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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 February 2010

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Returning Officers (Accountability)

9.30 am

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): There is a slight problem in that there is about half a minute's difference between the time shown on the clocks and the time shown on the annunciators, so let me make it clear that I am working from the time on the annunciators.

Before I call Mr. Cairns, let me also explain that I hope to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 10.30 am so that they will be able to speak for 10 minutes each. I hope that Members can help me with that. I should add that when I arrived, the sheet of paper indicating which Members want to speak was blank. I work on the assumption that those who turn up to these debates usually do so because they want to speak. If we count heads, we will see that a bit of self-discipline will probably enable me to call everyone who wants to speak. I call Mr. Cairns.

The Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury (Mr. Frank Roy) rose-

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): You need to call the Whip, Mr. Wilshire.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): I am sorry. You can see the state I am in this morning. I consider myself told off.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Frank Roy .)

9.31 am

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): Good morning, Mr. Wilshire. I thought that you were attempting to keep my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) here for the whole 90 minutes, which would be very welcome. [Interruption.] He is going already; he only made it to 90 seconds. [Interruption.] I should put it on the record that he agrees with me.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. It is a pleasure to serve under your direction. I also welcome colleagues to the debate, which is about the accountability of returning officers. I trust that that heading is sufficiently wide to allow for a general discussion of all the electoral matters that fall within the purview of returning officers; if not, this will be a short speech, and the subsequent debate will be even shorter.

I want to talk about the performance of returning officers and about how effectively they are regulated and inspected. I also want to touch specifically on the move to shift the timing of general election counts from Thursday nights to Friday mornings. Many hon. Members have a keen interest in that matter, and I see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who is leading the campaign to save general election night. Among others, I can also see my
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hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), whose specialist subject on "Mastermind" would be changes to the electoral roll, so I will not dwell on that, although I am sure that he will elucidate it in greater detail if he catches your eye, Mr. Wilshire.

I want to say something important right at the outset. Irrespective of whatever criticisms I may make, I strongly believe that the electoral system in this country, where politicians do not run elections, is the right one. Countries where politicians have a direct and controlling influence over the administration of elections inevitably end up with intimidation, corruption and the decaying of democracy. Our system, in which politicians set the broad legislative framework for elections but do not actually administer them, is surely the right one.

Inevitably, that arrangement contains a degree of tension. To what extent should Parliament be prescriptive in the rules that it sets out? To what degree should we leave matters to professional election administrators? The answers at either extreme are obvious. Parliament should legislate for the voting system; returning officers should decide how the count is managed. Parliament should determine who has the franchise; election officers should maintain and update the register. Parliament should set out the criteria for disabled access to polling places; local officials should decide on their location.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is right that there is no political interference by central Government in the work of local authority electoral registration officers. Is he aware, however, that there is some political interference at a local level? One example is Islington council in London. The Labour group there asked the council's Liberal Democrat leader to put money together for an electoral registration drive before the local elections, but he refused point blank, saying, "This is how we win elections." There is therefore scope for political interference at local level because budgets can be influenced.

David Cairns: I was not aware of that, although perhaps I should have been as an Islington council tax payer. I am afraid that nothing would surprise me about the Lib Dems on Islington council. They won the last election by only one seat and they now run the council on the basis of the mayor's casting vote, so they are not particularly good at winning elections. I am sure that my hon. Friend's comments will be reported to people in Islington.

As I said, it is fairly obvious at the extremes of the argument what should be left to Parliament and what should be left to returning officers. However, in the light of the current controversy about election night, there is some debate about whether the timing of election counts falls within the jurisdiction of Parliament or returning officers. Is the timing of counts a practical and logistical issue and therefore squarely in the remit of returning officers, or is the issue one of democratic principle-the right of voters to find out as soon as possible who will govern them? I will come back to that in a moment.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He conceded that the count is managed by the returning officer, but he went on to suggest that there are ways in which we should influence it, and one is
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surely to ensure that the count takes place immediately following the close of the polls. That has been built into our electoral arrangements for ever and it should be maintained.

