The first use of a ‘recall petition’, under Parliament’s Recall of MPs Act, has been triggered after the House of Commons agreed to suspend Ian Paisley, the MP for North Antrim, for 30 parliamentary ‘sitting days’ from 4 September 2018. This insight recaps what a recall election is and how one can be held in the UK.

What is recall?

Recall is used to describe a process where the electorate in an area can trigger a special election to remove an elected representative between scheduled elections.

Recall systems vary worldwide but they are generally a two-stage process. Usually a petition is opened asking voters if they want to recall the representative. If enough people sign, usually a set proportion of eligible voters, then the recall moves to the second stage. This is where the representative is removed from office and a new election is held. The person being recalled is usually able to seek re-election.

In most cases the process for recall is triggered by wrongdoing or perceived unsuitability for an existing elected representative to continue in office.

Relatively few countries have recall mechanisms. According to a 2014 study by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), only 26 countries have some form of recall mechanism. Some allow national elected officials to be recalled and others only allow regional or level representatives to be recalled. In the United States, 19 states and the District of Columbia permit the recall of state officials and at least 29 states allow recall of local elected officials, but members of Congress cannot be recalled. In many US states the petition can be initiated by the local electorate for any reason.

How is recall triggered in the UK?

In the UK recall only applies to MPs and can only be started under certain circumstances. Members of the public cannot initiate a petition.

A recall petition can be opened in a constituency if any one of three conditions is met:

  1. An MP is convicted in the United Kingdom of an offence and receives a custodial sentence (including a suspended sentence) of a year or less.
  2. Following on from a report from the Committee on Standards in relation to an MP, the House of Commons orders the suspension of the MP from the service of the House for a specified period (at least 10 sitting days, or at least 14 days if sitting days are not specified).
  3. The MP has, after becoming an MP, been convicted of an offence under section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 (providing false or misleading information for allowances claims).

Conditions one and three are only met once any appeals have been dealt with by the courts.

If a sitting MP is convicted of an offence and receives a custodial sentence of more than a year, they would already automatically lose their seat and recall does not apply.

A recall petition cannot be launched if a general election is due to be held within the next six months and it will be halted if an early general election is called. It will also be halted if the MP being recalled vacates the seat.

What happens next?

Once one of the conditions has been met, the Speaker of the House of Commons has to give notice to the petitions officer in the MP’s constituency. This will be the same person as the (acting) returning officer.

The petitions officer must as soon as practicable, designate where and when the recall petition may be signed – a maximum of 10 locations can be chosen within the constituency for signing in person. If there is more than one location, eligible voters will be assigned a ‘signing place’, much like being assigned to a polling station for elections and sent an official petition notice. An eligible voter is anyone who is registered to vote in a parliamentary election in the constituency on the day the petitions officer receives the Speaker’s notice. In North Antrim this was 25 July 2018.

The petitions officer should designate the 10th working day after receipt of the Speaker’s notice as the day on which the petition opens unless it “it is not reasonably practicable” (Section 7 of the Act). The petition is then open for six weeks from the day it is opened.

Signing a petition

Designated signing places operate in a similar way to polling stations. Voters will sign a signing sheet and then place it in a sealed ballot box or they may sign the petition by post or appoint a proxy to sign on their behalf. The counting of signing sheets will also be done in a similar way to counting ballot papers at an election count.

The House of Commons approved Mr Paisley’s suspension on a motion passed on 24 July 2018. The Speaker’s notice was then received by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, Virginia McVea, on 25 July. As petitions officer, she gave notice on 3 August that the petition would be opened for signatures on Wednesday 8 August at three locations within the North Antrim constituency. It will be open until 5pm Wednesday 19 September.

As with elections in Northern Ireland, those wanting to sign the petition in North Antrim will have to provide ID.

Spending limits

Like elections there are rules on who can campaign and who can donate money to someone campaigning for election in a recall. There are also spending limits. The regulated period starts on the day the Speaker notifies the petitions officer and ends on the day the petitions officer declares the result.

During the regulated period, the spending limits are:

  • £500 for unregistered campaigners.
  • £10,000 for registered campaigners.

If someone plans to spend more than £500, they must register with the Electoral Commission.

And if the petition succeeds?

If at least 10% of the eligible registered electorate sign the petition, then the petition succeeds. The petition officer then notifies the Speaker of the House of Commons and the MP’s seat then becomes vacant.

A by-election would then be held to fill the vacant seat.

In North Antrim, the petitions officer issued a notice stating that the eligible electorate for signing the petition was 75,428 making the number of signatures required 7,543.

Can the recalled MP take part in the election?

Yes. Unless something happens that makes them ineligible to be a candidate in the meantime, the MP who is being recalled may contest the resulting by-election.

Further reading

By-elections since the 2017 General Election, House of Commons Library.

UK by-elections since 1945, House of Commons Library.

Neil Johnston is a Senior Library Clerk and elections specialist at the House of Commons Library.