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4Electoral law and the length of time between Parliaments

203.The draft Bill does not simply return to the status quo in one important matter: it retains the current timetable for elections of 25 working days between dissolution and polling date, rather than restoring the seventeen working day timetable which applied at the time the Act was passed. In this chapter we look at this and some other, more minor, issues relating to electoral law.

The statutory election timetable

204.The change in the statutory election period for general elections brought them into line with the period for local elections.173 It also had the effect of lengthening the minimum period without a Parliament following dissolution.

205.The table below illustrates the differences in the statutory election timetable in the 2010 and the 2019 General Elections.


When in 2010

When in 2019

Dissolution/Calling of New Parliament

Working Day 0

Issuing of Writs

Working Day 0

Writs taken to be received

Working Day 1

Publication of notice of election

Not later than Working Day 3 (two Working Days after the writs are received)

Deadline for nomination of candidates

4pm on Working Day 6

Deadline for registering to vote and applying for a postal vote

Midnight and 5pm respectively on Working Day 6

Midnight and 5pm respectively on Working Day 14

Deadline to appoint a proxy

Working Day 11

Working Day 19

Polling Day

Working Day 17

Working Day 25

206.The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 did not fundamentally alter the election timetable up to and including the deadline for nomination of candidates. Its effect was to extend, by 8 working days, the deadlines for registering:

207.Since those features of the election were extended by 8 working days, so too was polling day itself. It would fall 25 working days after the writs were issued, rather than 17.

208.As the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators have explained in their evidence to the Committee, the extension of these deadlines was done particularly in response to changes made in relation to voter registration and to the availability of postal votes in the context of UK General Elections. Specifically:

209.No postal ballots can be prepared and distributed until after the list of candidates in a constituency has been finalised (working day 6 of either 17 or 25). The old system therefore only afforded allowed 11 working days (just over two weeks) within which time:

210.This posed particular problems with overseas voting, where delays were possible both with the sending out of ballots to the voter, and the returning of the ballot once received. A 25 working day election period, by contrast, allows 19 working days, or just under four weeks, for the same process to be undertaken.

211.The AEA told us IVR had indeed drastically increased the proportion of voters registering immediately prior to a general election, rather than during the autumn canvass. It also noted that the number of postal votes issued increased from fewer than one million at the 1997 general election to more than 8.4 million at the 2017 general election:

Postal voting is in many ways the biggest challenge for electoral administrators to deliver. Ballot packs need technically complex and secure printing and must be sent in time for electors around the globe to return. From a standing start, we believe it would be impossible to deliver postal voting in 17-days–it is difficult enough within the 25-day framework.175

212.It concluded that “as an absolute minimum the 25-day timetable must be maintained” and that any reduction in the timetable would be “catastrophic for everyone involved”:176

We feel that a 25-day timetable is achievable but only where additional advance notice is given so that preparations can commence before Writs are issued. We do not believe a 17-day timetable could be achieved unless there was a further notice period longer than has been experienced at the last two unscheduled general elections. We also believe a 17-day timetable would disenfranchise electors, especially those living overseas who the UK Government is currently working hard to assist to vote.177

213.The Electoral Commission identified several key risks associated with a reduction in the election timetable:

a)It would leave a much tighter deadline for postal votes to be applied for and returned. This is known especially to be a problem for overseas voters even with the 25 working day deadline.

b)Shortening the gap between the close of nominations and polling day would increase pressure on key electoral administration tasks, and would make it harder to secure polling stations and count venues and to employ and adequately train polling and counting staff (especially if an election is held at an unscheduled point in the election cycle and at short notice as in 2019).

c)It would increase complexity for electoral administrators as the rules would differ from other elections, some of which may be combined or take place at a similar time of year, increasing the risk of administrative error.

d)Shortening the gap between the issuing of writs and the deadline for nominations would make it harder for candidates to collect signatures of subscribers.

e)Smaller parties and independent candidates would be negatively impacted in terms of organising and funding their campaigns and may find it more difficult in short timeframes to campaign with relevant registered identifiers (such as party name, description and emblem) not being put on the ballot paper.

f)A shorter election period would mean a reduction in the length of the regulated spending period, which has implications for the existing campaign spending limits (which were originally increased to account for a longer campaign).178

214.UK General Elections have become more complex because of changes to voter registration and relaxation of the rules to do with postal vote eligibility. Other policy initiatives, such as extending the rights of overseas voters and the introduction of voter ID initiatives seem likely to place additional pressures on electoral administrators. The current legislative framework, set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983, is nearly forty years old. The Committee appreciates the difficulties that electoral administrators might face in reducing the election timetable from its current 25 working days. However, the lengthening of the election period has meant that the time between the dissolution of Parliament and its return is also lengthened. While we consider the country should be without Parliament for as short a time as possible, this must be balanced with the need to ensure that as many citizens as possible can register to vote and exercise their democratic right to vote in elections.

