[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair] — Returning Officers (Accountability)

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 3rd February 2010.

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Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne 9:30 am, 3rd February 2010

There is a slight problem in that there is about half a minute's difference between the time shown on the clocks and the time shown on the annunciators, so let me make it clear that I am working from the time on the annunciators.

Before I call Mr. Cairns, let me also explain that I hope to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 10.30 am so that they will be able to speak for 10 minutes each. I hope that Members can help me with that. I should add that when I arrived, the sheet of paper indicating which Members want to speak was blank. I work on the assumption that those who turn up to these debates usually do so because they want to speak. If we count heads, we will see that a bit of self-discipline will probably enable me to call everyone who wants to speak. I call Mr. Cairns.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

You need to call the Whip, Mr. Wilshire.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am sorry. You can see the state I am in this morning. I consider myself told off.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Frank Roy .)

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde 9:31 am, 3rd February 2010

Good morning, Mr. Wilshire. I thought that you were attempting to keep my hon. Friend Mr. Roy here for the whole 90 minutes, which would be very welcome. [Interruption.] He is going already; he only made it to 90 seconds. [Interruption.] I should put it on the record that he agrees with me.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. It is a pleasure to serve under your direction. I also welcome colleagues to the debate, which is about the accountability of returning officers. I trust that that heading is sufficiently wide to allow for a general discussion of all the electoral matters that fall within the purview of returning officers; if not, this will be a short speech, and the subsequent debate will be even shorter.

I want to talk about the performance of returning officers and about how effectively they are regulated and inspected. I also want to touch specifically on the move to shift the timing of general election counts from Thursday nights to Friday mornings. Many hon. Members have a keen interest in that matter, and I see in his place my hon. Friend Mr. Harris, who is leading the campaign to save general election night. Among others, I can also see my hon. Friend Chris Ruane, whose specialist subject on "Mastermind" would be changes to the electoral roll, so I will not dwell on that, although I am sure that he will elucidate it in greater detail if he catches your eye, Mr. Wilshire.

I want to say something important right at the outset. Irrespective of whatever criticisms I may make, I strongly believe that the electoral system in this country, where politicians do not run elections, is the right one. Countries where politicians have a direct and controlling influence over the administration of elections inevitably end up with intimidation, corruption and the decaying of democracy. Our system, in which politicians set the broad legislative framework for elections but do not actually administer them, is surely the right one.

Inevitably, that arrangement contains a degree of tension. To what extent should Parliament be prescriptive in the rules that it sets out? To what degree should we leave matters to professional election administrators? The answers at either extreme are obvious. Parliament should legislate for the voting system; returning officers should decide how the count is managed. Parliament should determine who has the franchise; election officers should maintain and update the register. Parliament should set out the criteria for disabled access to polling places; local officials should decide on their location.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is right that there is no political interference by central Government in the work of local authority electoral registration officers. Is he aware, however, that there is some political interference at a local level? One example is Islington council in London. The Labour group there asked the council's Liberal Democrat leader to put money together for an electoral registration drive before the local elections, but he refused point blank, saying, "This is how we win elections." There is therefore scope for political interference at local level because budgets can be influenced.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I was not aware of that, although perhaps I should have been as an Islington council tax payer. I am afraid that nothing would surprise me about the Lib Dems on Islington council. They won the last election by only one seat and they now run the council on the basis of the mayor's casting vote, so they are not particularly good at winning elections. I am sure that my hon. Friend's comments will be reported to people in Islington.

As I said, it is fairly obvious at the extremes of the argument what should be left to Parliament and what should be left to returning officers. However, in the light of the current controversy about election night, there is some debate about whether the timing of election counts falls within the jurisdiction of Parliament or returning officers. Is the timing of counts a practical and logistical issue and therefore squarely in the remit of returning officers, or is the issue one of democratic principle-the right of voters to find out as soon as possible who will govern them? I will come back to that in a moment.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He conceded that the count is managed by the returning officer, but he went on to suggest that there are ways in which we should influence it, and one is surely to ensure that the count takes place immediately following the close of the polls. That has been built into our electoral arrangements for ever and it should be maintained.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I agree with my hon. Friend's conclusion, and what he describes has been custom and practice for generations. The problem is that the legislation does not stipulate that, and we have left things more open, so returning officers have the freedom to make a choice. Indeed, we have quite properly given them the freedom to make a choice on a whole range of issues. The question is whether the timing of the count falls within the purview of democratic principle or whether it is a practical, logistical issue.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman is right to bring the issue before the House, and his debate is timely. I agree that the count should be immediate, but will the Minister advise us whether returning officers do in fact have the last word? We have recently introduced legislation to put in place regional super-returning officers, who will have a degree of control over local returning officers and to whom all local returning officers will report. Could the super-officer give the local returning officer instructions about the timing of the count?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I do not know the answer to that question, and I look forward to the Minister's elucidation.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

I have had concerns about Chorley. The chief executive issued a statement saying that if the local elections and the general election were on the same day, the votes would be counted the following day. That is going to happen in Chorley, but as far as I can remember, we have always had the count on election night. I wrote to the chief executive, saying that I would like to sit down with her to discuss what she had said, but she replied that she did not want to discuss it. She said, "I'm the returning officer. This is my decision." That is what we are facing, and it is unacceptable. It is about time that these faceless, unelected people sat down with the elected Member of Parliament to have proper discussions that are open to all parties. That is the way forward. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I do. The high-handed and arrogant approach taken by the returning officer in Chorley is simply unacceptable, and I contrast it with the approach taken by my own chief executive, who is holding a local consultation in Inverclyde. He sent a copy of the consultation document to me and all the other candidates and agents, and he is taking our views into consideration. That is how to approach the issue, although I will save my final judgment until I find out what he actually decides. None the less, that approach is greatly preferable to the faintly dictatorial approach taken by the electoral officer in Chorley.

Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale

Does my hon. Friend agree with Mr. Speaker that we should have instant, and not slow-motion, democracy? In my constituency we managed to count the votes at the last election straight away, even though county council elections were taking place at the same time. I do not know why that cannot be done again. What has changed? The old Morecambe and Lonsdale constituency used to go right up to the Lake district and it included Coniston. They managed to count the votes straight away in the previous century; why cannot we do it in the 21st century? It seems appalling.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Order. Before the hon. Member for Inverclyde answers-this is nothing to do with what has just been said-I must point out that in the back row, from Geraldine Smith to Lindsay Hoyle, the microphones are not working. Until things are mended, it would be helpful, if they do not mind, if they sat in the front row.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

It would be a parliamentary tragedy if my hon. Friends' contributions were lost to posterity, and I hope that that can be remedied at once. I am sure that their lungs are capable of making their voices carry, but it is important that history should record their words of wisdom.

