Draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2002

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Mrs. McGuire: I am awful glad that people agreed with the order. I thank Opposition Members for their consideration of the matter. All joking apart, they have obviously trawled through the order and come up with some interesting points.

However, before I specifically answer some of the detailed questions, I should say that the Labour party is the only political party that has a grievance, in terms not of defections, but of the flexibility of the system. I point out to the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale that in the Ayr by-election that replaced a Labour Member with a Conservative Member—all credit to the Conservatives for winning—I did not hear anyone from the Tory party jump up and down and suggest that Phil Gallie give up his seat as a list MSP. If we had totally recalculated on the basis of that by-election, that would have been the result. We are not allowed to run foxes any more in Scotland, but we can still run hares. The hon. Gentleman should have considered where the hare was going before he went down that route. I make that as a political point. However, I sincerely congratulate him on having acquitted himself well, and with slightly more humour than the person whom he replaced sometimes showed in Committee.

Hon. Members need to consider one or two subjects. We have heard all sorts of allegations about candidates already running around to campaign. If anyone is aware of election campaigning having already started, it is incumbent on them to ensure that such expenses will be declared in the election return. The law is specific, and so is the order. It states that even if an expense is incurred before the election, it is declarable. It does not matter when the party represented by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) starts to spend money in his constituency. If money is used for the promotion of candidates for election to the Scottish Parliament, that is a declarable expense.

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Pete Wishart: I received something on that point from the Electoral Commission today, which states that expenditure incurred prior to the relevant date on which a person becomes a candidate can indeed constitute election expenditure, but only in instances where it is used after that date. There is nothing about its use before that date. Will the Minister confirm once and for all what regulations are in place for election expenditure before the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament?

Mrs. McGuire: I have clearly highlighted the fact that we consulted the Electoral Commission. In considering its advice to us, we must be careful not to mix campaigning up with the promotion of individual candidates, as they are slightly different. Its advice is that any expenditure specifically for the promotion of candidates rather than campaign workers that is incurred before—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for North Tayside wants to give me chapter and verse on the subject after our sitting, I will check, as there appears to be some confusion about our information from the Electoral Commission. The order is specific about expenditure, regardless of when it occurs, if it is to do with the promotion of the individual candidate and the election. I do not wish to patronise him, but that has been the situation for as long as I can remember. I have been a parliamentary election agent in four elections since 1979, and a local government election agent since before then. The SNP may operate with a different set of ground rules, but that is how the rest of us have operated.

Pete Wishart: The hon. Lady will have to be specific about at what point the order governs the use of election expenses prior to dissolution. That simply is not in the order. Will the Minister tell us the specific wording governing the election expenses prior to the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament?

Mrs. McGuire: I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on article 55, which refers to the expenses

    ''used for the purposes of the candidate's election . . . whether the expenses are incurred before or after that date.''

I do not want to enter into an argument about what the Electoral Commission may or may not have said to the hon. Gentleman, but I assure him that my officials will liaise with the Commission so that we bring clarity to what appears to be confusion in the hon. Gentleman's mind.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. Will the Minister consider the position of SNP list members who will be candidates in constituencies promoting themselves as candidates in those constituencies? That is happening in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, and I suspect that it is happening elsewhere.

Mrs. McGuire: My right hon. Friend is well aware that we are here to discuss the technicalities of the order. There is a vehicle for challenging the expenditure that he mentions, and if he or any other hon. Members want to make a specific point about it, I advocate that they use it. I will not be drawn on that issue just now.

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I assure the many hon. Members who raised various points that if I have missed anything I will write to them and place copies of that correspondence in the Library.

I advise the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross that I was clear about the reduction of 25 days to 21 days. The First Minister requested that reduction, and political party leaders in Holyrood and the presiding officers were widely consulted about it. The consultation supported the fact that there should be a reduction. They wanted, as I thought I had made clear, to have a three-week window for campaigning rather than to stop the working of the Scottish Parliament for 25 days. Under the Scotland Act 1998, the presiding officer has powers to vary the election date. However, the order does not deal with the matter, as it was attended to in the Scotland Act 1998 and it would take primary legislation to change it. I am not sure whether we want primary legislation on this issue; I suspect that we do not.

I recognise that concerns have been raised about the difficulties of recounting on the list. With the greatest respect to Opposition Members, the last Scottish Parliament elections in which this apparent flaw was highlighted took place almost four years ago. Until today, no representations had been made to us to address the issue of the recount and the potential difficulties that it can cause.

Mr. Duncan: I accept that point entirely. However, surely the point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and me is that the first time the Minister can expect the most vigorous representations on the recount is when it actually happens. Someone who sees a train coming towards them with the lights on steps out of the way. We should address the issue and change the order.

Mrs. McGuire: The train apparently hit them with 154 either side in 1999.

Having said all that, I am not prepared to amend the order, but I am prepared to examine the issue further once we see the 2003 election results and to take advice from the various political parties and interested groups. It would be unhelpful to amend the order at the moment.

Sir Robert Smith: We should meet after the sitting and discuss some of the practical details about which concerns have been expressed. The Minister must recognise that if there is a close result and therefore a problem at the next election, the Government cannot say that they were not warned four years ago.

Mrs. McGuire: I throw that back to the hon. Gentleman; I understand that the problem arose nearly four years go. We have had no representations about reviewing the question of recounts. Even when we consulted the political parties about making changes and about our intention to introduce the order, there was no apparent concern. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will await the Electoral Commission's review of the 2003 election, which is, of course, a requirement of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. If we need to

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revisit the issue in question, I am sure that provision will be made.

I think that the only party with any grievance in this context is the Labour party. No other political party in the Scottish Parliament has found itself in the position that we were in, following a change in political representation. As I have said, on the matter of the presiding officer, a review under section 2(5) of the Scotland Act 1998 is possible.

As to the issue about the Royal Mail, I know that postal ballots are always a matter of great concern. However, I assure the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale that the post office in his constituency—

Mr. Duncan: Beautiful.

Mrs. McGuire: I want to deal with another matter, apart from its beauty—and it is not quite as beautiful as Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross or Stirling: I wonder if any other hon. Member would like to put in a bid for their constituency as the most beautiful in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman was unfortunately unable to be present when I visited the post offices in his constituency a few weeks ago, but the delivery rate in his area is among the highest in the United Kingdom. I suspect that there will, therefore, be few problems of the kind that he was concerned about there.

However, I assure hon. Members that there have been extensive discussions with the Royal Mail about all aspects of the 2003 elections. I refer them to the provision in the order for reissue of the ballot paper if a postal ballot paper has not been delivered by five o'clock on the day of the poll. I hope that that provides reassurance to cover the odd occasion on which people do not receive their postal ballots.

Mr. Lazarowicz: In her contact with the postal service with respect to arrangements for the election next year, could my hon. Friend also establish what will happen with regard to the delivery of freepost election materials? I can recall seeing the Post Office delivering free leaflets at 5 pm on polling day in some places. That is clearly unacceptable.

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Prepared 30 October 2002