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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Bill Olner
Barrett, John (Edinburgh, West) (LD)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Cairns, David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
Clarke, Mr. Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)
Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)
Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian (Bridgwater) (Con)
McKechin, Ann (Glasgow, North) (Lab)
MacNeil, Mr. Angus (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
McGovern, Mr. Jim (Dundee, West) (Lab)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
Mudie, Mr. George (Leeds, East) (Lab)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty s Treasury)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 7 March 2007

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 and the draft Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2007.
David Cairns: I thank you, Mr. Olner, and the Committee for agreeing to consider these connected statutory instruments together. I welcome you to the Committee and look forward to serving under your chairmanship.
The Committee is considering two draft orders made under the Scotland Act 1998 and one set of regulations made under the Representation of the People Act 1983. I shall begin with the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007, which will hereafter be known as the big one. I appreciate that it is a long order containing many measures, but the vast majority of them—about 80 per cent.—are perfectly standard and reflect electoral law that has been in place for decades. The order replicates and updates the rules that governed the last Scottish Parliament elections, which have been updated to ensure that they are in line with the primary legislation introduced since those elections. The order consolidates into one document all the rules and regulations governing the conduct of elections to the Scottish Parliament.
Rather than go into all the things that the order does not change, I shall speak briefly about those that it does. There are two groups of changes, the first of which concerns the changes introduced by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The second group concerns innovations involving electronic counting and the single ballot paper for regional and constituency votes.
The first group of changes mainly introduces fraud-prevention measures. One of the main aims of the 2006 Act was to tackle the risk of electoral fraud, especially through postal voting. The postal voting statement, which replaces the declaration of identity, is a statement that people must sign to confirm that they are the correct recipient of ballot papers. The list of postal ballot papers must be marked to show when the paper was issued and when it was received. A new provision allows postal voters to confirm that their returned postal vote and voting statement have been received. A person requesting a postal vote to be sent to a different address from that on the record of absent voters must explain why.
The order also addresses the need to ensure that documents that are to be displayed or given to voters are available in a range of accessible formats including Braille, languages other than English and in an audible format. Hon. Members will be interested to know that the deadline for registering to vote has been extended from about six weeks before polling day to 11 days before the poll. People will therefore still be able to get on to the electoral register after the election campaign has begun until 11 days before the poll.
The order also contains various administrative improvements introduced by the 2006 Act. Ballot papers will no longer be attached to counterfoils that are marked when the attached ballot paper is detached and issued. Instead, a corresponding number list will be maintained by the constituency returning officer, which will contain the numbers of all ballot papers to be issued. Returning officers will also be able to correct simple procedural errors on polling day to ensure that voters are not unnecessarily disfranchised.
The following change applies to me and probably to you, Mr. Olner. Candidates’ nominations will now be allowed to state their commonly used name. My name appears on the ballot paper as John Cairns, but it can now appear as David Cairns, because that rule also applies in UK Parliament elections. [Interruption.] I am not going to change my name; I am delighted with my name, and it will proudly be on the ballot paper in Inverclyde, where I routinely get at least 50 per cent. of the vote.
The second category of changes involves what we call innovative changes. The order allows ballot papers in Scotland to be counted electronically for the first time. Also, as recommended in the Arbuthnott commission report, the two ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament will be combined in a single sheet. Rather than attempting to explain all that, I thought that it might be easier to produce some dummy ballot papers for hon. Members to look at. I realise that for people reading the Official Report, it will not mean anything, but hon. Members in Committee have an example of the ballot paper.
As hon. Members can see, the regional list will be on the left-hand side of the sheet, and the constituency on the right. Candidates and parties are ordered alphabetically; the two parts of the sheet are printed in different colours to help voters to distinguish them; and it has been designed after full public consultation, in which comments were received from an extensive range of bodies, including local authorities, political parties, election organisations and, perhaps most importantly in that context, representatives of disabled people.