My hon. Friend Geraldine Smith is right. Later, I want to discuss in detail why I believe counts can and should still happen on close of poll. There are many reasons, and I shall pick only some, because I suspect that other hon. Members will raise different ones.

Another point is that, in days gone by, turnout was higher. It is sad that turnout is lower, but it was significantly higher a few years ago, and there were more votes to count. There were fewer postal votes coming in, so there were more votes to process and verify on the night. If anything, the argument should be that it is easier, not more difficult, to do an overnight count.

To stay for a moment on the general functions of returning officers, almost every service in local government has at some point been described as the Cinderella service; but none with more truth and justification than electoral services. As a former councillor I can testify, as I expect every former councillor present for the debate can, that electoral services have been a neglected component of local government activity for many years. They are underfunded, understaffed and under-appreciated. They are one of the very few local government functions that is neither inspected nor properly evaluated.

It is fashionable in some circles these days to decry the targets culture as a bad thing, but I adhere to the somewhat old-fashioned view that what gets measured gets done. That is why when I was in the Government I was keen that we should work to establish proper performance standards for returning officers, by which they could be held to account. I was one of the Ministers who steered the Electoral Administration Act 2006 on to the statute book, alongside my right hon. and learned Friend who is now the Leader of the House.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

One of the most obscure issues is this: why can Sunderland, for example, announce the result at about 10 minutes past 11, whereas in some parts of the country the announcement is made at about 3 o'clock in the morning? Is it not down to resources? One of the failings in the present system is that the returning officer uses, almost exclusively, local government employees. Surely those responsible should think about that, in relation to the question of when it is possible to deliver a result.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

My hon. Friend is right. It is down to resources, and the importance and priority that councils attach to the function. My argument is that that state of affairs is inadequate in this day and age. Councils do not have the leeway to decide whether to prioritise education or social services. They must do so, because that is set out in statute, and they are inspected on those services, whereas in electoral services they are not inspected or, as I shall outline, adequately regulated. It is therefore up to each council whether to attach a priority to them as Sunderland and other councils do. The majority of councils simply do not attach priority to those services.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

My hon. Friend was indeed the Minister who helped to introduce the performance standards that are in place-others have not been put in place. However, in relation to those that have been put in place governing the completeness and accuracy of the register, according to a parliamentary answer that I have just received, there are still 66 electoral registration officers who say, on their own assessment, that they are not up to scratch and not performing properly.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

We always say these things in debates because we are being nice to each other, but my hon. Friend has been genuinely assiduous-[Interruption.]-in burrowing, not boring, away through the detail of the statistics. He makes an important point: currently, the regulatory regime is self-certified by returning officers, with a caveat, which I shall come to in a moment. As he has highlighted, even by their own reckoning many registration officers are not doing as well as they should be.

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 empowers the Electoral Commission to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services. Despite the provision coming into force in September 2006, it took the Electoral Commission until March 2009 to publish the performance standards. Given that they are fairly broad-brush and high-level-they are not particularly earth-shattering-I have no idea why it took a leisurely two and half years to produce them. Nevertheless, we now have them, and they have been used for the first time to assess the performance of returning officers in an actual, real world election-the European poll in 2009.

The seven performance standards are largely common sense. They require returning officers to be able to plan and organise the elections, have robust processes in place, provide appropriate training for staff, identify potential malpractice, communicate effectively with voters, provide clear information for voters, and, lastly, communicate with candidates and agents.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that those performance standards do not include the returning officers' abiding by the law of the land-the electoral law set in this place for them to apply? They do not have to apply it, because their word is final. If a returning officer wants to ignore the law of the land-that a photocopy should not be used, that a signature should be taken contemporaneously, or that someone saying that they have witnessed a document being signed should actually have done so, rather than signing it fraudulently-it is possible for them to say, "That's fine. The law has been broken, but I find that to be perfectly okay. I accept it, and therefore it is acceptable and the law has not been broken." The returning officer who is in breach of the law is completely without regulation.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Order. That intervention should be a question, not the speech that the hon. Gentleman hopes to make shortly.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I agree with the hon. Gentleman up to a point.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I am sure that it happens, but it is of course possible to appeal against decisions made by returning officers in the electoral courts. Of course, it must be demonstrated that the decision had a significant impact on the out-turn of the election, which is a fairly high threshold, so to that extent I agree that it might be easier. If electoral returning officers deliberately and wilfully ignore the law that is set out, that is a serious matter, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's elaborating on that, if he catches your eye, Mr. Wilshire.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I have elaborated on the matter many times in the House.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

Sadly, I was not present on those occasions, but I shall be this time.

As I have said, the performance standards are fine and no one could take exception to them. They are all pretty high-level and broad-brush. What causes me concern is how they are enforced. Following the Euro-elections, the Electoral Commission wrote to every returning officer asking them to rate themselves against the standards. It may come as an enormous surprise to the Chamber to learn that almost everyone rated themselves rather good at almost everything. I was just reflecting that if head teachers were told that Ofsted, or Her Majesty's inspectorate in Scotland, was changing the inspection regime and would be sending everyone a questionnaire about how well the school was doing, there would be huge cheers in staff rooms throughout the country.

In fairness, the Electoral Commission followed up the self-assessment with a series of face to face interviews with a percentage of returning officers. However, on its own reckoning, those interviews were aimed more at consistency in filling out the forms than at getting to grips with poor performance.

This is good: in some 17 cases, the commission asked returning officers to regrade their assessment of their performance. Perhaps unusually, 15 of the 17 were asked to move their initial assessments up a level, and regrade themselves as having performed better than the electoral officers had said. Of the hundreds of returning officers in the country, only two were asked to downgrade their self-assessments by one level as part of that regulatory regime.

I find it hard to take that seriously. Setting objective standards is clearly a step forward, and asking people to reflect on their performance against standards is a good thing. I do not contend that there is massive incompetence in the running of our elections, but anyone who has been a candidate, an agent, a party volunteer or a journalist covering an election count will know that there is a lot of room for improvement.

Several hon. Members:

rose-

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

May I finish the point first? There is a lot of room for improvement, and we all know it, but unless the inspection regime is significantly more rigorous than the one being followed by the Electoral Commission, areas with poor practice will carry on and local authorities will not devote the time, money and personnel needed to improve performance.

I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. It concerns me that returning officers are self-assessed. I would be intrigued to know what the returning officer did at Chorley. In a marginal seat that we lost, we found that 25 votes had disappeared, but we did not know about it until 10 days later. I still cannot understand where they went; they must be somewhere, but nobody can give us an answer. I wonder how returning officers would mark themselves following an incident like that. My hon. Friend raises concerns that we are all very worried about.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I can help my hon. Friend on that latter point. If he goes to the Electoral Commission website, he will see a table showing how returning officers rate themselves. I have not studied the Chorley self-assessment, but the general trend is that almost everyone did very well at almost everything.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. On the question of assessment, for me the key performance indicator is the number of people on the register. It is quite easy to set performance indicators. According to the written answer to parliamentary question 311930, which gave registration rates in descending order, Kensington and Chelsea has a registration rate of 55 per cent. To be a good indicator, it should be 95 per cent. or even 100 per cent. If registration rates improved, that would be an acid test-proof positive-that the electoral returning officer was performing.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

My hon. Friend proves something that I mentioned earlier-that what gets measured gets done. If there is no specific target to aim for, how on earth can one measure whether performance is adequate? You might as well ask whether literature is easily understood; it is a subjective matter, and it is difficult to put a target on it. Getting people on the register is a matter of simple arithmetic.

