Draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2002

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Mrs. McGuire: I will respond.

John Thurso: I am trying to be helpful. It seems to me a curious way of working out the number of counting agents, given that we want to ensure that each candidate can scrutinise how the count has gone.

My final point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine in a previous debate. He eloquently made the point that, in one region, only 158 votes separated two candidates. Happily, in this country, we do not have to worry about pregnant chads, and so on. However, there remains the possibility that an election could be wrong in some way, and it is worth considering that issue.

5.16 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): The Scottish National party broadly welcomes the principles of the consolidation of electoral procedures for the Scottish Parliament as laid out in the statutory instrument. We have no problem with supporting the thrust of what is being suggested.

I confine my remarks to the question about candidates' expenses at the next Scottish election, which remains unanswered in all the orders. The election will be the first in the United Kingdom under the new electoral arrangements, but we still have no satisfactory arrangement for the triggering of campaign expenses for individual candidates. We spoke to the Electoral Commission this week, and were told that election campaign expenses for individual candidates will kick in only on the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament and the nomination of candidates for selection to the Scottish Parliament, some 21 days before the election.

Regulations on national expenditure—on what our political parties can spend—will be in place some four months ahead of May's election. However, for some reason, individual candidates can spend what they want up to that 21-day period before the election. That leaves individual candidates able to spend almost unlimited amounts before the dissolution of the

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Scottish Parliament. Because the elections are on a fixed day, they can plan their election campaign and put in stacks of money at the beginning of it, because they will only be governed by the rules in that 21-day period when the regulations kick in.

As the regulations stand, candidates could put out a leaflet now to every household in their constituency, saying ''Vote for me on 1 May''. That would not be covered by the regulations on election expenses. However, if they put the leaflet together and distributed it within the 21-day period, it would be covered by the regulations. I find that ludicrous.

Mr. Duncan: I am interested in the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, because it is similar to the point that I made about the limitation of expenses. If we put a limit on expenses, we must have a viable sanction before imposing it. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is little sanction that the Government can use to force people down to the minimum expenditure. But is he saying, in that case, that the Scottish National party will not issue any leaflets between now and the start of the campaign, so that it does not start it election expenses? If that is so, the Scottish electorate will be both surprised and dubious.

Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. As he said in his speech, we are constantly on a rolling campaign in Scotland at the moment. That is why I find it strange that the kick-in for candidates' expenses happens only 21 days before the election. Surely some procedure should be in place that binds candidates for a longer period. The Scottish electorate will find the measure unacceptable.

As the Minister said, the existing rules were set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Act stated that electioneering ahead of the dissolution of Parliament should be regulated in terms of party campaign expenditure in general and individual candidates' expenditure in particular. I refer back to the hon. Gentleman's intervention. Individual candidates' expenditure was triggered when a candidate used electoral materials to promote their campaigns or to diss their opponents, so to speak. Election expenses were triggered in the 12 months before a fixed election date or several months before a general election. Scottish parliamentary candidates' expenses were also expected to be triggered in a 12-month period, but for some reason that has not happened. The Electoral Commission has interpreted the Act and amendments to it to suggest that candidates' expenses can be triggered only on the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament. Our main concern, if that is the commission's stance, is that political parties will be given carte blanche to spend unlimited sums on candidates until the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament. That is absurd and flies in the face of the Act's principles.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale asked about the SNP's attitude. We are a small party and we are funded by small donations from our supporters—not for us the trade union bungs and red rose dinners of Labour Members. Given the difficulties experienced in several Labour

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constituencies in Scotland in the past month, one would have thought that the Labour party would want to remove any ambiguity about the triggering of campaign expenses and, indeed, that it would want to be whiter than white. We are only six months away from the Scottish parliamentary elections and we urgently need the issue to be clarified.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Let me put the hon. Gentleman's fears to rest. SNP members have been out in force in my constituency, putting leaflets through doors and asking people to vote for its candidate next year.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am heartened by what he says. That is what I would expect from hard-working SNP members in Glasgow.

To return to new Labour, will the Minister clear up one other little point that I came across while looking through the order the other day? Article 72 clearly states that paid canvassing is illegal. However, page 27, section 33 of the Labour party's legal handbook states:

    ''Payment of canvassers is no longer prohibited by election law''.

