, as far as is reasonable and practicable,
the designated locations for signing the petition are accessible
to constituents who are disabled.
44. As an alternative to signing the petition
in person, constituents may choose to sign by post. The Government
comments: "This will ensure that those who are unable, or
would prefer not, to attend and sign the petition in person will
still be able to participate." It adds: "Absent signing
will also allow electors who wish to sign the petition a means
to do so privately, without the concern that they may be observed."
The Association of Electoral Administrators were concerned
about the arrangement for distributing postal votes. In the White
Paper, the Government states: "In contrast to the position
at elections, it is envisaged that constituents who have an extant
postal vote will not be sent a postal signature sheet automatically
but will be sent one only upon request."
The Association of Electoral Administrators said that they were
"unclear as to the reasons for this policy decision"
and commented that "it could have significant practical
They stated that the arrangement could be "confusing"
to people who were used to receiving their ballot papers automatically
and added: "It will be necessary to widely disseminate public
information to explain this key difference."
45. When we asked the Minister why the arrangements
for signing a recall petition by post were different from those
for voting by post, he replied:
The recall process must maintain political impartiality
at all times. Automatically sending out a petition signature sheet
to registered postal voters could be seen as soliciting petition
signatures. There is also a risk that some constituents may feel
compelled to sign something without the full understanding of
what it is they are signing due to its authoritative appearance.
46. We believe that constituents
who have an existing postal vote should be sent a postal signature
sheet automatically if there is a recall petition. The risk of
being seen to solicit signatures, or of constituents feeling compelled
to sign, should be minimised by clear accompanying instructions
and information about the purpose of the petition.
SECRECY AND INTIMIDATION
47. The Government acknowledges in the White
Paper that, whereas anyone voting in an election is protected
not only by the secrecy of the polling booth, but by the fact
that there are multiple options on the ballot paper, the level
of secrecy that can be guaranteed is different in the case of
a recall petition:
in a recall petition a constituent can only sign
the petition to say that they would like their MP to lose their
seat; therefore any observer seeing constituents sign the petition,
seeing returned petition sheets, or even the issue of incomplete
petition sheets to constituents can deduce their views.
48. Keith Archer, the Chief Electoral Officer
in British Columbia, commented: "When asked by stakeholders
about how the privacy of individuals who sign a recall petition
is protected, Elections British Columbia advises that due to the
nature of the recall model established in the legislation, signing
a petition is a public act."
49. Professor Zimmerman, of the University at
Albany, State University of New York, argued: "To protect
the secrecy of signers, the petition form should contain two options:
(1) 'Retain the Member in Office" and (2) "Initiate
a Recall Election of the Member.'"
When we asked the Minister for his response to this argument,
he replied: "Under the proposals, those who disagreed with
the petition would have a chance to express that view at any resulting
by-election where they have the option of re-electing their Member
should they stand."
We agree that offering people the chance to vote for or against
recalling their MP would effectively anticipate the process that
would take place anyway if the recall petition were to be successful.
50. The UK Government proposes a number of measures
to maintain secrecy, including "secondary legislation...[to]
strictly limit access to documents relating to a recall petition
after its conclusion."
The Electoral Commission asked Government and Parliament to
consider "whether it is appropriate that the levels of privacy
and secrecy found currently in polling stations should be applied
to petitions which are, by their nature, public statements which
require transparency and verification to support trust in the
process and the result."
We share the unease of the Electoral Commission about the measures
proposed in the White Paper to maintain secrecy. A
petition is a public document and, given that the Government itself
admits that it would be possible to observe people signing it
or taking steps to sign it, it may be more likely to inspire public
confidence in the long run if the Government were to acknowledge
that it is not possible to protect the privacy of people who sign
the petition and to be open about its public nature.
51. In the case of Northern Ireland, the Government
has gone one step further in an attempt to avoid the intimidation
of constituents who want to sign a recall petition. Here, the
petition could be signed only by post. The Alliance Party of
Northern Ireland expressed "very strong reservations"
about this proposal.
Naomi Long MP, writing on behalf of the party, outlined three
main objections. First, she noted that "the reason for the
restriction on absent voting in Northern Ireland elections, namely
the risk of voter intimidation and fraud, would equally apply
in this case." She commented: "The risk that people
could fraudulently either apply for or use the postal vote of
another individual or apply coercion to an individual to sign
the petition against their will is of serious concern and the
use of postal voting provides no protection whatsoever against
she stated: "the difference in the method of collecting the
petition in different parts of the UK could lead to differential
turnouts in different regions, a fact which is not reflected in
threshold set for triggering a by-election."
Thirdly, she commented: "whilst the particular circumstances
in Northern Ireland give rise to specific concerns regarding the
issue of intimidation, it is perfectly conceivable that intimidation
of voters could also take place in other parts of the UK".
52. The Electoral Commission also expressed concerns
about the different arrangements for signing the petition in Northern
We do not believe it is appropriate to provide significantly
different arrangements for electors in Northern Ireland to sign
a recall petition than those in Great Britain, given the drive
towards greater alignment in electoral law and practice between
Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
53. Naomi Long MP suggested that one solution
would be to have "a recall plebiscite/referendum" instead
of a petition. As
we noted above, enabling people to vote for or against recall
would indeed increase the secrecy of the process, but it would
in effect be duplicating the by-election process itself. We are
not convinced that this is a satisfactory solution. However,
we are uncomfortable with a different process applying in Northern
Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Government's proposal to restrict the methods of signing the
petition in Northern Ireland to postal signing is not a proportionate
response to concerns about intimidation. Everyone who is eligible
to sign will be able to do so by post if they wish, so nobody
in Northern Ireland would have to sign the petition in person
unless they actively chose to do so. We recommend that constituents
in Northern Ireland should be able to sign the petition in person
if that is what they wish to do.
