Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 9th February 2010.
If he will take steps to strengthen accountability arrangements for returning officers.
The Government are aware of concerns that have been raised in Parliament about the accountability of returning officers and registration officers, and we are exploring ways to address them. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that any changes should take place only if they support the principle of the independence of these officers.
Notwithstanding that independence, does the Minister not agree that he should make it very clear to returning officers at the forthcoming general election that unless there is very good geographical case against, all counts should take place on the night?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that on a personal level I have made that very clear, as indeed has my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary. I think that that is a settled view across the House. However, as the Minister responsible for elections, I have to proceed in a way that respects the integrity and independence of the system and of those officers. As I have said, we are exploring ways of addressing this issue; we will announce the outcome of that review very shortly.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She and many other Members in all parts of the House have made the same points extremely cogently in recent weeks, and their concerns have been taken on board. As I have said, we will announce the result of our explorations very shortly.
I know that the Minister is well aware of the strength of feeling and cross-party opinion on the matter referred to by Geraldine Smith. He will have seen the massive number of signatures attached to an early-day motion on the subject, he was present at a debate in Westminster Hall last week, and he will know that new clause 98, tabled to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, is due to be debated this evening.
The Minister has been offered a great opportunity to take action to preserve the constitutional convention under which the government of our country is determined without delay after a general election. Either he can accept new clause 98, or the Government can present further proposals to give powers to the Electoral Commission forthwith to ensure that election night is not lost and democracy is preserved.
I have already made clear my great personal sympathy with the view that has just been expressed so cogently by the hon. Lady. Her new clause plays a valuable part in the debate, and I will respond to it at the appropriate time rather than during Question Time. However, while I share her views on a personal level, I am sure that all Members would wish to preserve the other fundamental constitutional underpinning of our electoral system, namely the independence and integrity of the returning officer.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that this question is not really about protecting the independence of the returning officer, but about protecting the right of the British people to know the results of our election at the earliest possible opportunity? I do not always agree with Opposition Front Benchers, but in this instance they are absolutely right. New clause 98, or another one, would come in very handy to concentrate returning officers' minds.
I have already made clear several times that I personally agree entirely with my hon. Friend's point. However, it is very important-I ask all Members to respect this-that we proceed in a way that does not give the impression that politicians are interfering with the independence and integrity of the electoral system. We know the view of Members in all parts of the House, and we must find a way of meeting it that does not compromise those fundamental constitutional principles.