I am shocked to hear of a registration rate of 55 per cent.; that is an appalling figure. The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea should hang his head in shame. There is no excuse for that. I know that area a little; it has many houses in multiple occupation and many large families, and people move around. None the less, no matter what the council's political persuasion, it is a matter of shame to have only 55 per cent. registration.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Another difficulty is the relationship of CEOs-they generally act as returning officers-with the controlling political party. They rely on that party to fix their salaries and their pensions; they have a comfortable relationship. My feeling is that they may become politically biased in their work. We should address that point. Super-returning officers could control them, and I congratulate the Government on going in that direction.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my very next sentence. As well as an inspection regime that is properly monitored and enforced, instead of one under which people get to say how well they did and are then told, "No, you did better than you thought. Mark yourself higher", we need a proper inspection regime.

Other steps need to be taken right away. It took two and a half years to get the current inspection regime. I am not confident that we will move any more quickly away from it, but three things could happen soon. First, returning officers should be permanent, properly resourced, senior council officers. The job should not be done by well-paid chief executives moonlighting for a few extra quid.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

My hon. Friend asks from a sedentary position how much extra. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South has been mining away at that question; he may be able to tell us if he catches your eye, Mr. Wilshire, so I shall not be drawn on that question.

Secondly, local returning officers should have responsibility for the educational and promotional functions currently undertaken by the Electoral Commission; that would be carried out much more effectively locally. It could be allied to the council's work in schools, and the community and other literature issued by councils. It would be better than having posters at bus stops, which is an expensive waste of money, although that is what happens with a national campaign. That function and the budget that goes with it should be transferred to local returning officers.

Thirdly, picking up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd, returning officers should have proper targets for getting people on the register. In Scotland, returning officers should be given responsibility for voter registration, which currently resides with joint valuation boards. Taken together with an inspection regime that has some teeth, I believe that these changes would help bolster the standing of returning officers and council electoral services. In turn, that would drive up performance.

I shall skip along a little more briefly, as I have taken rather longer than I anticipated. I turn to a specific area that I know is a cause for concern for colleagues and others-namely, the timing of the election count. The heart of the current dispute, as I said earlier, is the tension about which decisions should be set out in rules and guidance from Parliament and which should be left to the discretion of returning officers.

Legislation states that the count should begin "as soon as practicable" after the poll. However, as my hon. Friend Geraldine Smith said, for decades most of the country have taken that to mean that the count should begin as soon as the polls close at 10 pm. It is no secret that, for many years, returning officers have wanted to move away from overnight counts. Indeed, they made that view abundantly plain to me when I was a Minister in the Scotland Office in the run-up to the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2007.

Essentially, the returning officers' argument is that many of those in charge at the count will have been on duty since early morning and will not be at their most alert in the wee small hours of the next day, when they might have to make vital decisions. That is a serious point, and it should not be dismissed lightly. However, it is equally well known that as a rule MPs are rather keener on overnight counts, for personal and political reasons.

On a personal level, we want to be put out of the misery of not knowing our fate as quickly as possible. That is only human. The political aspect is equally important. We have a speedy transition of power in this country, which begins as soon as the result is known; not for us the leisurely two-month gap between the election and the inauguration of the American President. It may be only a matter of hours, but it has been our custom and practice for generations, and we should not abandon it without good reason.

Another factor is the undoubted drama and suspense of the overnight results coming in. I was present at the Royal Festival Hall as dawn broke on 2 May 1997, and I can testify to the extraordinary atmosphere of that occasion, which I believe was conveyed to the millions watching at home.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

Was it a new dawn that had broken?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I was going to say that it was never to be repeated, but that is not quite our line. I am sure that we will have a wonderful new dawn on 7 May. I have not blotted out the date of the election. Strangely enough, the Prime Minister has not confided in me.

Similarly, the question that everyone asked for weeks in the aftermath of that election-"Were you still up for Portillo?"-would not have quite the same ring as, "Did your tea-break coincide with the announcement of the result from Enfield Southgate?" My view on this point is that the rules for returning officers should be more prescriptive. Unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, the counting of ballot papers should begin on polling day itself, not the following day.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

The issue that I discussed with my returning officer was the authorisation and validation of the postal ballot. Will my hon. Friend address that point?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

I will address it as soon as I have taken an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale.

Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale

My biggest concern is about the security of the ballot boxes when they are left overnight. We need assurances that they will be properly policed, because that is a real concern.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

That is a real concern. It is not one that I was going to cite, but I have seen it expressed elsewhere, and it should be addressed by those places that have opted for the Friday count.

I return to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Donohoe. Returning officers and the Electoral Commission-in its briefing for this debate-cite the new checking requirements for postal ballots as a possible reason to defer the count to the next day. The Interim Electoral Management Board for Scotland makes the entirely unsubstantiated claim that checking the signatures and dates of birth on the postal votes received on the day could add two to three hours to the count, and it offered not a shred of justification about why that should be.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Gentleman is right; it is nonsense.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde

It is nonsense, quite right. In the words of one of my former constituents, "I don't believe it." [Hon. Members: "Who?"] A good Labour supporter. The Interim Electoral Management Board for Scotland justifies a possible move to Friday counts by referring to the problems experienced at the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2007, and it quotes Professor Gould, who was appointed by the Electoral Commission to investigate the election, to support its view.

I know quite a bit about what happened in 2007-rather more than I care to know. There were two problems at that election: the unacceptably high number of spoiled ballot papers, and the breakdown of the counting machines. Both problems would have occurred in full had the count taken place the next day. Neither of them were in any way related to overnight counts, and they should not be used as a spurious pretext to abandon overnight counts.

I accept that checking the identifiers on postal ballots is an additional burden, but it should not add three hours to the count. The vast majority of such ballots arrive prior to polling day and can be processed well in advance. Some will come through the post on polling day itself and others will be handed in at polling stations, but there is no reason why, with proper planning, the vast majority of those could not be checked prior to 10 pm, or why they should add significantly to the length of the count.