54. Scope raised concerns about the requirement
to provide a signature in order to support the petition: "This
would create considerable difficulties for disabled people who
may be unable to sign as a result of the nature of their impairment."
Scope added: "We would be concerned if the expectation
is for Returning Officers to assist in such cases by signing on
behalf of the disabled person, as this would both undermine the
secrecy of the process, and potentially lead to allegations of
multiple signing and undermine the legitimacy of the process."
55. The requirement for eligible
constituents to sign the petition in order to show they support
it seems to us reasonable. However, the Government must ensure
that suitable alternative arrangements are made for disabled people
who are unable to sign the petition.
WORDING OF PETITION
56. The Electoral Commission asked whether "there
should be any independent user testing of the wording for the
proposed recall petitions, in the same way that the intelligibility
of referendum questions are assessed by the Commission against
The Association of Electoral Administrators also suggested that
the wording in clause 8 of the draft Bill, which is the text that
would appear on the petition, should be tested for plain language.
of the wording of the petition, and of the accompanying information
about the process, should be tested by the Electoral Commission
before it is agreed.
HENRY VIII POWERS
57. The Clerk of the House of Commons, Robert
Rogers, drew attention to "the sweeping 'Henry VIII' powers
in Clause 19 of the draft Bill".
A Henry VIII clause confers on Ministers the power to amend primary
legislation by means of secondary or delegated legislation. In
the case of the draft Recall of MPs Bill, the Henry VIII powers
are in clause 19(2), and the power to amend primary legislation
includes the power to amend the Recall of MPs Act itself. When
we asked the Minister why these powers had been included in the
Bill, he commented:
In order to ensure that the regulations interact
appropriately with the relevant primary legislation, the broad
power to amend primary legislation has been included in clause
19. This is particularly necessary in view of the proposed introduction
of a system of individual electoral registration.
We are uncomfortable with sweeping
powers to amend primary legislation by means of secondary legislation
in a Bill of a constitutional nature and we recommend that the
Government remove these powers from the final Bill.
58. Once a recall petition has been initiated,
people will be able to campaign to have their MP recalled. The
Government proposes that there will be two categories of campaigners:
accredited campaigners, who must register with the returning officer
and who will be able to spend up to £10,000 and non-accredited
campaigners, who will be able to spend up to £500 campaigning
without having to make any declaration concerning spending. Both
the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral
Commission raised concerns about the role of the returning officer
in this context. The Association commented:
Whilst it is usual for returning officers to receive
and hold the returns and receipts relating to candidates' expenses,
it is a significant departure for returning officers to be responsible
for registering campaigners, and to have 'oversight' of campaign
expenditure and donations as suggested in the White Paper.
59. The Electoral Commission noted that "returning
officers do not have experience of regulating campaigning, and
are likely to need support in order to be able to carry out this
role." They added: "The White Paper proposes that the
Commission would have a power, but not a duty, to provide guidance
to Returning Officers, but that guidance would not be binding
and the Commission would have no role in policing compliance with
They also stated: "the Electoral Commission does not routinely
produce guidance on the regulation of campaigning in respect of
electoral events which we do not regulate, and ...taking on this
role for a new regulatory regime, applying to a process which
is not an election or referendum, would have potentially significant
60. We recommend that the Government
reconsider whether returning officers are the best people to be
responsible for the regulation of petition expenditure and donations,
or whether the Electoral Commission might be better placed to
undertake this role.
THE 10% THRESHOLD FOR SIGNATURES
61. The Government proposes that the threshold
required to trigger a by-election would be 10% of those on the
parliamentary electoral register for the constituency in question.
Our witnesses differed on whether 10% was the appropriate threshold.
Nick Cowen suggested lowering the threshold to "10% of total
votes cast in the constituency at the previous general election,
rather than the total number of voters on the parliamentary electoral
register." He commented: "This would lower the bar
to recall in areas of low turn-out, while making it a bit harder
for MPs previously elected on a more popular mandate to be recalled."
62. Other witnesses, however, thought that the
threshold of 10% of the electoral register was already low. Naomi
Long MP, writing on behalf of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland,
commented: "Ten percent of the registered electorate is
a relatively low proportion of the electorate to trigger what
is an expensive process of recall and by-election." She
stated: "A more reasonable threshold may be between one fifth
and one quarter of the registered electorate, which is achievable,
would represent a significant level of discontent with the MP,
and which would be less susceptible to abuse."
The Committee on Standards in Public Life noted: "The appropriate
trigger level is clearly a matter of judgement, but the relatively
low level required could leave the process open to abuse through
manipulation of postal or proxy votes."
63. If the Government takes
the steps we have recommended to make signing the petition easierhaving
several designated locations and those who have an extant postal
vote automatically being sent a postal signature sheetit
should raise the threshold from 10% to at least 20%. We believe
this would represent a significant level of dissatisfaction with
the sitting MP.
43 Recall of MPs, p 25 Back
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