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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...we should wait for the review to understand properly where the problems lay.[ Official Report, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 27.]
Is that not jumping on the Tory bandwagon? May I tell the hon. Lady that she should be very afraid of opening Pandoras box when it comes to the Scottish parliamentary elections, because we made the amendment to introduce first past the post.
Jo Swinson: I welcome the hon. Ladys intervention, and her warning, which I am sure was kindly meant. We certainly welcome the review, as we stated in the Liberal Democrat amendment, which was tabled but not selected. Obviously, many Members of the House have views on the Scottish elections and, as has already been said, I am sure that Ron Gould will be taking special notice of this debate and the experiences that hon. Members will want to share. The opportunity to share those experiences was perhaps more limited when the Secretary of State for Scotland made his statement on 8 May. This is an important time to bring up the issues that hon. Members of all parties have mentioned; I believe that that will be helpful to the inquiry.
Obviously, the purpose of the inquiry is to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. Some mistakes can be forgiven, but failing to learn from them cannot be forgiven. We need to look in detail at the circumstances surrounding the selecting of the ballot paper design. We need to ask why problems occurred, not only with the e-counting. but with the postal vote; clearly, that should have been one of the least troublesome aspects of the election. It was the one part that we were already used to, as it had been used in previous elections. We need to ask whether, as the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) suggested, decoupling the Scottish and local elections would succeed in reducing voter confusion while maintaining turnout levels.
On the issue of spoiled ballot papers, as has been said, there were 15 constituencies in which the winning Scottish National partys majority was smaller than the number of rejected ballots. As has been pointed out, the highest difference was in Edinburgh East and Musselburgh. Interestingly enough, the second highest difference was in Glasgow Govan, where the number of
spoiled ballot papers was greater than the majority by 1,106. Like others, I do not want to call the election result into question, but it is worrying that the figures provide a sound basis for those who want to do so. Whatever peoples views on that, it is certainly true that the high levels of spoiled papers undermine the publics faith in the electoral system. We need to put that right.
The single ballot paper commanded general support among political parties and other organisations that were consulted in the run-up to designing it. In Committee, a draft ballot paper was circulated and we discussed how clear it would be for voters. However, two issues need to be raised: first, how it was tested; and secondly, the difference between it and the ballot papers in Glasgow and Edinburgh. As has been mentioned, the testing was carried out by a company called Cragg Ross Dawson. That involved 100 people being interviewed and asked their views on five different ballot paper designs. Interestingly, the single ballot paper was the most popular, as the Minister said in Committee.
Looking in more detail at what happened in the testing process, 7 per cent. of the test subjects mistakenly spoiled their ballot paper. The Secretary of State gave the figures for spoilage in the different elections. If one combines them, it could be 140,000 individuals, although I accept that it is impossible for us to find out exactly how many individuals spoiled their ballots without compromising voter privacy.
Mr. Davidson: Does the hon. Lady accept that although it is impossible for any of us to know at this stage, it is not impossible for Ron Gould to discover it by examining the individual papers? Indeed, it is possible to remove identifying remarks from ballot papers and to make them widely available so that anoraks can study them.
Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Electoral anoraks, as it were, having a look at the ballot papers and where the confusion lay, obviously with identifiers removed, will be an important part of the process. That would clearly take some time, but, dare I say, with the technology of the different barcodes it may even be possible to find out how many individuals were affected, although given our experience of the technology so far that may be easier said than done.
Taking the figure of 140,000 to be the total number who spoiled their ballots, that could be as many as 7 per cent. of the population, which is the proportion that were spoiled in the testing stages. Given that this was the ballot paper design that produced mistakes, should not the Electoral Commission have been a little more robust in its testing? A sample size of 100 is not very large in statistical terms; it equates to just seven individuals, which may not be statistically significant.
I welcome the new design. The dual colour scheme will make it clear that the separate votes are to go on one paper. I also welcome having a single paper for the Scottish Parliament and a separate paper for local government because it will help remove confusion among voters. [Official Report, Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee, 7 March 2007; c. 9.]
Jo Swinson: I accept that. As I said a moment ago, there was acceptance on both sides of the Committee that a single ballot paper was the best way to proceed. We all believed that and are dismayed by what has happened. That is why it is important to have the inquiry to find out what could have been done differently. I urge Ron Gould, in the conduct of his inquiry, to investigate thoroughly why, after that level of testing, the Electoral Commission did not then probe further, conduct further tests and see how the spoilage rate could have been reduced. That may well be instructive for what to do in future.