There are other arguments against moving the count, but I will not make them, because I want to finish now. Contrary to what is occasionally trotted out in some sections of the media, I do not believe that we have a serious problem of deliberate fraud or wholesale incompetence in our elections in this country. When fraud occurs, the weight of the law should be brought to bear. Most of our returning officers take seriously their responsibilities as administrators of our democratic processes, but to deny that there is room for improvement would be complacent. I hope that today's debate will contribute to the process of improvement in this exceptionally important profession.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Before I call Mr. Pickles, may I say two things? First, we have just under half an hour before I call the first Front Bencher at 10.30, and it looks as though there are at least three people plus Mr. Pickles wanting to speak. Secondly, those Members who like playing musical chairs can now sit anywhere, because I am told that all the microphones now work.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party 10:03 am, 3rd February 2010

It is a great comfort to know that our words will go out. I congratulate David Cairns on successfully securing this very important debate. In particular, I should like to say that I enjoy the prospect of a new dawn and people dancing in the streets in May. I do not think that the election is in the bag, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's confidence on our behalf.

I will be brief, but I think the discussion we are having is about something more: the general degrading of politics, of this place and of government in general. It is about officials saying, "We run this, and it is nothing to do with you politicians." Let me misquote Alexander Pope, "For forms of government let fools protest; Whate'er it administer'd is best". That seems to be the general view of returning officers, although I accept that not many of them are naturally poetic. Nevertheless, they are saying that the matter is not important.

A letter from the Electoral Commission stated that the count is accurate, that voters have confidence in the election result, and that it is entirely appropriate to have a count on a Friday if it is deemed necessary to ensure an accurate result. What is frequently cited is the increased number of postal votes, particularly those delivered to polling stations on polling day. As postal votes come in during the election campaign, they are checked, verified and put to one side for counting on the night. Machines are available to check the signatures-I have seen them in operation-and those that they cannot verify can be put to one side.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that with a bit of imagination and marketing, all the postal votes could be in long before the count itself?

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

Sometimes people are away from their homes, and sometimes people feel that it is a bit like filling in tax forms and they can put it aside and do it another day. We must accept that numbers will come in on the day. For better accuracy, I have obtained two comparisons-one from a Conservative seat and one from a Labour seat.

In Haltemprice and Howden, 180 ballot papers were handed in on the day. I cannot believe that officers required an extra two or three hours to count 180 ballot papers; that is clearly spurious. Of course, that might be unusual, so I looked at what happened in a by-election in a Labour seat-Norwich, North-although, admittedly, it is now a Conservative seat. Again, 180 ballot papers were handed in. It is just serendipitous that the figures are exactly the same. Even if those figures were widely inaccurate, and even if we doubled the numbers, I do not believe that they would require a three-hour count. Moving the count has nothing to do with the accuracy of postal votes or the numbers.

If we were to talk to people below the level of returning officer, they would say, "Oh, well, it is rather difficult. People have been working a long time, and they want to get back and watch television. There might be a rerun of 'Star Trek' and our folks would like to see that after having a very difficult day." Well, other people ought to be put in. On grounds of health and safety and the working time-whatever it is called-people cannot work such long hours anyway. Traditionally, we have employed bank clerks, who are very dextrous in getting out the results, and we have used machines. Machines break down, but, by and large, they do not get terribly tired.

Therefore, the change has more to do with administrative convenience and the fact that money, which has properly been given by Government to local authorities for the purposes of election counts, has been hived off in other directions. It is true that the electoral registration officer is a Cinderella service of local government, which is ironic given that it is the fulcrum on which local democracy works.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's speech for too long because my time will come, but let me clarify the point about funding. Does he support ring-fencing funding for local authorities? I am talking about the money that is given by central Government.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

No, I expect local authorities to behave reasonably. We should not stand over them in a nanny state way and say, "This is the money and you must spend it." Electoral registration officers have been saying for a long time that they need the money. I expect local authorities to express that-regardless of whether they are Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat authorities.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

I will give way to the hon. Lady, but this is the last time because I want to make a short speech.

Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the problem that has been identified is that returning officers are not behaving reasonably and they are using money allotted to them for other purposes. He cannot have it both ways. That money should be ring-fenced if they are not using it appropriately.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

I suppose that is the difference between the political parties-we want to set local authorities free and Labour wants to control them. This is an example of how the system does not work, and it is patently obvious that our approach is better. But I digress.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

I am trying to arrive at a political consensus.

However, this issue is not about some cheery tradition, or about how lovely it would be to dance in the streets in May, or to stay up all night to watch Mr. Dimbleby, or to watch Sky News give slightly more accurate reports than the BBC. It is about accountability and about the voice of the people being heard.

One of the great joys of our political system is that one is either in office or out of office-there is no intervening period. One moment someone is jumping into the back of their Prius with their red box by their side and the next moment they are topping up their Oyster card. That is a very good system.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

That is what Ministers do. [Laughter.]

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

I did not want to bring back any bad memories for the hon. Gentleman.

It is different in the United States. Under the presidential system, there is a long period between the presidential election and a new President taking office. Even in local government in Britain, there is an intervening period, but that is not our system at national level.

As I was saying earlier, I am not confident that the result of the general election is known. Clearly, there are three possible results. We are in a perilous economic state and the general election counts will be taking place when all the financial markets are open. I hope that Labour Members will forgive me for saying so, but if by some fluke it looked like we were going to have five more years of the current Prime Minister, I suspect that we might well see problems with regard to our credit rating and the value of gilts. That situation might occur with any political party at any given time, and if it was thought that there would be a hung Parliament, with all the uncertainty that that would ensure, again there might be an effect on the financial markets.

It matters not if these mistakes are made in the middle of the night-traditionally, the BBC has underestimated the number of seats that the Conservative party has taken; it has done that consistently in every local government election for the past five years. Usually at about 4 o'clock in the morning, the truth begins to dawn on the BBC that the Conservative party has taken rather a lot of seats. However, given the issue of market stability, we cannot rely on exit polls. By the time the financial markets open, there should be a clear idea about whether there has been a change of Government.

I want to make a final point about returning officers. Generally, a middle-ranking officer does the work on an election day but it is the chief executive who turns up to announce the result. They enjoy the full glory of that role. I must say that I think that time is starting to run out for the post of chief executive in local government. With elected mayors and the cabinet system in local government, people are starting to ask whether a chief executive is a worthwhile post. I will put that issue to one side for a moment, but any chief executive who cannot organise an election count and who cannot have enough people present to count the votes in a parliamentary constituency once every five years-on some occasions, there may be slightly less time between general elections-should question whether they are in the right job, because organising an election count is relatively easy.

If the good folk of Morecambe and Lonsdale in the 19th century could organise a count with all the problems they faced of fetching ballot papers down from Cumbria by horse and cart-indeed, I have a picture in my own home of Sir Winston Churchill going in a carriage to his own count in Epping-why cannot these modern, rather well paid, rather opinionated and rather self-aggrandising individuals do it?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde on securing this debate. I look to the Minister not to ring-fence money for the count, but simply to say that the count shall take place on Thursday night.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South 10:15 am, 3rd February 2010

I want to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend David Cairns on securing this debate. I also want to thank Members from both sides of the House for supporting the two early-day motions that I tabled, in the last Parliament and this Parliament, to save general election night. Both were supported by Mr. Pickles; he was one of the first six names on those early-day motions.

