The North Antrim by-election recall petition of Summer 2018 was the first time the process established under the Recall of MPs Act 2015 for UK citizens to have the power to recall their MPs to face a by-election following disreputable behaviour was implemented in practice.
Problems and Purpose
Recall petitions have been conceptualised in democracies to enable constituency electorates to hold their parliamentary representative/s to account and potentially evict them from office when they are perceived to have engaged in actions of a criminal or disreputable nature. By aiming to address accountability concerns, recall petitions may potentially increase public trust in politicians and engagement.
Background History and Context
The Recall of MPs Act (2015) legislated for the creation of the opportunity, in limited circumstances, for by-election recall petitions of elected MPs in the UK. Under the legislation, if a recall petition reaches the threshold of 10% support of a constituency’s electorate, a by-election will be triggered.
The push for a form of recall of MPs is widely perceived to have arisen as a result of the damaging breakdown in public trust of politicians following the 2009 MPs expenses scandal.[i] Public hostility to MPs continuing to hold themselves to account for improper behaviour had already led to actions like the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to regulate MPs’ behaviour. A form of recall was highly favoured as a means by which citizens could be empowered with ultimate decision-making capacities on the potential removal of MPs from office. Eventually, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government passed the Recall of MPs Act. The act allowed for a petition to trigger a by-election recall petition in a constituency due to one of three circumstances:
- An MP is convicted of a criminal offence and jailed
- An MP is convicted of providing false information on allowance claims
- An MP is suspended from the House of Commons for 10 sitting days or more by the parliamentary standards committee[ii]
Criticism of the legislation divided into two halves: those who viewed it as unnecessary because they felt pre-existing measures enabled the sufficient holding to account of MPs, such as the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee; those, like Conservative backbench MP Zach Goldsmith, who believed that the legislation did not go far enough, not enabling citizen-initiated recall petitions.[iii]
On 26th July 2018, a by-election recall petition of an MP in the UK was for the first time triggered after Ian Paisley Jr., Democratic Unionist Party MP for North Antrim, was suspended from parliament for 30 days. A prior investigation had found that Mr Paisley failed to properly declare his register of interests and hospitality received, greatly undervaluing the cost of three luxury holidays to Sri Lanka in 2013 for him and his family, all at the expense of the Sri Lankan government. As such, Mr Paisley was found to have brought the House into disrepute having breached paid advocacy rules.[iv]
The triggering of the by-election recall petition offered the opportunity for the electorate of North Antrim to seek the early dismissal of Mr Paisley and trigger a by-election.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
As required by law, within ten days of Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland Virgina McVae receiving notification from the Speaker of the Commons to commence a recall petition in the constituency, the petition was opened.
As Petition Officer, Ms McVea was the main individual in charge of the recall petition’s administration, while the broader organisation which Ms McVea heads, the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, was the entity with responsibility for the recall petition’s smooth running.
A total of £4,178 of spending was reported by the two registered campaigners to the Petition Officer, well below the limit for accredited campaigners of £10,000 each.[v] Shortly after the conclusion of the petition process, it was estimated that the final administrative costs of organising the petition would amount to approximately £188,000.[vi]
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Letters were sent to constituents informing them about the recall petition taking place on the 6-7th August, just prior to the petition’s launch on 8th August. Participation was limited only to those aged 18 or above, or who turned 18 during the period when the petition was open to signing. Participants had to also be on the electoral register. No incentive was provided for participation, meaning that engagement with the petition required the active participation of the North Antrim constituency electorate.
Methods and Tools Used
The by-election recall petition is an example of the democratic innovation of petitions. A petition empowers citizens to make their voices heard in between elections and try to ensure representatives represent their interests. As a concept in themselves, recall petitions of representatives can be traced back to the Athenian Assembly in the 5th century BC.[vii] The UK’s by-election recall petition may be seen as a procedural mechanism allowing for a restricted channel of expression of citizens’ views on their representatives between elections. The restricted nature is due to the highly limited circumstances which can trigger it and lack of ability of citizens to trigger a recall petition.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland calculated that to achieve the 10% of registered constituency voters to trigger a by-election, 7,543 signatures were required.
The petition was available to sign in person at three centres from Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm in the North Antrim constituency from 8th August-19th September 2018. The locations chosen were designed to ensure no elector would have to travel more than 15 minutes by car to reach them. Opening hours were extended on two days at two of the locations also. Voters could alternatively apply for postal or proxy vote, with an application deadline of 4th September. Due to a change in the law, postal votes could be applied for on demand with voters not needing to provide a reason for application. Two helplines were also set up to answer constituents’ queries about the process. Ms McVea described the access to the signing of the petition as ‘unprecedented’ with the petition lasting the longest ever electoral period in the region.
