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Elections and Returning Officers

Volume 516: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring this matter to the House’s attention yet again, and to see that more than one or two colleagues are here. There is some interest in the matter. That is not a great surprise; if there is one thing that we can be sure Members of Parliament know at least a little about, it is elections and the conduct of elections.

There was much publicity after the general election in May this year, when we saw dreadful scenes that looked as though they came from some third-world country whose democracy was not very well developed. People queued to vote in the general election but were unable to do so after 10 o’clock due to rules made there and then—or, rather, interpreted on the spot—by returning officers.

My interest in the matter did not begin on the night of the general election. For the record, the electoral registration officer in my constituency, who is the acting returning officer, ran an extremely good and efficient election. It also had the right result. I talked to him about the process throughout the build-up to the election, because I was interested in such matters, and I saw how things were conducted in Epping Forest. It was an example of how an election ought to be run.

Although the vast majority of returning officers and electoral registration officers do their jobs impeccably and are never open to criticism, others are unfortunately not quite up to the mark. We discovered before the general election that returning officers are responsible to almost no one. A debate took place in this Chamber on 3 February 2010 in which such matters were examined in relation to election counts. At that point, there was a lot of fuss in the media about whether the result of the general election would become clear the day after or not until later. As it happens—hindsight is a wonderful thing—the true result of that particular general election did not become clear for several days. However, that cannot be blamed on the conduct of returning officers; it was a direct result of the decision of the electorate, which is another matter, and one that we are not here to debate.

The question that arose before the general election was whether the votes ought to be counted at 10 o’clock, immediately on the close of polls, or—as many returning officers decided—on the following day. Some of us got rather exercised about the decisions to wait and said that it was unacceptable behaviour on the part of returning officers. We brought the matter to this Chamber, where it was well debated. However, I was extremely surprised on doing serious research into the role and duties of returning officers to discover that their power and authority extends from a 19th-century statute and has been little modified in more than 100 years.

Parliament dealt with the difficulty in relation to whether returning officers should count votes at 10 o’clock somewhat unusually, by amending primary legislation. I tabled an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. As an Opposition amendment, it looked as though it would be a talking point only, but fortunately, the then Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), decided that the matter needed to be dealt with there and then. He put his name to my amendment, which then became part of the Bill. By a last-minute amendment to primary legislation, returning officers, unless they could demonstrate extenuating circumstances for doing otherwise, were required to start counting votes immediately on the close of poll. That gave us the right results for the last general election, but surely it cannot be right that the law on such a matter should be made ad hoc, in primary legislation, just a few weeks before a general election.

My purpose in asking for this debate was to allow the issues to be aired once again and to begin a general discussion now, I hope, to help the Minister, who I know is intent on improving matters in that area of the law. I also hope that we can begin a discussion that considers what the duties of returning officers are and who undertakes the duty of electoral registration officer and then acting returning officer.

Returning officers, as I am sure hon. Members are aware, are usually not paid officials but the high sheriff of a county, for example: another leftover from 19th-century legislation that has never been properly updated. The person with the official duty and responsibility of returning officer is the titular head of the returning officer’s organisation but takes no actual part whatever in the running of elections, whether day to day, annually or every four or five years. That work is done by the acting returning officer. When one goes back into statute to examine where the acting returning officer’s power derives from, one finds that it is a grey area. Those matters must be updated. In most cases, although the returning officer is, perhaps, the high sheriff or lord lieutenant, the acting returning officer is usually the electoral registration officer, often a high-ranking official in a local authority.

After the debacle during the general election in May, when a significant number of voters were left standing outside polling stations, denied their right to vote due to administrative upheaval and a lack of administrative control and planning, we discovered that acting returning officers are paid a considerable fee for their work in organising a general election. I make no complaint about the structure of that system because, of course, the duties associated with organising a general election only occur once every four or five years. Happily, the general election is now likely to be on a certain date every five years. That will perhaps aid the ability to plan because we will have far more certainty about the date of an election. Indeed, we should all be happy about that.

If someone undertakes to do a job every four or five years, of course, it should not be a permanent position—the job should be paid, and the duties allocated and required only for that time. However, on further examination of the situation, we discovered that very large sums were being paid to returning officers. That has been well documented so I will not read out the sums, because it does not help the debate to put a particular person on the spot, give a particular name and say how much he or she was paid to do a job.

But that is what the hon. Lady’s Government have just done in relation to everyone earning more than £80,000. I do not know why she is being so coy about the matter.

I accept the shadow Minister’s comment. I understand what he is saying, but he is making a different point on a different matter. I have a list of returning officers who allegedly did not do their jobs very well and yet were paid sums in excess of £12,000 or £15,000 to do that particular job for a few weeks. I am not the kind of politician who embarrasses individual members of society by announcing their names to be recorded in Hansard. We will leave that sort of thing to the tabloid press. The point is that there is no chain of accountability. That is where the problem lies, and that is where the problem lay when we examined how returning officers could be required or even just encouraged to start the election count upon the close of poll. That is also what we discovered when inquiries where carried out correctly by the Electoral Commission into how administration was taken forward for the election in May this year.

It is appalling that senior people in local authorities who have a position of responsibility and normally command salaries well in excess of £100,000—usually far more than that, as far as I can see from the statistics—have not properly planned for a general election and have got things so badly wrong that people were deprived of their vote. In the instances that occurred in May, it is fortunate that there were no cases in which the number of electors who allegedly were unable to vote because of returning officers’ maladministration was greater than the majority in that particular seat. Therefore, there was no reason for an appeal to the courts on the election result. In one way, that is fortunate because it would have meant uncertainty about the results of the election. In another way, however, it is unfortunate, because the matter has not been properly examined, which is another reason for my initiating this debate.