Of course this is an important issue to us all personally, but it should be important to the whole country and not just politicians. How have we reached the point where returning officers who are responsible for only about half the seats in this House have today decided to count votes immediately following the close of polls?

By now, we all know the list of excuses put forward by returning officers for delaying the count; my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde and the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar have referred to them. This issue is not just about the counting of postal votes; if it was, there would be no impact whatever on the time it takes to produce an election result. Returning officers are suggesting that the validation of the postal ballots in advance of the count is causing concern and could cause a delay of the count until the next day.

At the next general election, whenever it is, it is hardly likely that-even with an increase in postal ballots-the turnout will be anything like the high turnouts that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s, which were in the high 70s or 80 per cent. The total number of votes that returning officers and their staff will have to count will be significantly reduced from previous years; it is the validation that is the problem.

When the interim Electoral Management Board of Scotland issued its consultation paper, it highlighted the problem that

"a significant percentage of the total number of postal ballots cast in each election would be submitted, or would be expected to be submitted, on polling day itself."

It is very important that the interim board did not give a specific figure about the number or even the percentage of ballot papers that it expected to be submitted on polling day itself. The reason why it did not do that is that, as everyone who has taken part in an election campaign will know, the number of postal ballot papers submitted on polling day-even now, following a vast increase in the number of people who apply for postal ballot papers-is insignificant. Although postal ballot papers have to be validated and the signatures on them have to be checked, it is simply not the case that so many of them are submitted on polling day, before office hours end at 5pm, that they will in any way affect a timeous result.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

My hon. Friend is quite right that the postal vote ballot paper is being used as a reason, perhaps as an excuse, for delays in counting. However, another reason is the separation of ballot papers if there is a local government election on the same day as a general election. My own experience of such counts, in both 2001 and 2005, was that it was more than possible to carry out that separation of ballot papers. In our case, if there is a local government election and a general election on the same night, the custom now is to count the local government election ballots the following morning.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

My hon. Friend has made absolutely the right suggestion, as far as having elections for two different bodies on the same day is concerned. In Glasgow, it was natural practice that, whenever the Scottish Parliament elections were held on the same day as local elections-as happened until 2007-the local election results were announced the next day and the Scottish Parliament election results were announced overnight.

Another excuse that has been given by returning officers for delaying the count is cost. Returning officers do not mind accepting the extra payment themselves, of course, but they do not want to pay their lower-paid staff the extra money that they would receive for performing overtime duties. Therefore, those lower-paid staff are expected to do the counting in office time on a Friday. That is all very well, except for the fact that those staff who are counting ballot papers on a Friday would normally be doing something else; they would normally be doing their other duties, for which they are paid. When will those duties be carried out if they must now count ballot papers on the Friday? There is no significant cost saving to that; it is a red herring.

My favourite excuse so far is health and safety. I am not aware of many people who count ballot papers fainting or dropping down dead. I am not saying that there are no pools of blood on the floor of the Scottish exhibition and conference centre when the Glasgow seats are counted, but that is largely the result of frank and firm exchanges between candidates rather than a plethora of paper cuts to the people doing the counting. That is another tremendous red herring.

The Gould report, commissioned after the unfortunate delays and problems with the 2007 election results in the Scottish Parliament, has been used as another excuse for not holding election counts immediately after the polls close. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde, who was probably closer to the debacle than he likes to remember-[Interruption.] He was not responsible for it, but is certainly familiar with what occurred in May 2007. As he has pointed out on many occasions, although at the beginning of its consultation document the interim electoral board quoted Ron Gould saying that there should be no more overnight counts, what went wrong in 2007-the breakdown of the counting machines, the confusion over the ballot papers-would have occurred anyway. Delaying the count until Friday would have had absolutely no effect on a single ballot paper.

We have discussed accountability; it is the title of this debate. As my hon. Friend said, the Government cannot and should not run election counts, and returning officers' operational duties must be seen to be utterly immune to political interference. However, it has been suggested that some amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill currently before the House might be phrased so as to place a duty on returning officers to make every effort to count as soon as possible after the polls close. Will the Minister indicate in winding up whether he believes that such an opportunity might be available next week? I am more than happy to table such an amendment if it is deemed appropriate.

There is arrogance and high-handedness among returning officers, who-certainly in Scotland-are all paid six-figure sums for their day job as chief executive of a council. If they really believe that the job of returning officer is beyond them, if they cannot cope with the responsibility of conducting a punctual count of ballot papers immediately after the polls close, and if their other duties as chief executives of local authorities delivering important services to local people are far too important to allow them to spend much time doing the job of a returning officer, then, as the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, there are other people willing to take up the reins. If they cannot do the job, I am sure that others will step forward.

Why is it important to hold the count immediately after polling? It has entertainment value. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar seemed almost to dismiss that, but it should not be dismissed. A general election count is an important television event. We should not underestimate or dismiss the value of making politics entertaining, and even gripping, at a time when engagement in politics is, by all accounts, fading. My earliest political memory is of keeping my mum company on the sofa during the early hours of a Friday morning after everyone else had given up and gone to bed. Her fascination with what was happening in the country and with the results as the night unfolded was so infectious that it influenced the choice of my current profession.

Another reason is that holding the count immediately after polling is democratic. I cannot emphasise that enough. A delayed count justified by all the erroneous excuses to which I have referred would send out an appalling message that the casting of votes as part of the country's decision about which party should form the Government is not important enough to do quickly, and is certainly not as important as in the past.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Before I call Mr. Ruane, may I point out that I hope to call Jo Swinson at half-past 10?

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd 10:24 am, 3rd February 2010

I shall be as brief as possible, Mr. Wilshire. I congratulate my hon. Friend David Cairns on securing this debate and thank him for the praise that he heaped on me. I would also like to recognise other MPs who have campaigned on the issue.

I was first alerted to the issue by my hon. Friend Mr. Brown, and a band of us, including my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Mr. Love), for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), have campaigned on it for nine years. I have tabled 260 questions about electoral registration and, along with other MPs, have had about 10 meetings with the Electoral Commission. I have met every single Minister and Secretary of State and contacted hundreds of my colleagues about the important issue of electoral registration.

We had some success with the Electoral Administration Act 2006, convincing Ministers to alter the balance not just by securing votes to prevent postal ballot fraud but by widening participation. However, I judge success by numbers. Ten years ago, 3.5 million people were missing from the electoral register; today, 3.5 million people are also missing. There has been very little progress on electoral registration officers' function of ensuring that everybody who should be on the register is on it.