David Cairns: I agree with my hon. Friend's conclusion, and what he describes has been custom and practice for generations. The problem is that the legislation does not stipulate that, and we have left things more open, so returning officers have the freedom to make a choice. Indeed, we have quite properly given them the freedom to make a choice on a whole range of issues. The question is whether the timing of the count falls within the purview of democratic principle or whether it is a practical, logistical issue.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is right to bring the issue before the House, and his debate is timely. I agree that the count should be immediate, but will the Minister advise us whether returning officers do in fact have the last word? We have recently introduced legislation to put in place regional super-returning officers, who will have a degree of control over local returning officers and to whom all local returning officers will report. Could the super-officer give the local returning officer instructions about the timing of the count?

David Cairns: I do not know the answer to that question, and I look forward to the Minister's elucidation.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I have had concerns about Chorley. The chief executive issued a statement saying that if the local elections and the general election were on the same day, the votes would be counted the following day. That is going to happen in Chorley, but as far as I can remember, we have always had the count on election night. I wrote to the chief executive, saying that I would like to sit down with her to discuss what she had said, but she replied that she did not want to discuss it. She said, "I'm the returning officer. This is my decision." That is what we are facing, and it is unacceptable. It is about time that these faceless, unelected people sat down with the elected Member of Parliament to have proper discussions that are open to all parties. That is the way forward. Does my hon. Friend agree?

David Cairns: I do. The high-handed and arrogant approach taken by the returning officer in Chorley is simply unacceptable, and I contrast it with the approach taken by my own chief executive, who is holding a local consultation in Inverclyde. He sent a copy of the consultation document to me and all the other candidates and agents, and he is taking our views into consideration. That is how to approach the issue, although I will save my final judgment until I find out what he actually decides. None the less, that approach is greatly preferable to the faintly dictatorial approach taken by the electoral officer in Chorley.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree with Mr. Speaker that we should have instant, and not slow-motion, democracy? In my constituency we managed to count the votes at the last election straight away, even though county council elections were taking place at the same time. I do not know why that cannot be done again. What has
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changed? The old Morecambe and Lonsdale constituency used to go right up to the Lake district and it included Coniston. They managed to count the votes straight away in the previous century; why cannot we do it in the 21st century? It seems appalling.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Member for Inverclyde answers-this is nothing to do with what has just been said-I must point out that in the back row, from Geraldine Smith to Lindsay Hoyle, the microphones are not working. Until things are mended, it would be helpful, if they do not mind, if they sat in the front row.

David Cairns: It would be a parliamentary tragedy if my hon. Friends' contributions were lost to posterity, and I hope that that can be remedied at once. I am sure that their lungs are capable of making their voices carry, but it is important that history should record their words of wisdom.

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) is right. Later, I want to discuss in detail why I believe counts can and should still happen on close of poll. There are many reasons, and I shall pick only some, because I suspect that other hon. Members will raise different ones.

Another point is that, in days gone by, turnout was higher. It is sad that turnout is lower, but it was significantly higher a few years ago, and there were more votes to count. There were fewer postal votes coming in, so there were more votes to process and verify on the night. If anything, the argument should be that it is easier, not more difficult, to do an overnight count.

To stay for a moment on the general functions of returning officers, almost every service in local government has at some point been described as the Cinderella service; but none with more truth and justification than electoral services. As a former councillor I can testify, as I expect every former councillor present for the debate can, that electoral services have been a neglected component of local government activity for many years. They are underfunded, understaffed and under-appreciated. They are one of the very few local government functions that is neither inspected nor properly evaluated.

It is fashionable in some circles these days to decry the targets culture as a bad thing, but I adhere to the somewhat old-fashioned view that what gets measured gets done. That is why when I was in the Government I was keen that we should work to establish proper performance standards for returning officers, by which they could be held to account. I was one of the Ministers who steered the Electoral Administration Act 2006 on to the statute book, alongside my right hon. and learned Friend who is now the Leader of the House.

Mr. Donohoe: One of the most obscure issues is this: why can Sunderland, for example, announce the result at about 10 minutes past 11, whereas in some parts of the country the announcement is made at about 3 o'clock in the morning? Is it not down to resources? One of the failings in the present system is that the returning officer uses, almost exclusively, local government employees. Surely those responsible should think about that, in relation to the question of when it is possible to deliver a result.

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David Cairns: My hon. Friend is right. It is down to resources, and the importance and priority that councils attach to the function. My argument is that that state of affairs is inadequate in this day and age. Councils do not have the leeway to decide whether to prioritise education or social services. They must do so, because that is set out in statute, and they are inspected on those services, whereas in electoral services they are not inspected or, as I shall outline, adequately regulated. It is therefore up to each council whether to attach a priority to them as Sunderland and other councils do. The majority of councils simply do not attach priority to those services.

