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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 21 January 2010

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

General Election Counts

1. Whether the Electoral Commission has had discussions with (a) media organisations and (b) political parties on the timing of the election counts for the general election. (312126)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it had discussions with the BBC about the timing of election counts in September 2009. The commission further informs me that the timing of election counts was discussed with representatives of the political parties who attended the October 2009 meeting of the parliamentary parties panel.

Recalling my re-election to Parliament in 1992, when the count was completed within an hour of the close of poll—I am advised that the result indicated that there would be the re-election of a Conservative Government, and financial stability—does my hon. Friend agree that we should continue with the tradition of counting immediately after the close of poll, in order to bring financial stability and reduce the possibility of electoral fraud?

That is, of course, my personal opinion, but as the House knows full well, whether to count votes on Thursday or Friday is a matter for individual returning officers; that has been our law for more than 100 years. However, the law does require returning officers to count votes as soon as is practicable after the election. The Electoral Commission website indicates which returning officers have so far decided to count on the Friday or are undecided, and I encourage hon. Members in those areas to enter into a dialogue with the returning officer to discuss whether their decision meets that criterion.

We all welcomed your statement on this issue, Mr. Speaker, and I completely agree with what has been said from the Opposition Benches—but will not the real story of election night be the fact that possibly up to 50 seats will have been bought by Lord Ashcroft’s money, and what—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he is far exceeding the boundaries of the question; it was a good try, but I am afraid it did not work.

As the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, the key words are as far as “is practicable”. There are constituencies where this is not practicable for geographical reasons, and sometimes simply because of historical practice. What an individual returning officer should not do, however, is delay the count simply because he thinks that verifying or counting postal votes might be a little bit difficult. That is the message the Electoral Commission needs to send out to returning officers.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Throughout our history, several seats at every general election have counted on a Friday; I am sure colleagues on the Opposition Benches will be interested to know that in 1979 121 seats counted on a Friday. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the Electoral Commission has encouraged returning officers to be clear about why they are making this decision, and be able to justify it to their local community.