The hon. Lady is right: there is no evidence to suggest that any outcome would be different as a result of people being unable to vote on election day. However, we can never be sure about how many people turned up at polling stations, saw the enormously long queues that resulted from all sorts of chaos, went away again and did not bother coming back. That was a big disincentive in some areas, where people saw big queues and thought, “Well, I can’t really be bothered. I’ll just go home and won’t bother voting.”

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct; I am glad he made that point. We have spoken a lot lately about the need to encourage people to be involved in the democratic process and to encourage all age groups and people across the social and economic spectrum to register and use their vote. I mentioned earlier the number of people who allegedly turned up at the polling station and were denied their right to vote. That number may even be far greater than we estimate, because of the situation that he has described.

It is also important to note that the problems arose when the turnout was not particularly high. Turnout increased marginally in 2010 compared with the previous general election, but it was nowhere near the turnout figures of 75% or 80% that we used to have in the elections of the 1970s and 1980s. If we return to that level of turnout, I suspect that the problems that occurred will be magnified many times over.

My hon. Friend is, as ever, absolutely right. That is one of the problems we can foresee. We are all working hard—I know that the Minister in particular is doing so—to bring in individual voter registration as soon as possible. We all hope that individual voter registration will encourage more people to be involved, to register and to use their vote. We also find that where the media tell people that the outcome of an election is a foregone conclusion, many people think that there is no need to go and vote. If we have closer elections and it appears that there could, again, be a change of Government—let us hope not, but I suppose that it will happen one day—people are more likely to vote and there will be higher turnouts.

If the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which is currently before the House of Commons, succeeds in going through Parliament, we will have a referendum next May and it is likely there will be a high turnout—although I have argued that that is not likely. However, in any case, there will be a national plebiscite where everyone will be given the opportunity to vote. That is not very far away. So although we will not have a general election for another four and a half years, we will have a full national election of sorts next May. Therefore, by securing this debate, I hope that I am helping to begin the discussion on matters that need to be taken into consideration before next May and the next set of elections.

One of the subjects that has not yet been fully explored is the role of the Electoral Commission, which is still a fairly new body. In many ways, it has been very successful. However, in some ways, it is still settling into its role. When taking the advice of the Electoral Commission on how to deal with the issue of returning officers and the timing of the count, we discovered that it has no power to require returning officers to act in a particular manner. The Electoral Commission only has the power to issue guidance.

As a matter for consideration, I suggest that such a situation is not fair. The Electoral Commission and its chairman were given the blame for what went wrong at 10 o’clock on election day, but it is not fair that they should take the blame when they had no power beforehand to put matters right. At 10 o’clock on election night, the Electoral Commission had no power to say to individual returning officers, “No, you can’t do this. You must allow people to vote. You must keep the doors open.” It had no power to tell people to act in a particular way. Nobody had any power. The Minister had no power; the Electoral Commission had no power; the local authorities had no power. There is no line of reporting or of authority for electoral registration officers and acting returning officers. In a modern democracy, where we spend hour upon hour in the Chamber discussing the minutiae of elections and their administration, as we have done over the past few days, it is appalling to discover that there is no line of authority whereby the administration of our elections can be properly decided.

In the run-up to the election, during which I had been fairly vocal about the problem of returning officers and the 10 o’clock vote, I found myself in a live radio debate with a particular returning officer, a lady from the north of England. I made the point during that debate that returning officers ought to be responsible to the electorate and ought to act responsibly. The lady’s retort, which was made live on the radio, was more or less along these lines: “How dare you, a Member of Parliament, try to interfere with how I, a returning officer, do my job. I am responsible to no one and I won’t listen to you, Madam.” Those were not her exact words, but it was clear that her message to me and to the three or four people listening was that returning officers were responsible to no one, and she was outraged that I would even suggest that Parliament should take some action in that respect. I was equally outraged in my response, but I will not repeat what I said. The fact is that the count in that constituency took place, I am glad to say, at 10 o’clock on election night.

The 10 o’clock issue is irrelevant; how our electoral system is administered is what is important. Over the past few years, various complications have arisen in elections, such as having more than one election on the same day, or different kinds of elections under different voting systems on the same day, as happens in Scotland. There is a danger that such complications will arise across the country next May, when a referendum and other elections will take place simultaneously in more than 80% of the UK. Indeed, in some parts of the country, three types of election will take place on the same day. On this occasion I do not object in principle to simultaneous elections, although I have done so on other occasions. The purpose of the debate is to open the discussion on how we ensure that elections are undertaken in a proper, measured and watertight fashion.

My first suggestion to the Minister is that the powers and duties of the Electoral Commission should be reconsidered and that perhaps the way forward is that it ought to be given a power to direct returning officers, electoral registration officers and acting returning officers. My second suggestion, which I am happy for the Minister to knock straight on the head, although I think it ought to be discussed, relates to the hypothecation of public money. The Treasury is implacably opposed to hypothecation, and there are good reasons for that, which I have always supported. However, the additional funds for electoral registration officers setting up and administering elections come directly from the Treasury, rather than local taxpayers. That is absolutely right, because if the money came from local taxpayers, a returning officer would have the excuse of saying, “Well, in this local authority we have had a particular problem with housing this year, and we have spent so much money on that that we simply do not have enough to spend on the proper administration of elections.” That would be the case whatever the current concern in a local authority, whether it is asylum seekers or an influx of Gypsies and Travellers. However, such excuses cannot be made because the money spent on elections comes directly from the centre.

Having come directly from the centre, however, that money is not ring-fenced or earmarked, so there is no hypothecation. I am suggesting, for the sake of argument, that the principle of hypothecation in that instance ought to be revisited. We are talking about money allocated from central Government for a specific purpose over a specific period of time, so that money that comes to returning officers and local authorities for the funding of electoral administration ought to be hypothecated and ring-fenced. I appreciate that the Minister may be bound to say that Treasury rules do not permit hypothecation, which I understand, but this is only the beginning of the argument.

