Clause 90 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill was shared with Opposition representatives as it was developed, and was welcomed widely across the House. By requiring returning officers to take reasonable steps to start the counting of votes by 2 am and to give a reasoned account when they fail to do so, the clause creates a clear expectation that, in line with the clearly expressed view of Parliament on this issue, the counting of votes should start by 2 am, where possible.
It is particularly important for the purposes of the new duty that returning officers look carefully at existing arrangements and past practice and consider the additional steps which they can reasonably take in order to start the counting of votes given on ballot papers by 2 am. Past practice is not necessarily a guide to whether the duty to take all reasonable steps to start the count by 2 am will have been fulfilled. Clause 90 would preserve the operational independence of the returning officer, while providing fresh impetus towards counting votes as quickly as possible. In striking this balance, clause 90 respects the important discretion of the returning officer to make decisions to take account of local circumstances, such as the particular geography of a constituency. In this way, the location of the count remains a matter for the returning officer in each case, taking into account both the legislative framework and local circumstances.