Historic Recall Petition to remove Peterborough MP Fiona Onasanya opens

Organising a Recall Petition which could see the removal of Fiona Onasanya has been a “great challenge”, according to its lead organiser.

Gillian Beasley, petitions officer and chief executive at Peterborough City Council, said her electoral services team has “risen” to the task of organising the historic petition which could see the Peterborough MP removed from her post, triggering a by-election.

Ms Onasanya was convicted in December at the Old Bailey for perverting the course of justice and sentenced in February to three months in prison, of which she served four weeks.

Due to her custodial sentence the Recall Petition was automatically launched after Ms Onasanya failed to overturn her conviction for lying about who was driving her car when it was caught speeding in Thorney in July 2017.

Signing place at Bedford Hall, Thorney, for voters to deselect MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya

If 10 per cent of her constituents (6,967 people) sign the petition within a six week period then she will lose her seat and a by-election will be triggered, which she can stand in.

The MP was expelled by the Labour Party the day after her conviction and is currently sitting as an independent.

Yesterday (Monday, March 18) she released a video once again denying her crime and pleading with voters not to remove her.

This is the first time a Recall Petition has been held in England since new legislation came into force in 2016 allowing constituents to remove their MPs.

A sample sheet which people can sign

Local authorities are given just 10 working days from a notice from the Speaker of the House of Commons to put everything in place.

This has been complicated by the upcoming local elections (which take place the day after the petition closes) and the very realistic possibility having to of organise a by-election soon.

There is also a chance that European Union Parliament elections will be held in May, and the threat of a General Election is always lingering.

Explaining the difficulties in responding to something so rare - the only other Recall Petition was held in Northern Ireland - and so quickly, Mrs Beasley said: “We did some pre-prep and gave thought to it.

“Once the Speaker’s letter hits the desks we mobilised the following day and went through every provision of the act and regulations and put in place arrangements to do it.

“We are a professional team are and are used to doing things under pressure. It’s great challenge to do this at such short notice, but my team have risen to that challenge and have taken it in their stride.”

Mark Emson, electoral manager, added: “The biggest difference compared to an election is we don’t have one day of polls, this time we have six weeks.

“The difficulty was finding suitable locations that we could effectively use for that period.

“It’s looking at a map and thinking ‘what buildings can we use on a regular basis?’

“We thought libraries as they are council owned and are open regularly. Then we have the Town Hall - Bedford Hall in Thorney was very accommodating and The Bull in Newborough.”

Finding and training a petition clerk and assistant petition clerk for each of the 10 signing places has also required more effort, and according to Rachel Edwards, head of constitutional services, on Thursday the team spent nine hours sending off 13,000 postal signing forms to people registered for postal voting at a General Election.

There will be huge speculation about how many of the near 7,000 signatures have been recorded during the six week process, but nobody from the council is allowed to breathe a word about it.

In fact, no more than 10 people will ever know the running total.

The petition closes on Wednesday, May 1 at 5pm with final counting then taking place. The result is then sent to the Speaker but will not be announced until he responds.

It could be later the same evening.

The result be published online by the council, with Ms Onasanya expected to find out through a phone call.

The Peterborough Telegraph will also be publishing the result as it is announced.

Mrs Beasley added: “If the 10 per cent threshold is met the Speaker issues a writ for me to hold a parliamentary by-election for the Peterborough constituency.

“As soon as I get it we have 21 to 27 working days to hold a by-election.”

The petition will cost approximately £500,000 to run, with costs including staffing, printing and venue hire.

People signing the petition are reminded that they are not allowed to take photos in the signing places.