By Jonathan Isaby
In advance of the 2010 General Election, I was proud to found the successful Save General Election Night campaign to ensure that votes were counted as soon as the polls shut, despite a number of Returning Officers wanting to wait until the following day to conduct the count. My reasons for the campaign were set out in the original post on the issue.
The same concern about Returning Officers wanting to delay the counting of votes has now arisen with regard to the Scottish Parliament elections taking place in May, and Labour tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill in the Commons on Monday seeking to give Returning Officers the same duty with respect to Holyrood elections as for Westminster elections.
Shadow Scotland Office minister Tom Greatrex explained:
"It is widely acknowledged that, by and large, people in Scotland want to know the results of their elections as soon as it is practicable so to do. That was the objective of Minister when he was in opposition in the lead-up to the general election last year and it was supported by the then Opposition parties in respect of an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which my amendment seeks to replicate."
"I find myself in the extremely unusual position of agreeing entirely with everything that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) has said. That is not surprising, however, given that the amendment that was accepted by the Government approximately a year ago, before the last general election, was originally tabled by me. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) wisely added his name to it and accepted it as a Government amendment, and it became part of the Bill. At the time, I thought that that was the only thing that I had ever achieved from the Opposition Front Bench, but perhaps that was due to the cynicism engendered by 13 years of opposition.
"I am delighted that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West has tabled the amendment again. It was very popular with Members in all parts of the House when we debated it a year ago. It became law, and it made a difference to the way in which the general election was administered and to the timing of the extremely disappointing results of that election across the country. But if we were going to get bad news, perhaps it was as well to get it sooner rather than later. That is not the point, however. The point is that, in the operation of our democracy, it is right that election counts should take place as soon as practically possible after the close of poll.
"We discovered that many excuses were being made by returning officers around the country for not undertaking their duties in a timely and correct manner. They made every excuse that they could think of, none of which proved to be correct, because, when the law was changed and they were required to act as they ought to have been acting in the first place, they did so. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this amendment, but I hope that I shall be able to support what the hon. Gentleman has just proposed to the Committee."
"Amendment 10, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, would require Scottish Ministers' first conduct order under the new powers to include provision requiring returning officers to start the count at Scottish Parliament elections within four hours of the close of the poll, or to publish a statement explaining why they were unable to do so. It is important to clarify at this point that the amendment would not apply to the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.
"I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue, which has been set out eloquently by the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). The drama and excitement of election night and the wish to know the election result as soon as possible are vital parts of our political heritage. I want returning officers to listen to what has been said in this debate. As hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies know, Mary Pitcaithly, the chairman of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, will be available to Scottish MPs to discuss the arrangements for the forthcoming Scottish elections at a meeting at the Scotland Office later this week. I am sure that the point about overnight counts will again be forcefully made.
"In a recent response to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, I suggested that he and his colleagues should lobby for overnight counts. I had noticed that the counts in Conservative-led council areas such as Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire were scheduled to be overnight counts, and that Labour predominated in the council areas that were on the list of counts scheduled to happen the following day. I therefore thought that he might be able to bring more influence to bear than I in those areas."
When the Commons divided on the issue, 206 MPs backed the amendment insisting on overnight counts (Eleanor Laing being the sole Tory among them), with 298 Tory and Lib Dem MPs opposing it.