I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend has raised this matter, as she has been doing for some years in the House through the auspices of the 1922 committee and with the Electoral Commission itself. My fear is that money is being leached across and leached out, as there is great pressure for that to happen in times of economic stress. I sincerely welcome her plea to the Minister and urge him to take the matter on board. Unless the Government do something about it, in these times of stress we will not see an improvement or have proper money spent on the administration of elections or on the training of registration officers and acting returning officers, and therein lies one of the vital points.

My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an excellent point. I know that he is rather an expert in those matters, and it is a pleasure to have his wisdom and guidance on them.

The basic principle is one of confidence. As a modern democracy, we must have confidence in how our elections are administered. I would have raised the matter for discussion—I hope that I would have had the opportunity to do so—even if the queues had not formed at polling stations at 10 o’clock on election night. Even before that happened, most of the questions that I have asked this morning were unanswered and are waiting for action. Having seen what happened at the close of the polls, I think that all of us who are involved in any way in the democratic process ought to hear alarm bells ringing. I know that the Minister takes the matter seriously and hope that I am being helpful by giving him one of the first opportunities to examine the matter and assure Members that the Government will take action before we have any serious national election to ensure that we have a proper accountability structure for those administering our electoral system.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and to contribute to this timely debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) on securing it. She has been a champion for that cause and I was particularly interested in her comments and suggestions on the Electoral Commission, which I will touch on. I agree wholeheartedly with almost everything she said.

I shall briefly draw attention to some of the issues in my constituency, Milton Keynes North, which was one of the 11 constituencies that formed the focus of the Electoral Commission’s initial review, “2010 UK Parliamentary general election,” published on 20 May. Regrettably, the difficulties encountered in my constituency on election day were numerous.

Initially, problems arose early in the day around ballot boxes in one of the polling stations in Newport Pagnell, which was being used for voting in local council elections in two wards as well as the general election. Ballots for the wards were mixed up: ballots for Newport Pagnell North were issued to residents in the south and vice versa. Eventually, amidst the confusion, the police were called to attend and some votes were recalled. It is worth noting, though, that the people who had already voted were not contacted by officials to recast their local council votes in the right ward. Fortunately, there was a clear-cut election in both wards, and the number of ballots cast which were issued incorrectly was significantly lower than the majority of the winning parties, so there was no need to hold a new election. However, that is not the point.

Another issue that we faced in Milton Keynes, which I believe was not shared in many of the other affected areas, was the time it took for the general election ballots to be counted. The Electoral Commission’s guidelines—of course, they are just guidelines, as my hon. Friend made clear—suggest that the vote count should be started by 2 am on the morning after the election takes place. In Milton Keynes, due to the local election taking place on the same evening, the count began at 4.18 am, with the results announced at 8 am. Given the relatively small geographical area covered by Milton Keynes unitary authority, which is coterminous with the two parliamentary seats, the general view was that that was an unnecessarily long period to wait. I should emphasise that Milton Keynes is not a very big place.

Those instances highlight the fact that there are difficulties in holding more than one election on the same day—a view resonated by the returning officer of my constituency. Given the complications experienced in Milton Keynes, I should be grateful to know whether the Minister believes there is reason for concern and the potential for the same problems to occur again next May, when some polling stations may have to deal with three separate elections on the same day.

I would now like to focus my attention on an issue faced by several polling stations in Milton Keynes North and in 10 other constituencies around the country. It became apparent at 8.30 pm that large queues were forming outside three polling stations. The acting returning officer, John Moffoot, did well to follow procedures and was proactive in sending senior council officers to monitor the congested polling stations. He himself went to the Wyvern school polling station, which appeared to be the worst affected. With more than 150 people still queuing to vote after the 10 pm deadline, Mr Moffoot, with some concern for the safety of polling staff, decided to go against Electoral Commission guidelines and allow those in the queue at 10 pm to be issued with ballot papers after the 10 pm cut-off point.

It is my understanding that, at present, returning officers must follow strict guidelines on closing polling stations at 10 pm unless issued ballot papers are still being marked. That is the only circumstance in which ballots should be submitted after the deadline. It is interesting, though, that following the review carried out by the Electoral Commission, the returning officer for Milton Keynes North did not receive the same amount of criticism for allowing polling to continue as returning officers who closed polling stations at 10 pm received for disallowing voting by approximately 1,200 of the electorate around the country. I supported Mr Moffoot’s actions and, indeed, the Electoral Commission’s conclusions, but I believe that this case highlights a key area for concern, and a need for clarification or review of the law. To that end, I ask the Minister whether he believes that there should be a review so that Mr Moffoot would not again be put in a position where he is required to turn people away from polling stations even though they were queuing to vote before the 10 pm deadline.

The perception is that turnout at this year’s general election was higher than in previous elections, but the reality in Milton Keynes is that it was not. Indeed, this year’s turnout of 62.8% was relatively low compared with some previous elections; for example, in 1983 it was 74%, in 1987 it was 73%, in 1992 it was 81%—an all-time high for Milton Keynes—in 1997 it was 73%, in 2001 it was 63%, and in 2005 it was 64%. Given that, I fear similar occurrences in future elections if the problem is not addressed.

It is clear that some of the issues can be addressed without the need for legislation by ensuring careful choice of polling stations, although I understand that there are restrictions on which buildings may be used. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) made a good intervention. He said that we simply cannot estimate how many people decided not to vote when they saw long queues at polling stations. On the basis of contacts that I had after the election, I would estimate that several hundred people in my constituency chose not to queue and vote. Once again, I am pleased to say that the result in Milton Keynes North was decisive, and I do not think that that factor affected the election result.

