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Elections watchdog urges review of legislation for recall petitions

The Electoral Commission has called on the Government to 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 call was made in a report on the two petitions during 2019 to recall the MPs for the constituencies of Peterborough and Brecon and Radnorshire.

The Electoral Commission found that 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,” it added.

The watchdog said, however, that there were some areas where applying electoral rules to a process which was not an election had led to administrative challenges and issues with transparency and secrecy.

It has therefore recommendations for changes to the rules and processes for running future recall petitions. In particular, it said, 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.

The Electoral Commission has recommended 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. 

Responding to the report, Peter Stanyon, Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said: “With three recall petitions having now taken place, it is incredibly helpful to review and share emerging good practice.

“Petition Officers and electoral administrators in Peterborough and Powys did an exceptional job overcoming practical challenges, and their hard work must be acknowledged – particularly as each petition coincided with large-scale elections, placing additional strain on resources.

“It is also evident that the legislation needs further clarification. While we welcome the Commission’s recommendation on reviewing the appropriate length of time for the petition period, we would go further and question if a petition needs to remain open once the percentage threshold of signatures has been reached.”

Only one recall petition had been held before, in 2018 in the North Antrim constituency.