Page last updated at 22:54 GMT, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Straw backs bid to save election night counts

Ballot box
MPs believe all votes should be counted at the same time

Election counts will have to begin within four hours of polls closing under proposals backed by Jack Straw.

The justice secretary has thrown his weight behind a cross-party campaign to save the traditional election night.

He told MPs he was concerned about the "growing trend by returning officers" to begin counts the following day "for their own convenience".

But David Monks, who heads up the body for returning officers, told the BBC he had "serious doubts" about the plan.

Mr Straw's amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill on election night counts went through without a vote on Tuesday.

Postponing election counts until the next day would have sucked all the excitement and drama out of general election night
Eleanor Laing
Conservatives

It is far from certain that the bill will become law before a general election but Mr Straw said he wanted to "send a message" to returning officers.

And the fact that the election night amendment has Labour and Tory backing means it is likely to get through the House of Lords intact.

Shadow justice minister Eleanor Laing welcomed the move saying: "Postponing election counts until the next day would have sucked all the excitement and drama out of general election night."

Short notice

More than 100 MPs have backed a campaign to ensure all votes at the next general election are counted in a single night.

MPs are worried that the traditional election night drama is under threat as more constituencies consider holding their counts the following afternoon.

What people should be interested in is an accurate result that people have confidence in, this amendment appears to miss that point
David Monks
Society of Local Authority Chief Executives

But Mr Monks, of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, said it was "very worrying" if the rules were to be changed at such short notice and he had some "serious doubts" about the details.

In some rural areas it took hours to get ballot boxes back and putting "time pressure" on returning officers was "wrong", he said.

He said returning officers could begin the count within four hours.

But if within a few hours they judged they could not "proceed properly" due to staff tiredness, technical problems or difficulties with postal votes "in my view it would be quite proper for the returning officer to postpone that count for a number of hours and start the next morning".

He added: "There are a number of difficult issues, if you are going to check postal votes properly and conduct the count in a very professional, thorough way.

"What people should be interested in is an accurate result that people have confidence in, this amendment appears to miss that point."

Two early day motions calling for counting to begin immediately after the polls shut have been signed by scores of MPs.

Signatories include Tory chairman Eric Pickles, former minister Tom Harris and Lib Dem frontbencher Norman Baker.

The motions were launched amid reports that as many as one in four councils are reported to be considering abandoning the traditional Thursday night count in favour of one on Friday.

New postal voting rules and higher staff costs are among reasons thought to be behind those considering delays to counts.

Counting in the recent Norwich North by-election took place the following morning.



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