There are many reasons for that. The performance indicators developed by the Electoral Commission are inadequate and rely on self-assessment, which is not always the best form of assessment, even with follow-up. It is not good that it has taken three years-from 2006 to 2009-to determine officers' performance. When I met the Electoral Commission last year, I asked whether it would write to each MP who had an underperforming ERO. It said that it could not do so. I had to go on the Electoral Commission website, which was not functioning properly, look at each individual authority and determine which EROs were not performing, find out the MPs for those local authorities and contact them to tell them that they had an underperforming ERO.

That should not be down to me as a Back-Bench MP. The Electoral Commission should be engaging MPs, Assembly Members, MSPs, Members of the Legislative Assembly and local councillors to tell them that they have an underperforming ERO. I am pleased that today's answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled last week has at least named all the underperforming EROs. There are 66 of them, including eight in Wales-Caerphilly, Carmarthenshire, Conwy, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Rhondda, Cynon and Taff and the Vale of Glamorgan-and several in Scotland.

Things are not progressing as they should be. Self-assessment is not effective and needs to be enhanced. Perhaps it is down to a lack of training or ignorance on the part of some EROs. I was informed last week by a colleague that when he asked his local ERO whether he would go on a electoral registration drive, the ERO looked at the wards and said, "Hold on, these are Labour wards. It would be political if I got them on the register." That is not the case. It is not about benefiting one party or another. The worst performing authority in the country is a Conservative authority. The worst in Wales is a Plaid Cymru authority: it is Ceredigion, with 55 per cent. electoral registration. The issue is not about politics, but about democracy-and a basic building block of democracy is the register.

I tabled a parliamentary question about the funding for electoral registration in England, but the figures are not collected centrally, although they are in Wales. I asked for the figures in Wales and then analysed them in descending order. Lo and behold, the more money spent on electoral registration, the better the registers. Who would have thought it?

Under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, the Government gave £17 million to local authorities for electoral registration. It was not ring-fenced, so the Government do not know whether the money is being spent on what it should have been spent on. We need to follow the trail. The minimum that we should do is allocate the money and say, "This is what you should be spending it on. If you don't spend it on that, we'll want an explanation."

On individual registration, there are currently 3.5 million people not on the register. If individual registration is introduced, we will lose another 3.5 million people; that would make 7 million people. Those are some of the most disadvantaged people in society. A third of the poorest people in the UK are off the register. There cannot be a functioning democracy without those people on the register.

I pay tribute to my local authority, Denbighshire county council, and its electoral registration officer, Gareth Evans. Over the past three or four years, he has put a further 6,000 people on the register, taking it from 50,000 to 56,000. That was done through active dialogue with me and through the support of the local authority. Nevertheless, we still have only a 92 per cent. registration rate according to the latest figures for the United Kingdom, which are there for everybody to look at in the House of Commons Library. I congratulate my officer, Gareth Evans, but 92 per cent. is not good enough, so I wish him the power, the will and the finance to do even better.

Several hon. Members:

rose-

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Before I call Jo Swinson, I should say to Members that I have also been in the position of being frustrated when I could not be called. I am sorry, but I said that I would call Jo Swinson at 10.30.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 10:30 am, 3rd February 2010

Thank you, Mr. Wilshire. I congratulate David Cairns on securing this debate and on his thorough and well-argued introduction. We have benefited from his experience of being a Minister in charge of electoral administration and of proximity to the difficulties in the Scottish elections in 2007, as has been mentioned.

I also congratulate Mr. Harris on tabling the early-day motion on this issue and on encouraging Members to hold an Adjournment debate on the subject. I am glad that we have that opportunity today. The over-subscription of speakers in this debate goes to show the interest of MPs in all things electoral.

I will focus mainly on the issues of election night. Before I come to that, I should say that I think returning officers do a vital job. It is not always a straightforward one, and in some cases they have to make difficult decisions and judgment calls. It is right that they should be able to get on with it independently of politicians, within the framework that Parliament sets.

The move towards additional postal voting in recent years has been helpful for democracy. I am sure that when knocking on doors, other hon. Members have spoken to elderly people who are concerned when an election is coming up. For example, we had a by-election in my constituency in December when there were slightly more treacherous conditions and it was getting dark very early. The ability to apply for a postal ballot without the need for huge forms or doctors' letters has enfranchised many people. Issues of fraud have been raised as a result of postal voting so I welcome that signatures are now required. That raises the issue of verification, but the implementation does not generally seem to have been problematic.

I was shocked by the statistic, given by Chris Ruane, that 3.5 million people are not on the electoral register. That should shock and horrify us all. Being on the register is vital if people are to have a voice and chose who should represent them.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

Would the hon. Lady like to comment on the former Liberal Democrat leader of Islington council, who wanted to keep even more people off the register?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am interested in the damaging allegations that the hon. Gentleman has made about my colleagues in Islington. I imagine he is referring to the events of 2006. As he knows, Islington council holds an annual registration drive, in common with other local authorities. More than 90 per cent. of people are registered. I accept his point that 92 per cent. is not good enough and that we should aim for 100 per cent. However, the evidence that the council is working hard on registration is there.

A press release by Emily Thornberry on this matter was the subject of a standards investigation and was branded "unwise". The Electoral Commission took the matter up and expressed its concern, saying that the press release was misleading. I urge the hon. Gentleman to exercise caution before deciding to go down this route because the matter has been investigated by the Commons authorities. It was found not to be the scandal that he suggests it was.

On the timing of general election counts, we would all agree that accuracy should be a top priority. Clearly, overnight counting has not led to massive problems of accuracy over the past decades. The case of the machines and spoiled ballots in 2007 has been discussed. The problems with the Scottish elections would still have happened had the count taken place on the next day. Neither of those problems is likely to occur in the general election. On spoiled ballots, I am sure that we will be spared the wording "Alex Salmond for First Minister" on the ballot papers. The issue of counting machines will not come into play because under the electoral system used for the general election, the ballots can be counted by hand.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

It is likely that the general election will be held on the same day as local elections in England, as has happened on many occasions recently. If the electoral system for Westminster changed to the alternative vote, would there not have to be a rule that that could not happen again? As the Gould report concluded, there should not be two elections using different systems on the same day.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The experience we had in Scotland suggests that holding the elections at different times would be helpful. Fixed-term Parliaments would make that easier. All our other elections are held on a fixed-term basis. If we had fixed terms in Westminster, there would be certainty and this issue would not raise its head.

To find out what the public thought, I used Twitter and Facebook last night to share an excellent Electoral Commission document that states which authorities and constituencies are counting when, based on its study. I asked people what they thought. A few people thought it was fair enough if the count did not take place until the Friday, but the majority of people commented that they wanted the count to take place that night. They said things like:

"Delay is not good for democracy. Things must be seen to be fair as well as be fair."