The explanatory memorandum makes it clear that a few provisions in the order, in so far as they relate to the application of provisions to convicted prisoners, are incompatible with the European convention on human rights. However, I want to make it clear that that does not in any way threaten the forthcoming election or question its legality. The Government are engaged in a public debate about the most appropriate way of implementing the European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber judgment in Hirst v. The United Kingdom, which required a review of the blanket ban on prisoners’ right to vote. Consultation closes today, and I urge those people who have not taken part to do so.
I turn to the second of the three instruments before us, the Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007, which is much shorter than the instrument that we have just discussed. This House debated the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2006 last November, and they are mirrored almost identically in the regulations before us. Separate regulations are necessary for Scotland because of its different electoral arrangements. For example, sheriff clerks are involved in the retention of electoral documents in Scotland. The regulations amend the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001. The amendments flow from provisions in the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which introduce anonymous registration, alter certain aspects of absent voting and improve certain administrative procedures.
You will realise, Mr. Olner, that I have already gone into the amendments in detail, in so far as they apply to the Scottish Parliament elections, so I shall not repeat myself. Suffice to say that the regulations directly apply the same amendments to UK parliamentary elections in Scotland, and electoral practice will thereby be consistent throughout UK and Scottish parliamentary elections.
I turn finally to the Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2007. The Committee will be relieved to hear that it is by far the simplest and most straightforward of the three instruments. The order is made as a consequence of the Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006, which is an Act of the Scottish Parliament. The 2006 Act introduced an offence in Scotland relating to fraudulent applications for postal or proxy votes. The penalty includes being disqualified from standing in Scottish local government elections for five years, and it mirrors the provisions made in England and Wales under the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The Scottish Parliament’s Act, however, could not extend the disqualification to elections to Westminster, to the European or Scottish Parliaments or to local government elections outwith Scotland, because such matters were outwith the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence.
The order will ensure that when a person has been convicted of the new offence and disqualified from standing in a local government election in Scotland, the disqualification will apply also to candidature in elections to Westminster. Owing to the terms of the Representation of the People Act 1983, the disqualification will automatically apply to standing in elections to the European and Scottish Parliaments, the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies, and in local government elections elsewhere in Great Britain. The Scottish Parliament’s 2006 Act provided for the recognition in Scotland of similar disqualifications made at local and parliamentary elections elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and the order therefore completes that circle.
We have fully consulted the Electoral Commission on the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007 and on the Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007, as we are obliged to, and the commission is content with the versions before the Committee. We have also worked closely with a legislation sub-group comprising representatives of key stakeholders, and, again, it is content. That collaborative approach means that although the instruments are detailed and lengthy, they will help to ensure that elections to the Scottish Parliament are fair and democratic. I commend the instruments to the Committee.
2.39 pm
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I am pleased to join the Minister in serving under you, Mr. Olner. I am sure that you will keep a weather eye on us all. I notice with some interest that the “Oake Doke Party” on the ballot paper seems to be doing well. If it should win in Scotland, it might be of interest to us all. I see that the Minister’s staff have been incredibly busy producing names such as “MacGregor, Angus Donald”, but the orders are all fairly straightforward. One area that I am concerned about—I do not share the Minister’s confidence, because I have not been briefed—is human rights, which I shall come to in a minute.
The first provision will replace the counterfoils and a corresponding number of lists of all polls, which will mean that no verification will be required. As the Minister knows—we have all stood for elections, some of us more than others—one of the problems that we remember with counterfoils and the American experience of hanging chads is that if something happens to the counterfoil, problems can arise. Will copies of the counterfoils be kept, so that they can be checked if a person loses them or someone is unsure of the person’s identity?
The electoral documents will be published in Braille and other languages—I presume that that means Gaelic and so on. Will the same happen for the counterfoils? I know that that sounds pernickety, but if somebody has a problem, the last thing that we want is to take away a counterfoil, realise that there is a problem and not be able to deal with it.
