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23 Oct 2007 : Column 165

Scottish Elections 2007

3.34 pm

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): I would like to welcome the publication of the Electoral Commission report into the conduct of the May 2007 elections. Earlier today, Mr. Gould, the head of the commission’s independent review team, launched the report at a press conference in Edinburgh. The House will appreciate that I am not in a position at present to give a definitive response to all the recommendations or options that touch on the Secretary of State for Scotland’s responsibilities for the elections to the Scottish Parliament. As is standard with these reports, I will of course respond formally in writing in due course.

In May, my predecessor, the Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), made a commitment that the Government would update this House in the light of the publication of Mr. Gould’s report. In making this statement today, I am honouring that commitment.

In the main, I believe that the report is a valuable contribution to the analysis of what went wrong in administrative terms in the period leading up to and including the night of count for the May elections. I do not agree with every aspect of Mr. Gould’s analysis and I shall explain that in more detail shortly. But my one main message for the House today is that it is my principal objective to ensure that, in the interests of the voter, we will never again face the problems we saw on 3 May.

Mr. Gould’s report offers several recommendations about how to achieve that objective. Importantly, he recommends that elections to the Scottish Parliament and to local government in Scotland be decoupled and no longer held on the same day, and it is my understanding that the Scottish Executive had signalled at an earlier stage their intention to look seriously at that.

A positive decision on decoupling would, I think, be welcome, but none the less I am here today to tell the House that I can accept a number of the core recommendations in the report. First, Mr. Gould recommends that electronic counting should in future be restricted to local government elections, and I am happy to accept today that electronic counting will not be required for separate Scottish parliamentary polls. Secondly, on ballot paper design, Mr. Gould proposes that we should revert to two separate ballot papers: one for the regional vote and one for the constituency. Although I may not agree with all Mr. Gould’s reasoning in reaching that recommendation, I see advantage in reverting to the two-page arrangements for future Scottish parliamentary polls and so I accept that recommendation. Thirdly, the report proposes a longer period between close of nominations and polling day, and I am minded to accept that proposal. Fourthly, Mr. Gould has emphasised the importance of consolidating the relevant legislation governing the administration of elections. I am minded to accept that recommendation as it relates to elections to the Scottish Parliament. Fifthly, Mr. Gould has proposed that electoral legislation is not applied to any election held within six months of a new provision
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coming into force. Provided suitable safeguards can be found, as Mr. Gould’s report encourages, I am prepared to accept that recommendation for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Gould has also brought forward a very substantive option, designed in his view to tackle the fragmented nature of responsibility for all the elements that go into the conduct of elections. The creation of a chief returning officer with statutory powers would be a significant alteration of our present structures. I have an open mind on that, but would wish to see a wide-ranging debate among all interested parties about the implications of our moving to such a radically different structure of accountability.

The topic of the overnight count is clearly an issue of concern to Mr. Gould. He recognises that there are advantages and disadvantages to overnight counting, but concludes by recommending that, if polls continue to close at 10 pm, there should be no overnight count of the ballot papers. To abandon completely overnight counting for parliamentary elections would represent a major departure from well-established precedent. I am not convinced that such a change would necessarily have any great benefit for voters, but I am willing to hear the voices of those with a different view.

Mr. Gould devotes some time in his report to what he calls

He refers to that practice as “sloganisation” of party names and recommends that legislation be amended to

We will consider that recommendation alongside the others to which I have already referred.

I wish to offer a preliminary comment on the recommendation about assigning responsibility for both elections to one jurisdictional entity. Mr. Gould concludes that the “Scottish Government” would be the best logical institution. I have to say that at present I am not persuaded that Mr. Gould’s analysis of that point necessarily supports his conclusion. What we are surely looking for is improved planning and preparation for what in future will be two quite distinct sets of elections. The decoupling of parliamentary and local government elections should create clarity in terms of responsibility and accountability. That said, Mr. Gould’s recommendation is simply that preliminary discussions should take place, and I am willing to give that serious consideration. There are clearly lessons to be learned and changes to be made, but I do agree with Mr. Gould when he says on the final page of his report that

Mr. Gould sets out the range of interconnected interests that are essential to getting right the various elements in the election process, but he has concluded that the fragmented nature of that planning process was itself a cause for flawed decisions. I acknowledge the Scotland Office’s role in the overall process and can say now that we have lessons to learn from the systemic failures that occurred. The changes that I have
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announced today are the beginning of the process of correcting those failures and rebuilding trust in the electoral process.

