It is necessary for the Cabinet Office to indemnify petition officers in England, Scotland and Wales against uninsured claims that arise out of the conduct of their duties should a recall petition under section 1(1) of the Recall of MPs Act 2015 be triggered. This is because for the purposes of recall petitions, like returning officers and acting returning officers at elections, petition officers are independent officers. They are separate from both central and local government. As a result, they are exposed to a variety of legal risks varying from minor claims for injury at designated signing places, to significant recall petition complaints and associated legal costs.
Insurance for specific elections has historically provided extremely poor value for money, with claims made under such cover being smaller than the cost of the insurance premium. An indemnity therefore provides better value for money and this approach has been taken for elections since 2009.
It is normal practice, when a Government Department proposes to undertake a contingent liability in excess of £300,000 for which there is no specific statutory authority, for the Department concerned to present to Parliament a minute giving particulars of the liability created and explaining the circumstances; and to refrain from incurring the liability until 14 parliamentary sitting days after the issue of the minute, except in cases of special urgency.
On this basis, I have today laid a minute setting out the Cabinet Office’s intention to extend the current arrangements which indemnify petition officers for claims that arise out of the conduct of their duties in relation to the Recall of MPs Act 2015. This Act requires a recall petition to be held if one of the provisions under section 1 of the Act is met in relation to an MP. The responsibility for the conduct of the petition will rest with the petition officer for the constituency in which the petition is to be held. Section 6 of the Recall of MPs Act 2015 provides that every constituency is to have a petition officer for a recall petition and identifies who the petition officer is for each constituency: in England and Wales, it is the person who is the acting returning officer for UK parliamentary elections for the relevant constituency; in Scotland it is the returning officer for UK parliamentary elections for the relevant constituency. The petition officer is an independent entity, separate from both central and local government.
On account of the House having agreed to rise early for the Easter recess and also to reduce the number of days for which it will sit each week, the current indemnity will expire before the full 14 sitting days are possible. Consequently, there will be a short period of time where petition officers will not be covered by an indemnity. However, this causes no problem in practice, because the Coronavirus Act 2020 makes provision for the deferral of the organisation of any recall petitions (on the basis that the petition officer no longer needs to open the recall petition on the 10th working day after receiving notification from the Speaker but instead needs to open the petition before 6 May 2021). So the course of action described in this statement and the minute protects petition officers appropriately, and ensures that the House is provided the full 14 sitting days to lodge any objections.
We will also provide a certificate confirming that we will bear any employee liabilities of the returning officer which would otherwise be covered by insurance procured under the Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969.
An indemnity was previously provided by the Home Office to returning officers for the 2012 police and crime commissioner elections and the Cabinet Office regularly provides indemnities for UK parliamentary elections. HM Treasury has approved the indemnity in principle.