On Friday 13th March, the Prime Minister announced that the scheduled elections in May this year would be postponed by 12 months. The decision to postpone was taken following advice from the Government’s medical experts in relation to the response to the Covid-19 virus. Additional risks include to polling station safety, the possible demands on local authority electoral staff to support other key services, and the impracticality or potential impossibility of campaigning activity.
We will shortly be bringing forward measures within the Coronavirus Bill to postpone the scheduled local and mayoral elections due to take place in England and the scheduled Police and Crime Commissioner elections due to take place in England and Wales on 7th May this year until the next ordinary day of election on 6th May 2021. Provisions will also be made to enable the postponement of other electoral events over the course of the year (such as by-elections) and to make necessary consequential amendments associated with the postponement of polls which may, for example, include measures relating to incumbent office holders, the nomination of candidates and election expenses. This includes the particular circumstances of new unitary councils in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire to ensure the new Buckinghamshire council goes live on 1st April 2020 and that the shadow unitary councils in Northamptonshire are established in May 2020. We understand the Warwick council tax referendum (and the proposed above-threshold tax increase) is not now taking place.
Where the May 2020 scheduled elections have been postponed, the term of current elected representatives will be extended to May 2021. For those elected in 2021 as a result of the postponement their term of office will be three years ending in 2024 rather than four years.
For recall petitions, the timing of a recall poll is prescribed in legislation and any alteration to enable postponement will require the measures being brought forward. The timing of Parliamentary by-elections are within the discretion of the political parties and Speaker and do not require a legislative remedy for postponement.
The Bill will be introduced in Parliament today, however we recognise that there will be a small number of polls between now and the date of Royal Assent which will not be covered by these provisions. We appreciate that this presents difficult and challenging circumstances for Returning Officers and others running polls, who are rightly statutorily independent and responsible for delivering polls. Running a poll in present times is likely to come with significant concerns about the wellbeing of those involved, which may be unfair to both staff and the public. As such it would be both reasonable and consistent with the national position to suspend any poll scheduled within this period, including those due to take place today, Thursday 19th March.
The Government will give its full support to Returning Officers and others running polls who make the decision to suspend their polls. We have consulted with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), who have assured me that prosecution in these circumstances is highly unlikely.
Ensuring the health and safety of the public is our number one priority and I am grateful for the support of the electoral community in helping this effort. We appreciate all of the hard work of Returning Officers and others during these difficult and challenging circumstances.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords