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The hon. Gentleman has to explain to the House why he concludes that just because Ron Gould has been appointed by the Electoral
Commission he cannot be independent of the commission. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is some connection between Mr. Gould and the Electoral Commission that puts a question over his impartiality or independence? If he cannot provide such evidence, the logic of his position is that if the Scotland Office appoints somebody to conduct an inquiry, that person will not be independent either.
David Mundell: The hon. Gentleman and his party made it clear in their amendment, which was not accepted, that they support the role of the Electoral Commission in that process: we do not. We believe that the inquiry should be independent of the commission because it is a principal stakeholder in the process. [ Interruption. ] I have made that as emphatically clear as I possibly can.
As I said before, although the Conservatives did not oppose the introduction of a single ballot, we never agreed to its use on the same day as another ballot paper on which the making of more than one mark was actively encouraged.
Voters were told that they had two votes, but it appears that a large number of them interpreted that information as the need to mark two crosses in one column instead of one in each column, thereby rendering their vote invalid in each election. Is that really surprising when the explanation of the STV system was that it gave people more than one vote?
Any inquiry must also address whether the use of candidate names in party descriptions for the regional vote may have misled voters into thinking they were voting for their preferred constituency candidate.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. However, he will be aware that all the names on the ballot paper were sanctioned in advance and all party names were ratified. He says that people may have been misled. Will he consider the language he is using?
David Mundell: If the hon. Gentleman listens, he will hear me say that some people argue that it was a political masterstroke for the Scottish National party to designate itself as Alex Salmond for First Minister, but the question is whether the appearance of that designation on the top left of ballot papers was a cause for confusion. Whoever conducts the inquiry, they must address that issue.
There can be little doubt that the presentation of candidate names and party logos was compromised on many ballot papers. There was an attempt to accommodate the names of too many candidates on a defined size of ballot paper. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the elderly and people with sight problems, in particular, struggled
with the instructions. Worse still, ballot papers issued at polling stations in Glasgow and Lothian did not resemble the sample papers previously shown to parties. It is a fundamental tenet of our democracy that a person voting in Shetland, for example, has the same format of ballot as a fellow citizen voting in Linlithgow. It is now clear that ballot papers across Scotland lacked uniformity. We regard that as entirely unacceptableon a par with Floridas hanging chads.
As I voted in Moffat, I naively assumed that people voting in Edinburgh or Glasgow would be presented with the same form of ballot paper, but I was wrong. In the regions of Glasgow and Lothian, ballot papers had different instructions from ballot papers in other areas of Scotland. The arrows telling people in which columns to put their crosses were removed. Not surprisingly, those two regions recorded the highest number of rejected ballots: a staggering 7.85 per cent. in Glasgow and 5.2 per cent. in the Lothians. Only an independent inquiry can get to the bottom of those kinds of decisions.
We need to know from the Secretary of State how decisions were made on the final design and layout of ballot papers. Did he see the final variations in the ballot papers for all constituencies and regions across Scotland? Did he sign off the decision to remove the instructional arrows from the ballot papers in the Glasgow and Lothian regions? More importantly, what level of consultation did he undertake with political parties, candidates, returning officers, DRS and the Electoral Commission before making the decision? Why did he give precedence to the electronic counting process rather than to candidates and electors? I have no doubt that if market research had been undertaken on the final ballots, they would have been rejected outrighthad the research documentation been read by the Secretary of State.
No doubt the use of e-counting in the elections played a major role in the decisions to change ballot papers. Electronic counting was introduced as a means to an end. It was adopted initially, it was said, to shorten the amount of time taken to count local ballots, because counting votes manually under the new STV system would take days rather than hours. But it is quite clear that e-counting became a means in itself in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where, instead of altering the ballot papers by deleting instructional information, there should have been a manual count if the machines could not cope.
The willingness to change fundamental aspects of the election process to suit the needs of electronic counting and DRSits operatorhas compromised the integrity of the electoral process. We must ask ourselves the serious question of whether, after these events, e-counting can give everyone the confidence that the election count is being carried out appropriately. Many candidates complained in the media that they had no idea of the outcome of their election until a few minutes before it was announcedunlike what happens with the traditional hand count.