How hands-on were the Secretary of State and the Minister with the testing process? In terms of making the decision, I can understand their saying that it was the most popular option, but it would have been fairer to say that it is likely to have a higher spoilage rate. Will they publish any correspondence and communication that they had with the Electoral Commission so that it can be in the public domain and everyone in this House and among the public is able to see what went on?
The spoilage rates in Glasgow and Edinburgh are of particular concern, because of the top 10 constituencies with high spoilage rates, seven were in Glasgow and Edinburgh. About 1,000 more papers were spoiled there than in the next nearest region. As a voter in East Dunbartonshire, I did not realise until after the election that a different ballot paper had been issued for Glasgow and Edinburgh. I understand that that was because there was a problem with fitting all the names on to the ballot paper that had been drafted. I have seen an example of the one used in Glasgow, which seems to have 23 different parties contesting the regional list side of it. The ballot paper does not have the clear arrow design that was shown to us in Committee. It has information at the top of it, but not the very obvious arrows pointing to the columns where the individual would need to vote. I can understand why it was more confusing. Indeed, the spoilage rates were on average 2 per cent. higher in Glasgow and Edinburgh than in the rest of Scotland, so there is good evidence that it led to confusion. The Secretary of State said that this is just a matter for returning officers and that he had nothing to do with it. However, when we were shown in Committee the draft ballot paper design with arrows on it, we were all led to believe that that was how it would be designed. That was at the beginning of March. When was the decision made to change it? Did the Secretary of State know about the change? Did he approve of it? Could not the need for it have been foreseen? There would have been room on the ballot paper to include the arrows, so why was that not done?
Jim Sheridan: Does the hon. Lady agree that the fundamental problem with the election was the voting system, namely PR? Does she agree that there is no credibility whatsoever in any PR system given what has happened in Scotland? Her partys core objective is to try to get minority parties represented, yet most of the minority parties in the Scottish elections did not get a seat.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I must correct him. My partys objective is not to get minority parties represented, but
to get the election result to reflect the way that people voted so that everyones vote counts. That is hugely important to the credibility of the voting system. I do not accept that the PR voting system was the problem. Indeed, we had the same system for the Scottish Parliament elections in 2003, and it was not a problem. The single transferable vote system that was implemented this year had a much lower spoilage rate than the Scottish Parliament system. That points to its success and clarity. It was easy for people to understand how to rank in order of preference, as opposed to the confusion caused by the spoiled ballot papers.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a certain degree of hypocrisy and irony in what has been said given that the Labour party imposed PR elections on people in Northern Ireland for the simple reason that they said it would lead to a fairer result?
Let me turn to postal voting. Members on both sides of the House have encouraged postal voting as a way of ensuring that people find it easy to vote, and that is welcome. People want a postal vote for a whole variety of reasons. They include people who are working away from homein Scotland, that can be offshorepeople who are on holiday, people who are housebound, and people who have busy lives and it is one less thing to do. That is a trend that has been happening over several elections, and is not difficult to predict. We know that postal voting has been increasing. Surely, we ought to be able to get it right. That aspect of the election was not newit had happened previouslyeven though more people applied for postal votes in the recent elections.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that the elections presented a perfect opportunity to consider the early opening of postal votes and establish that a problem was about to happen on 3 May? Many votes had been opened in advance and returning officers must have known at least a week before the election that the percentage of spoiled ballot papers would be high.
Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I hope Ron Gould will examine in the context of flagging up difficulties and perhaps issuing advice at polling stations to try to counteract the problems of spoilt ballots.
Jo Swinson: My constituents tell me that they appreciate the opportunity of voting by post and the simplicity of doing that. That is welcome, but many were incredibly worriedthey wrote to me and e-mailed mebecause they were about to go on holiday and had been told that they would get a postal vote before they went but it had not arrived. People understandably feel strongly about being disfranchised. They have every right to be angry. As the Secretary of State knows, the issue was raised before the elections. I went on Newsnight and one of the points I made was that it was ominous that postal voting was the bit that should have been easy to get right, and it did not bode well for the electronic counting and so on.
We need to consider why lessons were not learned. Many of the same problems arose in the Greater London assembly elections in 2004: 423,000 Londoners registered to vote by post but 159,000 did not vote. Thousands of postal ballot papers were not even delivered. The Royal Mail apparently told the returning officer in Lewisham that it could guarantee delivery of only four out of every five ballot papers. A report was conducted about the GLA elections and we should have learned lessons from it. The Secretary of State has some explaining to do about the failure to take advantage of the experiences of 2004 to prevent further problems in Scotland.
