Previous Section Index Home Page

3 Feb 2010 : Column 90WH—continued

Jo Swinson: I am interested in the damaging allegations that the hon. Gentleman has made about my colleagues in Islington. I imagine he is referring to the events of 2006. As he knows, Islington council holds an annual registration drive, in common with other local authorities. More than 90 per cent. of people are registered. I accept his point that 92 per cent. is not
3 Feb 2010 : Column 91WH
good enough and that we should aim for 100 per cent. However, the evidence that the council is working hard on registration is there.

A press release by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on this matter was the subject of a standards investigation and was branded "unwise". The Electoral Commission took the matter up and expressed its concern, saying that the press release was misleading. I urge the hon. Gentleman to exercise caution before deciding to go down this route because the matter has been investigated by the Commons authorities. It was found not to be the scandal that he suggests it was.

On the timing of general election counts, we would all agree that accuracy should be a top priority. Clearly, overnight counting has not led to massive problems of accuracy over the past decades. The case of the machines and spoiled ballots in 2007 has been discussed. The problems with the Scottish elections would still have happened had the count taken place on the next day. Neither of those problems is likely to occur in the general election. On spoiled ballots, I am sure that we will be spared the wording "Alex Salmond for First Minister" on the ballot papers. The issue of counting machines will not come into play because under the electoral system used for the general election, the ballots can be counted by hand.

Mr. Tom Harris: It is likely that the general election will be held on the same day as local elections in England, as has happened on many occasions recently. If the electoral system for Westminster changed to the alternative vote, would there not have to be a rule that that could not happen again? As the Gould report concluded, there should not be two elections using different systems on the same day.

Jo Swinson: The experience we had in Scotland suggests that holding the elections at different times would be helpful. Fixed-term Parliaments would make that easier. All our other elections are held on a fixed-term basis. If we had fixed terms in Westminster, there would be certainty and this issue would not raise its head.

To find out what the public thought, I used Twitter and Facebook last night to share an excellent Electoral Commission document that states which authorities and constituencies are counting when, based on its study. I asked people what they thought. A few people thought it was fair enough if the count did not take place until the Friday, but the majority of people commented that they wanted the count to take place that night. They said things like:

That is very important. Another person pointed out the difficulty that political volunteers would have attending the count if it was held on the Friday, saying

I recall hoarding holiday for elections when I worked in the private sector before I came to this place. Political activists face such difficulties. Other people wrote that

3 Feb 2010 : Column 92WH

and that the count is such a buzz. Another said that

We should bear those comments in mind. Some people really appreciate the count.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said that the potential impact on the financial markets was important. That is interesting, but I am not sure that I agree completely. He suggested that the traditional element of general election night and the experience were less important. I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South on that point.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Lady has misunderstood what I said. My point is that the entertainment value is not as important as the exercise of democracy and the orderly transfer of government.

Jo Swinson: I accept that point, but the entertainment value does have an impact on democracy. It helps people to engage with and take an interest in our democracy. That is good for turnout and for political engagement between elections, such as people contacting their Members of Parliament and getting involved in politics.

Geraldine Smith rose-

Jo Swinson: I am sorry, but I have only a short time left and want to make some progress.

Election night is watched by millions of people-not just political anoraks, but those who are interested in current affairs. It often becomes a social gathering with people inviting their friends around, getting food in and making an event of it. I experienced that during the 2005 election, when many people from university whom I had not heard from for years suddenly texted to congratulate me on winning after watching the coverage on television. That is worth preserving.

There are a few circumstances in which it might not be possible to do the count on election night. For example, ballot boxes might have to be taken on ferries or there might be difficult weather conditions on the islands. Everybody accepts that the count cannot take place overnight if there are extenuating circumstances. In general terms, however, we should stick with the system, and returning officers should be encouraged to do so.

The postal vote argument is a total fallacy. As campaigners, we all know that most people fill in their postal votes and send them in as soon as they receive them, which is why when they go out is an important time in the campaign. A tiny percentage of such votes come in on polling day itself. That matter can easily be dealt with without it taking two to three hours. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments on how we can encourage returning officers to ensure that the counting takes place on polling night-for the sake of interest in our democracy, to be seen to be fair and to take into account the security concerns raised earlier.