That is very important. Another person pointed out the difficulty that political volunteers would have attending the count if it was held on the Friday, saying

"not all employers are helpful about time off".

I recall hoarding holiday for elections when I worked in the private sector before I came to this place. Political activists face such difficulties. Other people wrote that

"it's half the fun seeing it all play out like that" and that the count is such a buzz. Another said that

"overnight counting is sadly 1 of the last interesting features of elections".

We should bear those comments in mind. Some people really appreciate the count.

Mr. Pickles said that the potential impact on the financial markets was important. That is interesting, but I am not sure that I agree completely. He suggested that the traditional element of general election night and the experience were less important. I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South on that point.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Lady has misunderstood what I said. My point is that the entertainment value is not as important as the exercise of democracy and the orderly transfer of government.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I accept that point, but the entertainment value does have an impact on democracy. It helps people to engage with and take an interest in our democracy. That is good for turnout and for political engagement between elections, such as people contacting their Members of Parliament and getting involved in politics.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am sorry, but I have only a short time left and want to make some progress.

Election night is watched by millions of people-not just political anoraks, but those who are interested in current affairs. It often becomes a social gathering with people inviting their friends around, getting food in and making an event of it. I experienced that during the 2005 election, when many people from university whom I had not heard from for years suddenly texted to congratulate me on winning after watching the coverage on television. That is worth preserving.

There are a few circumstances in which it might not be possible to do the count on election night. For example, ballot boxes might have to be taken on ferries or there might be difficult weather conditions on the islands. Everybody accepts that the count cannot take place overnight if there are extenuating circumstances. In general terms, however, we should stick with the system, and returning officers should be encouraged to do so.

The postal vote argument is a total fallacy. As campaigners, we all know that most people fill in their postal votes and send them in as soon as they receive them, which is why when they go out is an important time in the campaign. A tiny percentage of such votes come in on polling day itself. That matter can easily be dealt with without it taking two to three hours. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments on how we can encourage returning officers to ensure that the counting takes place on polling night-for the sake of interest in our democracy, to be seen to be fair and to take into account the security concerns raised earlier.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 10:40 am, 3rd February 2010

I seriously congratulate David Cairns on initiating the debate; this is really the first chance that we have had to discuss this important issue. I remember well the hard work that he put into taking the Electoral Administration Act 2006 through the House, because I tried to stop parts of it. In general, he knows the subject as well as anyone, and I agree with every word that he said in his speech and with how he set it out. Of course, I also agree with the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Pickles.

The issue must not be dealt with in party political terms. We have not done that, and I think we have achieved consensus this morning. We are all concerned about the inconsistency of the work of returning officers throughout the country and, as a result of research, we are also concerned that returning officers are not accountable to anybody directly. I think I am right in saying that returning officers are accountable to the courts and the electorate by virtue of the Ballot Act 1872. If I am wrong, I am sure that the Minister will correct me. That Act sets out the current law, which has not been changed since. I do not think any of us foresaw the problems that would arise.

The Electoral Commission has spent a long time considering the matter and has issued guidelines. We cannot blame the Electoral Commission for things that might go wrong, because it has limited powers. It is up to the Government to give the Electoral Commission further powers if that is deemed necessary, and that seems to be the direction in which we are going this morning. As other hon. Members have said, the Electoral Commission can, of course, set performance standards, and it has done so.

However, the returning officer is required to justify his actions. We have not yet discussed that point, but we should all be asking returning officers to justify their actions. There are currently 52 returning officers who have informed the Electoral Commission that they will for various reasons not count votes until the day after a general election. What justification have those 52 returning officers given? We do not know, but we can find out. This is an important subject of public interest and the returning officers should be asked to justify their decisions, if not by the Electoral Commission then by each individual Member of Parliament or anyone else who is interested in the matter.

I understand the concerns of the Electoral Commission to prioritise accuracy; indeed, we talked about that during the passage of the 2006 Act, which the hon. Member for Inverclyde took through the House. I have lost count of the number of times that the Minister and I have had exchanges on the matter at the Dispatch Box over the past year. However, we are agreed-I think he will agree with me here-that the accuracy of the register and the integrity of the ballot are the most important factors that we are all aiming for in bringing forward changes to the electoral system.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of the accuracy of the register and the integrity of the ballot. Will she assure hon. Members-this is a question I intend to put to the Minister, if he will allow me to do so later-that she and her party are not considering disenfranchising 1 million Commonwealth voters or 700,000 Irish voters?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Yes, of course I can. We have also talked about the comprehensive nature of the register, which is extremely important. Everyone who has a right to vote must be on the register. However, that is a digression, so I will not pursue the issue that the hon. Gentleman is asking me about.

I understand very well the extra duties that we have imposed on returning officers as a result of the new rules on the verification of signatures for postal votes and so on. Unfortunately, as various hon. Members have said this morning, the impression is being given that the duty of a returning officer to make his return as soon as practicable is being interpreted as an excuse for not dealing with the challenges, rather than as a duty to deal with those challenges. The Electoral Commission states

"There are various local factors that ROs will take into account when deciding on the timing of the election count, including: geography".

Fair enough-in the Western Isles, votes cannot be counted until Friday, and in other places around the country that is also the case. Of course we all understand that and think it is perfectly reasonable. However, in most places it is perfectly possible to have the ballot boxes brought in on time.

The Electoral Commission also refers to the

"availability of staff and venues".

I just do not believe that it is impossible for a returning officer to find a suitable venue and enough staff to carry out the work that needs to be done to hold an immediate count and result. The security of the ballot boxes has been mentioned by other hon. Members. Of course it is worrying that ballot boxes would be left all night before the vote had been counted. That enormous problem ought to be a balancing factor, but in some cases returning officers appear to be ignoring it.

Finally, the Electoral Commission refers to the

"volume and management of postal votes returned across the constituency".

That matter has also been dealt with, and I agree with what other hon. Members have said about postal votes. We are talking about a minority of postal votes. Of course, people sometimes come in at 10 o'clock at night just as the ballot closes and hand in their postal vote, but how many hundreds of those will there be in each constituency? Not many.

Knowing the result of the general election is not comparable to waiting until Sunday to see who wins "Strictly Come Dancing." It is matter of importance to everyone, whether they know it or not. I publicly make the point that I do not believe we are here this morning to speak on our own behalf because we-the people who are deeply involved in politics and political activity-want the excitement of election night. The issue is not about that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said so eloquently, the matter is about the potential transfer of power in this country.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Or not. We have always had a system that is immediate, and that is one of the basic building blocks of our democracy. It matters. That is how we do it here, and the fact that that is being changed because of perceived administrative problems is simply unacceptable.