While in normal elections a “marked register” of voters is made available to political parties afterwards, this was not made available following the conclusion of the recall petition. The decision was made on the grounds of the unique nature of recall petitions meaning the disclosure of a marked register would expose an individual’s preference for a by-election to be triggered.
A lack of legal clarity on when the vote should be counted and the deadline for receiving postal votes meant that the official count did not take place until midnight on 19th September. The outcome of the petition was announced by Ms McVea in the early morning of 20th September. The Speaker and Mr Paisley as the affected MP received notification of the result prior to its public announcement, although the latter received this by text.
Under the Recall of MPs Act, it was required to verify daily the petition signing papers.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The recall petition fell short of the required 10% constituency electorate threshold to trigger a by-election, gaining the support of 7,044 or 9.4% of registered North Antrim voters. 10 electors appointed a proxy, while of the 3,233 postal signing papers issued for the recall petition, about 1,000 were not returned.[viii] This compares to 1,163 postal votes issues in North Antrim for the 2017 General Election, of which 1,048 were returned.
For Mr Paisley, the petition result showed that his constituents accepted his apology for his actions, while the Democratic Unionist Party confirmed the end of his suspension as a member, although with a ban on holding office in the party for 12 months. Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann accepted the outcome of the petition, though called on Mr Paisley to not view it as a victory or endorsement of his prior actions.[ix]
There was political party engagement in the recall petition with Irish nationalist parties Sinn Féin and the SDLP campaigning for a by-election to be triggered. Contestation occurred between parties concerning whether there was sufficient provision of petition centres to sign the petition in person. While Mr Paisley described the petition as ‘the easiest process to get involved in’, Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan contacted the electoral office to urge it to put in place the maximum number of petition centres as legislated by the Recall of MPs Act, 10.[x] Two elected representatives were spoken to by the police for making remarks online during the petition process which were suggestive of turnout numbers.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The Electoral Commission published an evaluative report on the running of the recall petition on 5th November 2018.[xi] There were ‘no significant problems’ in the implementation of the petition, and the process for postal voting ran well. However, the report noted feedback from those who worked and campaigned in the recall petition of a seeming lack of political awareness among the constituents and that the six-week petition signing time period was too long. As such, the report calls for the UK government to consider ways to increase awareness and rethink the signing period length. It also recommended for future petitions that the presiding petition officer take into account the need for privacy when determining petition centre locations.
On the subject of criticism of the number of designated petition centres in the constituency, the report found ‘no evidence’ that a change in the numbers would have led to a different result. The report stated that during the petition ‘a number of inconsistencies and omissions’ in the provisions of the Recall of MPs Act were identified.[xii] These included a lack of provision for the designated Petition Officer to appoint a Deputy Petition Officer, adding an ‘unnecessary burden’ on the Petition Officer and the confusion caused by current provisions forbidding the forecasting of the result or publication of statement indicating that an individual has signed or not signed a petition.[xiii] Under the current wording of the law, anyone who makes any statement about an individual’s vote or turnout generally would be guilty of an offence, which could be punishable by a fine or up to 6 months’ imprisonment.
It was suggested by New Statesman political commentator Patrick Maguire in the petition’s aftermath that Paisley’s avoidance of a by-election indicated that the recall petition would never be a means by which an MP would be successfully recalled.[xiv] If a by-election could not be triggered in the polarised electorate of Northern Ireland, where could it ever be triggered? However, measuring the recall petition’s success as an innovation based purely on whether it triggered a by-election may not be the most accurate indicator of the petition’s success. A recall is a self-validating protest with required signature numbers reached or not and an unsuccessful petition enhancing a representative’s claim to represent his constituency.[xv]
Recall petitions in theory offer an opportunity to increase electorate accountability by providing the opportunity to remove a sitting MP who has acted disreputably between elections and by their individual constituency nature, are a far sharper instrument of accountability than general elections.[xvi] The re-election of expenses scandal MPs in 2010 even though public feeling on the issue was known to be strong indicates how numerous factors other than representative accountability shape how a member of the electorate votes at general elections.[xvii]
Judge argued that there was no need for the coalition government to implement a system of recall as existing measures and changes already made like the establishment of IPSA provided the procedural mechanisms for sanctions and possible expulsion of MPs who act disreputably.[xviii] He also noted how in drafting the recall bill, comparisons to the use of recall abroad were summarily dismissed due to the proposed confined remit of the power of recall to extremely limited circumstances.