On corrections to procedural matters, the Minister and the report both say that returning officers will be able to make small adjustments. I accept that as far as it goes, but will he define the word “small”? I know that it sounds bizarre, but would it involve Christian name changes or changes from Mr. to Mrs., or would it be slightly more fundamental, for instance, where someone has crossed two boxes inadvertently? I should be interested to know not whether we have a clear definition, but whether we can tie down what changes will be allowed.
On name changes, is the Minister happy? I am lucky to have a name such as Liddell-Grainger, as there is no chance that it could be changed, but in the case of Smiths—I use an English name so as not to offend anybody—there could be a problem with Christian names. Indeed, he has pointed out that he has had to change a name because of that. There have been cases of fraud—I do not think that there have been any in Scotland; they have mainly been in England—where people have used names, mainly from overseas, that are very close to each other. Is he happy that that cannot happen?
Anonymous registration will come into force in May 2007. Again, is the Minister happy that that can be checked properly to such a level that the Electoral Commission will be satisfied that it can enforce the measure, as ultimately it will have to? We have recourse to law, but as Ministers and hon. Members know, the last thing that we want, having fought an election and hopefully been successful, is to end up having to fight a court case because of something outside our control.
On enabling the combined ballot paper, I went recently to see the Dutch elections, where 48 parties were standing. The common complaint is about confusion. The Minister has given us a draft ballot sheet where the colours are different, so that hopefully people will not be confused. It is all right for me, as my name takes up the whole space, but that is not always the case. One of the problems in Holland was that people were confused not about the parties but about the names. Are we sure as a nation that that will be understood clearly enough to prevent the challenges that I have mentioned or to prevent returning officers from being put under pressure to make decisions because the situation is in a grey area? If that system has a history—not in this country, of course—has it been considered? What is the methodology? Has evidence been taken from overseas countries that it has worked successfully to put names or political parties in different colours—yellow, red, blue or whatever? Maybe the names should be in those colours as well—I do not know.
I shall turn to the European convention on human rights, on which I suspect that my party will differ from the Government. The Government have indicated that the order might not be compatible with the convention, but they say that that will not matter. I can accept that at face value, but there is a continuing problem. The Minister has rightly alluded to the case of Hirst v. United Kingdom, in which the Representation of the People Act 1983 was deemed incompatible with convention rights. The Government are trying to resolve the position, but doubt remains. Is the Minister absolutely sure that the measure will not cause a backlash in the courts, during or after elections? Is he sure that the voting rights of prisoners in Scotland are safeguarded—or otherwise as the case may be? And is he sure that there will not be a challenge from the European Union itself on the basis that the legislation is less than helpful to certain groups that may or may not have the right to vote?
The Court of Session in Edinburgh has said that elections as proposed are incompatible with human rights. The three judges of Scotland’s supreme court issued a declaration that the blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners was incompatible with those rights. Technically, three legal systems are at issue—the collective British system, the Scottish system and the European system. I challenge the Minister to ensure absolutely that we shall not fall foul of any one of them, or, God forbid, of two of them or even, disastrously, of three of them.
I worry that the Minister’s assurances will not be sufficient. Anybody who feels strongly enough to take an appeal as far as the appellant has pursued his appeal in the case that I have mentioned obviously feels deeply about it. I am sure that members of other political parties and other hon. Members would feel the same if they were in that position. There must be no leeway for manoeuvre, because the last thing we want is a problem at the end of the election.
Electronic counting was used in elections in 2000. The Electoral Commission has released a report dated August 2006 about recent pilot schemes using electronics. In general, the use of e-counting technology has had very little effect, a point confirmed by talking to Oracle and others. A problem, however, is the bottleneck caused by the manual adjustment of doubtful papers. If there is a paper about which someone is not sure, it must be checked. We would do the same as MPs—we would take the papers that we were not sure about and check whether they were right or wrong. That has to be done manually, and a bottleneck was created when electronic counting was tried previously. Would that continue, or are the systems better?
