Recall elections: everything you (n)ever wanted to know

Recall petitions have been in the news recently, following the decision of voters in Brecon & Radnorshire to recall their (now former) MP, Chris Davies, after he pled guilty to two counts of fraud concerning Parliamentary expenses.
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Recall elections are relatively new in the UK and were introduced in 2015 partly in response to the MPs’ expenses scandal which occurred in the run up to the 2010 general election. MPs can be recalled only under certain circumstances:

• If they are convicted in the UK of an offence and sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained and all appeals have been exhausted (and the sentence does not lead to automatic disqualification from being an MP);
• If they are suspended from the House following report and recommended sanction from the Committee on Standards for a specified period (at least 10 sitting days, or at least 14 days if sitting days are not specified); or
• If they are convicted of an offence under section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 (making false or misleading Parliamentary allowances claims).

So far there have been only been three recall elections: the first was triggered in July 2018 involving the North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley; the second in March 2019 involving the Peterborough Labour MP Fiona Onasanya; and the third in May 2019 involving the Brecon and Radnorshire MP Chris Davies. The first recall petition against Mr. Paisley failed to reach the threshold of support from 10% of the electorate required to force a by-election, but having achieved it in the second two instances resulted in by-elections in Peterborough, and in Brecon and Radnorshire.

Following the North Antrim recall petition, The Electoral Commission produced a report into how the election was run and made recommendations for future recall petitions. The report found that there were “no significant problems in the delivery of the recall petition” but did “recognise that the decision to use only three signing places was the subject of much debate and criticism.” However, they found “no evidence that an increased number of signing places would have contributed to a different result at the end of the recall petition.” At the time the Electoral Office came in from criticism for the decision to open just three venues for people to sign the petition, despite the fact that the legislation allowed for up to ten locations. In the two subsequent recall elections, in Peterborough and Brecon and Radnorshire, there were ten and six venues respectively, and it is interesting to note that the Electoral Commission suggested that in North Antrim:

“The Petition Officer decided to use three places located in the main towns of the constituency – Ballymena, Ballymoney and Ballycastle. This meant that no elector would have to travel more than 15 minutes to get to their designated signing venue.”

In a large, rural constituency such as North Antrim, it is hard to believe that no individual who wanted to sign the recall petition would have to travel more than 15 minutes to sign the petition, especially as the opening hours where primarily 9am to 5pm, “with extended opening hours of the signing places to 9pm on two evenings.”

One positive step that the Electoral Office did take was to allow people to sign the petition by postal or proxy, without a reason required, which differs from normal elections where people have to provide a “valid reason” to secure a postal or proxy vote. It will be interesting to see if this right to vote will be extended to Council, Assembly and Westminster elections in future, and could be part of a suite of measures to make it easier for people to vote.

“In total 3,233 postal signing papers were issued at the recall petition. Approximately 1,000 postal signing papers were not returned. A total of 10 electors chose to appoint a proxy.

At the 2017 UK parliamentary general election, where electors were not allowed to have a postal vote on demand, 1,163 postal votes were issued in North Antrim, and 1,048 were returned.

Overall the postal and proxy application process worked well and no significant issues emerged.”

Sir Paul Silk, a trustee of the Hansard Society, and former parliamentary official, recently wrote a personal reflection as an elector in Brecon and Radnorshire which identified twelve critiques of the recall system. Sir Paul concluded his critique by saying:

“[T]he shortcomings evident in B[recon] & R[adnorshire] concerning the recall petition process do not appear to have been unique, and should not be forgotten amid the party political storm. Problems around the location of signing stations, and the public nature of signing, also arose in North Antrim, for example. The B&R experience thus adds to the accumulating evidence of shortcomings in the recall petition process as set out in the 2015 Act.”

This critique followed a similar argument made by Prof. Jon Tonge in relation to the North Antrim recall petition when he said:

“The Electoral Commission has concluded that there was “no evidence that an increased number of signing places would have contributed to a different result at the end of the recall petition”. However, there was no clinching evidence either way. Greater generosity of provision might have made a difference – in an election, one might assume that locating polling stations 21 miles apart, in the way that petition stations were set up, would have an adverse impact upon turnout. As such, using the permitted maximum of ten petition stations might have been logical. If the Recall Act is to have teeth, it also needs presence.”

With the by-election for Brecon & Radnorshire scheduled to take place on 1st August the outcome is unclear, but what is clear is that recall petitions are here to stay and it is probably only a matter of time before we see another one.