There is certainly anecdotal evidence from constituents. One told me that there was a big queue when they turned up at the polling station at 6 o’clock. They went away and came back at 7, but there was still a big queue. When they came back at 9 the queue was even bigger, so they simply gave up.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I wanted to make. It is clear that the problems faced in my constituency were not isolated incidents. Praise should be given to the Electoral Commission for its swift publication of the interim report on the problems faced in a few constituencies, but I believe that we should address the confusion and difficulties regarding the 10 pm cut-off to guarantee that those who wish to vote are able to do so. I would suggest to the Minister that the actions taken by Mr Moffoot in Milton Keynes to alleviate the problem were right, even though, in the eyes of the law, they were wrong.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) on securing this debate on such an important issue. I also congratulate her on eloquent and passionate speeches on the topic on the Floor of the House yesterday and in this Chamber this morning. I concur with her when she says that elections are always well run in Epping Forest. I know that at first hand, as my researcher was an election agent in her borough prior to working for me.

The public must have confidence in our democratic process. Over the past 12 months, several issues have been raised regarding the conduct of elections. I would like to deal them in two parts: those that are election offences and those that are not. Election offences including impersonation, fraud, bribery and misuse of campaign expenditure are covered by several Acts of Parliament, and the Government are taking steps to help to protect against fraud by improving the accuracy of the electoral register. However, matters such as polling station failures and incorrect ballot papers are, in themselves, not election offences.

The Representation of the People Act 1983 states that it is the returning officer’s duty

“to do all such acts and things as may be necessary for effectually conducting the election in the manner provided by those parliamentary elections rules.”

That clearly covers both points.

Returning officers have considerable authority in their work. Although they take instruction from the Electoral Commission, they are under no obligation to follow its advice and are subject to little scrutiny. Returning officers are independent statutory office holders and are therefore accountable only to the courts. Action against returning officers can be taken only by means of a complaint to the police or by means of an election petition. The 1983 Act sets out the penalty for those, including returning officers, who are in breach of their official duties in parliamentary elections: a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, currently £5,000.

Key players in the political process are often reluctant to take action against returning officers for the following reasons. First, the returning officer is usually a community leader—for example, the chief executive of a council. Politicians and election agents are often reluctant to take action against such a person, particularly if the outcome is not guaranteed. Secondly, poor performance by a returning officer does not necessarily constitute a criminal or an election offence, and it is difficult to prove that someone has been in breach of their official duties. Thirdly, an election petition is expensive. It costs £5,000 to issue a writ, which can be issued only against one’s opponent, not the returning officer. Fourthly, if an election petition is successful and the election is void, the electorate may feel that the candidate responsible for the petition is a bad loser, and the resulting by-election may see massive swings against them. The 1997 Winchester by-election is an example of that.

Returning officers should be more accountable for their performance. Introducing senior returning officers with enforcement powers, responsible for a geographical area, is a possible solution. It is important to remember that many issues have a simple solution. For example, on polling station failures, a risk assessment would foresee many problems, and procedures should be in place to deal with high volumes of electors and shortages of ballot papers. On incorrect ballot papers, showing a copy of the ballot paper to candidates or election agents before issue would reduce mistakes.

To sum up, existing legislation is sufficient to deal with the process of elections but returning officers should be more accountable. Action to prevent mistakes is far more productive than dealing with their consequences afterwards.

May I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) on her thoughtful speech this morning about returning officers and the conduct of elections? I am delighted to have the chance to speak this morning, mainly because, disappointingly, Manchester, Withington was one of those constituencies that was the scene of chaos on election night in May. The polling station at Ladybarn community centre was constantly on the news for days because someone had filmed the events there on a mobile phone. There were angry scenes, with more than 200 people questioning why they were not being allowed to vote even though they had been waiting at the polling station, for up to an hour in some cases, to exercise their right to vote.

In Manchester, Withington there were three main reasons for the chaos on election night. The first was an increased turnout, which was expected—but it was an increased turnout of those who were more likely to vote later in the day. If they had turned up earlier, they might have waited longer than they would normally but there would not have been the scenes of chaos that there were later in the day. That needs to be taken into consideration when we look at ensuring that everyone who is in the queue at 10 o’clock has the right to cast their vote. Obviously many people are unable to vote during the day, and if they have to vote late at night, even if they have to queue, they must have the opportunity to do so if they are at the polling station before 10 o’clock.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. If, as we learned in yesterday’s debate, there is to be a drive for higher registration and it is successful, as I hope it will be, and more people are registered who previously did not vote because they were not registered and, therefore, are less likely to be disposed to vote earlier, the problem that he is outlining will probably increase in future elections. There will be not only people queuing to vote who are normally registered and have gone late because of social problems or work commitments, but an additional issue of previously non-registered voters turning up to vote late. Therefore, the problem that the hon. Gentleman has outlined will be much worse next time.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The reality is that we do not know what will happen to people who have not been previously registered and we do not know whether, having been registered, they will be likely to vote, and if so, at what time. The issue needs to be considered. We must be ready for potential additional chaos late at night.

The second reason why we had chaos in Manchester, Withington was that some polling stations were expected to deal with too many people turning up to vote—way above the limit recommended by the Electoral Commission. That issue is being addressed in Manchester and, I am pleased to say, the council is acting on extending the number of polling stations to improve the situation.

The third reason why there was a problem in Manchester, Withington was the dual election—one being a general election. In some parts of the country, people are used to general elections on the same day as local elections, but that has not happened in Manchester for a very long time. Considerable confusion and delay resulted. Some people were told, “Oh, actually, you’ve got two votes. You can vote in the local and general elections,” but a significant number of people were entitled to vote in the local elections but not the general election, and that had to be explained to them because there was confusion. That number of people was probably significantly bigger in Manchester and other city areas.

From previous exchanges with the Minister, I know that I have not won the argument about the general election date being set in stone and separate from any other elections. I still firmly believe that the general election should not be held on a day when other elections or referendums are held, but the Minister does not accept that point. I am on to a loser there.