There have been different interpretations of what Mr. Gould means in his report by the phrase “partisan political self-interest”. We now have the benefit of Mr. Gould's additional comments at his press conference today, where he confirmed that

Mr. Gould’s clarification reinforces my own reading of the report. For example, at several points—specifically, on pages 17, 18, 26, 48, 107 and 113—Mr. Gould advances the argument that too much of the detail prescribing the administration of the Scottish elections was set out in legislation, and was therefore the subject of excessive debate and prolonged discussion among politicians. In his view, much of that detail should be left to electoral administrators to decide, in order to reduce the role that “political interests” play in setting the administrative framework.

The design of the Scottish parliamentary ballot paper was one example raised by Mr. Gould. The approach taken by the Scotland Office was to consult fully on the idea of a combined paper, including with the political parties, the Electoral Commission, returning officers and accessibility groups. Subsequently, and following further statutory consultation with the Electoral Commission, the order that included the ballot paper was debated and approved by Parliament. If that consultation was too inward looking and not focused firmly enough on the voter, as Mr. Gould suggests, I apologise and commit to learning the lessons for the future.

The changes announced today, and those that I have committed to consider further, should give Scottish voters confidence that the experience of 3 May will not be repeated. Specifically, the commitment to use two separate ballot papers for the Scottish parliamentary poll and the removal of the need to use electronic counting outside the Scottish local elections will make elections in Scotland simpler and ensure that future polls are not defined by administrative problems.

I have decided, as part of the necessary action in respect of recommendations affecting my responsibilities, to respond positively to an approach from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee to consider the report and let me have its views. I am grateful to the Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), for his proactive approach.

In addition, I wish there to be further parliamentary debate in this House and will initiate wider discussion with ministerial colleagues and with the wide range of interests involved in electoral matters. That would include the Electoral Commission and Mr. Gould and his team, if possible. I believe that those are important steps to take before we finalise views to be set out in our final written response to the report.

I commend Mr Gould’s report to this House and look forward to more extended debate on its findings in due course.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for the advance copy that he let me
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have. Although the inquiry was not held according to the terms that we sought, Mr. Gould is a leading world expert on the organisation and management of elections, and is a person of impeccable independence and expertise.

The Secretary of State’s apparent suggestion that everybody is to blame, and that therefore no one is to blame, simply will not do. It is time for the Scotland Office to take responsibility for failing the people of Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman is also the Secretary of State for Defence, and today he has been forced to come to the House to defend his predecessor, who is, disappointingly but perhaps not surprisingly, absent. However, the right hon. Gentleman has scant chance of success, because there can be no defence to the conclusion of an independent reviewer, who says that both the Scotland Office—the Scotland Office, Mr Speaker—and the Scottish Executive were frequently focused on partisan political interests in carrying out their responsibilities, overlooking voter interests and operational realities. Furthermore, what was characteristic of 2007 was a notable level of party self-interest evident in ministerial decision making.

Does the Secretary of State agree that such behaviour is tantamount to attempting gerrymandering in the worst traditions of Tammany hall politics, and that it demonstrates complete contempt for the democratic process, laying bare the inner workings of the Labour establishment for all to see? Is not the position rendered even worse by the fact that the former Secretary of State was also Labour’s Scottish election co-ordinator?

The Secretary of State knows that when candidates and agents break the rules for their advantage they go to prison. What sanction does he propose for Ministers who seek to make rules for their partisan advantage? If the Government cannot be trusted with the basic democratic duty to run elections fairly and without political interference, what can they be trusted to do?

On 23 May, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South promised to apologise if the review found fault with the actions and decisions of the Scotland Office. The review has revealed not only partisan decision making but serial incompetence: Ministers unable to pass legislation in time, unable to take decisions in time and unable to communicate with their counterparts in Scotland; decisions taken against all advice and two different elections with two different voting systems on the same day, with votes to be counted electronically through the night. The fact that the election was not an even worse shambles is due to the work of returning officers and their officials, who should never have been treated in such a cavalier manner.

