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Consultation (Northumberland)

20. Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What local bodies and individuals within Northumberland are included in her Department's consultation on local government reorganisation in Northumberland. [135796]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): We are consulting widely across the private, public and voluntary and community sectors. My Department’s website lists the key consultees, and explains that anyone may request an e-mail list of particular local bodies that we are consulting in each region. I have arranged for the north-east list to be sent to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Beith: Why does the Government’s list of key stakeholders consist entirely of national and regional bodies that might have an interest in having fewer local authorities with which to deal? Is it because the Minister accepts that the people of Northumberland, in a referendum undertaken by this Government, have already voted for two districts rather than one?

Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Gentleman knows that it would be unwise of me to comment on the proposals for his area, but let me take the opportunity to dispel the idea that we are interested only in regional and national bodies. This is a devolutionary measure, and it is up to councils also to consult local people and organisations—which I know they are doing in the right hon. Gentleman’s area.

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3.30 pm

Mr. Speaker: I have the sad duty to inform the House of the death of Lord Weatherill, Speaker of the House of Commons from 1983 until 1992. I wish, on behalf of all Members, to pay tribute to his memory, and in doing so I send my deepest sympathy to his wife Lyn, and to his sons Bernard and Bruce and his daughter Virginia.

Bernard served his country as a captain in the Indian army during the war. When he visited the sub-continent over 30 years after he left the army, he was held in such high regard that many of the soldiers who had served with him travelled long distances on foot to meet up with their old captain.

Bernard was very proud of the fact that he had served his apprenticeship under his father, a journeyman tailor. Like most good people, he never forgot where he came from, and always carried a thimble in his Speaker's waistcoat as a reminder of his craft.

Bernard was elected to the House in 1964 and represented the seat of Croydon, North-East. Throughout his career he had an excellent reputation as a constituency Member of Parliament, and he served his party as a deputy Chief Whip.

I first met Bernard when I entered the House in 1979. By then he was Chairman of Ways and Means. He was a most approachable man, and was always very kind to young Back Benchers. In his acceptance speech as Speaker, he clearly stated that he would be a Speaker for Back Benchers. He kept his word.

Under Speaker Weatherill I was invited to become a member of his Speaker's panel, and ever since then he was a person to whom I could turn for help and advice. In fact, we became and remained close friends. Even when he entered the House of Lords, he was a regular visitor to Speaker's House.

No one would disagree with me when I say that Bernard Weatherill was incapable of malice. He was thoroughly patient and always courteous, and because of that he was held in great affection by every Member of the House. The Lord Speaker informed me that he played a significant part in the House of Lords, and was for a considerable time convenor of the Cross-Bench peers.

Once again I extend my heartfelt sympathy to his family, and I end by saying that he has an assured and honoured place in the history of this House.

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Scottish Parliamentary Elections

3.34 pm

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): With permission, I will make a statement on the conduct of the elections to the Scottish Parliament held on 3 May.

A great deal of wholly legitimate public concern has been expressed about certain aspects of last Thursday’s elections, and I entirely share that concern. It focuses mainly on three areas: the arrangements for the administration of postal ballots, the operation of e-counting machines, and the significant numbers of spoilt ballot papers on the night. When it became apparent in the early hours of Friday morning that difficulties were emerging, I contacted Professor Sir Neil McIntosh, the Scottish electoral commissioner. I expressed to him my concern that these issues be addressed as part of the statutory review of the Scottish elections that the commission is obliged to undertake, and as a matter of urgency. Sir Neil was able to offer me that reassurance, and that investigation is now under way.

The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to report on the Scottish parliamentary elections. At the request of the Scottish Executive, it will also be reporting on the local government elections. The commission is an independent body and is committed to ensuring that there is a full and independent review of the Scottish elections. In areas where the commission itself has an operational involvement—for example, in its statutory duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems—the commission will ensure that there is independent evaluation of its own work, as it has done in respect of previous statutory reports. The commission is currently finalising the scope and time scale of the review, but intends to publish a report in the summer.