I wanted to speak in the debate today, not necessarily about the chaos on election night, but mainly about payments awarded to chief executives who act as returning officers at general elections. I confess that I was stunned to find out that running the general election as a returning officer was not in the job description of the chief executives of big councils. I do not want to target Sir Howard Bernstein, the chief executive of Manchester city council but, my constituency being within the boundaries of Manchester city council, he is the example I have. Sir Howard is an excellent chief executive and has done a great job for Manchester, but chief executives are well paid for the jobs that they do—the chief executive of Manchester city council earns significantly more than the Prime Minister—and yet a £20,000 bonus was payable to him for running the general election.

Given that at least 200 or 300 people missed out on voting in Manchester, Withington, I question whether any bonus was deserved. To his credit, Sir Howard returned 20% of his bonus, due to there being five constituencies in Manchester and the Manchester, Withington election not running smoothly—he returned the whole 20% for that constituency. However, I question whether any sort of bonus was justified if a single person in Manchester was unable to vote on general election day through no fault of their own, and there were clearly a significant number of people in that position. The chief executive in Sheffield forwent his entire bonus due to the chaos there.

Finally, there ought to be an assumption that the chief executive of a large council is the returning officer, and that should be part of their job description. There should never be additional payments simply for running an election and ensuring that we have democracy in our constituencies and our local authorities.

Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Caton. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for obtaining this important debate. The standard and quality of our electoral system in terms of elections and compilation of the electoral register are central to the quality and credibility of our democratic system. It is good to see that the matter is treated seriously by so many people.

I have been a football player and then a supporter since I was about three, so I have a long history of being involved in football. I know well the moans about the decline in referees, and by golly they have declined over the years, but nowhere near as much as the professionalism of our electoral registration officers and acting returning officers. The quality of the people running our elections, through no fault of their own, has declined enormously over a long time. I have been involved in 14 general elections and many local government elections, European elections and referendums. My first election was in 1959, so I have a little knowledge about them. I have also been an election agent, and I have seen the decline.

I was so concerned about the organisation of my election in Northampton South that I wrote to the acting returning officer, who is also the chief executive of the local borough council, making a number of points. I want to highlight two and I shall do so briefly because I know that time is pressing.

There is no doubt that people are included on the register when they should not be. They are included because of the lax processes pursued by electoral registration professionals, and some of them voted. I know that that is a fact because we knocked on more than 40% of the doors in my constituency during the general election campaign. We had to because I was in the unusual position of fighting a Labour seat for the second time running, and we put in a lot of effort. The number of people we came across who, when we checked them out, were not qualified in any way to be on the electoral register was deeply worrying. When we checked our tellers’ returns, we found that sizeable numbers of those people had voted. It is pointless to have an electoral register unless it is properly constructed and we abide by and take notice of it.

I have had examples in my constituency of people who have applied to reside permanently in the United Kingdom but are not yet full citizens using their presence on the electoral register as evidence that they are entitled to be here. I totally accept my hon. Friend’s point that the electoral register’s integrity is far from perfect.

Is not part of the problem, as I found during the election, that if someone wishes to challenge a household’s electoral registration there are only 21 days in which the returning officer can do so? In the heat of the work in the run-up to an election, that is effectively impossible.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Minister should consider, and I hope that he noted it.

With postal voting we have created a frightening potential for corruption in our election system. If it were not so important, the inability to ensure good and proper elections through the postal vote would be laughable. There was a time when the whole construct of postal voting was carefully created and checked, and its efficacy was understood and known to be absolutely within the prescribed limits. That time has gone because of the machinations of the previous Government, who did not understand what they were doing in that respect. We must all recognise the faults because the issue is more important than party politics. It is about the very basis of our electoral and democratic system—[Interruption.] I am happy to give way if the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) wishes to intervene.

Those two matters are vital, and there are many others. I want to describe from my experience the reasons for the decline. The business of electoral registration officers used to be a profession. People in local government offices did the job for years and years, and they had assistants who followed them and who had learned to do the job properly. We had the money to check whether a registration was valid by visiting the home of people seeking registration. The whole process was efficient, but that efficiency no longer exists because electoral registration has been downgraded dramatically in most council office structures, and the attitude seems to be, “Who will do the register this year, Fred?” It seems to be a last resort, and that is simply not good enough.

What can we do? My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said that the Electoral Commission must be a more robust policing body. First, we must ring-fence the money that we allocate from national Government for the conduct of elections and registration. Money is being leached, and there is every reason why local authorities should so do. They are in trouble with money, but we must ensure that our money is used for the reasons for which it was designated. That means ring-fencing, and the Electoral Commission must be responsible for monitoring that money and ensuring that it is properly used for the purposes for which it was allocated. Secondly, we must spend money on training electoral registration staff and returning officers because the quality of their work has fallen, largely because the learning thread that goes from one officer to another no longer exists.

We must bring the law to bear much more. We must make criminal actions a higher priority in society. When someone cheats the electoral system, they cheat my vote and me. If we truly believe in a democratic process, we must ensure that the systems to undertake that democratic process are as viable and credible as possible, and they are not at the moment.

We have a good voting system, and I have made that clear in the House. It does not need to be tampered with for any reason, least of all for those that apply at the moment. The voting system is not broken, but the conduct of elections and electoral registration is a total mess, and if the Government had any sense they would recognise that democracy is in danger through those processes and not through the process of our electoral system.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and yet again to gather together this group of hon. Members who take an interest in electoral matters. No doubt we shall gather again this afternoon for the next round of discussions. I congratulate the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). There are many things I do not understand about the Government, one of which is why she is not a Minister. She is extremely efficient, capable and competent, and she always makes her argument very well. Yesterday she got a little cross with me. I do not take any offence at that, although a lot of people do.

The basic message from the debate, which I hope returning officers will understand, is that many of us who are involved in politics as elected politicians worry that we are taking democracy somewhat for granted. We all worry about the fact that turnout has fallen, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) mentioned. Turnout rose slightly at the last general election, but it is still lower than it was in the 1980s and earlier. Now is not the time to rehearse those arguments, but in Wales turnout was consistently above 75% or 80%. Wales often had the highest levels of turnout, but lately they have been some of the lowest. That is a worry to us all.

