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Session 2007 - 08
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Jim Hood
Blunt, Mr. Crispin (Reigate) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Cairns, David (Minister of State, Scotland Office)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Clark, Ms Katy (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab)
Davidson, Mr. Ian (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H. (Central Ayrshire) (Lab)
Ingram, Mr. Adam (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab)
Key, Robert (Salisbury) (Con)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
McKechin, Ann (Glasgow, North) (Lab)
McKenna, Rosemary (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab)
McGovern, Mr. Jim (Dundee, West) (Lab)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Woking) (Con)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Reid, John (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Thurso, John (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
Wishart, Pete (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 4 February 2008

[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2008

4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2008.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2008.
David Cairns: The order is made under sections 12 and 113 of the Scotland Act 1998 and the regulations are made under the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended by the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
There is little difference between the provisions in the draft regulations and those in the draft order. The regulations apply to United Kingdom parliamentary elections in Scotland, and the order applies to Scottish parliamentary elections. I shall come shortly to the main difference between the transitional arrangements. Both instruments introduce a simple measure. For some years, absent voters have been required to sign their application; now, they will provide their date of birth. When voting by post, they will now be asked to provide their date of birth in addition to the signature that they provide already.
The instruments set out the process by which personal identifiers are to be collected and how they are to be used to check the validity of returned postal votes. From now on, applications for postal and proxy votes must include a signature and date of birth, although an exemption can be provided for voters who suffer a disability or an inability to read or write. When dealing with applications, electoral registration officers will now have the power to check certain signatures or dates of birth previously provided by the applicant to the local authority. Electoral registration officers will now be required to maintain a record of absent voters’ identifiers and to obtain a fresh signature each five years, to take account of any change in a person’s signature during that period.
The instruments also set out how identifiers will be used to check the validity of a returned postal vote. At an election, not less than 20 per cent. of postal votes returned will be set aside for checking by the returning officer. All returned postal voting statements must have a date of birth and signature in order to be deemed duly completed and valid, unless the signature requirement has been waived. It is the view of the Electoral Commission that we should have mandated 100 per cent. checking, but that would extend the measure beyond what is in place in England and Wales, and in a part of the UK where electoral fraud has not proved a significant problem. It is important to remember that the 20 per cent. threshold is a minimum, and that returning officers are free to check more should they wish to do so and should circumstances merit such action. In fact, many English local authorities that had such power in time for the local elections last May decided that 100 per cent. checking was appropriate for the local government wards.
The Scottish Parliament order contains transitional provisions whereby electoral registration officers will write to existing postal and proxy voters asking for their personal identifiers. The equivalent transitional provisions that apply to the United Kingdom parliamentary elections have been set out under a separate instrument that is not before the Committee today—the Absent Voting (Transitional Arrangements) Regulations 2008, which is a negative provision.
The reason for the different approach is that the parent legislation for each instrument says something different about the parliamentary process for introducing such further measures. However, I draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that provisions will be in place to cover existing absent voters for UK parliamentary elections. I also draw its attention to the fact that the order allows identifiers collected for UK parliamentary elections to be used for checking purposes at Scottish Parliament elections. That will allow a single set of identifiers to be collected and retained for both UK and Scottish Parliament elections.
The making of the instruments fulfils a commitment that I gave before last year’s Scottish elections to introduce procedures for the collection and checking of absent vote identifiers identical to those introduced for England and Wales last year. My decision to delay their introduction was taken after receiving advice that that additional duty on electoral administrators was not achievable, given the introduction of single transferable voting and, therefore, of e-counting, before the May elections. That was clearly the right decision. [ Interruption. ] The Committee will appreciate the great amount of credit paid to me by the Scottish media for making that decision.