There is a need for independent quality assurance. A returning officer might say that things are fine, and if there is no problem that is okay. But what check exists by way of quality assurance that the returning officer will get things right? What training do returning officers get so that they can understand the procedures? Candidates and agents need sufficient information about the count and its progress. The system is complicated, so will agents and candidates be counselled on how to handle it? People in local authorities need the necessary skills—counters, returning officers and the people in the polling stations. Will they have that ability?
There is no doubt that there are potentially problems with the single transferable vote system. The best electoral system is the simplest one—that probably goes without saying. Are people savvy enough to understand the STV system? I cannot speak for Scotland because I am not a Scottish MP—despite my name, I am a Scot. When we had proportional representation for the first time in the west country, it was a nightmare, because people did not understand it. Is the Minister happy that the system will work and that people will understand it? What education—I use the word in its loosest sense—will people be given to understand the system? I hark back to Holland: if the system fails because people do not understand it, it will not be credible, and I ask the Minister to reflect on that.
One of the problems after the Electoral Administration Act 2006 relates to the security of postal ballots and the integrity of the electoral register, with which all of us have had problems. We now have rolling registers, mainly for local government. Are the Government and the Minister happy that we have safeguarded our democracy from fraud? Fraud is the bane of all our lives. We cannot say that it does not happen, because it does. Using personal identifiers as part of voter registration in Northern Ireland has been successful. Should we be considering it? Given the way in which we are moving in Scotland, that might be an area in which to trial it. I do not know, but that is a suggestion.
If we get voter registration wrong, we will get anonymous voter names wrong, and we could get the ballot papers wrong. I ask the Government to consider that point. Safeguarding democracy is the responsibility of all of us. We have been democratically selected and elected to sit in this place, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or wherever. If we do not get the process right, we will have a problem.
The orders are fairly straightforward. I hope that we have not given too many problems. Colours work, but I ask the Minister to consider human rights, security and understanding of the system before the local elections to ensure integrity all the way through.
2.52 pm
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Olner. I look forward to serving, albeit briefly, under your chairmanship.
The orders, as has been said, are not particularly controversial and mainly constitute a tidying up of election law and regulations, following partly in the path of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. Liberal Democrats welcomed the 2006 Act, although we thought that it did not go far enough. There are lots of issues on which we still want to press the Government—one that springs to mind is the continued disfranchisement of 16 and 17-year-olds—but the Act was broadly welcome.
I turn first to the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007, about which I have three main points to make. The first concerns the ballot paper design. Unlike the hon. Member for Bridgwater, I welcome the new design. The dual colour scheme will make it clear that separate votes are to go on one paper. I also welcome having a single ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament and a separate paper for local government, because it will help to remove confusion among voters, who in previous elections might not have been helped by some parties’ propaganda. They might have been led to believe that their regional list vote was some kind of second preference vote, when as we know, that is not the way that the alternative vote plus system is intended to work. Having only one ballot paper will certainly help to tidy up that confusion.
Electronic ballot counting will be essential with the use of the STV electoral system for local government elections. Any constitutional nerd will be able to recite all the formulae for calculating the transfer of fractions of votes, but to do so manually be an absolute nightmare.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater asked whether people will understand the system. I appreciate that the Minister will respond to that point, but as a strident advocate of the single transferable vote system, I point out that people are used to ranking things in order of preference. They go to the supermarket and choose one brand of washing powder over another, and if their favourite is not in stock they choose their second favourite, and they also assess the music in the charts. There are 101 different ways in popular culture for people to rank their favourite, second favourite, third favourite and so on, which is all that we need to ask them to do under the system. Although counting the votes might be technical and mathematical, voting under the STV system involves simple ranking, which we all do in our everyday lives. I do not think that that will be a problem, although ensuring that people understand the new system is obviously important.
