|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
My third point is about the issue of bias on the forms. There was clearly an alphabetical bias and the local government results bear that out. The nationalists are not guilty of breaking the rules, but it was sharp practice to put Alex Salmond at the head of the list.
That obviously had an effect. I would like to see that investigated and possible remedies applied in future. We should also examine the extent to which it was made more difficult for people who clearly intended to vote for candidates of a single party to do so because the candidates were not grouped. It would have been sensible to have candidates of the same party grouped together, and that should be investigated. Similarly, my understanding is that if voters who sought to vote for candidates of the same party put three Xs, all the votes were ruled out. It should be possible to devise a system in which the last remaining voteafter the other candidates had been elected or eliminatedcould be given to the candidate.
My final point is about the refusal of recounts, which is outrageous, capricious and done at the whim of the returning office in some locations. I have heard it said that many votes for Labour in Glasgow were wasted because they were cast on the second ballot. If only the Co-operative party had stood, many people would not have been disfranchised.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): It has been a good debate, which has been welcomed on both sides of the House as an opportunity to raise serious concerns. On both sides of the House, there is a recognition that there needs to be a proper inquiry into what went on. Some 146,097 votes were lost. The Secretary of State admits that he does not know how many people that represents, but one thing is for sureit could represent that very number. The Secretary of State, however, is not able to tell us.
The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) described the election as having been conducted more badly than the Congos, and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) talked about the hanging chads situation in America; those comments show how badly wrong the Scottish election went. Although I fully understand that the Secretary of State wants to wait for his inquiry, the fact is that when 146,000 votes go missing, there should be an apology from those responsible.
The elections involved two separate voting systems, so they were always going to be difficult. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffatt) made that point, as did others; I do not think that she is too keen on the single transferable vote system. Whatever ones perspective, there is no doubt that, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) said, it was never going to be easy for electors to deal with two different kinds of electoral process on the same day. Whatever one says about the Electoral Commission, it was given a difficult task in the run-up to the elections.
The Government and the Scottish Executive were warned. The Arbuthnott commission made the clear recommendation that the elections should be decoupled because of the complexity, confusion and risk of invalid votes. It took the Government months to respond to that report. When we consider the warnings given by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) in a Westminster Hall debate and in his Bill as an MSP in Edinburgh, we see that the problems did not happen by accident. When he was an MSP, my hon. Friend put forward a Bill in the Scottish Parliament that called for decoupling, and the Conservatives have been saying the same thing throughout [Interruption.] I am talking about the Scottish Parliament, which this Government set upthat very place. I am sure that the Secretary of State has come across it at some time in Scotland.
Mr. Heald: I have [Laughter.] It is very interesting. The Liberal Democrats, the other guilty party that went along with it all, may be laughing now, but the people of Scotland will not be laughing about the fact that their electoral system was dealt with in such a way.
I turn now to other issues. The election does not seem to have been conducted well as far as postal votes are concerned; people got them very late or not at all. The Government have form on the issue: in Birmingham, postal votes were the cause of the Mawrey inquiry, which alleged that there was less protection in Britain than in a banana republic. The hon. Member for Falkirk raised what happened with DRS. What would his comment be as he looked back at that happy day in June 2006, when DRS claimed that it would provide
the complete solution to delivering a system that can confidently manage the most complex of elections?
Professor John Curtis of Strathclyde university reported that huge numbers cast two votes in one column and none in the other, rendering both votes void. The ballot paper said that people had two votes; that is how the confusion may have been caused. That concern has been expressed in this debate. The Secretary of State comes up with lawyers arguments to say that the fact that 146,000 votes have been lost is inconsequential and is not a serious matter because what John Curtis says would reduce the number to 80,000.
Mr. Douglas Alexander: The hon. Gentleman quoted Professor Curtis of Strathclyde university. Does he accept that the quotation he read out contradicts the assertion he made to the House earlier that 146,000 people were denied their vote? It is either Professor Curtis or the hon. Gentlemanwhich?
Mr. Heald: That is exactly the dancing on a pinhead[Hon. Members: Oh no.] Oh yes. The people of Scotland will read those lawyerly argumentsthe advocates argumentand realise that the Secretary of State should be apologising to the House, not trying to get round our powerful arguments.
We want an independent inquiry. Although the Electoral Commission was given a hard task to
perform and although it brought in an eminent person, the fact remains that one of the bodiesor stakeholdersaccused of not having performed effectively and properly should not be conducting the inquiry into their own activities. That is absolutely the first base.
Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman says that the shambles was the result of the actions of the Scottish Executive, the Scotland Office and the Electoral Commission. In those circumstances, who can institute an inquiry?
Mr. Heald: It is not a problem at all [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fatuous point. The fact is that the inquiry is being conducted by the Electoral Commission, which is one of the groups that has been criticised. We say that the inquiry should be fully independent, with its own separate organisation. We do such things all the time in this country.