Chris Ruane: My hon. Friend was indeed the Minister who helped to introduce the performance standards that are in place-others have not been put in place. However, in relation to those that have been put in place governing the completeness and accuracy of the register, according to a parliamentary answer that I have just received, there are still 66 electoral registration officers who say, on their own assessment, that they are not up to scratch and not performing properly.

David Cairns: We always say these things in debates because we are being nice to each other, but my hon. Friend has been genuinely assiduous-[Interruption.]-in burrowing, not boring, away through the detail of the statistics. He makes an important point: currently, the regulatory regime is self-certified by returning officers, with a caveat, which I shall come to in a moment. As he has highlighted, even by their own reckoning many registration officers are not doing as well as they should be.

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 empowers the Electoral Commission to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services. Despite the provision coming into force in September 2006, it took the Electoral Commission until March 2009 to publish the performance standards. Given that they are fairly broad-brush and high-level-they are not particularly earth-shattering-I have no idea why it took a leisurely two and half years to produce them. Nevertheless, we now have them, and they have been used for the first time to assess the performance of returning officers in an actual, real world election-the European poll in 2009.

The seven performance standards are largely common sense. They require returning officers to be able to plan and organise the elections, have robust processes in place, provide appropriate training for staff, identify potential malpractice, communicate effectively with voters, provide clear information for voters, and, lastly, communicate with candidates and agents.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that those performance standards do not include the returning officers' abiding by the law of the land-the electoral law set in this place for them to apply? They do not have to apply it, because their word is final. If a returning officer wants to ignore the law of the land-that a photocopy should not be used, that a signature should be taken contemporaneously, or that someone saying that they have witnessed a document being signed should actually have done so, rather than signing it fraudulently-it is possible for them to say, "That's fine. The law has been broken, but I find that to be perfectly okay. I accept it, and therefore it is acceptable and the law has not been broken." The returning officer who is in breach of the law is completely without regulation.

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Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Order. That intervention should be a question, not the speech that the hon. Gentleman hopes to make shortly.

David Cairns: I agree with the hon. Gentleman up to a point.

Bob Spink: It happens.

David Cairns: I am sure that it happens, but it is of course possible to appeal against decisions made by returning officers in the electoral courts. Of course, it must be demonstrated that the decision had a significant impact on the out-turn of the election, which is a fairly high threshold, so to that extent I agree that it might be easier. If electoral returning officers deliberately and wilfully ignore the law that is set out, that is a serious matter, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's elaborating on that, if he catches your eye, Mr. Wilshire.

Bob Spink: I have elaborated on the matter many times in the House.

David Cairns: Sadly, I was not present on those occasions, but I shall be this time.

As I have said, the performance standards are fine and no one could take exception to them. They are all pretty high-level and broad-brush. What causes me concern is how they are enforced. Following the Euro-elections, the Electoral Commission wrote to every returning officer asking them to rate themselves against the standards. It may come as an enormous surprise to the Chamber to learn that almost everyone rated themselves rather good at almost everything. I was just reflecting that if head teachers were told that Ofsted, or Her Majesty's inspectorate in Scotland, was changing the inspection regime and would be sending everyone a questionnaire about how well the school was doing, there would be huge cheers in staff rooms throughout the country.

In fairness, the Electoral Commission followed up the self-assessment with a series of face to face interviews with a percentage of returning officers. However, on its own reckoning, those interviews were aimed more at consistency in filling out the forms than at getting to grips with poor performance.

This is good: in some 17 cases, the commission asked returning officers to regrade their assessment of their performance. Perhaps unusually, 15 of the 17 were asked to move their initial assessments up a level, and regrade themselves as having performed better than the electoral officers had said. Of the hundreds of returning officers in the country, only two were asked to downgrade their self-assessments by one level as part of that regulatory regime.

I find it hard to take that seriously. Setting objective standards is clearly a step forward, and asking people to reflect on their performance against standards is a good thing. I do not contend that there is massive incompetence in the running of our elections, but anyone who has been a candidate, an agent, a party volunteer or a journalist covering an election count will know that there is a lot of room for improvement.

Several hon. Members rose-

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