10.40 am

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I seriously congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) on initiating the debate; this is really the first chance that we have had to discuss this important issue.
3 Feb 2010 : Column 93WH
I remember well the hard work that he put into taking the Electoral Administration Act 2006 through the House, because I tried to stop parts of it. In general, he knows the subject as well as anyone, and I agree with every word that he said in his speech and with how he set it out. Of course, I also agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles).

The issue must not be dealt with in party political terms. We have not done that, and I think we have achieved consensus this morning. We are all concerned about the inconsistency of the work of returning officers throughout the country and, as a result of research, we are also concerned that returning officers are not accountable to anybody directly. I think I am right in saying that returning officers are accountable to the courts and the electorate by virtue of the Ballot Act 1872. If I am wrong, I am sure that the Minister will correct me. That Act sets out the current law, which has not been changed since. I do not think any of us foresaw the problems that would arise.

The Electoral Commission has spent a long time considering the matter and has issued guidelines. We cannot blame the Electoral Commission for things that might go wrong, because it has limited powers. It is up to the Government to give the Electoral Commission further powers if that is deemed necessary, and that seems to be the direction in which we are going this morning. As other hon. Members have said, the Electoral Commission can, of course, set performance standards, and it has done so.

However, the returning officer is required to justify his actions. We have not yet discussed that point, but we should all be asking returning officers to justify their actions. There are currently 52 returning officers who have informed the Electoral Commission that they will for various reasons not count votes until the day after a general election. What justification have those 52 returning officers given? We do not know, but we can find out. This is an important subject of public interest and the returning officers should be asked to justify their decisions, if not by the Electoral Commission then by each individual Member of Parliament or anyone else who is interested in the matter.

I understand the concerns of the Electoral Commission to prioritise accuracy; indeed, we talked about that during the passage of the 2006 Act, which the hon. Member for Inverclyde took through the House. I have lost count of the number of times that the Minister and I have had exchanges on the matter at the Dispatch Box over the past year. However, we are agreed-I think he will agree with me here-that the accuracy of the register and the integrity of the ballot are the most important factors that we are all aiming for in bringing forward changes to the electoral system.

Chris Ruane: The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of the accuracy of the register and the integrity of the ballot. Will she assure hon. Members-this is a question I intend to put to the Minister, if he will allow me to do so later-that she and her party are not considering disenfranchising 1 million Commonwealth voters or 700,000 Irish voters?

Mrs. Laing: Yes, of course I can. We have also talked about the comprehensive nature of the register, which is extremely important. Everyone who has a right to vote
3 Feb 2010 : Column 94WH
must be on the register. However, that is a digression, so I will not pursue the issue that the hon. Gentleman is asking me about.

I understand very well the extra duties that we have imposed on returning officers as a result of the new rules on the verification of signatures for postal votes and so on. Unfortunately, as various hon. Members have said this morning, the impression is being given that the duty of a returning officer to make his return as soon as practicable is being interpreted as an excuse for not dealing with the challenges, rather than as a duty to deal with those challenges. The Electoral Commission states

Fair enough-in the Western Isles, votes cannot be counted until Friday, and in other places around the country that is also the case. Of course we all understand that and think it is perfectly reasonable. However, in most places it is perfectly possible to have the ballot boxes brought in on time.

The Electoral Commission also refers to the

I just do not believe that it is impossible for a returning officer to find a suitable venue and enough staff to carry out the work that needs to be done to hold an immediate count and result. The security of the ballot boxes has been mentioned by other hon. Members. Of course it is worrying that ballot boxes would be left all night before the vote had been counted. That enormous problem ought to be a balancing factor, but in some cases returning officers appear to be ignoring it.

Finally, the Electoral Commission refers to the

That matter has also been dealt with, and I agree with what other hon. Members have said about postal votes. We are talking about a minority of postal votes. Of course, people sometimes come in at 10 o'clock at night just as the ballot closes and hand in their postal vote, but how many hundreds of those will there be in each constituency? Not many.

Knowing the result of the general election is not comparable to waiting until Sunday to see who wins "Strictly Come Dancing." It is matter of importance to everyone, whether they know it or not. I publicly make the point that I do not believe we are here this morning to speak on our own behalf because we-the people who are deeply involved in politics and political activity-want the excitement of election night. The issue is not about that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said so eloquently, the matter is about the potential transfer of power in this country.

Mr. Tom Harris: Or not.