It is all too easy for local authorities, which often make the decisions about funding for the democratic process, to take democracy for granted. A local authority might have to choose between keeping a swimming pool open, which will cost £100,000 a year, or doing a full canvass of every house to ensure that everybody who is entitled to vote is on the register, and that everybody who is not entitled to vote is not on it. Elected politicians at local level sometimes choose to protect the swimming pool rather than the democratic process.

I suspect that over the past few years, the whole anti-politics movement—to give it a name—has added to that problem. Too many people felt that all politicians of whatever political party were in it just for themselves, and that there was no point in voting because, in terms used by many comedians, “If voting made any difference, they’d abolish it.” The issue of Members’ expenses also fed into that, and that cynicism has weighed heavily on the political system over the past few years. That has fed into the presumption that money spent on the electoral register or on electoral processes was not money well spent. That is a mistake.

I am sure that we can all remember watching the first time that people voted in South Africa. There were queues not only down the street but round the block for days. People were camping out and waiting to vote. Watching people vote in countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, where they might have been running terrible risks to do so, fills a lot of us with admiration. In the Balkans, boycotts of elections have sometimes been organised by one ethnic grouping, and it has been great to see turnouts that were significantly higher than many had anticipated. That is why the scenes that we saw in May were sad. It is fortunate—and only fortunate—that there was no constituency in which the number of people who we know were not able to vote was higher than the majority of the candidate who won. Therefore, we can be confident that that issue may not have affected the result.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) makes an extremely good point: we have no way of knowing how many people went to the polling station, saw a long queue and thought that they would come back later. Perhaps they came back later but still saw a queue and gave up.

There is also the fact that there were local elections on the same day. I guess that in some constituencies, the result of the local election in a particular area was very close. It may be that some people were elected to local councils who would not have been elected if everyone had had the chance to vote.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point, and I hope that the Minister will be able to answer him on it. I will speak about combined polls a little later.

The Opposition tried to provide an answer to the issue of 10 o’clock voting with an amendment that was discussed last Monday. Unfortunately, not enough hon. Members felt able to vote for it. The Minister said that the problem with our amendment was that it introduced the concept of a queue into British legislation, and that that might be difficult to define. If the British Parliament cannot define a queue, I do not know which Parliament in the world would be able to do so. Many other places in the world have a system in which, for example, a person’s finger is dabbed with indelible ink the moment that they present themselves, and that is the moment at which they are entitled to receive a vote. I am sure that many other ways could be devised. I hope that the Minister will look specifically at a way of ensuring consistency across the country.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes North made the point tellingly: in some constituencies, the returning officer decided to be generous and to stretch the regulations in one direction, but in other constituencies they decided to be extremely strict about how they operated the system. That inconsistency around the country does not inspire confidence in voters. In subsequent elections, people might think that if it is 9.30 pm or 9.45 pm there is no point going to vote because there are always queues at the polling stations.

I do not want to be nasty to the Minister this morning—

I cannot keep it for this afternoon because I do not think that the Minister will be responding to the debate then. However, I thought that he was a little complacent about that element last Monday afternoon. He said that the issue was not an enormous problem and that there was not an enormous number of instances in which it had happened. The figure of 1,200 was suggested, but I suspect that many more people were affected. I suspect that in Hackney North and Stoke Newington alone more than 1,500 people ended up not being able to vote because of the situation. I hope that the Minister will return to the issue with some means of providing consistency around the country.

The inconsistency around the country applies not only to what happens at 10 o’clock but to a whole series of different issues. In part, that is precisely because of the reason adduced by the hon. Member for Epping Forest: although the responsibilities and powers are laid down in statute, a wide amount of freedom is given to the returning officers and there is little accountability. I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington that it is ludicrous that such a job is thought of as additional to the job of electoral registration officer, and that somehow people have to be additionally recompensed in order to perform their function when there is a general election. I think that it should be part of the standard job description and that no additional fees should be payable. It should be run of the mill and part of doing the job. Frankly, if someone does not do the job well, they should not remain in it. It should not be a question of getting extra payments.

It is worth going over that point again. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: not only is it not part of the job description of a local authority employee, but there is also a lack of accountability. The fee for doing the job comes from central funds, but there is no line of accountability to that. As we have seen, some people were paid perhaps £15,000 for administering matters this year. They got it wrong and were not required to pay a penny back.

The hon. Lady makes her point extremely well. I hope that the Minister will think about whether we need to look at the structure of how returning officers—in most cases, broadly speaking, an honorific title—and those beneath them are appointed.

In my constituency in 2001, the returning officer appointed himself because he wanted to announce the election result. Unfortunately, he could not speak Welsh. He decided that he had to make the announcement in Welsh first, despite the fact that remarkably few people in the Rhondda speak Welsh, and very few people in the hall spoke it. He certainly did not speak Welsh, so what he announced was virtually incomprehensible. The BBC immediately switched off and went somewhere else. We would be better off with the electoral registration officer, who is the person who knows the law best, being the returning officer. I am sorry if that means that we will be sacking all the high sheriffs and lord lieutenants of the land. I mean no disservice to them but it is a professional job that must be done on a professional basis.

Another point raised was about when the count should take place. I think that people like the drama of election night. It is fascinating that people are watching the BBC’s 1970 and 1974 election programmes, which are now being re-shown. It is quite exciting thinking “I can’t remember who won Plymouth, Devonport” or wherever. I had an Australian friend who was my lodger. This was a few years ago. He was fascinated by Australian politics and refused to watch any news for a week until his mother had sent him the five DVDs with the election television programme from Australia. It took even longer than it might have because the count takes a long time in Australia.

