Previous Section Index Home Page

23 May 2007 : Column 1312

The commission’s review of the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections is under way. Before the elections, the Scottish Executive asked the commission to review, as it did in 2003, the conduct of the Scottish local government elections, for which the Executive have legislative competence. Frankly, that makes sense. The decision of the Scottish Parliament in 2002 to move the date of the local government elections so that they could be held on the same day as the parliamentary elections had the effect of synchronising the elections.

Mr. Carmichael: The Secretary of State is being generous with his time. Does he think that, with the benefit of hindsight, the House might have to accept that it got the constitution of the Electoral Commission wrong? Does he accept that the insistence on not giving any of the political parties representation on the commission is seen as one of its major weaknesses because few on the commission have hon. Members’ day-to-day political experience of being involved in elections? Will he speak to Ministers with responsibility for the commission to determine whether there is any prospect of an early review of its constitution?

Mr. Alexander: The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who is sitting on the Front Bench, assures me that consideration is being given to all those points. However, the House will understand that given the importance of the statutory review, the independence of Ron Gould and the important task that he is taking forward, it would not be appropriate for me to offer an opinion at this stage about the role and remit of the Electoral Commission. However, I say that without prejudice to the fact that the House will no doubt return to the matter in due course.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab): It is important that the review examines seriously the role of the Electoral Commission and the representation of political parties. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the parties had been represented on the commission, there would have been little likelihood that “Alex Salmond for First Minister” would have been allowed as the name of a political party on the regional list?

Mr. Alexander: I was about to say, “In fairness to the SNP”, which is an uncharacteristic phrase to pass my lips. However, it is fair to acknowledge that, as the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale pointed out, that designation for the party was approved ahead of the elections in the standard procedures, but it would be entirely for the independent leader of the review, Ron Gould, to consider whether that is a material consideration in his review. I do not wish to prejudice his right to consider that and other matters by commenting on them today.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): May I follow up the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) on the need to have public input to the review? Will my right hon. Friend consider the Scotland Office and the Scottish Executive running a joint advertising campaign
23 May 2007 : Column 1313
to inform the public on how they can have input to the review? There is likely to be next to no public input if no one knows how to do it.

Mr. Alexander: It is not for me to prescribe the means of publicising the review, although, as I have already assured the House, I hope that those leading the review will look carefully at the comments made in today’s debate. The review is to be funded through the Electoral Commission, not by the Scottish Executive or the Scotland Office, so there is no issue of budgetary constraints being exercised to prevent the public from being made aware of their opportunity to contribute to the review. It is important proactively to give people that opportunity, because when one looks at where there were the highest levels of rejected ballot papers, one sees clearly that there are some constituencies where it is important to hear the voices of people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to have their voices heard in the debate.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Alexander: I wish to make a little more progress before giving way again.

As I said, the decision of the Scottish Parliament in 2002 to move the date of the local government elections so that they were held on the same day as the parliamentary elections had the effect of synchronising the two elections. The arrangements for the synchronised elections were overseen this year by an elections steering group, chaired by Scottish Executive officials and comprising officials from the Scotland Office, the Electoral Commission, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Parliament and representatives of returning officers, registration officers and other election administrators. The presence of the Electoral Commission on the steering group, as well as the wider role that it played during the preparations for the elections, has prompted questions in this debate and in the discussion following my statement to the House on 8 May about the appropriateness of the commission carrying out its statutory review of the elections’ conduct, notwithstanding the fact that that duty could be set aside only by fresh legislation.

The commission has acknowledged and sought to address those concerns regarding the work of the review. In particular, it has appointed one of the world’s leading experts in the conduct of the elections to “lead” the “Scottish elections review”. I welcome that appointment. Mr. Ron Gould, who has agreed to take on that important role, is a former assistant chief electoral officer of Canada. He has participated in more than 100 election assistance missions in more than 70 countries since 1984 and he is considered to be one of the leading world experts on the organisation and management of elections. At the time of his appointment, Mr. Gould said:

23 May 2007 : Column 1314

The commission’s latest announcement, made on Monday 21 May, set out the details of Mr. Gould’s planned approach. It has also confirmed that Mr. Gould’s team does not include anybody involved in the decision-making processes associated with the Scottish elections.

Mr. Redwood: Given the narrowness of the SNP victory both in overall seats and in several individual seats, does the Secretary of State agree that it is quite possible that the will of the Scottish people was that Labour should be the biggest party and still hold the post of First Minister, and that the large number of votes that could not be counted made that impossible?