I now come to the important point: we have a consensus here this morning and, I think, throughout the House. Simply changing how our general elections are run for the administrative simplicity of some returning officers who are accountable to no one is unacceptable. So, what can we do about it? First, let us make it clear that the assumption should be that the count should take place at the close of the poll unless the returning officer can publicly justify his actions in deciding otherwise. In some places that will be easy and in some places it will not. Returning officers have made decisions that they have not been required to justify. Let us now ask them to justify their actions publicly. There has been no update to the precise law on returning officers' duties since the 1872 Act.

The Minister knows very well that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill has been amended and expanded considerably over the past few weeks, and the Opposition have agreed with much of the expansion that the Government have brought forward; we have co-operated with it. I am considering bringing forward an amendment to the Bill on Report to deal with the matter. It would be far more effective, however, if the Government did that. I give an undertaking that, if the Minister brings forward such an amendment on Report, he will have our support.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 10:50 am, 3rd February 2010

I not only congratulate my hon. Friend David Cairns on securing the debate, but thank him for doing so. The quality of the contributions speaks for itself, and the fact that attendance has been in the double figures speaks for the great importance that the whole House attaches to the subject. Important questions of principle and practice have been raised.

We heard important contributions from the Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). Important contributions also came from my hon. Friends the Members for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). We also heard from Mr. Pickles and my hon. Friend Geraldine Smith. All of them have made important contributions to the debate-[Interruption.] Of course, I must not forget the contribution made by my hon. Friend Chris Ruane, which was so important that I have a whole sheet of paper devoted to his comments. He has made an important contribution to the matter over many years, and he and I have had many exchanges about it. His hard work has informed the framing of legislation on at least two occasions, so I thank him in particular.

An important point of principle that underpins the whole debate is the position of the electoral registration officer in our constitutional arrangements. The ERO's position is important in registration, and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd rightly highlighted how important that is, as 3.5 million eligible voters are not on the register and are therefore unable to vote, which is a scandal. We have to do something about that, and I will come to that point in a moment.

Their position is also important because of the way they conduct elections. That brings us to an important point of principle: they are independent of political interference, and rightly so. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde rightly drew attention to the importance of that. I think that Members from all parties would agree that we in this country are fortunate that our elections are free of corruption and delivered efficiently. There have, of course, been exceptions with regard to efficiency, and there have been isolated examples of corruption, but generally we are very fortunate and owe a great debt of gratitude to those EROs who deliver elections in that way.

However, we cannot and must not be complacent about fraud, under-registration or the issues that have been raised today. Whatever further changes we might have to make-and we have made some already-it is important that they enhance the integrity and independence of the ERO. There is no evidence of widespread problems in that area, although there is widespread concern about election night, to which I will return in a moment. We cannot and must not be complacent.

With regard to what we can do about the matter, the Government have to be careful. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar characteristically reflected his party's position. He said he wants

"to set local authorities free"- except, of course, when they behave unreasonably, in which case he seems to want the Government to direct them to behave in a particular way. I know that it is a characteristic of the modern Conservative party to want to be all things to all people at all times, and in all weeks, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale pointed out, they really cannot always have it like that.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Party Chair, Conservative Party

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman misquoted me inadvertently. He asked me a specific question on ring-fencing, to which I gave a specific answer-no, we do not favour ring-fencing and want to set local authorities free to set their own priorities. That does not meant to say that the Government cannot do so or must abrogate their role, so I would be most grateful if he did not seek to find a political divide on an issue in respect of which there is so much to unite us.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Of course not, but there are divisions between us, and the hon. Gentleman alerted Members to them in his own remarks. I was not referring to the ring-fencing remark. I hope that I am not misrepresenting him, but I think that if he looks at his remarks he will find that he said he really wanted direction to be made in relation to election night. I will return to that point. If we accept that local government should be set free, I think that he will accept that there are limits to what the Government should do in relation to everything, and in relation to election night.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said that local government should be allowed to set its spending priorities according to local priorities, but electoral registration is not only for local government, but for Assemblies, national Government and EU-wide government. The issue is so important that the money should be ring-fenced.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. On the question of the accountability of EROs, we must tread extremely carefully. Anything we do must enhance their independence and integrity. Bob Spink drew attention to the theoretical-but on occasion, actual-risk that local government officers, including EROs, can become subject to political pressure.

The risk falls into three categories. First, local officers can become too "comfortable", as the hon. Gentleman put it, with the dominant political party. Secondly, they can, of course, be pressured by a dominant political party in a local authority. That is not a party political point, as all parties can be dominant in a local authority and the risk arises in all circumstances. Interestingly, when I raised that issue at a recent conference of EROs, one of them stood up and said, "We want protection from councillors who pressurise us, and we want severe sanctions for those local councillors who seek to bully or pressure us to behave in a partisan way." That is clearly a voice that we must hear.

Thirdly, there is at least the possibility of EROs acting in a directly partisan way. As I have said, there is no widespread evidence that that has taken place at all. The great majority of EROs, and the great majority of councillors of all parties-I make that clear-behave in a way that scrupulously respects the integrity and independence of the system. However, we cannot be complacent, so that is something that all of us must look to improve in future.

Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale

My right hon. Friend is right. All returning officers will act in an honest and honourable way, but most people also like the easy option-and the easy option in this regard is counting the votes the next day. The onus, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest pointed out, should be on the returning officer to justify why they cannot count the votes immediately after the poll.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I was going to move on to that point. I agree with my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Epping Forest on that issue.

In the brief time left, I want to make two points. The first relates to the self-assessment of EROs. That is an important step forward. I accept that there are problems with any method of self-assessment, but the crucial test for the performance of EROs in relation to registration will be the delivery of a comprehensive and accurate register. It is not comprehensive and accurate at the moment. The Government have brought forward proposals for individual registration, which should be implemented by 2015. They will be implemented on the basis of a comprehensive and accurate register. The whole country, and not just the House, will judge all those responsible for registration by how far they deliver on that statutory objective. There is no hiding place. That will be measured by an objective test in the near future.

My second point relates to the overnight count. I have heard everything that has been said in the debate and will reflect on it. There is clearly a consensus across the House that all those responsible for delivering the count need to do everything in their power to deliver it overnight. I agree with that from a personal perspective. As the Minister responsible for elections, I have no role in directing EROs to do anything at all, and I want to ensure that everyone understands that I respect their independence.

However, if any are still considering not holding overnight counts, I hope that they will read the record of this debate and reflect carefully on the strength of feeling. At the very least, if they decide not to hold an overnight count, they will have to have extremely good reasons. Whatever happens, they can expect to be rigorously scrutinised, and should realise that this House will take the matter forward after the next election. I have no doubt at all that that is the conclusion that everyone will draw from the strength of feeling in this debate, and I am extremely grateful to everyone who has contributed to it. I have no doubt that it will move the policy on in some way or other in the future.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for allowing the Minister to finish his comments. They no doubt wanted to hear them, but we should not have done that. We will pause for half a second while those who want to leave do so, and then we will start all over again as quickly as possible.