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3 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) started by congratulating the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on his new appointment. It would perhaps be churlish of me not to do the same, but it occurs to me that there is sometimes a place for a bit of churlishness in politics. Let me embody that for a moment.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred to the fact that we are not likely to see a great deal of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan down here. He is a busy man—he is running
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Scotland for the moment, for however long that might be—and we will observe carefully how often he represents his constituents in this Chamber.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that the late Donald Dewar, and Jim Wallace, remained Members of the House as well as Members of the Scottish Parliament for the next few years until the election. They seemed to have no trouble with the idea of doing both jobs.

Mr. Joyce: I grant the hon. Gentleman that, but at that interim stage the Scottish Parliament was brand new. Twelve, 18 or 20 by-elections would have been necessary in Scotland, and no party supported that idea. We now have a new First Minister who, as all Members of the House understand, will rarely be able to come down here and represent his constituents.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Will all hon. Members now concentrate their remarks on the motion and the amendment before the House?

Mr. Joyce: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Last year, I twice had the pleasure of going to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to observe two phases of the presidential elections. The Congo is the size of western Europe and has a population of about 60 million. The Kinshasa ballot paper, which was about 20 or 30 ft long, listed about 700 candidates. Most of the people voting were illiterate, but, somehow, a 65 per cent. turnout was achieved. Apart from a little bit of shooting here and a little overindulgence there—the guns and the alcohol aside—the result was universally agreed by the international community. Therefore, on the morning of 4 May there was some disappointment in Falkirk and, I suspect, other places across Scotland. That was the second most disappointing bit—the most disappointing bit was just losing.

The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is trying desperately hard and failing to make the issue a party political one, but the reality is that there was consensus, to a substantial degree, before the event. All the parties were consulted. He equivocated slightly earlier—as we shall see when we look at Hansard—but he was unequivocal when he said:

Pete Wishart: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Democratic Republic of the Congo ran a more efficient election than the Scotland Office? If so, what can the Secretary of State learn from the DRC? [Interruption.]

Mr. Joyce: As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) says from a sedentary position, there were probably one or two fewer killed in Scotland. I am simply saying that we were all disappointed by the shortcomings in the process. There was substantial consensus in advance, and apparently
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even the Scottish Tories acceded. My understanding is that the Scottish Tories did not reply formally to any of the consultations. The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale accepts, however, that they acceded.

David Mundell: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present for the statement, but we have never suggested otherwise than that we accepted the single ballot paper. We did not accept, however, that that ballot paper should be used on the same day as another ballot paper, on which people were encouraged to place more than one mark.

Mr. Joyce: The motion clearly criticises the Government in relation to holding

The hon. Gentleman had said, however, that he acceded to that system, so it seems to me that that should not be in the motion.

David Mundell: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier remarks and to remarks that I have made on numerous occasions in the House, he would know that I did not accept that the Scottish Parliament elections should have been held on the same day as the local government elections, when different systems of voting were being used. Nor do I accept that the Secretary of State for Scotland did not have a role to play in discussing with the Scottish Executive, with which he had some sway at that point, the need to ensure that those elections were not held on the same day, with the inevitable, entirely predictable confusion.

Mr. Joyce: I am not sure whether that is the hon. Gentleman’s personal view or the party view. In the past, to his great credit, he has been quick to criticise the Scottish Tories. Perhaps his comments are an implied criticism of the Scottish Tories—he does not always put such criticisms out to the press—but he is equivocating now, as his motion criticises the Government for something to which he agrees the Scottish Tories acceded.

The inquiry under way is a statutory inquiry, which is required by Government and legislation. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, however, the hon. Gentleman seems to want a concurrent inquiry. It would be common sense, however, for a statutory inquiry to take place, finish and give a result, and then to decide whether to have another one. An independent inquiry could be held. We shall see what the result of the initial inquiry is. A number of actions will take place and Members will have views on what those should be. However, it seems to make sense to all of us—except perhaps the Tories—that that should happen after the initial inquiry. It is as simple as that.