One focus of public concern has been the adoption of a single ballot paper for the Scottish elections, and another has been the holding of those elections on the same day as the local government elections in Scotland. The poll for the Scottish Parliament elections is set in the Scotland Act 1998. It has a pre-determined cycle, which the Parliament at the time supported fully. I am not aware of there being any calls to change that. The decision to hold the local government elections on the same day was entirely a decision for Scottish Executive Ministers. It was enshrined in legislation which was fully debated and passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Without wishing to prejudice the findings of the inquiry, I would like to set out to the House the sequence of recommendations, consultations and decisions that led to the adoption of a single ballot paper for both elements of the Scottish Parliament elections, which are matters for which the Government have legislative responsibility. On 25 May 2004, my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), announced the creation of a commission, under the chairmanship of Sir John Arbuthnott, to examine the implications of Scotland having four different voting systems. That commission was independent and included nominations from political parties. The commission issued a consultation paper in January 2005 and spent 12 months gathering evidence and carrying out a wide-ranging and extensive inquiry. The Arbuthnott commission issued its report
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jointly to my predecessor and the Scottish First Minister on 19 January 2006. The report contained a number of recommendations and suggestions, some of them to the Electoral Commission concerning voter education, others to the Scottish Executive—such as a recommendation to move the date of the local government elections—and several to the Government. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West made it clear that it was unlikely that we would be in a position to implement those recommendations in the report which would require primary legislation in time for the 2007 Scottish elections. However, there was one matter that could be progressed without the need for primary legislation—the suggestion that the two ballot papers for the regional list and constituency member be combined into one, with the regional list on the left-hand column, based on the example of the New Zealand paper. In light of the views of the Arbuthnott commission, I decided to proceed with a wider public consultation in order to test whether the suggested move to a single ballot paper commanded more general support, and to explore the appropriate design of such a ballot paper.

The Scotland Office launched that consultation on 9 June 2006. In addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State met with a range of interested parties, including representatives from disability rights groups, to explore these issues. There was a significant level of support for a single ballot paper. Of 29 respondents, the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity party, the Liberal party of Scotland, ENABLE Scotland and Capability Scotland were not in favour of a combined ballot paper. I have requested that all responses to this consultation are placed in the Library of the House. The major political parties who expressed a view were largely in favour.

Derek Barrie, the chief of staff of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, responded on their behalf on 15 June. He said:

Peter Murrell, chief executive of the Scottish National party, responded on 16 August 2006:

Lesley Quinn, general secretary of the Scottish Labour party, responded:

No response to the consultation was received from the Scottish Conservative party.

Beyond the political parties, the Electoral Reform Society responded:

SOLAR—the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland—responded:

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To explore further the issues in advance of decision, as part of this consultation, the Scotland Office requested the Electoral Commission to research with voters the impact of any possible change to the ballot paper format. On 4 August 2006, Sir Neil McIntosh wrote to the Under-Secretary of State enclosing the findings of that research, which involved focus groups in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Dundee. A copy of the research has been placed in the Library of the House, together with the covering letter from the Electoral Commission.

In that covering letter, Sir Neil McIntosh wrote:

The findings of the focus groups supported the move to a single ballot paper, with a significant majority of respondents agreeing, and with the overall preference in favour of a single combined ballot paper rather than two separate papers. Only after that extensive consultation, involving the widest possible range of stakeholders, the support of the main political parties who expressed a preference, research indicating the best interests of the voter being served by a single ballot paper and clear official advice, was a decision taken to proceed with a single ballot paper for the Scottish parliamentary elections.

I will now deal with the issue of delays in the administration of postal ballots. The handling of postal votes is increasingly a subject of public interest and concern, which is why we already have stiff penalties in legislation to prevent fraud. The use of postal votes in higher numbers than before makes that all the more important. When it became clear that such delays were occurring in the days prior to polling day, I instructed my officials to contact the Electoral Commission to ensure that those matters would be fully investigated as part of the statutory review.

However, the processes at local level for the preparation and delivery of postal votes are a matter for returning officers and their staff. They make the contractual arrangements that they judge appropriate for their area. They are well aware of the tight time scales involved in getting out the papers to voters. When the Electoral Commission reports, I will, of course, examine whether the Government can take steps to help ensure that the postal vote problems that beset regions such as the highlands and Dumfries and Galloway, among others, do not happen again.

Finally, I shall deal with the issue of e-counting. In 2005, the Scottish Executive approached the Scotland Office to discuss the option of using e-counting at the combined poll. That arose mainly because of the benefits in relation to handling a count of ballots under the single transferable vote method. Manual counts of STV would take many days and be highly complex. My predecessor as Secretary of State, after careful assessment of advice, gave an agreement in principle to the option, but stressed the need for systematic testing and evaluation of the equipment and software. That
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took place throughout late 2005 and into 2006 up to the final procurement decisions.