The current Secretary of State has said that he is not in a position to give a definitive response to the report, but what is required is for his predecessor to give the apology that he promised, and the definitive response the House requires. In the light of that response, we shall judge whether his predecessor is fit to continue in public office. However, what is absolutely clear from this damning report is that in future no one should ever again hold ministerial responsibility for elections simultaneously with responsibility for the conduct of their party’s campaign, and the Minister should immediately be stripped of those responsibilities in the Labour party.

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Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising the appropriate qualifications that Mr Gould brought to the job. Nobody reading the report can say that it is not robust and challenging; it has 120 pages. However, it is perfectly clear from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution from the Dispatch Box that he has not had the opportunity to read them all yet— [ Interruption. ]or to absorb them all.

I caution the hon. Gentleman about quoting discrete parts of the report out of context, even though I am about to do just that to give the House an example of the danger of doing so—he may want to take particular note. I shall quote one sentence, from page 120:

The hon. Gentleman’s party falls within the definition “all the other stakeholders”— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Secretary of State speak.

Des Browne: The Conservative party’s response makes my point. If you are going to comment on the report—[Hon. Members: “We.”] If one is going to comment on the report, one should at least take the time and trouble to read all of it. Moreover, it would help if hon. Members had listened to Ron Gould when he introduced the report and was asked the very questions that lie behind the observations. In response to a particular question, he said:

He was asked about gerrymandering and said:

It behoves us all as the political classes— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope, Mr. Swayne, that you will not spend the time on the statement just shouting across the Chamber. That is unlike you. You are not that type of person.

Des Browne: Despite the endeavours of the hon. Gentleman and no doubt others, I am focusing on making sure that what happened will not happen again. The response that I have given today will, I think, ensure that it will never happen again, because I anticipate that the Scottish Parliament will exercise its power to decouple the elections. However, it chose not to exercise that power before these elections; it kept them together.

To return to the report, Mr. Gould made clear what the phrase that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) relies on so heavily actually means. Mr. Gould had the opportunity to single out individuals, but he does not call for anyone to resign. He says that no was being singled out for blame. These were complex issues. People acted in good faith and we have to move forward.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that this country has the fine tradition of announcing election results as soon as possible? Will he assure me that he will maintain this tradition?

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Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the statement of Alex Salmond, the First Minister, was intentionally misleading when it appeared on the ballot papers in relation to the regional list? Will my right hon. Friend take up the recommendation from Ron Gould that the party name should appear on the ballot paper in future elections?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend chairs the Scottish Affairs Committee and has suggested that the Committee consider the report in the detail that its complexity requires. He raises two important points, both of which I dealt with in the statement. I agree that overnight counts are a long-standing part of our democratic and political process. There is an expectation among the electorate that they will have the results of parliamentary elections immediately after the polls close. That necessitates overnight counts and I do not think that it is any more difficult for machines to count votes overnight than it is for them to count them during the day. It might be more difficult for people to do that, but my experience of elections is that overnight manual counts have been very successful for decades.

I am prepared to consider my hon. Friend’s point on that issue, as I am prepared to consider the recommendations about the designation of parties. However, there will need to be consultation and consideration on the nature of the recommendations.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I also thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Ron Gould is to be congratulated on the report. It is a thorough and authoritative analysis of what happened in May and he has clearly defied those who said that he would not be able to produce such an independent piece of work.

I regret to say, however, that the Secretary of State’s statement today raised almost as many questions as it answered. He is right: all parties had a role to play in this process. Only one party, however, took decisions—his party and that is a fact from which there is no hiding.

The role of the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), requires close examination. Essentially, the Secretary of State has come to the House today to say that a wee boy done it and ran away, which really is not good enough. It has been observed that the Scotland Office does not have much to do. In fact, the organisation of elections is the only executive function that it retains. The Gould report is a detailed and damning critique of the Department’s failings. Today, it seems that another Department has been added to the list of those that are not fit for purpose. It is regrettable that the Secretary of State is not prepared to acknowledge today that the logical and sensible next move would be to give the Scottish Parliament control over its own elections. The Secretary of State says that he is yet to be persuaded of that, but he does not offer any reason why the law should continue to defy logic in such a way.

The report is about more than administrative failings in the electoral process; it is about the politics that led up to that process. The Secretary of State has already referred to Mr. Gould’s comments, and expanded on Mr. Gould’s reference to “partisan political interests”,
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but the House should be aware of the whole paragraph in which that phrase is used. It speaks of Ministers who

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