On by-election timing

I have previously written about the differences in calling by-elections in both Canada and the UK, pointing out that, in general, by-elections in the UK tend to be called within days of a seat becoming vacant, while in Canada, it can often take months for a by-election to be called.

The Canadian federal electoral district of Macleod has been without representation for almost six months now. By-elections must be called within 180 days of the Chief Electoral Officer being officially notified of a vacancy, which means the deadline for calling the by-election will be 17 May 2014. There are currently four other vacant seats in the House of Commons.

In the UK, Conservative MP Patrick Mercer resigned his seat on 29 April 2014. Two days later, on 1 May, the writ was issued and the by-election date set for 5 June. The constituency of Newark will be without an MP for little more than a month.

As I had explained in that earlier post, in Canada, under the Parliament of Canada Act, when a seat in the House is vacant, the Speaker of the House of Commons informs the Chief Electoral Officer by means of a Speaker’s warrant.

After receiving the warrant, section 57 of the Canada Elections Act authorizes the Governor in Council to fix the date on which the Chief Electoral Officer is to issue the writ. The date of issuance must fall between the 11th and 180th days after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the warrant from the Speaker. The Governor in Council also fixes the date for election day, which cannot be earlier than 36 days after the Chief Electoral Officer issues the writ. As I explained, the “Governor in Council” is the Governor General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister; in other words, it is the Prime Minister who decides when to call a by-election. It is the Prime Minister who determines how long some Canadians will go without representation in the House.

I wonder why things were arranged like this. It isn’t the Prime Minister’s House of Commons; it shouldn’t be up to the PM to decide that some citizens will be denied representation for months on end.

In the UK, the Prime Minster has no say in when by-elections occur.

The writ for a by-election in the UK is usually issued on the same day as or the day following a motion in the Commons for the Speaker to make out the warrant for the issue of a writ. By Parliamentary convention the Chief Whip of the party to which the previous Member belonged will usually arrange for the motion to be moved.

The writ is issued by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and sent to the Returning Officer or Acting  Returning  Officer  for  the  constituency. The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, as explained on the UK Parliament website:

is head of the Crown Office, which has custody of the Great Seal of the Realm, and has administrative functions in connection with the courts and the judicial process. The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery initiates a parliamentary election in a constituency by sending an election writ to the Returning Officer, and receives all ballot papers and ballot stubs after the election is complete; these are retained for a year. Since 1885 the office of Clerk of the Crown in Chancery has been combined with that of Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice.

In other words, he or she is a civil servant.

As explained in this Commons Library Standard Note, the by-election timetable is set in motion following the receipt of the writ. Previously, the governing legislation allowed for a 13-day timetable, but in practice no by-election using a 13-day timetable had occurred in the last few decades. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 has lengthened the by-election timetable from between 13 to 19 days to between 21 and 27 days.

The only means by which the UK Government could hold up the process of issuing a writ for a by-election is by delaying the appointment of the MP who is resigning to the Chiltern Hundreds. As I have explained in this post, MPs in the UK cannot actually resign their seat. Death, disqualification and expulsion are the only means by which a Member’s seat may be vacated during the lifetime of a Parliament. When an MP wants to resign his or her seat, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will disqualify them by appointing the MP to one of two offices that are used for disqualification: Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds and of the Manor of Northstead. In the case of former MP Patrick Mercer, he announced his resignation on 29 April, and on 30 April, the Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed him to be Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds. The next day, 1 May, the chief whip of the Conservative Party moved the writ in the House of Commons.

Surely this is a better model? It removes the possibility of a Prime Minister playing politics with by-election timing and in the process, denying citizens their right to representation in the House of Commons for months on end.

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