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It is clear from that paragraph that the process within the Scotland Office was removed from the normal Government process. Some personal explanation by the Secretary of State’s predecessor is therefore required.

The Secretary of State will be judged on how he responds to the report, and on whether he ensures, in the interests of the voter, that we will never again face the problems that we faced on 3 May, but the matter does not end there. The conclusion that I draw from the report is that the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South was responsible for a crisis that brought into question the fundamental integrity of our electoral process. It is wrong that he should evade responsibility simply by virtue of taking on a new job in Government. A villain who has left the scene of his crime is still a villain. He must explain his actions to the House, and if no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming, the Prime Minister should remove him from Government.

Des Browne: I refute entirely the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Scotland, now Secretary of State for International Development, in any way acted according to party interest in making the decision. I accept that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) quotes the report correctly. He does not misrepresent the report, but there is not a jot of evidence in it that supports that assertion. The issue of party interest therefore requires further explanation, and I suspect that that is why the media explored the issue with Mr. Gould this morning, when he introduced the report. I have quoted the explanation that Mr. Gould gave, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows exactly what that explanation was. I cannot go beyond that. If people want to understand what the phrase means, they have to look at it in the context of the whole report, the constant references to the issues throughout the report, and indeed Mr. Gould’s explanation.

Let me deal with the issue of the recommendation on who should have sole responsibility for the elections. The issue is covered in one paragraph on page 111 of the report, which says:

That is in the context of combined elections.

There is no question but that that is exactly what it means. The report goes on to make the recommendation that there should be exploratory discussions

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If the elections are to be decoupled, those circumstances will change. I am happy to have those discussions, but we should recognise that if other recommendations of the report are accepted, they will change the environment. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing for it, he must argue from the evidence in the report, which is small, easily accessible and able to be understood.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh Scottish parliamentary constituency had the highest number of spoiled constituency ballot papers? I thank him for his constructive response to the workmanlike report from Ron Gould. Will he confirm that not only that report but the Arbuthnott report recommended that the elections to local authorities in Scotland and to the Scottish Parliament should be held separately, so the Scottish Executive certainly needs to give that careful consideration? Finally, may I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out that for the Scottish Parliament we do not need electronic counting of the ballots?

Des Browne: I welcome my right hon. Friend’s contribution, and I can answer yes to all the questions that he poses. I was aware of the comparatively high number of spoiled ballot papers in the constituency that he identifies. No individual constituency is investigated in the Gould report, because the authors of the report determined that the parameters within which they would be working would not explore the outcome or validity of the election. I suspect that that is why they avoided the detailed consideration of any individual constituency. However, their interpretation of the reasons why there were so many spoiled ballot papers essentially comes down to the fact that the two ballots were combined on the one piece of paper, and confused the electorate.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Just where is the Secretary of State’s predecessor this afternoon? Why is he not at the Dispatch Box, apologising? How can he continue to be the Secretary of State for International Development, going round the third world lecturing on parliamentary democracy, when he has been caught with his hand in the till?

Des Browne: I entirely refute the claim that my right hon. Friend has been caught with his hand in the till. That is not what happened. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should read the whole report. There is, for example, a suggestion that parties’ self-interest was served by holding a count overnight. How can that possibly be to the advantage of any individual party? It is perfectly clear that it was considered to be to the advantage of party politics, as opposed to the advantage of any party. I defy any hon. Member to explain how a count overnight could be in the interests of any individual party.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) asked where my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is. The answer is that he is making his way back from the United States of America, where he was attending a meeting of the
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World Bank, delivering a policy which all of us would wish him to continue to deliver, with the expertise that he has shown.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): In the local government elections, most of the spoiled votes were due to people marking their ballot paper with crosses instead of 1, 2 and 3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there was nowhere near enough advance publicity regarding this vital change to the electoral process? Will he ensure that that does not happen in the future? Will he also reconsider his position in relation to electronic counting machines, and ensure that they, and DRS, never again play any part in any election?

Des Browne: There is a recommendation about education—and if the elections are decoupled, as we anticipate that they will be, it will be much easier to educate the electorate about an individual election in future. That is the responsibility of the devolved Administration. It will have to decide how that goes forward, and who, if anyone, it will contract with for electronic counting of ballot papers—if it agrees that that is necessary. For my part, I think that the decoupling of the elections of itself, and the recommendations of the report, makes it clear that there will be no necessity for electronic counting in elections, either for this Parliament or for the Scottish Parliament.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and welcome the work of Ron Gould and his colleagues. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I particularly welcome the sensible suggestion that in future the management of the Scottish elections should be the Scottish Government’s responsibility.

