Electoral Returning Officers

Oral Answers to Questions — Electoral Commission Committee – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 5th March 2007.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 2:30 pm, 5th March 2007

What research has been undertaken into the consistency of decision making by electoral returning officers.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has not undertaken any specific research into the consistency of decision making by returning officers. However, it issues guidance and advice to returning officers, and it has recently been given a power in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to set and monitor performance standards in electoral services.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I am grateful for that answer. My hon. Friend will have seen the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in January this year that called for tougher controls to prevent the misrunning of elections by errant EROs. What will the commission do to implement those recommendations?

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

There is much to be said for giving returning officers a degree of flexibility to enable them to respond to individual circumstances in their areas, but in the dispute about whether they should be independent or whether there should be central control, my hon. Friend will be pleased to note that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has urged that there should be further monitoring of returning officers, and recent legislation has responded to the thrust of my hon. Friend's comments.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need for consistency in decision making about the way in which counts are carried out, particularly in general elections, where among constituencies of similar geographical size, similar distribution of population and similar numbers of polling stations, one is able to declare within two hours or so of the close of voting, and another is still counting at three or four o'clock in the morning? Surely it is in everyone's democratic interest that there should be a faster count. A model method of achieving an early result would therefore seem to be necessary in some constituencies.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

As a late countee, I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's point. The new legislation gives the Electoral Commission the opportunity to impose performance standards and to identify differences in performance and approach taken by individual returning officers, with a view to raising the general standard.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

Would not we have greater consistency in decision-making if electoral returning officers knew what decisions their colleagues had taken? Is there not a role for a co-ordinating body to promote best practice?

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

I have no doubt that the Electoral Commission will publish the results of its research. That will enable general standards to be raised. I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's point.