We have no evidence of cases of electoral fraud in Scotland in recent years. The elections in May received a higher level of scrutiny than any previous election in Scotland, and still no cases of electoral fraud have been brought for prosecution, but obviously we cannot be complacent. We fully recognise the need for safeguards against any attempt to vote fraudulently, which is why we are introducing in Scotland measures that have, in part, been successful in tackling fraud south of the border.
In accordance with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, we have fully consulted the Electoral Commission on both instruments. We have also consulted a reference group of experienced electoral administrators. Their comments and the commission’s have been helpful.
4.35 pm
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The Conservatives welcome the order and the regulations and I can say from the start that we will not be dividing on them. On reading them back to back, it is no wonder that we ended up with the recent election problems— currently under investigation in the Gould report—the complexity of the two election laws, and the different procedures in place for the Scottish Parliament and UK elections. We welcome the Minister’s effort to make the legislation simpler and more uniform across the board.
However, I do have a few questions about the order and the regulations. One issue is the choice of reviewing the signatures or the absentee register every five years. Given that Scottish Parliament elections are every four years, would it not be more appropriate for one election, rather than two, to be within that cycle, before the checks are carried out? Otherwise, errors could grow with each cycle, rather than being minimised.
I also have a question about the 20 per cent. figure that the legislation empowers the returning officer to sample. The Electoral Commission recommended a figure of 100 per cent., which is preferable and we favour. One of the main reasons why is that in our experience, when Electoral Commission recommendations are ignored, we end up with situations such as the Scottish Parliament mess now under investigation. I urge the Minister to see how that 20 per cent. sample works, and to consider whether it should be reviewed in future. If returning officers find significant voting errors or a number of rejected ballot papers in a 20 per cent. sample, what options are open to them? Will such a sample simply become a recorded sample? If so, would the count in question continue?
In general, however, we welcome attempts to make matters clearer. Our party policy is to try to ensure individual voting registration for not just postal electors but all electors. We still hope that one day, the Government will consider that.
4.38 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I hesitate to say that anything concerning the electoral laws applying north of border is non-contentious, but there is not much that is contentious for the Committee to consider this afternoon. I, too, do not intend to divide the Committee, but I have a couple of brief questions for the Minister.
I can see the merit of the 20 per cent. mandatory check, which is a sensible level. Presumably—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—if a returning officer has any cause for suspicion arising from that 20 per cent. check or some other circumstance, the option for a 100 per cent. check would remain. As the Minister said, there have been a number of high-profile cases—not in Scotland, but in other parts of the United Kingdom—where the integrity of our electoral system, particularly as it relates to postal ballots, has been brought in question. It is important that we never allow ourselves to be in that situation north of the border.
The Minister referred to an extensive consultation with electoral administrators and I assume by that he principally meant returning officers. Is that right, and can he confirm whether returning officers, who are the experts at the sharp end of the process, are broadly in favour of the measures?
4.39 pm
I am concerned not about the supplying of names or relevant verification, but the supplying of dates of birth. As the Minister knows, some members of the Asian community, particularly elderly members, do not know their date of birth and we feel that they might be disfranchised by the measure. I hope that the Minister will say something comforting about that. Since the introduction of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, we have seen a reduction of about a third in the postal vote list. That may have nothing to do with dates of birth, but I would like to know the Minister’s view and whether he has any explanation as to why there has been such a falling away in the postal vote list in England since that Act was introduced.
The Minister was correct to acknowledge, very touchingly, that the provisions were delayed because of concerns about STV elections and electronic voting in advance of the Scottish parliamentary elections—a fat lot of good that did. The grotesque mismanagement of the Scottish election was nothing to do with electoral security or fear of fraud; it was due to monumental bungling by the Scotland Office, which had legislative responsibility for the conduct of the last election. [ Interruption. ] Let us remember that 140,000 people lost their vote, their franchise—[ Interruption. ]
The Chairman: Order. Members must allow the hon. Gentleman to make his points.