May I deal briefly with postal ballots? Every right hon. and hon. Member from Scotland will have heard from constituents who were unable to vote owing to the late arrival of postal ballots. That is simply administrative incompetence striking at the heart of the democratic process. We may never know how many
electors were disfranchised by the postal vote debacle, which saw probably hundreds of people unable to return their ballots in time. It is ironic that postal votes arrived on polling day and that the only way to make them count was to take them to the polling stationif the elector was lucky enough to be at home to receive that vote. The Government have always known about, and encouraged, the trend of more and more people opting for a postal vote. The election date was hardly a surprise and there is no excuse for not putting arrangements in place to guarantee that, at least from an administrative perspective, postal voters received their postal ballots on time.
There can be no doubt that the Government had a genuine opportunity to work with the Scottish Executive to reduce the possibility of voter confusion. The key to that would have been to decouple the two elections, as many people advocated. That is the view not just of the Conservatives or the newly appointed Scottish Executive, but of the Governments own Arbuthnott commission, which recommended it. The Electoral Commission made the scale of the difficulties clear during the evidence that it gave to the Local Government and Transport Committee of the Scottish Parliament. The Arbuthnott commission summed up the arguments perfectly, saying that holding the elections on separate days would
reduce the complexity of voting, potentially reduce voter confusion and keep the number of invalid votes to a minimum. It would also reduce administrative complexity in the planning, management and counting of the elections, and enhance the transparency of the electoral process, especially allowing attention to be focussed on local issues.
It is ridiculous of the Secretary of State and his predecessor to argue that only the Scottish Executive were responsible for the date of the local government elections, when obviously holding those elections on the same day would have an impact on the Scottish Parliament elections. He may have no influence with the Scottish Executive now, but he did then. When I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I introduced the Local Government Elections Bill to do just what I have been talking about, but Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Ministers thwarted constant attempts to get the Bill through. Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament will continue to pursue the cause and will look to the new Scottish Executive for support this time around.
The high level of rejected ballot papers in the local council counts compared with the last electionsthe level almost tripledis also unacceptable. The system is certainly not the great triumph that the Electoral Reform Society or the Liberal Democrats would have us believe. The confusion, in terms of which councillor does what, has not even begun. Even if STV is accepted, what can be the purpose of holding such elections on the same day if, as was shown in the London mayoral elections and voting in Northern Ireland, having two separate systems in operation always exposes us to the risk of a disproportionately large number of people having their ballots rejected?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the proposal that the investigation should also look at the impact of alphabetical position on candidates success rates and at the impact of not grouping candidates from the same party together on the ballot
paper? Those issues are an important aspect of the review, but they have not been included so far.
David Mundell: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. All the flaws of the STV system, which the Liberal Democrats advocate again today, were highlighted at the time of the introduction of the process in the Scottish Parliament. Just as Rhodri Morgan in Wales appears to be willing to accept that sort of arrangement, Labour in the Scottish Parliament accepted the introduction of STV.
Whatever our view of the outcome, the conduct of the Scottish elections cannot be described as a success in any way, shape or form. That was and is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland and no amount of trying to divide up the blame can hide that. It is time to take responsibility and to apologise.
Our motion sets out a basis on which to restore confidence and faith in our electoral system not just in Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom. We want the serious issues that arose at these elections to be exhaustively investigated, independently of all stakeholders responsible for conducting them. We also want proper consideration to be given to decoupling the Scottish parliamentary and local council elections, to reduce both the possibility of voter confusion and the number of rejected ballots. I urge the House to support the motion.
notes that a statutory review of the Scottish Parliament elections is already underway conducted by the Electoral Commission as required by Parliament; further notes that, at the prior request of the then Scottish Executive, this review will also cover the Scottish local government elections; welcomes the appointment of an international authority on the management and organisation of elections, Mr Ron Gould, the former Assistant Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, to lead the review; further notes that his terms of reference include examining the role of the Electoral Commission in the preparation of the elections, as well as matters relating to postal ballot delays, the high number of rejected ballots, combining Scottish local government and Scottish parliamentary elections, and the electronic counting process; and believes that this statutory review which is now in progress should complete its report in order to inform decisions in relation to any further steps which may be necessary or appropriate..
The substance of todays debate is not whether lessons will be learned or answers will be given in the light of the difficulties encountered in the Scottish elections, but how that process will happen. In the days following 3 May, there were calls for a whole variety of inquiries and reviews. Some called for a judicial inquiry, while others called for a committee of inquiry that should be chaired by an international political figure, such as former President Mary Robinson. The Conservative motion calls for yet another form of inquiry: a joint exercise with the Scottish Executive. Let me thus begin by reiterating the Governments stated position.