I want to address the issue of electronic counting. The Arbuthnott commission recommended that e-counting and e-voting should be in place as soon as possible, and certainly before 2011. E-counting is now available for Scottish parliamentary and local government elections; will there be further moves to extend that to Westminster elections? Is the e-voting proposal being considered? And what would be the Minister’s response to that in respect of Scottish parliamentary and local elections and Westminster elections?
One might say “better late than never”, and that certainly applies. I am glad that the situation will hopefully be resolved. However, it has led to a great deal of uncertainty. Given the timing of the Scottish elections—unlike those for this House, we know in advance when they will be—the Government could have seen the issue coming and been a bit quicker off the starting blocks by not allowing a 14-month delay before starting the consultation. If they had not done so, we would not be having this debate. I reiterate that it is unacceptable that the Government should have let that drag on.
Many of the proposals in the second order, the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007, are incredibly welcome—particularly anonymous voter registration. The electoral roll is now more widely available for marketing purposes, although people can obviously opt out of it. A wide range of political parties has access to the electoral roll, and anybody can stand for election and therefore gain access to it. We have all seen vulnerable people in our constituency surgeries who, for example, are being stalked by violent partners. As a protective measure, there should be provision for people to be anonymous but still have their right to vote.
Like the hon. Member for Bridgwater, I have a few questions about how anonymous voter registration will work in practice—in particular, what safeguards are in place to prevent the abuse of the provision. Somebody might try to duplicate anonymous entries, so will there be safeguards to stop that happening? On the other side of the coin, if the registration authorities get it wrong and inadvertently publish the name of somebody who was supposed to remain anonymous, what liabilities and penalties would they face? And what under the provisions would sanction them?
Will consistent criteria be set down for anonymous voter registration, or will all that be up to the discretion of the electoral registration officer? There could be a concern if the issue was interpreted in different ways in different parts of the country and if different standards were to apply. I would welcome clearer criteria on the eligible types of people. We should consider how they can be publicised to maximise voter registration among people who might otherwise have been afraid to register for whatever reason.
The regulations change or place additional duties on registration and returning officers. What steps are being taken to ensure that those officers can fully enact the new rules that they are having to take on, and that they get the practical application right, particularly given that elections are looming?
Finally, I turn to the order on local election administration and registration. We all share a concern about fraud in postal voting, particularly as there has been an increase in such voting recently, which, I argue, is a good thing as it makes it easier for people to have the democratic right to vote. However, given that increase, we need to have confidence that the system is robust, that fraud will be rooted out and that people who are convicted will suffer the appropriate penalties. I applaud the evening-up of the situation, so that such people will be banned from standing in all elections.
I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to some of my queries. Broadly, however, I welcome the orders.
3 pm
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Gladly, most of the points that I wanted to make have already been covered by the other two Opposition parties. I want to reiterate the point on human rights and votes for prisoners. If there is going to be a Government information service prior to the election in the next few weeks, the important issue is not only the vote itself but what the vote means,.
As a reminder, the regional list was designed to compensate for the inequities of the first past the post system and is not actually a choice. At first glance, the statement on the example ballot paper, “You have two votes”, could be misleading. In fact, it should say, “You should vote for your preferred party in most, but not all, situations to ensure that it gets your vote and your voice.” In the past, some parties have campaigned for one particular vote, thereby denying voters the weight of their vote behind their preferred party.
I have to make a point about STV, which would be easier and less ambiguous than this system, which involves a ranking. At the moment, the example sheet could be interpreted in many ways. Some political parties will interpret it in another way from the way in which it was designed, perhaps for their own political gain. I bring that loophole in the compensatory mechanism for the first past the post system to the Minister’s attention.
3.1 pm
David Cairns: I appreciate the broad welcome that has been given to these orders. I will try and rattle through the points that have been brought to my attention. The hon. Member for Bridgwater asked about the counterfoil, which we are doing away with. There is going to be a corresponding number list, so that as people get given the ballot paper, we can mark down who has got which particular paper.
