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General Election Counts

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 21 January 2010

3. What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of general election counts which will commence on polling day. (312128)

6. What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of general election counts which will commence on polling day. (312131)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has asked all returning officers to provide information about their current plans for commencing the count at the next UK parliamentary general election. This information has been made available in the House of Commons Library. In summary, as of 7 January returning officers for 586 out of the 650 constituencies had provided information. Of those, returning officers in 330 constituencies plan to start counting on polling day, a further 17 will commence counting on polling day unless the general election is combined with local authority elections, 52 have decided to count on the Friday and 187 were still undecided.

Unfortunately, one of the constituencies that plans to count on Friday is Wellingborough. Could my hon. Friend recommend to the Speaker’s Committee that the law be changed, so that counts have to be made on a Thursday unless there are exceptional circumstances and tin-pot, upstart little town clerks cannot change things?

I wish my hon. Friend would say what he really feels! When the Electoral Commission was set up the House did not give it the power to direct returning officers, and of course, if the law is to be changed that is a matter for this House, not for the Electoral Commission. As we know, returning officers are usually the chief executives of local authorities, and Members of Parliament and councillors up and down the land are usually not without influence in working alongside these hard-working and respectable individuals.

The New Forest constituencies will be doing the right thing, but I hope that the only present occupant of the Treasury Bench, the duty Whip, will have noted the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). We all appear to be in agreement that either we are going to do something about this or we are not, and we are just going to hope. Perhaps someone on the Treasury Bench could give some instruction as to the meaning of the law: what does “as soon as is practicable” actually mean?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is to be hoped that the guidance that has been given from this House in recent days, including your own very powerful statement on this matter, Mr. Speaker, will influence the 187 returning officers who have not yet decided to take the view that counting on Thursday is the right thing to do. This is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

I shall give the right hon. Gentleman a second bite at the cherry, but I do not expect him to abuse the bite.

My understanding is that if a question contains a reference to an organisation—[Interruption.] No, no, let me ask my question first, and Mr. Speaker may then rule me out of order. May I ask the hon. Member representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission what conversations he has had with the Electoral Commission, not only on the counting of votes, which is so essential, but on the counting of the money that will be used to buy those votes?

Order. I say to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter)—I think he can guess what I am going to say—that although he will not want to ask me for a ruling on this matter, I shall give him one anyway: he cannot be expected to answer that which is not part of the question. I think that we have dealt with the matter, and the right hon. Gentleman had a go. I call Mr. Andrew Mackay.

I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, because I wish to return to the question. Does the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) agree that the real problem is that, as he has pointed out, most of the returning officers are the chief executives of councils? Understandably, their first priority is to keep costs down and offer good value to council tax payers, so they are choosing to count on Friday, whereas they had previously counted on Thursday. We need an absolute instruction from this House that that should not happen, except in exceptional circumstances. Without such an instruction all too many seats will count on a Friday, which will be—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is an immensely experienced parliamentarian, so he will know that it causes problems for the Hansard writers if a Member is not facing the House.

It is worth reiterating that returning officers are independent under the law of this land, and have been for 100 years and more. Of course the Electoral Commission can and does issue guidance to returning officers, but its primary concern is about accuracy and ensuring public confidence in the outcome of any count that is held.