Clause 44 - Returning officers: correction of

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:15 pm ar 17 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I have no problem with the intent behind the clause, which deals with the correction of procedural errors. However, the law as it stands, and as it will stand, is a quite draconian imposition on returning officers, who will be guilty of a criminal offence if they make an error in executing their duties. The import of the clause is that if they correct that error, even after they have been charged with an offence, they will not be guilty of that offence. The   Minister is nodding, but that makes nonsense of their being charged with the offence in the first place.

There is no time scale for correcting the procedural error; it can even be corrected post-election, when the damage will already have been done to the chances of one or more candidates. If proceedings are taken against the officer, he can still, as far as possible, correct the procedural error. He will then not be guilty of an offence, which does not sound very sensible. I am sure that the intent is good, and I do not quarrel with it, but this seems an odd way of doing things.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Clause 44 allows returning officers to correct errors or omissions that arise during the preparation for and conduct of a UK parliamentary election or local elections in England and Wales. It will also allow returning officers to direct that erroneous acts and omissions made by other persons involved in administering elections be corrected. That includes presiding officers, electoral registration officers and their staff, and those supplying goods and services to the administrators. For example, electoral documents such as ballot papers printed with incorrect details could be corrected.

The clause also provides that a returning officer will not be found guilty of an offence for an act or omission that is in breach of his official duty if he can demonstrate that he has corrected that error in full by taking steps under subsection (1), as the hon. Gentleman said.

I may have nodded a bit precipitously earlier, because I thought that the hon. Gentleman was heading in one direction with his question, but then he went off in another. We have been assured by the parliamentary draftsmen, however, that the clause is phrased in the way that it should be.

When I was looking into this issue in preparation for the Committee, I was amazed by the number of things that are not allowed to be corrected, including the declaration. Should the returning officer simply read the numbers out wrongly when declaring a result, that declaration will be the result. Clearly, that is absurd, and the clause would allow such things to be put right.

The clause is intended to give returning officers a degree of flexibility. Mistakes happen, and although serious ones would obviously have to be dealt with elsewhere, minor inadvertent mistakes by the returning officer or those under his charge could be corrected. Currently, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, they are not, and that is what I was nodding at.

I do not entirely share the hon. Gentleman's fears about the way in which the clause is phrased, but we share the same intent. The clause is clearly a common-sense provision. If people can correct minor mistakes and demonstrate that they have done so, they should not be prosecuted. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some satisfaction.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful. I am not entirely convinced that we should prosecute returning officers for errors and omissions that are made neither with intent nor through recklessness. In any case, to revisit debates that have been held elsewhere, and as the   Minister says, people make mistakes. However, they are not usually hauled before the courts for it. They should be allowed to correct an innocent error; but if an error or omission was made with intent to pervert the course of an election, it should be prosecuted irrespective of whether it was subsequently discovered and corrected. The offence is described wrongly. Innocent errors and acts of omission should not be dealt with as if they were criminal offences, but deliberate errors or acts of omission ought to be dealt with seriously even if they are subsequently corrected.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 45 and 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.