Let us consider election decoupling, which the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale emphasised. I take issue with the Conservative motions contention that the Government ignored advice about holding elections on the same day. I believe that they listened to the advice but took the view that holding the elections on the same day would increase turnout. I have much sympathy with that view.
Pete Wishart: The decision to hold elections on the same day was a matter for the Scottish Executive, of which the Liberals were part. The hon. Lady and I attended the debate about the Arbuthnott commission. One of John Arbuthnotts clear recommendations was not to hold the elections on the same day, but it was ignored.
Jo Swinson: I accept that John Arbuthnott made that recommendation. However, I believe that there remains a good case for holding elections on the same day. If we consider turnout figures, about which we all care deeply, the turnout in the three local government elections in Scotland in 1992, 1994 and 1995 varied between 42 per cent. and 45 per cent. In the three years when local elections were held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections1999, 2003 and this yearthe turnout was between 49 per cent. and 59 per cent. That is at least 5 per cent. higher.
Let me put the 140,000 spoiled ballots into context. Five per cent. more people going to vote in Scotland is the equivalent of 193,000 more votes being cast. That is important because it denotes another way in which peoples voices are lost in the electoral system. There is, therefore, an argument for holding the elections on the same day.
Not that much evidence yet suggests that holding the elections on the same day caused the problem. The spoilage rate for the STV element of the election was low compared with that for the Scottish Parliament election. That suggests that the problem lies with the ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament elections. The logic of the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is therefore somewhat flawed.
Last week, I presented a Bill on STV for the Scottish Parliament elections. I believe that it would help solve the problem of decoupling because we could then hold elections on the same day but under the same electoral system, which would allow peoples voices to be heard and reflected in the election results. I hope that the Government will reconsider that issue.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that although there may be a case for ensuring that local and national elections are on a different day so that people can vote locally on local issues, the elections that we are considering definitely make a case for all elections in the UK to be on a 1-2-3 basis so that people have the same system, whatever the forum for which they are voting?
Jo Swinson: Yes, perhaps unsurprisingly I agree with my hon. Friend that a preferential voting system1-2-3is easy for people to do and means that their vote counts. [Hon Members: What about 4?] Let me make some progress [Interruption.]
The Conservative motion also deals with the Secretary of States failure to accept responsibility for the elections. He has been remiss in that. We want to hear the outcome of the inquiry, but we also need to hear an apology from the Secretary of State, who is responsible for the elections. People in Scotland are understandably annoyed about what has happened and about their votes not being counted.
Let us consider the e-counting. One of the problems was the involvement of private companies in the counting service. DRS has been involved in various election problems, not only in the Scottish elections. It apparently tested the machinery, which, according to the Secretary of State, did not predict any of the major problems. However, I understand from the Edinburgh Evening News that e-counting was introduced for the Scottish Parliament and local council elections at a cost of £8.8 million. I presume that most of the money went to the company. I do not know whether the full details of the contracts are under confidentiality agreements, but it would be useful to know exactly how much the company was paid for running the elections.
Some penalty clauses in the contract may be invoked so that the company might have to pay back thousands of pounds where problems occurred with the counts.
However, a few thousand pounds out of a contract of £8.8 million constitutes getting off lightly given the chaos that ensued. I would welcome more details about the contracts and exactly how harsh the penalty clauses were. Clearly, the motivation for the companies to ensure that they got it right on the night was inadequate. Some of us who were sitting in television studios in the early hours of the morning saw that they blatantly did not get it right.
I welcome the appointment of Ron Gould to head the inquiry. He is clearly one of the worlds foremost experts on the matter and has great experience in elections internationally. I was intrigued by the Opposition motions words on that. Sadly, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale would not take an intervention on the subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, if the Electoral Commission cannot appoint someone independently, who does the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale suppose should do the appointing? If the inquiry will not be independent if the Scotland Office or the Electoral Commission nominate somebody, does he want the Conservative party to stipulate who will be independent? I suspect that it will not be easy to hold an independent inquiry under his definition if an independent, international election expert does not fit the bill in his view. His argument is flawed.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) made a point about the publics input into the inquiry. I agree that it is essential to get the views of real voters who found problems with the ballot system. Frankly, we may not get that if we simply rely on people coming forward to the inquiry. Ron Gould needs to be proactive about seeking out peoples experiences.
Counts were abandoned on the night as the technology crashed, and Scottish politics was made a laughing stock. I was left wondering exactly what the Scotland Office is for. The running of elections is almost the only thing for which it is directly responsible, and it cannot even get that right. The Secretary of State should be ashamed. He should apologise to the Scottish people and ensure that such electoral chaos is never repeated.
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