The most disappointing aspect of the evening of the elections, however, was not the party political stuff, but the performance of DRS. The evening took on the nature of a sort of mass social science experiment in sleep deprivation. At one moment, at the count in Falkirk, the returning officer said that she was about to announce the results, but then could not do so—she was told that by the DRS staff. It took another hour and a half to get the results. It was clear at that point
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that something was going badly wrong in the DRS processes. I saw on television a chirpy DRS spokesperson saying that everything was going marvellously. There was not a moment of doubt in DRS’s mind, even after the event when it was manifestly clear to everyone in the Chamber, everyone on the ground, and everyone in the hall that it was making a complete hash of it.

Mr. Davidson rose—

Mr. Devine: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Joyce: Of course.

Mr. Devine: We had the first indications of a problem at 2 o’clock in the morning, and we received a promise of an expert from DRS every 20 minutes after that. The count had to be suspended at 5.30 am because no one had arrived and no one could explain the problems.

Mr. Joyce: I shared some of my hon. Friend’s experience. I was disappointed by the fact that DRS could not organise things properly on the night. I was doubly disappointed, however, by its total lack of acceptance and its arrogant response. I was not sure how senior the person put up by DRS was—she might have been a very senior person. It seemed to me, however, that DRS had shoved someone out to take the rap on the evening.

Mr. Davidson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Apparently I could not be seen when I rose earlier—there was a cloud blocking out the sun. Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the National Audit Office should investigate the contract with DRS to see whether it was suitably arrived at and suitably achieved?

Mr. Joyce: That is an interesting suggestion. I do not know what costs were involved—a point already raised by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire—but DRS’s efficiency is certainly an issue. One of the DRS reps in Falkirk said to me, “It’s not our fault. We’ve just got trouble with the IT.” The mind boggles. We often hear that phrase used in public, but on the evening when DRS’s IT was critical, it was a preposterous statement.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): At the count in Ochil in the early hours of 4 May, when the result was expected and generally known, although the majority was very small we waited for up to an hour for some light to change from red to green before the announcement could be officially made. Nothing seemed to happen in that process, other than somewhere, something in some machine was to turn a light from red to green. That would not change the results, but it was necessary before they could be given.

Mr. Joyce: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The whole DRS experience was disappointing. I hope that there is a detailed inquiry to come.

Rosemary McKenna (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there was great disappointment for those of us waiting in Strathkelvin and Bearsden—a huge
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Labour gain? Sue Bruce, the chief executive, made the right decision. She was the first person to suspend the count until the following day. Thus, there was no sleep deprivation in Strathkelvin and Bearsden, just great celebration.

Mr. Joyce: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I cannot remember how huge that victory was, but it was unbelievably massive. When I think of sleep deprivation experience in retrospect as a social experiment, it would probably be best if there were no guns or alcohol the previous evening. With all those people, not necessarily the best of buddies, in the same room, that might have added a bit of juice to the occasion.

In Falkirk, West—the part of my constituency with which I am most concerned, because we lost it—there are some details that worry me greatly. One is that the margin of the Scottish national party victory—about 750 votes—was substantially smaller than the number of votes that were apparently spoiled, about 1,200. I do not call the result into question, but the difference is substantial. For me, the key figure is the difference between the number of votes spoiled last time—about 100—and this time. There is clearly a fundamental problem. I suspect that there is something in the idea that some people deliberately spoiled their votes, as we have heard. A few people may have voted for a minor party in the list and chose not to put a second mark. My experience of standing and looking at the screen suggested that many people had voted Labour but put nothing down the middle. That was probably the case for other parties as well. It seemed to be the general pattern.

From speaking to constituents after the fact, although this is not a scientific sample, I suspect that a good number of the people who did not follow on and put a second cross in the constituency section were older than the average among the voters. In particular parts of my constituency there are high flats occupied primarily by old age pensioners. If there is a pattern, it seems to me that it was those people in particular who had difficulty with the ballot paper.

In conclusion, it is for the inquiry to decide what to examine. As it goes about its business, it is enormously important that it addresses the issues raised by other hon. Members today. When I think about the way that the evening was conducted, my primary concern was the efficiency, or lack of it, of DRS, which sadly underperformed on the evening.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I advise hon. Members that there is very little time left for this debate. Would Members therefore please be concise in their remarks and address them to the motion or the amendment before the House?

3.14 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I shall be brief because, as an Englishman, I feel that I am intruding on private grief, but as a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, I feel that I am entitled to express a view.