Mr. Heald: I have given way far too often for the silliest of points and I do not intend to do so again. [Hon. Members: Go on.] I have only about half a second leftand we all know whose fault that was.
I am glad that SNP Members say there should be an independent inquiry. If they read our motion they will see that it suggests that the Scottish Executive should co-operate with the Government, so they will realise that we are not saying that the Executive should be ruled out. We think the Executive and the Government should co-operate to set up a genuinely independent inquiry, not one run by one of the parties that has been criticised.
to instigate such an inquiry?
working in conjunction with the Scottish Executive
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): I had written, This has been a serious and thoughtful debateperhaps I should now say it had been serious and thoughtfulas befits a serious and important issue. The Scottish people are looking for answers as to why difficulties were experienced by many voters at the recent elections. They want reassurances that those difficulties will not recur.
The debate has highlighted the fact that no major issues of principle divide us. We all agree that the events of 3 May need to be examined. We all agree that answers must be forthcoming and we all agree that lessons must be learned for the future. What distinguishes us is not whether those issues should be investigated but rather the manner and sequence of the reviews.
As many Members pointed out during the debate, the statutory review is already under way. The House established the Electoral Commission and specifically tasked it with the duty that it cannot set aside, and which cannot be set aside other than by fresh legislation, of conducting reviews into elections in the UK. Having given the commission that task, it is sensible to let it carry out the statutory review before deciding what further reviews or steps may be necessary.
Some have raised the objectionit was repeated again this afternoonthat the Electoral Commission cannot be independent in examining a process in which it had a role to play. Indeed, the Oppositions motion calls either for a duplicate, simultaneous inquiry or for the Electoral Commission to set aside its statutory duty to carry out its review.
Parliament has laid on the Electoral Commission two specific sets of responsibilities: one is to assist in the electoral process and advise returning officers, and the other is to report on elections. When the Electoral Commission makes a report and it has itself been involved in the matter in an operational role, it is always its practice to appoint an outside expert to advise on that so that its own role can...be scrutinised.[ Official Report, 21 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 973.]
However, recognising the degree of public concern that has been expressed, the Electoral Commission has gone further than the appointment of an adviser; it has appointed an outside expert to lead the review.
Mr. Gould played no part in the Scottish elections, nor did the Electoral Commission staff who will support him. He has issued comprehensive terms of reference. When the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) was asked whether those terms of reference could be added to, he simply could not answer. The common-sense course is surely to let Mr. Gould complete his review so that, in the light of the findings, decisions can be taken about whatever next steps may be necessary or appropriate.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reminded the House, since 3 May there have been a plethora of calls for all manner of different types of inquiry, including a full judicial inquiry and a commission led by an international political figure such as former President Robinson. Todays Conservative motion asks for an inquiry of an unspecified nature under the joint auspices of the Government and the Scottish Executive. As my right hon. Friend made clear, we are not ruling out further inquiries, but we question the wisdom of setting up a series of simultaneous inquiries to duplicate the work of the statutory inquiry that is already under
way. That is why our amendment refers to waiting until the conclusions of Mr. Goulds review are receivedthat is expected to happen in a little over 12 weeksbefore deciding on the next step.
In the couple of moments that I have left, I want to address some of the issues that have been mentioned during the debate. The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale twittered on about the demands of natural justice, completing ignoring the fact that his motion allocates responsibility, demands an apology and then at the end asks for an investigation to gather the evidence. The demands of natural justice, about which he waxed eloquent, seem to demand that those things should happen in precisely the opposite order.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned decoupling the electionsan issue that was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). Sir John Arbuthnott, in particular, has been prayed in aid as somebody who made that recommendation. Let me read into the record Sir John Arbuthnotts recommendation. He said:
We therefore invite the Scottish Executive to consider the postponement of the 2007 local government elections.
His specific recommendation was not to this House. [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire thinks that that is a lawyers point, let me read him what the hon. Member for Gosport said:
the commission recommended that the parliamentary and local elections should not be held on the same day. The decision that they should be held on the same day was taken by the Scottish Executive. [ Official Report, 21 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 975.]
An entirely legitimate series of issues have been mentionedfrom the design of the ballot paper to the performance of DRS, e-counting in general and postal voting. All those issues fall within the terms of reference of the inquiry to be led by Mr. Gould.
No one has raised a single issue on the Floor of the House that will not be covered by the statutory inquiry that is already under way. The inquiry will examine all the possible factors behind the difficulties experienced at the elections that have been identified. Ministers and officials will co-operate with the inquiry and the report is expected in a little over 12 weeks. That is why the Governments amendment simply asks the House to await the outcome of the statutory review so that its recommendations can inform decisions on whatever next steps might be necessary. The Conservative motion calls for another inquiry that would run simultaneously with the statutory review and duplicate its efforts, but that does not seem to be an especially productive thing to do, which is why I ask the House to support the amendment.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|