We are also doing away with that contraption—I do not know what it is called—which makes the mark. There will be barcodes, which can be used to verify things in the event of a contest to the vote. Like other hon. Members, I have attended counts, and it has always seemed iniquitous to me that just because the machine was not used properly on a person’s ballot paper, that person lost that vote. That does not seem to be right. We are trying to automate the system to remove the possibility of human error by, for example, having things pre-printed with barcodes. I think that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question about whether there will be a counterfoil,
The ballot paper will not have other languages or Braille on it, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point about the extension of Braille and other languages. In Scotland, we have seen a 25 per cent. increase in the number of eastern Europeans who are on the electoral register from 2005-06, and it is important that we can communicate with them.
The Electoral Commission has shown me the information that is going to be up in and around polling stations on 3 May. Instead of the big long lists of impenetrable legal text that we see at the moment, there are going to be much clearer and simpler graphic cartoons of little men and women collecting papers and voting. That sounds a bit infantile, but it is much clearer than the legalese gobbledegook that is there at the minute. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about small adjustments. We are talking about small adjustments where it is clearly the mistake of the system rather than the individual, so it is not about somebody putting an X between two boxes. The Electoral Commission issues what it calls placemats, which contain photographs of everything that people can conceivably do in the boxes, including drawing and writing things and putting crosses between them. Those go out to the electoral administrator, so that they can make an adjudication, very often in consultation with party agents, as to whether or not something expresses a clear preference. We have all seen examples where people have made mistakes or just been plain rude on ballot papers. I am talking about where somebody’s name has been recorded wrongly on the system, which is a small administrative error that can be corrected without someone having to lose their vote. Guidance will be issued on that point.
On changing names, I am not aware that people have been deliberately changing their name, if it is the name by which they are commonly known. I could not stand in my constituency as “Alex Salmond”, should I be minded to do so—he is standing in virtually every other constituency in Scotland and what a huge vote loser he will be if his name is on the ballot paper. The provision is to suit circumstances such as my own—my name is John David Cairns, but I am known as David Cairns, but until now I had to go down as John Cairns—or in which people are known as “Chick” and so on. People cannot make up a completely different name to stand under, but they can put down what they are commonly known as. Of course, if people go through the legal processes of changing their name, they are entitled to use that name, but that is not what this is about. If someone is known as Ian, but their birth name is John, it seems entirely sensible for them to be able to put Ian on the ballot paper.
We consulted extensively on the design of the ballot papers. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether the Arbuthnott commission considered examples from other countries, and I understand that it looked at how the ballot paper works in New Zealand. I do not know whether the commission considered the Dutch example, but I know that it looked abroad.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): When names are put on the ballot paper, will the full name and position of the person be made known—a hypothetical example is “Alex Salmond, MP”?
David Cairns: My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the attempt at world domination by the leader of the Scottish National party, who wants to be the MSP for Gordon, a regional MSP, First Minister in the Scottish Parliament, MP for Banff and Buchan and the leader of the SNP rump group here. The arrogance of such a position beggars belief. The poor people of Banff and Buchan will be told that their MP will represent them for half a day a week.
The Chairman: Order. I did not notice the hon. Gentleman’s name on the orders that we are considering.
David Cairns: It is about the only document that his name will not be on in this coming election—
Mr. MacNeil: Such is the reach of the SNP.
David Cairns: Such is the self-promotion of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, but I shall take your ruling, Mr. Olner, and move on.
Jo Swinson: Although the Minister is enjoying a spot of “nat-bashing”, may I return him to the ECHR, which he was discussing a moment ago? He has mentioned some of the headlines, and I certainly agree that allowing all prisoners to vote is not what the ECHR demands, and I would not suggest that that is desirable. However, by not dealing with the issue and carrying out the consultation early to work out which groups of prisoners ought to be enfranchised, the Government have opened themselves up to compensation claims that could cost the taxpayer millions of pounds, which is not acceptable to the Scottish people.