Growing up in Britain, I was always proud that our democratic system was a benchmark of success that nations across the world wanted to replicate. Election monitors from this country used to travel to the third world and emerging democracies to make sure that
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their elections were above board and honest. I imagine that Ron Gould, who I believe is an excellent chap, was expecting to spend more time in Zimbabwe in the coming months than in Scotland, so when he got the phone call he must have been a little surprised, but willing to take on the challenge none the less.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): On a point of information, may I point out to the hon. Gentleman that Westminster is not running Zimbabwe’s elections, although it did run Scotland’s elections.

Mr. Walker: About six years ago, many in this place mocked the electoral system in the United States of America, especially the hanging chads, on which history was changed. One moment there was a Democrat President, and the next moment there was a Republican President, who is still in office, though fortunately only for another couple of years. We in the Chamber thought that it could never happen in the United Kingdom, yet in Scotland history may well have been changed by the appalling electoral system that was foisted on the people of Scotland.

It is possible, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) pointed out, that we might have had a Labour First Minister if the votes cast had been properly counted or had counted. But no, they were not counted, and we have a new first Minister from the Scottish National party. If Scotland becomes an independent nation in a few years, as the SNP wants, historians in 100 years time may say that what changed Scotland was a failed electoral system devised by the nations that gave the world democracy. It seems bizarre, but it could happen.

What is so depressing about what happened in Scotland is that it further disfranchises a cynical electorate. We in the House are desperate to push up turnover—sorry, turnout. We have cajoled and persuaded people that it is their democratic duty to vote—so when people vote, perhaps for the first time, it is not unreasonable for them to expect their vote to count. Unfortunately, in this case it did not.

Gordon Banks: Should there not be a simple and easy method of voting? That is the point that I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to make.

Mr. Walker: I agree. I have served with the hon. Gentleman on the Scottish Affairs Committee and he always makes useful contributions.

It is not unreasonable to expect people to walk a few hundred yards to a polling station once a year or once every other year. Democracy needs to be treasured and valued. In the pursuit of increasing turnout, we can sometimes devalue the system of democracy. I therefore have concerns about postal voting and its wide availability. England has had problems in Birmingham, with ghost voters appearing on electoral rolls. We must be very careful that we restore confidence in the democratic and electoral system, not only in Scotland but in England.

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Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman share my belief that one of the most valuable aspects of the traditional way of counting votes in Britain is the emphasis on transparency and checks and balances? Does he agree that the refusal to recount in two of the constituencies in Scotland is perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of that election? For all involved in the political process and for all political parties, we must ensure that we enshrine those checks and balances and transparency in the future.

Mr. Walker: The hon. Lady makes a hugely important point.

Speaking as someone who has a great love of the country, let me say that Scotland did not need what happened earlier this month. It neither needed it nor deserved it. What happened was an embarrassment, of which we should all be ashamed.

I conclude by agreeing that elections are very special things that need to be treasured. I remember my first election and I am sure that every hon. Member remembers theirs and the excitement of seeing the ballot papers counted and of watching the scrutineers do their work. Participating in the democratic process is hugely important, but, as I say, it was hugely damaged three weeks ago. We must not allow it to happen again.

3.20 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I welcome Mr. Gould’s appointment. I do not rule out the need for further inquiries, but it would be premature to define the exact nature and extent of any such inquiries until we have had at least an initial examination by a person with international experience of voting systems.

I would argue that the problems experienced over the past few weeks are largely the result of the failure—largely a collective failure—to put the views of the voter first. The voters were distinctly secondary in determining the new voting systems in the first place, and they appeared only on the periphery of the many discussions, meetings, debates and commissions that were held over the past two years.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) raised an important point. Despite the calls to improve voter turnout, the worst figure of all was the turnout of below 52 per cent. If we take away the rejected votes, it was below 50 per cent., despite the fact that this was viewed as the closest-run Holyrood election since the Scottish Parliament was constituted. Let us today kill the myth that changing the voting system improves voter turnout.

If we analyse the groups that did not vote, the largest sections are young voters and those from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds. Yet for the latter group, rather than encouraging more to vote, we created a system that disfranchised them even more. It is no surprise that the largest number of spoilt papers were in the areas of the highest socio-economic deprivation—more than 2,000 in both Glasgow, Pollok and Glasgow, Shettleston.

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