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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.