Mr. Alexander: I did not make that claim in my previous statement and I will certainly not make it today. As in every other election, it is open to individual candidates who wish to challenge the veracity of a constituency result to do so by means of a petition to the electoral court—there is a period in which such an approach may be made. It is not for me to comment on individual results—that would not be appropriate. However, in the light of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, I do reflect on the fact that, had I been minded to suggest a different type of review given the closeness of the result, I would have been subjected to heavy criticism by the Opposition for not being willing to accept the decision of the Scottish electors as manifested in the constituency and regional list results that emerged from the events of 3 and 4 May.

The Scotland Office—Ministers and civil servants—will co-operate with Mr. Gould’s review. As I have said, Mr. Gould will be able to consider the points made in this afternoon’s debate, and I am sure that Members of this House will want to submit evidence to the review. Although the commission has said that it expects the review to report in the summer, the time scale will ultimately be determined by Mr. Gould, who leads the review.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that Mr. Gould and the inquiry team will have the opportunity to speak with the senior management of Royal Mail? There seems to be some ambiguity about when people received—or did not receive—their ballot papers.

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. One of the issues that the Electoral Commission identified for the statutory review and which I requested that the review consider is delays affecting postal ballots. It is not for me to speculate at the Dispatch Box today; I simply observe that there seem to have been different circumstances in those areas where there was difficulty with postal ballots and it seems entirely appropriate for the review team, if they are so minded, to make inquiries directly with Royal Mail, given its involvement in dispatching postal ballots.

The commitment to impartiality demonstrated by the commission’s announcement reinforces my belief that if I were to accede at this stage to the urgings of those who wish to establish a judicial or some other
23 May 2007 : Column 1315
form of inquiry at the present time, we would be in the position of having two parallel investigations into precisely the same events examining the same issues, talking to the same people and reviewing the same decisions at the same time. That does not strike me as the most sensible course of action, particularly when the Electoral Commission has said that the review is expected to have completed its work in just over 12 weeks’ time. I believe that it is better to await the report and then to take decisions informed by its findings and recommendations.

After the elections on 3 May, I came to the House at the first available opportunity to make a statement on the conduct of the elections in the light of public concern. In that statement, I set out in detail the problems that occurred and the issues that needed to be addressed. Briefly, they are: delays in the sending out of postal ballots; difficulties with some of the electronic counting machines; the unacceptably high number of rejected ballot papers; and the decision to hold the two elections on the same day, especially given the new arrangements for local authority elections. Those matters are now being investigated by Mr. Gould and his team.

I am aware that a number of colleagues are keen to speak today and time is short, so I shall not repeat all the detail that I set out in my statement. However, because I am sure that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire would never intend inadvertently to misspeak in the House of Commons, I am keen to clarify exactly what I said about the number of rejected votes in the course of the exchanges following my statement. I said:

At that time, the final authoritative figures were in the process of being collated. There has been much speculation about the level of rejected votes—figures of 5, 7 and 10 per cent. have been quoted in the press and elsewhere—but the actual figures have now been published. Across the regional and constituency sections, 3.47 per cent. of the total votes cast in the Scottish Parliament elections were rejected. That breaks down as 60,454 rejected papers in the regional vote, representing 2.88 per cent. of the total votes cast in that section; and 85,643 rejected papers in the constituency vote, representing 4.07 per cent. of the total votes cast in that section. The level of rejected papers and the problems encountered with e-counting and the administration of postal votes are subjects of Mr. Gould’s review.

Stewart Hosie: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the terms of reference for the Electoral Commission’s statutory review. Obviously, I would like there to be an independent review, but I nevertheless welcome the initiative whereby information officers were placed at polling stations. However, there is anecdotal evidence that in the council ballot, those officers advised people to put an X by each of their three choices, rather than to put 1, 2 or 3 by their names. The advice given by information officers on the day may have been wrong. Could that be considered as an important part of the review?

Mr. Alexander: To rehearse a point that I have already made, it is not for me to prescribe the work of the review, but clearly if such activity was taking place
23 May 2007 : Column 1316
at polling stations, it is wholly unacceptable. As I understand it, such a matter would be the direct responsibility of the electoral returning officers, but that is one of the issues that it seems entirely appropriate for the independent review to investigate. There was, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, a recognition of the need to ensure that people were available to explain the systems of voting that were in place, but it seems entirely appropriate that the review should consider the matter that he raises.

Mr. Davidson: The Secretary of State mentioned the number of ballot papers that were spoiled. Can he tell us how many of them were spoiled as a result of over-voting or something similar, and how many were spoiled by being left blank? As I said to the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), it is entirely possible that many of those ballot papers were deliberate abstentions, and should therefore not be counted as spoiled papers, as it was the voter’s intention to spoil them.

