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Peter Bone brands Returning Officers wanting Friday election counts as "tin-pot, upstart little town clerks"

SaveElectionNight graphic Question Time in the Commons on Thursday saw a large clutch of questions about the campaign to Save General Election Night aimed at Tory MP Gary Streeter in his capacity as the MP representing the Electoral Commission.

He gave the following update of when counts are scheduled to take place:

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has asked all returning officers to provide information about their current plans for commencing the count at the next UK parliamentary general election. This information has been made available in the House of Commons Library. In summary, as of 7 January returning officers for 586 out of the 650 constituencies had provided information.

Of those, returning officers in 330 constituencies plan to start counting on polling day, a further 17 will commence counting on polling day unless the general election is combined with local authority elections, 52 have decided to count on the Friday and 187 were still undecided.

There were a number of further questions on the issue, with Tory backbencher Peter Bone being especially robust in his denunciation of those Returning Officers seeking to delay counting until the Friday:

David Amess David Amess (Southend West): Recalling my re-election to Parliament in 1992, when the count was completed within an hour of the close of poll-I am advised that the result indicated that there would be the re-election of a Conservative Government, and financial stability-does my hon. Friend agree that we should continue with the tradition of counting immediately after the close of poll, in order to bring financial stability and reduce the possibility of electoral fraud?

Gary Streeter: That is, of course, my personal opinion, but as the House knows full well, whether to count votes on Thursday or Friday is a matter for individual returning officers; that has been our law for more than 100 years. However, the law does require returning officers to count votes as soon as is practicable after the election. The Electoral Commission website indicates which returning officers have so far decided to count on the Friday or are undecided, and I encourage hon. Members in those areas to enter into a dialogue with the returning officer to discuss whether their decision meets that criterion.

Peter Bone Peter Bone: Unfortunately, one of the constituencies that plans to count on Friday is Wellingborough. Could my hon. Friend recommend to the Speaker's Committee that the law be changed, so that counts have to be made on a Thursday unless there are exceptional circumstances and tin-pot, upstart little town clerks cannot change things?

Gary Streeter: I wish my hon. Friend would say what he really feels! When the Electoral Commission was set up the House did not give it the power to direct returning officers, and of course, if the law is to be changed that is a matter for this House, not for the Electoral Commission. As we know, returning officers are usually the chief executives of local authorities, and Members of Parliament and councillors up and down the land are usually not without influence in working alongside these hard-working and respectable individuals.

Picture 3 Desmond Swayne (New Forest West): The New Forest constituencies will be doing the right thing, but I hope that the only present occupant of the Treasury Bench, the duty Whip, will have noted the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). We all appear to be in agreement that either we are going to do something about this or we are not, and we are just going to hope. Perhaps someone on the Treasury Bench could give some instruction as to the meaning of the law: what does "as soon as is practicable" actually mean?

Gary Streeter: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is to be hoped that the guidance that has been given from this House in recent days, including your own very powerful statement on this matter, Mr. Speaker, will influence the 187 returning officers who have not yet decided to take the view that counting on Thursday is the right thing to do. This is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

Meanwhile, co-founder of the Save General Election Night campaign, and tabler of the EDM on the issue, Labour MP and blogger Tom Harris, has  submitted freedom of information requests to every local authority in his native Scotland seeking to know how much the Chief Executive of each council receives for his role as Returning Officer for the General Election, the Scottish Parliament Election and the Local Authority Elections.

He has asked MPs who have backed the EDM to make the same request to local authorities in their region in order to "put pressure on Returning Officers to hold counts overnight and demonstrate how unhappy we are about this".

Jonathan Isaby


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