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Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD):
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing me prior
sight of his statement. I am sure that we are all dismayed by the appalling mess made of the Scottish elections, especially when it became clear that as many as one person in 20 who went out to vote was unable to make his voice heard. I welcome the review that the right hon. Gentleman has said will look at the contentious aspects of the spoiled ballots, the postal voting and the electronic counting. I urge that that review be carried out in a way that is as transparent and public as possible, in order to command confidence.
The elections featured new voting and counting systems, and a new ballot paper design for the old system. The blame for the chaos has been attributed to each of the changes, but does the Secretary of State agree that we should wait for the review to understand properly where the problems lay, and that we must not fall into the trap of tarring all reforms with the same brush?
Did the Secretary of State and the Scotland Office look at and try to learn from the report into the Greater London authority elections of 2004? Similar problems with postal voting were encountered in Scotland last week, and we should not be making again the same mistakes that happened in the past. Therefore, will the Secretary of State give a guarantee that the reviews results will be shared across government? It would smack of incompetence if we were to keep making the same mistakes time after time.
There has been much speculation in the newspapers about the private companies involved in running the postal voting and e-counting for last weeks elections, and some people have suggested that the blame lies with them. Will the Electoral Commission look at the contracts in detail? Were stringent enough penalty clauses in place to give the companies adequate motivation to make sure that they were able to conduct the elections without problems?
Given the evidence from the experts that the single ballot paper was the best option, will the Electoral Commission review the adequacy of the testing that it carried out? It seems that it may not have been robust enough to identify the scale of the problems that were encountered.
Elections should not be run for the convenience of returning officers or political parties. We must remember that it is the voters who are the most important, so I hope that the commission will interview them, especially the ones who were confused by the system. In that way, we can understand where their problems lay.
In particular, there has been anecdotal evidence that putting the Scottish National party slogan Alex Salmond for First Minister on the ballot paper has caused some people to be confused between the party and the personal votes. Will that matter be looked into as well?
When the report is published, will the Government invite all political parties and stakeholders to comment on the results and seek to build a consensual way forward? In that way, the cherry-picking of recommendations can be avoided. It is in everyones interests that the problems are identified and the solutions found. That is vital if elections are to have legitimacy and if the credibility of our democracy is to be preserved.
Mr. Alexander: I shall try to answer the questions put to me by the hon. Lady. First, she mentioned the way that the new voting system, the e-counting and the design of the ballot paper all came together, but she was right to say that we should await the reviews outcome. We need a clearer sense of the relative contribution that different elements might have made to the difficulties experienced last Thursday and Friday.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the GLA elections. I am aware that investigations were held at the time into the performance of the firm DRS, the same contractor that was responsible for the count last week. My understanding is that the companys performance in the GLA elections was considered as part of the procurement process.
I have already been in touch with Sir Neil McIntosh to request that the postal voting issue be considered as part of the review that needs to be carried out. The hon. Lady asked about the tests and whether the contingencies were appropriate. As I narrated in my statement, a wide range of interests were represented on the steering group responsible, including not just politicians but a much wider range of people who have direct responsibility for and experience of administering elections. Clearly she makes a valid point that notwithstanding the extensive work of the project board, during which political parties and not simply the party of Government were invited to observe the operation of the counting machines, difficulties occurred at a number of stations, and it would be entirely appropriate for the Electoral Commission to give consideration to that in the process of its review.
The hon. Lady raised a specific issue about the designation Alex Salmond for First Minister appearing at the top of the regional list. It is fair to acknowledge to the party of which the hon. Gentleman is leader that that was one of the designations previously registered with the Electoral Commissionmy recollection is that parties are entitled to 12 designations, and that was one of them. There has been comment since the election that it may have been a contributory factor, but as I said, it is for others to comment on that issue.
On the hon. Ladys final point, I concur with her view that the responsibility is to identify why the problems occurred and to find solutions and a way forward. That is why I have given an undertaking that I will certainly update the House in light of the Electoral Commissions review.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): It is welcome that the equipment was evaluated in advance. What estimate was made of the accuracy of the scanners? Would a manual check on the day of the election have been an advantage to boost confidence in the new system?
Mr. Alexander: Of course there was judged to be a high level of accuracy in the electronic scanning, but it is worth bearing in mind that there was the facility, which was used on the night, for manual examination of papers over which there was dispute. In that sense, electronic counting was not to the exclusion of the possibility of a manual count; there was provision whereby disputed papers could be considered by manual examination.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): There was no doubt about the result of the election, which was victory for the Scottish National party, but the chaos in the counting, the postal votes and the spoiled ballots was a debacle. Did the Electoral Commission warn the Secretary of State of concerns about the design of the ballot paper? When the ballot paper size became apparent, did he decide that all must appear on one page, and at the end of the ballot design phase was there any further testing? Will he now publish all relevant ministerial correspondence? The statement was completely inadequate. It did not include reference to the necessary full, independent judicial inquiry and the Secretary of State has not faced his responsibilities, which frankly should involve him considering his position.
