Yesterday saw an adjournment debate in the Westminster Hall chamber initiated by Labour MP David Cairns on "the accountability of returning officers", which enabled MPs to discuss the Campaign to Save General Election Night.
There were more than a dozen MPs present for the debate – far higher than usual for proceedings in Westminster Hall – and there were contributions from co-founder of the Save General Election Night Campaign, Labour MP Tom Harris, and also from Conservative chairman Eric Pickles, who highlighted the figures he recently obtained showing how few postal votes get submitted on polling day – thereby rubbishing the excuse given by some returning officers for delaying the count.
It was a debate which very much found a consensus in favour of Thursday night counts, as shadow Justice Minister, Eleanor Laing, summed up:
"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… Simply changing how our general elections are run for 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."
Michael Wills, the Justice minister replying, accepted that there was a consensus view in favour of Thursday night counts, but stopped short of accepting the idea of amending the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, preferring to suggest it would be a matter for discussion after the general election:
"There is clearly a consensus across the House that all those responsible for delivering the count need to do everything in their power to deliver it overnight. I agree with that from a personal perspective. As the Minister responsible for elections, I have no role in directing EROs to do anything at all, and I want to ensure that everyone understands that I respect their independence.
"However, if any are still considering not holding overnight counts, I hope that they will read the record of this debate and reflect carefully on the strength of feeling. At the very least, if they decide not to hold an overnight count, they will have to have extremely good reasons. Whatever happens, they can expect to be rigorously scrutinised, and should realise that this House will take the matter forward after the next election. I have no doubt at all that that is the conclusion that everyone will draw from the strength of feeling in this debate, and I am extremely grateful to everyone who has contributed to it. I have no doubt that it will move the policy on in some way or other in the future."
Warm words from the minister, but not good enough. I very much hope that Eleanor Laing will table an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and that MPs get a chance to vote on the issue.