Pete Wishart: Thank you Mr. Hood. Let me emphasise that number—140,000 people lost their vote at the last Scottish election. That had nothing to do with sharp practices, electoral fraud or concerns about electoral security; it had everything to do with the way in which the election was conducted and how the Scotland Office put it into place. Since that debacle, we have had the Gould report that—among a number of recommendations —made the fine recommendation that the Scottish Parliament should have legislative responsibility for Scottish elections. We would not want this place to be run by France; we would not want it run by the European Union. [ Interruption. ] Therefore, why is it right—
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is going a little wide of the issue. I again ask the Committee to be quiet and respectful when a Member is addressing it.
Pete Wishart: Thank you, Mr. Hood; I accept your rebuke.
Arrangements for Scottish elections have been considered by the Scottish Parliament. All parties, including that of Labour members of this Committee, believe that the electoral administration of Scottish elections should be the business of the Scottish Parliament. I hope that the House respects the decision of the Scottish Parliament and is disappointed with the remarks of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I hope that in future, issues relating to elections in Scotland will not be considered by a Committee such as this. I believe, and the Scottish Parliament and Mr. Gould now conclude, that they are issues for the Scottish Parliament.
4.43 pm
David Cairns: I am pleased that the measures have received a broad welcome, and I will deal quickly with some of the issues raised. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre spoke about the five-year cycle. However, it is not, as such, a five-year cycle—the period is five years from when one first gets a postal vote. Because the arrangements are transitional, there will be many people coming up in the summer who will be checked in five years’ time. However, the situation will flatten itself out, so that the returning officer will not have to check everybody once every five years; there will be more of a rolling pattern.
The hon. Gentleman said that he is in favour of a figure of 100 per cent., rather than a 20 per cent. sample. The Government are not opposed to that in principle, but there are issues relating to the speed with which the software can recognise signatures. The situation in Scotland is complicated by the split between electoral registration officers and returning officers—they are not the same people, or even co-located. The 20 per cent. figure is a floor, not a ceiling. If a returning officer decides in advance of an election—or, to pick up on an issue raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, while it is going on—that they want to go above 20 per cent. and up to 100 per cent., they are free to do so; that is entirely at their discretion.
The hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for Perth and North Perthshire tempted me to comment on matters contained in our consultation on the Gould report. That consultation is ongoing; the deadline for replies is 7 March and if hon. Members wish to participate, they still have time to do so. I will not go into detail on the issues that we are consulting on—it would not be appropriate for me to do so. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said that the reason why the debacle occurred is that we ignored Electoral Commission advice, but that is simply not true. I have challenged him before to say what commission advice we ignored. The one bit that we did ignore related to overnight counts; how that spoiled any ballot papers that had already been cast, I have no idea. On all other matters, we accepted the commission’s advice at every step of the way.
I think that I have dealt with the point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about returning officers’ discretion. We spoke to returning officers, of course, but we also spoke to electoral registration officers, who are important in this context. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, in Scotland they are not one and the same thing, as they are in England. It is important that both the registration officers, who have to gather and compile the database, and the returning officers, are happy with it because they need to work together. The Association of Electoral Administrators and the chief executives have also been consulted—and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all—and they were happy that we delayed for a year. They are happy with the provision as it is, and that they have discretion to go above the 20 per cent. floor should they wish to.
I agree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire to the extent that we want to increase participation in elections, which is why, to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, we have not gone down the route of collecting identifiers at registration. That would depress electoral registration and thereby automatically mean that fewer people were entitled to vote, which would not help to increase democratic participation. I am not aware of there being any problem with people not knowing their date of birth, and that being a significant factor in the drop-off of postal votes, but I will check and if that is the case, I will inform the Committee. Almost everything that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said about the elections last year was wrong. Time does not allow me to rebut his points in detail, but he is free to make those arguments in our consultation on the Gould report.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2008.


That the Committee has considered the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2008.—[David Cairns.]
Committee rose at thirteen minutes to Five o’clock.

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