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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 591: debated on Thursday 29 January 2015

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

General Election Count

1. On what authority and for what reason it is a requirement that the count for the general election must be started within four hours of the close of poll. (907273)

Provisions to ensure that returning officers begin counting at UK parliamentary elections within four hours after close of poll were introduced under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The Act requires returning officers for constituencies where counting did not begin within this time scale to publish a statement explaining the delay. They must send a copy of the statement to the Electoral Commission within 30 days of the declaration of the result, and the commission must publish details of those constituencies in its statutory election report.

It is really important that the number of ballot papers issued is reconciled with the number of ballot papers received before counting takes place. In constituencies where there are also local elections at district, borough, town and parish council levels on the same day as the general election, the four-hour time limit is going to put huge pressure even on the very best electoral returning officers. Where local candidates and agents are in agreement with a more relaxed time frame, should they not be allowed to proceed on that basis?

As usual, my hon. Friend raises an important question. He represents an area that has a strong reputation for delivering an efficient and timely count. In the end, it is for the returning officer to consider this matter carefully and to decide whether starting the count within four hours can be done. If it is decided in advance that that cannot be done, the matter should be discussed with local politicians and broadcasters and a statement should be issued, as was done by 45 constituencies in the 2010 general election.

The question of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) underlines the complexity of our current polling system. I was proud to be a member of your Commission on Digital Democracy, Mr Speaker, which recommended a move towards online voting. That, of course, would obviate the need for the counts. Will the Electoral Commission spokesman tell us its views on how fast we can move towards delivering on that?

It is a very important issue, but there are of course concerns about security in connection with online voting. These matters will have to be properly considered and looked at over the next few years; I do not think there is going to be any rush towards online voting in the UK.

It is always frustrating to me that the count in my constituency rarely comes before the sun rises, yet other constituencies are able to report within an hour or two. Why does he think that there is that differential? In this day and age, should we not be producing these results in a much more timely and efficient manner?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The British public are certainly very keen on their election night drama and are not keen on having too many constituencies counting on Friday. It is a matter for returning officers in every constituency to sort out their own procedures, to discuss them with local campaigners and to deliver and accurate an efficient account. The most important thing is that the count attracts public confidence and that it is returned accurately.

In most things, I want to move with the times, so I am in favour of the Commission on Digital Democracy recommendations. There is a long tradition in this country, however, that we count on the night of the poll. Increasingly, because of local government cuts, up and down the country, returning officers and chief executives—very often the same people—are deciding to count the vote the next day to save money. That is a retrograde step; what is the hon. Gentleman going to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, cutting-edge, but he is five years out of date in relation to the point he has just raised. Just before the last election, Parliament attended to this matter. More and more constituencies are now counting on Thursday nights, and we are going to deliver to the great British public the election night drama—with a great outcome at the end, I am sure—that they demand.