My point is that the drama of election night is very important and, as we saw in our election, all the more important because sometimes it can determine the feeling, when there is to be a hung Parliament, about how Governments may or may not be formed. That is why there should be consistency across the land. If there are combined elections, the general election votes should be counted first, and the count should not start at 4.19 in the morning and finish at 8 o’clock in the morning. That explains why the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North looked just a little weary by the time his election result came out. We should be moving to greater consistency in that regard.

That leaves us with the problem in relation to combining polls. If we are to go to a fixed-term Parliament when we already have fixed-term council elections and fixed-term Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland and for the Parliament in Scotland, we either decide that they will all coincide always, so that that is a fixed part of the programme as it is in the United States of America, where there are elections every two years, or we decide that we will not combine polls at all, because that is better. I think that it is a bit odd that we have elections on the first Thursday in May, because April is a pretty rubbish month to go campaigning. Chaucer got it right when he talked about April with its showers. Perhaps we should think about another month. I say that as someone who was first elected in June rather than May.

Obviously, it is more important that we hear from the Minister than that we hear further expatiations from me. I just hope that the issues of consistency around the country can be addressed, as well as the finance and the accountability of returning officers.

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) on securing the debate. As she correctly said, this is an area in which she has taken great interest over a considerable period, and she has spoken very well on it for our party. She slightly underplayed her role in her mini-triumph earlier this year when she persuaded the then Lord Chancellor to adopt her amendment, which brought considerable consistency—to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—about counting. Those of us who were up for election and whose result was perhaps not as assured as that of the hon. Gentleman were grateful that the counts took place promptly and we had early results so that we knew our fate. My hon. Friend played a considerable part in that and has taken a great deal of interest in the issue, and we thank her for the opportunity to discuss these matters today.

It is worth saying, so that it is clear, that the administration of elections takes place at local level, as my hon. Friend set out. The acting returning officer is often, although not always, the local authority chief executive or another senior officer. They are responsible for all aspects of the election, including publication of the notice of the election and dealing with the nominations of candidates, ballot papers, polling stations, the counting, the arrangements for the count and the declaration of the result. Part of the tension when we are talking about accountability is about making it impossible for the people running elections also to have a stake in the outcome. The difficulty is about who is accountable.

That highlights one of the issues with the solution that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) highlighted. If the task was made part of the local authority chief executive’s day job, for which he is accountable to elected members of a local authority, there would be a risk in some places of political pressure and influence being exerted on the returning officer. That post is separate from the role of chief executive is so that political pressure is not put on that person. We do not want to lose that if we make any changes. My hon. Friend made a good point, but I am not sure that that is the right solution.

There is a distinction between the returning officer and the acting returning officer, which we must not lose sight of. The returning officer is normally a volunteer, not a local government professional, and is guided immensely and totally by the acting returning officer, who is normally the chief executive and does the work. We need to make that distinction.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest paid tribute to the way in which the acting returning officer conducted the election in her constituency. It would be remiss of me not to mention that I was also fortunate that the acting returning officer in my constituency ensured that the polls ran very smoothly. Indeed, unlike at the last general election in 2005, when I had to wait until about 6 am for the result—albeit perhaps not as long as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster)—this time, the acting returning officer and her team made a declaration almost three hours earlier and I was the first Member of Parliament in Gloucestershire to be elected. I have told them that I shall expect that level of service from now on.

What I am describing can be done. It is worth saying that, across the country, with the exceptions that we have discussed, most of the general election counts and the process were very well conducted. The standard is very high. However, that is not to take away from the fact that there were difficulties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest and other hon. Members drew attention to the problems that occurred on election day. I am referring to the queues at 10 o’clock. The Electoral Commission, in its report, made the point that that was largely to do with poor planning and poor contingency arrangements on the day. It is worth putting it in context. I am not being complacent or underplaying it, but there are 40,000 polling stations in the United Kingdom and there were issues at 27 of them. The reason why the Government hesitate before we rush off and legislate is that we want to see whether legislating would solve the problem and not create further problems. We want to see whether that is the right way to go. Without wishing to understate the problem, I just think that before we legislate, it is worth thinking about whether that is the right solution.

I will not go into the issue at length. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, the House had the opportunity earlier this week, because of the amendment that he and his hon. Friends proposed, to debate the matter. The House did debate it and decided not to make the change to the law at this time, but we are considering the Electoral Commission’s report and looking at the right way of solving the problem.

It is worth saying, though, that the law is clear. It has not changed; it has been the law for a considerable time. It is clear that a ballot paper should not be issued after 10 pm, so there is no reason why acting returning officers should be confused about that, and I know that the Electoral Commission will ensure that that guidance is clearly established before the next set of elections.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington raised. In Manchester, there were polling stations that covered too great a geographical area, or far too many electors were expected to vote in them. It is good to hear that Manchester city council has taken steps to address that. It is one of the issues set out in the guidance from the Electoral Commission. It lays out broadly how many electors should be going to a particular polling station, precisely so that if there is a high turnout, that number of electors can be processed smoothly. It is good to hear that in places where we know that there were issues, they are being dealt with. I do not know overall across the country whether there has been a reduction in the number of polling stations.

I suspect that one problem was that given that turnout was lower at the last few general elections and at other elections, as the hon. Member for Rhondda highlighted, some acting returning officers made assumptions that turnout would continue at a low level and were caught unawares when, perhaps because people were more engaged in the election, they took part in it in greater numbers.

I am sure that the Minister is absolutely right, and I think that another assumption the officers made was that many more people would vote by post. That has undoubtedly happened: in my constituency we have lost, I think, eight polling stations since I was first elected in 2001, for all sorts of reasons that are pretty much insurmountable. Virtually everyone in those old polling districts now votes by post, notwithstanding the points made earlier by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart).

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I suspect that in some areas people have made assumptions about postal voting. Because of the problems that we have had with such voting at previous elections, quite a lot of my constituents who had decided to vote by post have now gone back to voting in person, partly because they like doing that but also because they feel that it is more secure. Acting returning officers need to take that into account.

