An independent expert is likely to be brought in by Birmingham City Council to organise polling at the General Election following the suspension of two senior local authority officers.

Leaders of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition are seeking an official with national experience as a stop-gap measure after the discovery on Tuesday of about 1,000 uncounted postal votes for the 2004 council elections hidden in a store room. WHAT DO YOU THINK? EMAIL US AT WITH YOUR VIEWS.

The incident led to the suspension of John Owen, the council elections officer, and another member of staff.

An inquiry into the votes and the conduct of the two officers is under way, but council sources confirmed that a search has also begun to find someone to fulfil the council's responsibilities to organise voting at the General Election on May 5.

The unusual discovery will further damage public confidence in the voting system in Birmingham, according to deputy city council leader John Hemming, who seized the missing votes after a tip-off.

A week ago a high court judge at an election court condemned widespread postal vote fraud at the 2004 Birmingham council elections. Six Labour councillors were sacked by Richard Mawrey QC after he heard evidence that as many as 3,000 postal votes in Aston and Bordesley Green were forged and stolen by Labour.

Mr Mawrey said postal voting throughout the country was wide open to fraud. More than 53,000 postal votes have already been applied for at the General

Election in Birmingham. Coun Hemming (Lib Dem South Yardley) described Tuesday's discovery as a matter of "the utmost seriousness".

He added: "What is important is that the next election is run competently and is not fiddled. The priority has to be to get the General Election properly organised and to prevent fraud.

"This sort of thing certainly does not do much for public confidence in the electoral system in Birmingham."

He rejected claims by Labour that he had breached local government standards by publishing details of the discovery of the missing votes on his internet blog site.

He said: "I did not name anyone in a negative sense. The only people I named were those doing their job properly."

Hugh McCallion, deputy leader of the Labour group, said by publishing details on his website Coun Hemming was prejudicing a possible disciplinary hearing into the two suspended officials.

Coun McCallion ( Kingstanding) added: "The people who have been suspended have rights as well. This inquiry has got to be handled in a structured way.

"Labour absolutely agree that this is a very serious matter and no stone should be left unturned in investigating it, but it has to be dealt with properly."

Council chief executive Lin Homer is the returning officer, with overall responsibility for organising voting, but she has in the past handed the job to Mr Owen.

Mrs Homer told the election court that she was in "strategic, not operational control" at the 2004 council election count. She relied to a large extent on advice from Mr Owen, who was seen as an expert at running elections.