I hope that everybody in all parties agrees that the integrity and impartiality of the management of elections has to be uppermost among our responsibilities. In the case that we are discussing, that responsibility lay with the then Secretary of State for Scotland, who is not here, and the present-day Minister of State at the Scotland Office. We learn from the report—this is the crunch point in the exercise of ministerial office—that Labour Ministers

That is a scandal in a western European democracy. The charges are extremely serious—when will Ministers take responsibility and do the honourable thing by resigning?

Des Browne: I have already dealt with that issue. I repeat that I entirely refute the idea that my right hon. Friend or my hon. Friend acted as the hon. Gentleman describes. I pray in aid the whole report, and the explanation that Ron Gould himself gave to questions; I cannot answer for him, but I can refer to the answers that he gave. He takes the feet from the interpretation on which the hon. Gentleman relies. Given the constraints and circumstances of this opportunity in the House, it might behove the hon. Gentleman better to have accepted the obvious criticism, explicitly made, of how his party behaved in the elections; that might have given his position more credibility than it has.

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John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): As one who was on the ground that day, I should say that we all let our constituents down, because there was a need for a more professional and better-informed public information campaign. That focuses on the work of the Electoral Commission; that issue has to be addressed, as well as the professionalism of returning officers. Whoever is First Minister—Alex Salmond or Donald Duck—clarity has to be brought to the list system, so that such situations do not happen again. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that the consultation process will be speedy, so that any recommendations that he accepts will be brought in well before the next election? The system could then be tried and tested, and our constituents will not suffer in the same way again.

Des Browne: I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that he and the voters of Scotland expect—that this will not happen again. The report makes key recommendations; I expect that the Scottish Executive will act on at least one, and I will act on the others. The combined effect of the acceptance of those recommendations will ensure that such things do not happen again.

Other issues have been explored, of course. They may not have been directly responsible for what happened on 3 May, but the investigation has revealed a number of things that could be considerably improved. I have listed them, I accept that we will take them forward for discussion, and I have committed to doing some of them.

I do not speak for the Electoral Commission, but I understand that it has made it clear that it will learn lessons, which I am sure will relate to voter identification. We will have to deal with the issue of clarity of party identification, given the report’s analysis of its effect. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the report has criticisms of all those involved in the political process; frankly, a mature approach requires all parties to accept that.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Some of us in this House believe that the position of Secretary of State for Scotland is an important, honourable and ancient one. Is not this debacle—this tragedy for democracy—evidence that the Prime Minister, and the previous Prime Minister, has shown little regard for the people of Scotland? Indeed, it is an insult to the people of Scotland that the position of Secretary of State for Scotland should be tagged on to the position of another Secretary of State within the Cabinet. However capable the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessor, who is now Secretary of State for International Development, might personally be, it is obvious from the debacle that we see before us that one person cannot carry out both of those onerous duties. Will the right hon. Gentleman take the message to the Prime Minister that this House believes that not having a full-time Secretary of State for Scotland is an insult to the people of Scotland?

Des Browne: The hon. Lady brings a degree of personal knowledge of such conflicts to the question, as at one stage she was shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, although at the time she represented an
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English constituency, which she still does—[Hon. Members: “We are all British.”] I understand that. [ Interruption. ] If Opposition Front Benchers could just contain themselves, I am making the very point that they are making a noise about, which is that many of us in this House have been called on at different times in our political careers to be able, in nominal terms, to do different things. It is the ability to be able to deliver that is the test. I do not accept the hon. Lady’s point, but I do accept that we all have an interest in ensuring that the very positive recommendations of the report should be taken forward as quickly as possible.

While I am on my feet, I remind the Liberal Democrats that they, too, were in government in Scotland, and had responsibilities when these decisions were made; they were part of the decision-making processes that combined to create what people have called a perfect storm.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Many of my constituents felt extremely short-changed by the whole election process, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s recognition of that on behalf of the Scotland Office. I look forward to similar apologies from all the other parties concerned in due course.

Will the Secretary of State look into the role of returning officers? He may be aware that they receive substantial payments in addition to their roles mainly as chief executives of councils in Scotland, although officers at a lower grade often do the actual work. Will he consider whether there is a better way of organising things, rather than through the current returning officer system?