Wright highlights seemingly muddled advocation by the coalition government in introducing its power of recall. The recall was simultaneously argued as not threatening the traditional representative democracy character of British politics while at the same time suggested as just a stepping stone on the way to more direct democracy.[xix]
Ultimately, the highly limited circumstances in which a by-election recall petition can be triggered in the UK makes it an extremely modest recent democratic innovation that could even be viewed as window dressing as a symbolic safety valve for voters.
[i] Judge, D. (2012), “Recall of MPs in the UK: ‘If I Were You I Wouldn’t Start from Here’”, Parliamentary Affairs, 66, pp.732-751. Available at: https://pureportal.strath.ac.uk/files-asset/26784661/Recall_of_MPs.pdf
[ii] McCormack, J. (2018), Ian Paisley: North Antrim recall petition opens, [online] BBC News, Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-politics-45083840 [Accessed 26 Nov. 2018]
[iii] Publications.parliament.uk, (2012), House of Commons - Recall of MPs - Political and Constitutional Reform, [online] Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmpolcon/373/37307.htm [Accessed 1 Dec. 2018];
Wintour, P., (2014), “Bill giving voters power to recall their MP 'falls scandalously short'”, The Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/11/recall-bill-power-mp-criticised-zac-goldsmith [Accessed 1 Dec. 2018]
[iv] BBC News, (2018), Ian Paisley: DUP MP 'stunned' and 'humbled' at keeping seat, [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-45574495 [Accessed 27 Nov. 2018]
[v] Wired-gov.net, (2018), First MP recall petition was well-run, finds Electoral Commission, with some lessons to be learnt for future, [online] Available at: https://www.wired-gov.net/wg/news.nsf/articles/First+MP+recall+petition+was+wellrun+finds+Electoral+Commission+with+some+lessons+to+be+learnt+for+future+07112018092000?open [Accessed 6 Dec. 2018];
Legislation.gov.uk, (2018), Recall of MPs Act 2015 - Explanatory Notes, [online] Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/25/notes [Accessed 6 Dec. 2018].
[vi] Breen, S., (2018), ‘Taxpayers face bill of £188k over failed petition of recall for MP Paisley’, Belfast Telegraph, [online] Available at: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/taxpayers-face-bill-of-188k-over-failed-petition-of-recall-for-mp-paisley-37338710.html [Accessed 27 Nov. 2018]
[vii] Malkopoulou, A. (2015), Flipped elections: can recalls improve democracy?, [online] Diva-portal.org, Available at: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:861017/FULLTEXT01.pdf [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018]
[viii] The Electoral Commission, (2018), Report on the 2018 recall petition in North Antrim, [online] The Electoral Commission, Available at: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/2018-recall-petition-in-north-antrim [Accessed 6 Dec. 2018]
[ix] BelfastTelegraph.co.uk, (2018), ‘DUP MP Ian Paisley survives Westminster’s first recall petition’, Belfast Telegraph, [online] Available at: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/dup-mp-ian-paisley-survives-westminsters-first-recall-petition-37336105.html [Accessed 30 Nov. 2018]
[x] Snaith, E., (2018), ‘Petition to remove MP Ian Paisley in North Antrim criticised’, The Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/aug/04/petition-to-remove-mp-ian-paisley-in-north-antrim-criticised [Accessed 26 Nov. 2018]
[xi] The Electoral Commission, (2018), Report on the 2018 recall petition in North Antrim, [online] Available at: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/2018-recall-petition-in-north-antrim [Accessed 6 Dec. 2018]
[xiv] Maguire, P., (2018), ‘Ian Paisley has survived, but the Recall of MPs Act is dead’, New Statesman, [online] Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2018/09/ian-paisley-has-survived-recall-mps-act-dead [Accessed 1 Dec. 2018]
[xv] McCormick, P. (1994), ‘The Recall of Elected Members’, Canadian Parliamentary Review, [online] 17(2), pp.11-13. Available at: http://revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?param=149&art=1001 [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018]
[xvi] Wright, T. (2015), ‘Recalling MPs: Accountable to Whom?’, The Political Quarterly, [online] 86(2), pp.289-296. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1467-923X.12166 [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018]
[xvii] Judge, D. (2012), “Recall of MPs”, Available at: https://pureportal.strath.ac.uk/files-asset/26784661/Recall_of_MPs.pdf
[xix] Wright, T. (2015), ‘Recalling MPs: Accountable to Whom?’, pp.289-296. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1467-923X.12166 [Accessed 28 Nov. 2018]
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