Mr. Alexander: One of the striking features of the authoritative figures that I have just shared with the House is that the regional vote, which for the first time appeared on the left-hand side of the joint ballot paper—that, of course, is a matter of contention—had significantly fewer rejected votes than the constituency section of the ballot paper, which was on the right-hand side of the paper. In that sense, it is entirely relevant for the independent review, if it is so minded, to consider that issue. It is at least possible that, in a certain number of cases, people were determined to vote for a particular party on the regional list section of the ballot paper, and were determined not to vote for any candidate on the constituency section. I do not for a minute suggest that that explains the scale of the number of rejected papers, but it has been suggested, at least anecdotally, that there may have been individuals who, for example, were determined to vote for the Green party on the regional list, but who decided not to vote in the constituency section. That is a matter that will need to be considered by the independent review.

Mr. Heald: I do not quite get the right hon. Gentleman’s maths; 140,000 votes were lost, but he is saying that the figure is somehow less than 140,000 because the votes were in two different categories. How many people is he saying were disfranchised?

Mr. Alexander: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has a grasp of geography or of electoral systems. He alleged, before the House, that 140,000 people had had their votes denied. Given that there was a vote both in the regional section and in the constituency section, it is perfectly conceivable that the same people are accounted for in both figures. I am not able to give a figure for the number of people involved, but I can rehearse the authoritative figures, whereas the hon. Gentleman, with absolutely no factual evidence— [Interruption.] He has now accepted that he may well be wrong; well, that is significant progress.

Mr. Devine: That argument would perhaps explain a small loss of votes, but let me tell the Secretary of State about the position in my local area. In Lothian, there was a list system on the left-hand side of the paper and the constituency section was on the right; they basically
23 May 2007 : Column 1317
ran on from each other. We lost hundreds of votes because people voted for the Scottish Labour party under the list system and did not transfer over to the other side of the paper. The design of the paper is a crucial part of the inquiry.

Mr. Alexander: I will come to the issue of the design of the paper and the responsibility for the variations in design across the country. That issue was rehearsed by the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, who spoke for the Opposition, and was referred to at least implicitly in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine).

Pete Wishart: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Alexander: I have been generous in giving way and now I will make a little more progress. A key concern of the Arbuthnott commission was the need to enhance the understanding of the regional vote, which we have just been discussing. The process that led from the Arbuthnott commission first drawing attention to the combined ballot paper model used in the New Zealand elections to the final design was inclusive and consensual. Consultation was extensive and detailed. As I have already told the House, there were 29 responses to that consultation, and three late responses were also taken into account. Political parties, voters, election administrators, representatives of disabled peoples’ organisations and all other interested parties were consulted.

Under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998, I am responsible for laying before Parliament the orders that set the statutory requirements for ballot papers for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Those requirements are set out in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections (Returning Officers’ Charges) Order 2007, which was approved by both Houses, without Division, in March this year. As in other elections, including general elections, returning officers have statutory responsibility for implementing the rules covered in the elections order, and have scope to alter the design of the ballot papers provided that they do not diverge from those statutory requirements. Those are all matters that will be covered in Mr. Gould’s report, so the Government amendment asks the House to allow him to do the job for which he is well qualified. When he has finished his task, we will be able to take stock and form a view about what further action is necessary. A statutory review led by an independent expert is already under way. The Government have made it clear that they will co-operate with the review and will consider whether further action is necessary. It is expected that the review will be concluded in just over 12 weeks’ time. I ask the House to support the Government’s amendment.

2.36 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I start by joining in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on his recent election to the post of First Minister. I just wish that he were here so that I could offer those congratulations to him in person. We will have to hope that he is an avid reader of Hansard and still has the time to keep up with what is happening in the House.

23 May 2007 : Column 1318

We were all appalled as we watched events unfold on the night of 3 May and in the early hours of the following morning. The mess of the rejected ballot papers, the electronic counting problems and the delayed counts were certainly, as the motion says, “an affront to democracy”. Since the election, there has been time for reflection on those events, and we have gained a certain amount of knowledge in that time. We now know just how many people lost their vote on 3 May. We know that an Electoral Commission inquiry led by Ron Gould will look into the conduct of the elections, and we know that the Secretary of State is still not taking full responsibility for the fiasco. However, there is still much to discuss, and that is why I welcome the debate.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): On the hon. Lady’s point about welcoming the debate, I note that she has said:

Next Section Index Home Page