Mr. Alexander: First, I have assured Sir Neil McIntosh of the full co-operation of Ministers and officials in the inquiry being undertaken by the Electoral Commissionthe statutory review set down as the responsibility of that independent electoral watchdog. In turn, the Electoral Commission has made it clear that where matters touch on its direct responsibility, there willas in the pastbe independent evaluation of that role. Frankly, the interests of Scotland are best served by allowing the review to take its course, to ensure that as expeditiously as possible we can find answers and solutions to the types of problems that arose on Thursday and Friday.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): If I were to give my true impressions of Thursday, I doubt that I would be allowed to remain in the Chamber. Given the experience both at the polling booths and at the count in the evening, can the Secretary of State give any indication as to the split in the spoiled papers of the national vote against the local government vote? In all the counts I saw, the number of spoiled papers in the local elections was far greater. Does the 100,000 include that figure or is it additional to the 100,000?
Mr. Alexander: I urge caution on two fronts. First, a final tally is still to be reached on the number of spoiled papers, but according to the information that I received this morning, it does not reach 100,000. Although a number of figures have been bandied around in the newspapers, I urge caution about the number of spoiled papers. We should allow people to continue with their work. Secondly, on the relative balance of spoiled papers between the local government elections and the Scottish Parliament elections, I am not in a position to offer the House guidance on that matter, but I take comfort from the fact that, at the request of Scottish Executive Ministers, the Electoral Commission review will not only examine the Scottish Parliament elections but will give due consideration to the local government elections that took place contemporaneously.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Is this not just the latest in a catalogue of so-called electoral reforms introduced by the Labour Government that have gone wrong one after another? It comes on top of the scandal of the postal votes farrago in the general election, and the deregistration of thousands of service voters. Is it not redolent of banana republic-style chaos in the electoral system, and is it not essential that we have an inquiry not only into how the situation came about, but into whether the election should be
Mr. Alexander: I am not convinced by the case that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I am not sure that such terminology is helpful, in that it seeks to prejudge the serious and considered review being undertaken by the Electoral Commission. A whole range of new measures have been introduced by the Government to give greater assurance to voters on voting methodologies, and it ill behoves him to seek to create a partisan advantage out of what is a serious issue for the Scottish people.
Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend convey to his right hon. Friends in the Cabinet the strong suggestion that in no circumstances at all should the DRS company or electronic counting machines be allowed to play any part in the next general election for the Westminster Parliament?
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Without wanting to diminish in any way the standing of the Electoral Commission, many of us have real concerns about the adequacy of a report produced by it. The commission may just be too close to the process. Does the Secretary of State accept that the commissions review may not be the last word on this matter, and will he keep in mind the possibility of a further inquiry by somebody who is independent of the Scottish political scene, but who knows a bit about politics? I am thinking of somebody of the standing of former President Mary Robinson from the Republic of Ireland. It may be necessary to involve somebody like that in order to restore the integrity of our electoral system.
Mr. Alexander: I would not wish to undermine in any way the important role that the Electoral Commission plays. The hon. Gentlemans description of a body that stands outside the Scottish political process but is of some standing seems to fit fairly accurately the work of Sir Neil McIntosh and the Electoral Commission more broadly across the United Kingdom, as our independent elections watchdog. None the less, of course I will consider whatever recommendations are made by the review, which, as I said, will report by the summer, and I will report back to the House in the light of that review. I reinforce the fact that the Electoral Commission itself is clear that, as in previous statutory reviews that it has had to undertake, where matters bear directly on the conduct of the commission there will be a full independent evaluation of that part of the process.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab):
Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the interpretation of the ballots was the same across the country? I ask particularly with regard to the parliamentary elections: if a voter ranked people 1, 2 and 3, which was obviously wrong, was the 1 always taken to be the same
as a cross, or was that sometimes counted as over-voting? Were the same criteria used in all constituencies when deciding whether to agree to a recount? I have heard that in one constituency where the majority was less than 100 a recount was refused, but in another, where the majority was almost 400, the leader of the Scottish National partyalthough it was not his constituencyinsisted to the electoral returning officer that a recount should take place.
Mr. Alexander: Let me try to deal with my hon. Friends points in turn. First, she asked about the conduct of electoral returning officers in different constituencies throughout Scotland. Guidance is offered to each of those electoral returning officers, but the decision at each count is ultimately a matter for the individual electoral returning officer. Secondly, the determination of whether to allow a recount in a particular constituency is ultimately a matter for the individual returning officer. Judgments were exercised by individual returning officers according to individual circumstances.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Many people not only in Scotland but throughout the country will be appalled by the Secretary of States complete lack of contrition for the national humiliating chaos and shambles in Scotland. May I suggest that the Secretary of State take the advice of his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, East (Mr. Marshall), abandon this obsession with electronic systems and go back to the old-fashioned system that commands the confidence of the people of this country? The returning officer in my borough of Rushmoor in Hampshire decided not to use an electronic signature verification system, and instead to resort to the mark 1 eyeball, the result of which was that we had no problems in Rushmoor. The returning officer, Mr. Andrew Lloyd, did an excellent job and I commend him to the Secretary of State for his advice.