Many tests and demonstrations were held for electoral administrators, political parties, special interests and others. Various contingencies were tested, including power failures and ballot papers that had been creased or folded. That process was led by a steering group comprising officials from the Scotland Office, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament, as well as representatives from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, the Scottish Assessors Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. I am advised that none of the simulations gave any evidence of the kind or scale of problems that we saw in some centres on Thursday night and Friday morning. Clearly, this issue will be central to the Electoral Commission’s report.

There are several issues that need to be explored in relation to the problems encountered in the conduct of these elections. The Electoral Commission must now be allowed to undertake its statutory review which, as I have said, will be available by the summer. I will, of course, update the House at that stage in light of its conclusions.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement and, indeed, for agreeing to make a statement this afternoon. I am glad that he is now taking the issue of the conduct of the Scottish Parliament elections seriously, compared with the cavalier approach that he has shown in the past when the issue has been raised in the House and at the Scottish Affairs Committee.

Despite repeated warnings about the pitfalls of introducing a new voting system, new ballot papers and a new method of counting all on the same day, the approach of the Scottish Executive and the Scotland Office was to carry on regardless. It is not good enough to adopt the Jack McConnell approach to the cost of the Scottish Parliament building—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is a statement by the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to put several supplementary questions, but not to make a counter-statement.

David Mundell: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State is responsible, as he himself acknowledges, so will he now apologise to the people of Scotland for Thursday night’s debacle? In particular, will he apologise to the tens of thousands of voters disfranchised due to their vote not being counted? Does he agree that it is totally unacceptable that around 100,000 people—compared with 16,000 in 2003—who actually made the effort to go to a polling station had their ballots disallowed, and that while there is no evidence of disproportionate disadvantage to any party, it does create unease among the electorate that in Airdrie and Shotts, for example, where the majority was 1,146, there were 1,536 spoilt papers?

Does the Secretary of State agree that the public’s confidence in the electoral system will be restored only if a full independent inquiry into what happened takes
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place? While the perspective of the Electoral Commission will be important, does he accept that it was integrally involved in these elections and—in particular and as his statement suggests—in the design of the ballot paper? The conduct of the elections was influenced by many political decisions and they, too, must be the subject of scrutiny. In that regard, before giving the go-ahead to the constituency and regional vote single ballot paper, did the Secretary of State actually read the report sent by the commission on 4 August, which showed that there was least scope for voter error when two ballot papers were used, and does he accept newspaper reports that the commission put an overly positive gloss on that report and omitted to disclose the finding that the single-paper option was more likely to lead to errors and therefore contribute to a higher number of invalid votes?

I accept that the Scottish Conservatives acceded to a single Scottish Parliament ballot paper, but what they did not accept was the use of that ballot paper on the same day as council elections under a different system of voting. Does the Secretary of State accept that every objective body from which evidence was taken recommended the decoupling of the elections, and that since the local government elections would inevitably impact on the Scottish Parliament elections, he cannot shirk responsibility for those two elections taking place on the same day? Does the Secretary of State accept that somebody has to take responsibility for the situation, and that it lies with his Government and with him?

Mr. Alexander: Let me seek to deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. As my statement made clear, all of us regret the difficulties that were encountered on Thursday and Friday in the conduct of the Scottish elections. That is why it is entirely appropriate that the statutory view that is the obligation of the Electoral Commission be taken forward expeditiously. It is appropriate first to find out what happened and then to understand why those difficulties were encountered. However, I fail to be convinced by the hon. Gentleman’s arguments that it would be inappropriate for the Electoral Commission to carry out its statutory obligation.

The hon. Gentleman bandied around the name of an individual constituency. To maintain the confidence of the Scottish public, it is important that we be very clear that the responsibility for the integrity of results in individual constituencies in Scotland is a matter not for politicians but for the returning officers. If certain results arouse particular concerns, candidates should raise those concerns directly with returning officers.

I fully accept the need for answers. Even as the results were still coming in, I made contact with the Electoral Commission’s Sir Neil McIntosh and made clear to him my desire to make sure that each of the issues that I described in my statement was covered.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the reports in The Scotsman and other newspapers this morning. I can assure the House that the full research findings received by my office are available to all hon. Members in the Library. I do not accept the characterisation of those findings set out in The Scotsman this morning. Instead, I take the view set out by Sir Neil McIntosh that I narrated in my statement.

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