Mrs. Laing: Or not. We have always had a system that is immediate, and that is one of the basic building blocks of our democracy. It matters. That is how we do it here, and the fact that that is being changed because of perceived administrative problems is simply unacceptable.

I now come to the important point: we have a consensus here this morning and, I think, throughout the House. Simply changing how our general elections are run for
3 Feb 2010 : Column 95WH
the administrative simplicity of some returning officers who are accountable to no one is unacceptable. So, what can we do about it? First, let us make it clear that the assumption should be that the count should take place at the close of the poll unless the returning officer can publicly justify his actions in deciding otherwise. In some places that will be easy and in some places it will not. Returning officers have made decisions that they have not been required to justify. Let us now ask them to justify their actions publicly. There has been no update to the precise law on returning officers' duties since the 1872 Act.

The Minister knows very well that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill has been amended and expanded considerably over the past few weeks, and the Opposition have agreed with much of the expansion that the Government have brought forward; we have co-operated with it. I am considering bringing forward an amendment to the Bill on Report to deal with the matter. It would be far more effective, however, if the Government did that. I give an undertaking that, if the Minister brings forward such an amendment on Report, he will have our support.

10.50 am

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I not only congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) on securing the debate, but thank him for doing so. The quality of the contributions speaks for itself, and the fact that attendance has been in the double figures speaks for the great importance that the whole House attaches to the subject. Important questions of principle and practice have been raised.

We heard important contributions from the Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). Important contributions also came from my hon. Friends the Members for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). We also heard from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). All of them have made important contributions to the debate-[Interruption.] Of course, I must not forget the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), which was so important that I have a whole sheet of paper devoted to his comments. He has made an important contribution to the matter over many years, and he and I have had many exchanges about it. His hard work has informed the framing of legislation on at least two occasions, so I thank him in particular.

An important point of principle that underpins the whole debate is the position of the electoral registration officer in our constitutional arrangements. The ERO's position is important in registration, and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd rightly highlighted how important that is, as 3.5 million eligible voters are not on the register and are therefore unable to vote, which is a scandal. We have to do something about that, and I will come to that point in a moment.

Their position is also important because of the way they conduct elections. That brings us to an important point of principle: they are independent of political
3 Feb 2010 : Column 96WH
interference, and rightly so. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde rightly drew attention to the importance of that. I think that Members from all parties would agree that we in this country are fortunate that our elections are free of corruption and delivered efficiently. There have, of course, been exceptions with regard to efficiency, and there have been isolated examples of corruption, but generally we are very fortunate and owe a great debt of gratitude to those EROs who deliver elections in that way.

However, we cannot and must not be complacent about fraud, under-registration or the issues that have been raised today. Whatever further changes we might have to make-and we have made some already-it is important that they enhance the integrity and independence of the ERO. There is no evidence of widespread problems in that area, although there is widespread concern about election night, to which I will return in a moment. We cannot and must not be complacent.

With regard to what we can do about the matter, the Government have to be careful. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar characteristically reflected his party's position. He said he wants

except, of course, when they behave unreasonably, in which case he seems to want the Government to direct them to behave in a particular way. I know that it is a characteristic of the modern Conservative party to want to be all things to all people at all times, and in all weeks, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale pointed out, they really cannot always have it like that.

Mr. Pickles: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman misquoted me inadvertently. He asked me a specific question on ring-fencing, to which I gave a specific answer-no, we do not favour ring-fencing and want to set local authorities free to set their own priorities. That does not mean to say that the Government cannot do so or must abrogate their role, so I would be most grateful if he did not seek to find a political divide on an issue in respect of which there is so much to unite us.

Mr. Wills: Of course not, but there are divisions between us, and the hon. Gentleman alerted Members to them in his own remarks. I was not referring to the ring-fencing remark. I hope that I am not misrepresenting him, but I think that if he looks at his remarks he will find that he said he really wanted direction to be made in relation to election night. I will return to that point. If we accept that local government should be set free, I think that he will accept that there are limits to what the Government should do in relation to everything, and in relation to election night.

Chris Ruane: The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said that local government should be allowed to set its spending priorities according to local priorities, but electoral registration is not only for local government, but for Assemblies, national Government and EU-wide government. The issue is so important that the money should be ring-fenced.

Next Section Index Home Page