Mr. Alexander: I am now certainly aware of the advice that the hon. Gentleman has offered me. I assure him that we will give serious consideration to recommendations that might emerge from the Electoral Commission review that is under way on the conduct of Thursdays elections.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I, along with most MPs, watched the battle take place on Thursday and Fridayand I have great concern that although people in the electoral system will be reviewing the system, they are actually part of the problem, so we must be careful about that. May I make a point about the confidence of the Scottish people? When the majority is lower than the number of spoiled papers, should not all those papers be recounted? That applies to all parties.
My hon. Friend used the phrase in the electoral system, so it is important that I make it clear, not only to him but to the people of Scotland and throughout the country, that the review will be carried out by the Electoral Commission, not by a politician or a political party. That being said, I have also made it clear that the Electoral Commission realises that there
will be an independent evaluation of any work in which it was involved as part of the prior steps leading to the election. That is the appropriate point at which to leave the matter until the review has been concluded. The question of whether any further steps will be necessary in the light of the review can more appropriately be determined after we have seen the Electoral Commissions recommendations.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): It is a hallmark of this Government that they increase the power and size of the state, yet then cannot run it properly. It is clear that that incompetence extends to the electoral system and to peoples democratic rightsso will the Secretary of State invite the United Nations to act as an electoral observer in any other elections that are held in the remainder of this Parliament?
Mr. Alexander: First, for clarification, let me make it clear that the e-counting process was overseen not only by parts of the state, as the right hon. Gentleman describes themthe Scotland Office, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliamentbut by representatives of 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. It is not entirely accurate to suggest that this is a matter of party politics. However, I am intrigued to note that despite the right hon. Gentlemans sense of indignation about the results in Scotland overnight on Thursday and on Friday, he carefully chose to suggest the United Nations, rather than a super-national institution somewhat closer to home with more experience of running elections: the European Union.
Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the circumstances of the Cunninghame North count, where the Labour candidate was refused a recount, despite the concerns raised about the Arran ballots by several individuals who were completely unconnected with the Labour party, and the close nature of the election? The returning officer initially said that the majority in the election was 54, but shortly thereafter, with no explanation, the figure changed to 48. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that we need to determine whether the guidelines were adhered to on Thursday night, and whether they need to be strengthened?
Mr. Alexander: I hope that the House will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to pass comment on results in individual constituencies. If candidates have concerns and wish to take legal steps in light of the determinations made by electoral returning officers, it is appropriate for those officers to give due consideration to the matter, but I am not convinced that it would be appropriate, or without prejudice to the right of candidates to take the action that they deem necessary, for me to pass comment on individual constituencies at this stage.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that in the Greater London authority elections three years ago, there were 385,000 spoiled ballot papersthree times as many as in the recent Scottish elections? Will he ensure that the findings of his review are used in next years GLA elections, and if, as he says, the same contractor was involved in the GLA elections three years ago and the Scottish elections last week, will he please ensure that that contractor has nothing to do with the GLA elections next year?
Mr. Alexander: In terms of ballot papers being ruled out, that was a matter for individual electoral returning officers, and in that sense I am not sure that the conflation of the issue of the contractor and that of the number of spoiled ballot papers holds as an argument. That being said, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the terms of the Electoral Commission statutory review of the elections will be widely distributed, not simply among Members of the House but beyond.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Last week was an embarrassment, and we owe the people of Scotland an apology. I was at a count that was suspended at 5.30, and there were 1,700 spoiled papers. It recommenced at 12 oclock and did not finish until 20 minutes to 3 in the afternoon. I share with hon. Members on both sides of the House a concern about the Electoral Commissions role in investigating the matter. My right hon. Friend should look to some other body to carry out the investigation.
Mr. Alexander: Our first obligation is to secure answers. A statutory review by the Electoral Commission has already begun. I have made it clear that where that inquiry touches on matters that are directly the responsibility of the Electoral Commission, there will be independent assessment. The appropriate step at this stage is to allow that work to be completed. The review is not without time limit; there is an expectation that it will be made available during the summer. At that point, there will be an opportunity for the House to reflect on the recommendations, and for any further steps to be taken.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Is not the simple lesson to be drawn from last Thursdays fiasco in Scotland that the Governments tinkering with our electoral system has been hugely damaging, whether we are talking about e-voting, the incomprehensible ballot papers produced in Scotland, the corrupt postal voting system, or proportional representation? Until recently, our electoral process was an example to the world, but under the current Prime Minister and the current Government, the democratic process has been undermined, and we have been reduced to the level of a banana republicthose are a judges words, not mine.
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