When was paid canvassing made illegal? Is this perhaps yet another example of Labour saying one thing in public and doing another in private? Will the Minister confirm that the order is correct and that the Labour party handbook, which I have with me, is wrong?

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Let me follow up the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) with an example not of paid canvassing but of paid leafleting. The SNP in the Cathcart constituency pays a private company to distribute its literature, which is delivered along with advertisements for a taxi firm.

Pete Wishart: I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to page 27, section 33 of the handbook, which states:

    ''Payment of canvassers is no longer prohibited by election law, but strongly advised against.''

We need clarity on that. Which is right—the handbook or the order? Is it correct to pay canvassers or not? The SNP will abide by whatever the Minister says is legal.

We are reasonably satisfied with the combination of the provisions, which makes absolute sense. However, I should like to hear the Minister's views, particularly on the triggering of candidates' campaign expenditure. I should also like her to clarify what is legal as regards paying for canvassing.

5.23 pm

Sir Robert Smith: I thank the Minister for outlining how the combination of previous orders affects election regulations and I congratulate her on making the structure so clear. Many points have been raised, but it is refreshing to know that many of the provisions are in order and need not be questioned.

When we first saw the provisions, on 1 March 1999, we had no experience of conducting a Scottish election. We now have such experience and we must

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feed it back into the process to ensure that the provisions work.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale made a point about the combination of polls. During the count, I watched the opening of the ballot boxes being verified and I was impressed by the fact that there did not seem to be a slate vote. It was clear in even the smallest boxes that people had voted for their preferred candidate for their local constituency and had chosen differently for both their party and their councillor. Members are looking quizzical. Perhaps electors in other parts of the country are not so sophisticated, but that was the experience in my constituency.

I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) and by the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale about the lack of a provision within the orders for a recount in the event of a close result in the consolidation of a list for a region. It is a serious point, but it will matter only if there is a close result, so the Minister might get away with ignoring the problem, as her predecessors did. Since that election, we have learned from the presidential election in America, which showed that the consolidated figures from a large electorate can produce a close final total. It also demonstrated the problem that that can cause for subsequent political legitimacy.

It is important to recognise that in introducing a system that involves list elections and an element of proportional voting we are making a cultural change. Previously, the returning officer in an election had to find a person to represent a constituency. I remember discussing that with a returning officer during one election, when I came second. The person who came third had demanded a recount in order to start ahead of me at the next election and the returning officer looked completely bewildered. He said that he did not have to worry about every single vote; he had to be confident that he was declaring the right candidate. That has traditionally been the culture of the count—recounts have been triggered only when a returning officer cannot be confident that he is declaring the right candidate.

The Scottish Parliament now has a system of two votes. The first is for the traditional first-past-the-post constituency Member, and the rules are unchanged. Then each constituency holds a count of ballot papers for the list. At that point, one may call for a recount, but such a recount is meaningless because it is only part of the sum that will make up the whole. What matters, in terms of the legitimacy of the result, is whether the result is close when all the votes are added together at the regional point. That is particularly important, because the object of the list system is to make more votes count; whereas first past the post recognises just one winner, the list system identifies the support for each party and for each of the independent candidates who took part in the election. It is therefore vital to be confident in the result.

The Government have to accept that any argument that that does not matter has a fatal flaw—they have made provision in the regulations for a tie in a list

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count. They have recognised that adding all the constituencies together can result in a tie, but they have not made provision for a result that is very close to a tie.

I urge the Minister to recognise, unlike her predecessor, that the point is serious and that it must be addressed. Can she amend the order in some way so that a recount can be triggered at list level if the result is close? That is important for Scottish electors because, unlike the elections of the past, the new system tends not to produce a whopping great majority for any one party. Not only can the result be close for the list itself, but the list result might trigger the election of a different person from a different party, so it could affect who governs Scotland in the Scottish Executive. Again, that is extremely important if the electorate are to have confidence in the final result, should there have been a close vote in the list. I urge the Minister to recognise this genuine concern, which has not been addressed in compiling the regulations. There is a flaw in the order and it needs to be tackled.

5.29 pm

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Prepared 30 October 2002