My hon. Friend has touched on a very important point. People did not receive their postal votes until after the time allowed for the receipt of them. The returning officers have to stick to the rules, and that is why monitoring is necessary.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it comes back to accountability—an issue that has been mentioned by a number of Members. I would say a couple of things about that, and about the payments. The returning officer’s job is separate from and in addition to their normal duties, which ensures that in carrying out those duties they are not accountable to politicians, who might have an interest in the election. Returning officers are not paid for just the one night; a lot of planning and preparation goes into ensuring that elections run smoothly. Indeed, some returning officers appoint deputies to help them, and with whom they share the fees. The Government have issued guidance in relation to national elections, which recommends that that happens.

One of the things that Members have highlighted is the issue of what happens if things go wrong: what is the accountability? In Manchester, the council’s chief executive, who is the acting returning officer, has effectively taken the view that because there were problems in one of the constituencies—Manchester, Withington—he would not take his fee for that. Some other returning officers have also taken that view. Members have suggested that someone should have the ability to make such a judgment, and to not pay the fee. We will be experimenting with that idea, to some extent, in the provisions in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Regarding the referendum, the chief counting officer—the chairman of the Electoral Commission—is responsible for its conduct, and appoints regional counting officers and counting officers. Those officers will be the same people as the returning officers, but we will—if Parliament agrees—give the chief counting officer the ability to withhold the fee for their duties in conducting the referendum, if performance is not adequate. We will consider whether that has the desired effect, and will review the measure after the referendum to see whether we might want to consider it more widely.

I thank the Minister for his kind remarks earlier. I have for the first time just seen a good point—a plus point—to having the referendum. The Minister will appreciate that that measure could be a sort of pilot scheme for a system of accountability for returning officers, and that would be very welcome.

I am very pleased that views, certainly on the Government Benches, are hardening in support of our Bill. I look forward to further progress today.

It is worth noting that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest suggested that the Electoral Commission should have more powers to direct returning officers in their conduct of elections—not referendums—the Electoral Commission itself has called for greater accountability, but not for greater powers of direction, with the exception of the referendum, the outcome of which they are responsible for. We will think further about that, but we will first see how the step of making the Electoral Commission responsible for the fee for the referendum works—the pros and cons—and whether it might be something to bring in more widely for returning officers. The difficulty would be in deciding to whom they would be accountable, and who would make that decision. We will, however, look at that further, and it might be something to debate after the referendum.

In the six minutes that remain, let me just deal with some of the other issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, and other Members, raised. One issue that she raised, which was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), was the hypothecation or ring-fencing of funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest made two points. For national parliamentary elections, the funding, as she correctly said, is ring-fenced. It comes directly from the Consolidated Fund and the Government say to returning officers that for properly incurred expenditure to do with the election the money is payable from the centre. That is clear, and my hon. Friend made it clear.

The other point is about the money for electoral registration. At the moment, that money is not ring-fenced; it is part of the revenue support grant. I have heard a number of Members state that the money in that revenue support fund is not used for electoral registration, but there is no evidence of that. If people were to bring forward evidence, we would look at the issue very seriously. The hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned those points as well. Given that the electoral registration officer is a senior member of the local authority officer team, the acting returning officer responsible for delivering the elections is often the chief executive, and the other decision makers in local authorities are councillors who have to get elected, I do not understand why we should think it likely that that set of individuals would de-prioritise spending on elections, since that is something in which we as politicians have a great interest. So, I am not convinced intellectually that there should be a problem, and there is very little, if any, evidence that that is happening—if there is, the Government will look at it. It is not just a Treasury rule; it is the general view of this Government that we should allow local authorities to make judgments about how much money needs to be spent in different areas, although they do have legal duties to ensure that elections are well conducted and that the registration system works well.

As we roll out individual voter registration, I hope that we can tackle both sides of the coin. We can deal with the problem of people who are on the register but should not be—a number of Members mentioned that this morning—and, equally importantly, we can look at people who are eligible to vote but are not on the register. The resources issue is important, and I have written to every local authority chief executive about our data-matching pilots. I encourage Members to encourage their local authorities to participate. We hope to enable local authorities to use other public data sources to identify people who are eligible to vote but not on the register, or the other way around, so that they can target them and use limited resources more effectively, to ensure that the register is both accurate and complete. The funding for the pilots will be met from central Government. I encourage Members, particularly if they feel that there are problems in their areas, either with accuracy or completeness, to encourage their local authorities to participate. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who raised some of those issues.

I have dealt with some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington. It is good to hear that the issue of the number of polling stations has been dealt with. He raised some very good points about the combination of elections, and about a differential franchise between the local, European and parliamentary franchises. We are alive to that issue, with the combined election and referendum that we hope to see next year, and one reason why we have been working very closely with the Electoral Commission and with those responsible for delivering elections is to ensure that there is clear guidance. In their planning for the referendum and the elections, the Electoral Commission and acting returning officers will take exactly that into account, to ensure that in parts of the country where they are not used to such a combination there is clear guidance and clear planning, to avoid those sorts of problems.

Finally, the issue of combination, which the hon. Member for Rhondda raised, is interesting, and we in the House need to think about that more widely. There is a view that no elections should be combined, but given that the Government are looking at more fixed terms, including a fixed term for this Parliament, and are also considering having more elections—for police commissioners for example—it would be difficult to have all those elections on separate days. It is worth thinking about the argument, “If you’re going to combine them you should go for it big time and make sure it’s well done,” and considering whether we effectively have a big democracy day in the same way as they do in the US, where everything is on the same day. It would be helpful if Members thought about that, and I am sure that we will get the opportunity to debate it in due course.

This has been a good debate. We have touched on a number of issues that are very important to Members, and I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest for enabling us to have the debate. I look forward to debating with, or listening to, her this afternoon, when we continue consideration of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.