There is a fundamental difference between our two parties. I do not believe that people in prison should have the right to vote, but the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire does. It is incumbent upon her to say which categories of prisoner she would enfranchise. Murderers? Rapists? What method would she use to decide their enfranchisement? I take a different point of view, as do the Government, but we will see what comes out of the consultation.
I will finish with the comments of the hon. Member for Bridgwater on electronic counting. I accept that it is unlikely that we will get much quicker results for the constituency vote through electronic counting. However, it will be much quicker for the regional vote, because both will be counted at exactly the same time, whereas in the past the constituency counts had to be completed before the regional count began. When the last constituency in a region declares its result, we will instantly know the result of the regional vote. We will know the final composition of Parliament much more quickly than we did when using hand counting. [Interruption.] It will be possible for the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) to be defeated in two elections at the same time. I am sorry, Mr. Olner, but the Whip led me astray.
The big saving, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, is in doing the STV count electronically. Today, Northern Ireland is in the middle of an election using STV. The polls will close at 10 o’clock tonight, but we will not know the result until Friday afternoon or evening at the earliest. That election is for only 108 seats, and there are thousands of council seats across Scotland. If we tried to count the votes manually, we would be in for a very long count. Although the Government have no responsibility for the conduct of local government elections, electronic counting will bring a much quicker declaration of results for local councils.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater spoke about fraud in registration. We have been up hill and down dale on individual registration and personal identifiers. We went through it at the time of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and last week we had the same debate on an Opposition motion. The House has made its views plain. We cannot be sanguine about the possible impact of individual registration on registration levels. Some 3.5 million people who are entitled to vote are not on the electoral register. We are concerned about that and about the impact that individual registration and personal identifiers could have on registration levels. We accepted individual registration in principle and wanted to pilot it, but unfortunately the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats did not accept that particular proposal. We are concerned about the impact on registration levels, which is why we are not moving towards individual registration now.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire welcomed the ballot paper design and the extension of electronic counting. She also asked about electronic voting, about which we must be a bit more cautious. With electronic counting, there will still be ballot papers, so if something were to go disastrously wrong, the papers could still be counted manually. Under electronic voting, people need to be absolutely sure that the system is robust. I was in the Republic of Ireland a few weeks ago, where I was told that enormously expensive electronic voting machines are gathering dust across the length and breadth of the country, because the public are not confident that the machines cannot be hacked into and that their vote will actually be recorded. We must move cautiously on electronic voting, but as the technology becomes more secure and as people’s confidence in carrying out electronic transactions grows, it is an inevitability.
Mr. MacNeil: Electronic voting was used in Venezuela at the beginning of December, to the confidence of all sides.
David Cairns: I would be interested to see the results. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was a candidate. Almost inevitably, he will be giving people the opportunity to vote against him in every country, which is a splendid policy. I think that I have dealt with the ECHR issues.
I thought that the questions on anonymous registration were entirely proper. The Electoral Commission will issue guidance to registration officers on the kind of documentation that will be required. People will not be able to turn up and say, “I want to be registered anonymously”, because they will have to produce some sort of supporting documentation. As an incidental matter, the reason for having separate Scottish measures is that the director of social work in Scotland will be able to provide testimony in that regard, whereas social work directors do not exist as such in England or Wales.
On fraud, anyone who provides false information to a registration officer commits an offence. It is a matter of applying common sense. The broad categories of people that we have in mind are battered wives, or people who have given evidence and who need anonymity. Specific guidance will be issued to registration officers, as I have said.
There is an additional level of complexity in an election that involves STV, although, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire has said, that need not put people off. We thought that having one ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament elections was sensible and would remove a layer of complexity. We have also taken out the names of the people standing in the regional lists, so that the party names can be bigger, which we did after consultation with the Royal National Institute of the Blind.
I am grateful for the broad welcome that the measures have received, and I commend them to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007.


That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007.—[David Cairns.]


That the Committee has considered the draft Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2007.—[David Cairns.]
Committee rose at nineteen minutes past Three o’clock.

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