We have never suggested that we will not countenance further inquiries. Instead, we argue that it is right on balance to let the statutory review led by Ron Gould report before deciding on the next steps. The motion calls for an independent review of the conduct of the Scottish elections. It also calls on me, as Secretary of State for Scotland, to accept responsibility and to apologise to the people of Scotland. As I will set out, a review is in progress that is independent of the Government and headed by an international authority on elections. As Secretary of State, I accept responsibility for the actions and decisions of the Scotland Office. If the review finds fault with those actions and decisions, I will, of course, apologise.
The House established the independent Electoral Commission and gave it the duty through legislation to carry out statutory reviews of elections. As I indicated in exchanges following my statement to the House on 8 May, and again in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) last Friday, only when we have the report can decisions on the next steps be best taken, in the light of the commissions findings.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm that we will have a chance to debate the report when it is presented to Parliament? What input will Members of Parliament have in the review itself?
Mr. Alexander: Of course, it is for the usual channels to determine the debates that take place in the House. However, let me reiterate a point that I made in my statement: the House will of course be updated at the conclusion of the review. Technically, the review will go to the Scottish Executive, the Scotland Office and electoral returning officers, but we will ensure that it is made available to all hon. Members. My hon. Friend asks how Members of Parliament can set out their views to the review. I certainly hope that Mr. Gould will take cognisance of this debate. It remains open to any hon. Member to provide evidence or information to the review as it undertakes its work.
Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): Under the terms of the review, I note that the Electoral Commission welcomes the views of members of the public. May I suggest that it needs to do much more than that? It should take direct evidence from voters of all relevant ethnic, socio-economic and gender groups to ensure that we get a true representation of what voters think about the process.
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, it is not for me to prescribe the format of the independent review. However, I take heart from the fact that the further information that was provided on the terms of the review at the beginning of this week indicated that there would be an opportunity for public meetings to be held. I certainly hope that a wide cross-section of people will have the opportunity to provide evidence and opinions to the review.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): So is the right hon. Gentlemans point that he does not think that he or his colleagues in the Scottish Executive owe the people of Scotland an apology at the moment, and that only if the report says so will he be prepared to come to the Dispatch Box to say sorry for 140,000 people losing their votes?
Mr. Alexander: May I offer the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to correct the factual error that he made in claiming that 140,000 people lost their votes? As I will demonstrate during my speech, if he was familiar with the situation in Scotland he would realise that he could not make that claim before the House with any authority.
The hon. Gentlemans intervention was telling. During the speech made by the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), I felt that opportunism was vying with statesmanshipand opportunism won. He simultaneously predetermined the outcome of the review and demanded that an independent inquiry be established, incidentally by the Government, no doubt in consort with the Scottish Executive. The problem for the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is that after just the introductory Front-Bench speech, the Conservative partys argument, as set out in the motion, is in severe danger of collapsing under the weight of its contradictions.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The Electoral Commission has already commissioned a report for the Secretary of State by a man called Cragg Ross Dawson. That report first highlighted the difficulties with the single ballot paper. What were the Secretary of States conclusions about that report and what did he do to address the concerns expressed?
Mr. Alexander: I am happy to answer the hon. Gentlemans questions. The Cragg Ross Dawson report was produced not by an individual, but by a company. It was commissioned by people in the Scotland Office, who had requested that work be undertaken through the Electoral Commission. The report was sent to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), with whom I discussed the matter. It formed part of a consultation exercise that received 28 responses, along with three further responses that, technically, arrived after the consultation had concluded. We took account of the responses when we reached our decisions. I then had the opportunity to receive from officials a summary of the conclusions of all the consultation responses that we received, including work commissioned by the Electoral Commission. I discussed the report with the Under-Secretary and officials before making decisions.
The House established the independent Electoral Commission and gave it a duty to carry out statutory reviews of elections. As I said, only when we have sight of its report will it be appropriate to determine the next steps to take. Let me remind the House of the remit of the commission and point out why I believe that it is only sensible to let it get on with its job before deciding what further steps might be necessary.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 established the Electoral Commission and tasked it with, among other things, the job of reviewing the conduct of elections and reporting back to both the Government and Parliament with its findings and recommendations. That duty was conferred on it by the House without dissent. So far, it has reported on general elections, European elections, the 2003 elections for the Scottish Parliament and elections for other devolved institutions.
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