Ian Paisley by-election petition will run until mid-September - even if target reached
The petition allowing for North Antrim voters to force the removal of Ian Paisley as MP will run for a full six weeks '“ regardless of whether it hits the target figure in a shorter period of time.
The process, which has never been run anywhere in the UK since the passage of the Recall of MPs Act in 2015, has taken on an added significance, given the potential for it to impact on the shape of Brexit, with knife-edge Commons votes expected in the autumn.
There is ambiguity over whether Mr Paisley’s suspension of 30 sitting days – which will prevent him participating in Commons business until November 19 – would carry over if there was a sudden by-election which he won.
The Commons said that it expected that in those circumstances the punishment would not be automatically transferable, but the Standards Committee could bring a motion to the house asking MPs to rule that the unserved portion of the suspension be served even if Mr Paisley is re-elected.
Last night the Electoral Office published details of the number of people who will be eligible to sign the petition.
It shows that 75,478 North Antrim constituents are registered to vote and can participate in the process.
That is an increase of just 70 voters on the number of people registered in June, giving no indication that there has been a stampede of unregistered voters attempting to get on the register to unseat Mr Paisley.
It is now too late to register to take part in the process. Unlike election rules, where voters have some time after an election is called to register, the eligible electorate for the petition will be those who were registered last Monday – the day the Commons voted to suspend Mr Paisley and the speaker wrote to Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, triggering the process.
Confirmation of the electorate also brings with it confirmation of the figure which will trigger a by-election. The Electoral Office said that if 7,547 people – 10% of the eligible electorate – sign the petition then there will be a by-election.
Details of where people can sign the petition to remove Mr Paisley are to be revealed on Friday.
The legislation allows for up to 10 designated places within the constituency where the petition can be signed.
If rival parties wish to campaign for people to sign the petition, they will have to register with the Electoral Office and will have a spending limit for any activity associated with their campaign.
Rival parties – even if they are registered campaigners – will not be allowed to have observers at the signing places, as would be the case during an election.
That means that there will be no lawful way whereby they can have an accurate estimate of how many people have signed the petition until the official count.
The recall process was automatically triggered when Mr Paisley was given a suspension of 30 sitting days – the longest on record since at least 1949 – over “serious misconduct” relating to taking free luxury holidays from the Sri Lankan government and then lobbying on behalf of the regime without declaring that they had given the valuable gifts to himself and his family.
The DUP veteran apologised for not declaring the holidays but insisted to Parliament’s standards commissioner that his letter asking the prime minister to change UK policy at the UN to that favoured by Sri Lanka did not amount to lobbying for the regime.