Des Browne: When Members who have not read the report in full—they appear to be here in substantial numbers—get a chance to do so, they will find the part about the professionalisation of returning officers, where some important recommendations are made. I think that those of us who have experience of having to deal with returning officers in the context of elections would welcome some of the professionalisation that is suggested. This is properly a matter for my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers at the Ministry of Justice. I will ask them to examine the matter carefully to see whether we can take forward these recommendations to meet the objective that Ron Gould sets out.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): A sensible silk would start his plea in mitigation with an apology, but we have not had a scintilla of a shadow of a suggestion of an apology from the Secretary of State. Is that simply because he believes that there is absolutely nothing in the report for him and other Ministers to apologise for?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is wrong on two counts. I am not a senior counsel, so I am not a silk. And secondly, I did apologise. When he reads the official record, he will see that I used the word “apologise”.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Although there is much to be commended in the report’s conclusions, one area is not highlighted as I would want it be—the part about the different forms of
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election. There are four different systems in operation, and surely it is time to return to one: first past the post. Secondly, in connection with an earlier point made by my right hon. Friend, may I say that electronic counting is the worst way to count votes? That was the worst experience I have had at a count; I could see absolutely nothing taking place that made any sense. As a consequence, we have what I describe as a democratic deficit, which must be addressed.

Des Browne: In my statement in response to the report, I made it clear that we do not anticipate using electronic counting again in parliamentary elections for which we have responsibility. The decision to have a different system of voting in local government elections was one made, quite rightly, by the Scottish Parliament in the exercise of its devolved powers. As I am a supporter of devolution, I support its right to make that decision. It behoves all of us to accept the reality as far as voters in Scotland are concerned, and to ensure that we conduct elections in a way that takes account of the confusion that might be generated. We should also use existing agencies to ensure that voters are educated so that they understand the systems and what the active exercise of their vote means, however they do it. If people understand that, they will use their votes appropriately.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): The Secretary of State indicated that on the back of this report he will have a period of reflection and consultation. Does he intend to use that opportunity to reflect and consult on the operation of the postal ballot system? In 25 years’ experience locally, I have never known an election at any level where I have heard from so many people who felt effectively disfranchised because of the vagaries and shortcomings in the operation of the postal ballot. People are being excluded, not least in a vast area such as the highlands and islands, where family or work commitments can change at comparatively short notice. Will he include that important issue in the forthcoming consultation process?

Des Browne: I can immediately contrast the right hon. Gentleman’s constructive contribution with that of his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who for a moment forgot that the phrase “Scottish Executive Ministers” in the report refers to Liberal Democrat Ministers as well as Labour Ministers.

Mr. Kennedy: That is because I am beyond ambition.

Des Browne: When someone has achieved at least some of their ambitions, as the right hon. Gentleman has, they can retire from ambition—but perhaps the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is not in that position yet.

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. There is an interesting chapter in the report about postal votes, which collects evidence of experiences that a number of us have seen acted out in our constituencies, in this election and others. If I have understood the report correctly, the principal cause of the problem with postal votes in the 3 May election was the combination of the ballot papers and the bulk of
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paper to be handled, how it came out of the post and whether it could be scanned into the electronic system. I do not think that those circumstances will be repeated. They certainly will not while I have responsibility for elections to the Scottish Parliament, so they are unlikely to happen again. There are, however, other recommendations and advice for returning officers that should be studied carefully. Those fit into the category of recommendations that I think it better to refer to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Justice. If there are proper lessons to learn, they are not just for Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Given the smooth running of elections to this House, when the Secretary of State makes his final report, will he find room for a section that draws the main lessons from the events that we are considering and addresses them to those who wish to change elections to the UK Parliament, especially those who advocate a combination of constituency and list systems?

Des Browne rose—

Hon. Members: Just say yes.

Des Browne: I am tempted just to say yes—but I do not want this to move from a statement on the Gould report on the conduct of the elections to a debate about electoral systems. However, personally, I think that there is much in what my right hon. Friend says.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): To save the Secretary of State from pointing it out, I start by saying that I am English and I represent an English constituency. For years I was proud of the United Kingdom’s electoral systems and of the fact that people all over the world looked to us for the way in which to conduct proper elections. Then a judge said that postal vote fraud in England would disgrace a banana republic, and now Labour Ministers are accused in an independent report of trying to corrupt the electoral process. When will someone resign, or are the Government totally without shame?

Des Browne: The report does not suggest that any Minister tried to corrupt the electoral process. [Hon. Members: “It does.”] It does not. I defy the hon. Gentleman to show me where the report states that, even if a sentence or two is taken out of context. I rebut the suggestion that any part of the report even hints at that. Ron Gould certainly did not say that today when he was asked in his press conference what phrases meant.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, an English Member and fellow Unionist, feels it appropriate to ask questions about this matter because it is of interest to him, and to this Parliament. I agree with him that we should do everything that we can to protect the integrity of our electoral system. However, the report makes no suggestion that anyone was at fraud. The administration failed; there is no suggestion that anyone was at fraud. Hon. Members who interpret the report in that way misrepresent it.

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