215.We would like to see a significant reduction in the election timetable, insofar as this is compatible with ensuring the register is up to date and proxy and postal votes are possible, including for overseas voters. A cross-party working party should be established by Government to examine how the General Election campaign period can be shortened from 25 days without compromising voter participation, including through the increased use of technology and increased focus on year round voter registration. The working party should report its recommendations to Government as soon as possible and in time to ensure any legislative requirements can be put forward in legislation for consideration before the expected date of the next General Election.

The finalisation of Parliamentary business before a dissolution

216.Parliament will often sit for a few days—known as the “wash up period”—after the monarch has granted a Prime Minister’s request for an early election. In this period any outstanding business can be completed subject to negotiations between parties and any business to appropriate necessary money to the government and ensure it can function during the dissolution period. Wash up periods have traditionally been short, between two and four sitting days, but on some occasions there have been lengthy prorogations after the wash up and before the election.179

Timetabling for the first meeting of a new Parliament

217.The length of time between polling day at a general election and the first meeting of the new Parliament is essentially unregulated and would remain so under the Government’s proposals.180 As a matter of constitutional practice, the first meeting is set by the incumbent Government at the point of dissolution. A proclamation summoning a new Parliament will specify the date on which that new Parliament is to meet for the first time. The first meeting of the Parliament is used for the House of Commons to elect (or re-elect) its Speaker, and to begin the swearing-in of Members returned at the general election. The transaction of any other business, however, only starts after the Address from the Throne, the date for which is determined by the Government. This means that if a general election were to deliver no clear majority, an incumbent government could delay starting and completing debates on the Loyal Address so as to postpone the holding of a potential no-confidence vote. The only legal requirement that Parliament sit following repeal of the FtPA would be the Meeting of Parliament Act 1694.

218.Since 1970, a new Parliament has, with only one exception (1992), met within a fortnight of polling day, and it is the norm that Parliament meets the week following polling day to enable the House of Commons to elect a Speaker and for both Houses to swear in their members. There is then a further gap, usually of about a week, before the State Opening of Parliament and a Queen’s Speech takes place, though again this period is not regulated by statute.

219.In 2007 the Modernisation Committee recommended that the typical gap between polling day and the first meeting of Parliament should be extended from the norm (around six days) to twelve days. This would, it said, greatly assist the induction of new members returned at the election.181 Although a gap of almost two weeks was chosen ahead of both the 2010 and 2015 general elections, the gap following the 2017 and 2019 elections was considerably shorter (just five days).

220.In recent years concern has been focussed on the delay to the meeting of Parliament and the reestablishment of its scrutiny mechanisms rather than on the need for a new Parliament to prepare itself. This is particularly acute in the Commons, where committees need to be constituted afresh each Parliament. The Committee considers that it is desirable for the periods in which Parliament is not functioning, or a House is not yet able to scrutinise effectively, should be as short as possible. The election timetable is only one part of this. The Committee believes that both the period between the last sitting of Parliament and dissolution and the period between polling day and the first meeting of Parliament should, wherever possible, be less than a week. While we would be concerned about legislation which dictated Parliamentary procedure, we recommend that the Government consider whether there should be statutory provision setting a shorter limit on the period in which the country can be without a functioning Parliament.

By elections

221.The draft Bill does not deal with what should happen when a general election is called in between the issue of a writ for a by election and that election taking place. Sir David Natzler told us that after the death of Sir Gerald Kaufman, then Father of the House, a by election had been fixed for 4 May. A General Election was called between the issue of the writ for the by election, and the date for the by election, and Parliament was dissolved on 3 May and the General Election was held on 8 June 2017. There was no clear way of cancelling the by election; in the end:

on 19 April the Government tabled a motion ordering the Speaker to convey to the Clerk of the Crown its desire for a writ of supersedeas: the motion was duly agreed on 20 April.182

222.Rather than relying on parliamentary action in future, Sir David considered that “statutory provision empowering either the local or central authorities to cancel writs for by-elections once the Prime Minister has publicly indicated the date of a future general election” would be desirable.

173 Association of Electoral Administrators (FTP0021); Electoral Commission (FTP0023)

174 Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, Section 14

175 Association of Electoral Administrators (FTP0021)

176 Association of Electoral Administrators (FTP0021)

177 Electoral Commission (FTP0023)

178 Electoral Commission (FTP0023)

179 Most notably in 1997 when the House was prorogued from 21 March to 15 April and dissolved on 8 April for an election on 1 May

180 In theory the date appointed can be any date within three years of the dissolution of the last Parliament per the Meeting of Parliament Act 1694. In practice, no Government could sustainably set a date much later than a few weeks after polling day, because of the need for Parliamentary approval for public expenditure at regular intervals under the supply and estimates process.

181 Modernisation Committee, First Report of Session 2006–07, Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member, HC 337

182 Sir David Natzler KCB, former clerk of the House of Commons (2014–2019) (FTP0017)

Published: 24 March 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement