Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 2 April 2001
[Mr. Bowen Wells in the Chair]
Scottish Parliamentary (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2001
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2001.
The Chairman: Order. Before we begin, I must make it clear that I shall rule out of order all references to the English local or Parliamentary elections.
Dr. Clark: I am grateful to you, Mr. Wells, for your clear ruling.
The order, made under powers conferred by the Scotland Act 1998, was considered and approved in another place on 30 March. It amends the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 1999, which provides for the conduct of elections and the return of Members to the Scottish Parliament. Although there will be no Scottish Parliament general election until 2003, there may be by-elections before then. For that reason, the order is required now and will apply to any election to the Scottish Parliament from the date on which it comes into force.
The changes made by the order are necessary to take account of and reflect changes made by the Representation of the People Act 2000, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Postal Services Act 2000, and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001. The changes are not new in substance and relate to legislation previously debated and approved by the House. No new policy issues are raised.
The main changes proposed for elections to the Scottish Parliament concern arrangements for registration of electors under the new system of rolling registration, absent voting, the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers, and election expenses. Other changes take account of the role of the new Electoral Commission, whose functions include the review of electoral law, and provisions on registration of political parties and the nomination of candidates. The order makes changes to the 1999 order comparable to changes made by the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001 for elections to the United Kingdom Parliament and for local government elections in Scotland.
The 2001 regulations were debated and approved in the House on 31 January and came into force on 16 February. Among other things, they made detailed provision for rolling registration of electors, extended the registration process, eased the requirements for absent voting and improved provision for disabled voters. I have made available explanatory notes that set out in detail the changes introduced by the order, and I hope that hon. Members have found them helpful. In view of the detail, I will give an overview of only some of the most important provisions.
Article 5 deals with alterations to the electoral register as a consequence of the new rolling registration system. It allows the registration officer to add names to or delete names from the register throughout the yearfor example, on change of address or death of a voterand requires him to issue a notice specifying the alterations made. Article 6 makes provision for elections to the Scottish Parliament in respect of absent voting. It provides for service and local connection declarations and for applications for an absent vote to be for an indefinite or a particular period. Voters no longer need a reason, such as illness, to qualify for a postal vote.
Article 7 deals with absent voting and allows applications for a postal vote to be made by anyone on the register. Articles 8 and 9 amend provisions for voting by proxy at Scottish Parliamentary elections, including applications to vote by proxy for a particular period and applications to vote by post as a proxy.
Article 11 relates to the functions of the Secretary of State for Scotland in giving directions on registration duties in respect of elections to the Scottish Parliament. These must be in accordance with recommendations of the Electoral Commission. That reflects section 8(1) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Articles 12 and 13 make provision for electoral expenses, taking account of the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That sets out the controls imposed by that Act on campaign expenditure by political parties. Article 14 inserts a requirement for returning officers to make returns and declarations to the Electoral Commission in respect of an election to the Scottish Parliament. Article 17 relates to election lists and registers. Article 18 amends schedule 2 to the 1999 order, which contains the Scottish parliamentary election rules. Those amendments include the provision of a device to enable blind and partially sighted voters to vote without assistance and, in order to include provision for voters with disabilities and those who are unable to read, extension of the grounds on which a companion can assist a voter.
Article 19 relates to absent voting, whether by post or proxy, and I draw attention to changes in the dates for the receipt of applications to vote by post. Most applications for a postal vote will be able to be made up to the sixth working day before the date of the poll, instead of the 1 days previously required. Article 20 reflects the new provisions on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers made by the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001 in respect of elections to the United Kingdom Parliament and Scottish local government elections.
I realise that the amendments are fairly technical, and I congratulate hon. Members on bearing with me. In general, the order aligns procedures for elections to the Scottish Parliament with changes recently made for other elections, including to the UK Parliament. Electoral registration officers, returning officers, candidates, their agents, and the electorate in Scottish Parliament constituencies would face difficulties and confusion if the rules for the conduct of elections were not properly aligned. It is important to point out that the Electoral Commission was consulted on the draft order, as required by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and its comments have been fully incorporated. Against that background, I commend the order to the Committee.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I am mindful of the comments that you made on opening the proceedings, Mr. Wells, but as the Advocate-General has been brought in to speak on the Government's behalf, I can assure you that this is one of those occasions on which we can guarantee that there will be no political discussion whatever. The moment that we touch on political matters, she will be in great difficulty and scarcely able to respond on the Government's behalf. As it happens, the order is completely innocuous and has been put together well, as far as I can tell from reading it. It contains all the subject matters and points that I wished to find in it and appears to give proper effect to the intentions behind the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
The Advocate-General may be able to help me on one matter of curiosity that does not feature in the orderthe relationship, if any, between it and the issue that will be debated tonight in the House of Commons. As I understand it, we shall be changing the law in respect of imprints on election literature. The order makes no reference to imprints, which leaves me wondering whether, when it was first introduced, imprints at Scottish parliamentary elections were dealt with by some other means that I have failed to notice, or whether there was already at that time some knowledge that imprints might subsequently pose a problem. I should be grateful if the Advocate-General could clarify that issue.
I have nothing to add, except that I welcome the measure, which will clearly go some way towards ensuring that Parliament's intentions in respect of the 2000 Act are implemented in Scotland as well as here.
Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): You will be glad to hear, Mr. Wells, that I have no intention of speaking about English local or other elections. I must tell the Advocate-General that I was able to find the explanatory notes on this occasion, and they were very helpful. Over the years, many of us have been puzzled by the fact that many election regulations went out of their way to make voting more difficult rather than easier. I am glad that the various measures passed in the earlier legislation to which the Advocate-General referred will be implemented. They will make voting much easier for many constituents, particularly the measures relating to postal votes and assistance for blind voters.
Two Scottish parliamentary by-elections, which will be covered by the order, will be held on the likely date of the general election. The Home Secretary stated in the Chamber earlier this afternoon that he was minded to increase the money given to publicise the new facilities for postal voting. Will that provision be available in Scotland and, if so, will it be paid for from the Home Secretary's budget or from the Scottish block grant?
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I start with an apology; I did not spend the whole weekend poring over the intricate details of the order. Like many others, I spent my weekend dealing with the matter that you have said that I cannot discuss, Mr. Wells.
As a student of English electoral law, I feel that if I were a Scottish Member of Parliament, I should find the order a source of endless fascination and would need to debate it in great detail. It contains many matters that could detain the Committee for some time, but, as an English Member of Parliament, I want to raise only three that have a general bearing on what happens both in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
First, article 17(4) covers the ``Sale of register''. I am sure that, for many years, colleagues from all parties have, like me, received a free copy of the register each year, but have said, because we work from at least two offices, that it would be helpful to have two copies. I have been used to paying a relatively modest amount for a second copy, which has saved me a huge amount of time photocopying the first. The Committee may imagine my amazement, then, when I received a bill from my borough council in England for £383 for the second copy. Under the order, what will be the price for elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament for additional copies of the register? There are good arguments for a commercial price for those who want to make commercial use of a register, but I hope that the order will not let Members of the Scottish Parliament in for the same bill that we face in England. Will the Advocate-General clarify that point?
Secondly, article 18(7) says:
``In rule 37 (equipment of polling stations), after paragraph (3) there shall be inserted''.
It then sets off to talk about ``a device''. We have discussed what may happen in England by way of returning officers experimenting with equipment other than pencils and paper, but given what happened with devices in FloridaI am grateful that Florida was not ruled out of order, Mr. Wellsand elsewhere in the world, what devices will the order empower someone to use? Knowing what has happened elsewhere, it would be awful if Scotland had the same foul-up as happened in Florida.
Thirdly, article 20(10) says:
It is helpful that provision will be made for reissuing ballot papers that do not turn up. One effect of extending the final date for application for postal votes is that we will have an enormous problem with late issuing during the elections that we cannot mention as well as those in Scotland, given the problems that the Post Office seems to have these days. Many people will make applications, which is sensible and right. However, the document later states that if another ballot paper is issued, the original is null and void. Given the experience in Florida, I am anxious about that, because ballot papers that are late going out can just as easily return late, especially if they are posted.
What will happen if ballot papers are late? According to traditional law, the standard answer in cases that have been taken to court is that papers not returned by a set time are not counted. However, we have been told that if anything goes wrong with the post when the ballot paper is sent out, it can be put right. Will pressure be brought to bear if a postal ballot comes back too late to be considered or if it is not returned? Even if it does not come back late, it must be checked against the lists of replacements issued in order to discover whether it should be disallowed. In that case, it will be possible to find out what vote was cast on the paper that is to be disallowed. That has shades of Florida, where votes came in, were opened and checked and then disallowed, and that has the potential to affect the outcome of an election. I have a nasty feeling that electoral courts could be kept fairly busy by such cases. Clarification is needed. If such a case goes to court, it will be helpful for the court to consider the record of this debate to see what the Government had in mind.