Political Parties and Elections Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Wills: May I first clarify matters? When the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire referred to Scotland as a region, is that how he sees the position?
Pete Wishart: It is an electoral region for European elections. That is not my definition, but the definition that has been given.
Mr. Wills: I am delighted to have given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity for clarification.
I wish to make some general remarks before I deal with the specific concerns that have been raised. The purpose of the clause is to substitute a new definition of “local returning officer” under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, so that the local returning officers for European parliamentary elections held in England, Wales and Scotland are returning officers for local authority elections in those parts of the United Kingdom rather than the returning officers for the United Kingdom parliamentary elections.
That change, together with a subsequent change in secondary legislation made under the 2002 Act, will enable future European parliamentary elections to be administered on a permanent basis by local authority returning officers along the lines of local authority areas, which will assist in the effective administration of European parliamentary elections. I can confirm to the hon. Member for Epping Forest, who I am sure will be fascinated by such matters, that such a change was not suggested by the European Commission, but by election administrators. They welcome the change because it will ease the complexities in running European elections and will provide certainty in their planning. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute gave a good illustration of that.
In response to concerns raised by various people, including members of the Electoral Commission, we cannot be certain at this stage exactly when the Bill will receive Royal Assent. We certainly cannot be certain that it will receive it in time for the provision on boundaries to be implemented for the European elections on 4 June 2009. We have therefore been exploring other options. After consultation, we decided to exercise powers under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and to make an order that will move the date of local government elections in England in May 2009 to the date of the European elections in June 2009. That order has now been made, after debates in both Houses.
Under that order, we have made the necessary modifications to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, and the regulations made under that Act, to enable the European elections in England 2009 to be administered on local government boundaries. There are no scheduled local government elections in May 2009 in Scotland and Wales, nor are there any powers to refine the definition of “local returning officer” under secondary legislation so that European elections in Scotland and Wales are run at a local level by local authority returning officers. We are exploring with colleagues in Scotland and Wales whether it may be possible to deal with the issue within the existing legislative framework, but I assure the Committee that we shall not commence the clause in 2009 for the European elections. However, the change will provide certainty on the issue for the future European parliamentary elections, and I hope that the Committee will support it.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: Before we come to the Government new clauses, I remind the Committee that we are scheduled to conclude our deliberations on the Bill at 4 o’clock on Thursday, which leaves approximately nine hours of further debate, if we work to the normal hours of a Public Bill Committee. I am entirely impartial, but I feel from time to time that it is helpful to remind the Committee of the programme motion and of the timetable. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am grateful to hon. Members for that indication of support.

New Clause 17

Disposal of election documents in Scotland
‘In the 1983 Act—
(a) in section 63 (breach of official duty), in subsection (3)(b), the words “sheriff clerk,” are omitted;
(b) in Schedule 1 (parliamentary elections rules), for rule 58 there is substituted—
“58 (1) This rule modifies rules 55 to 57 in relation to elections in Scotland.
(2) In relation to such elections—
(a) the documents mentioned in rule 55(1)—
(i) are not to be forwarded by the returning officer as required by that rule,
(ii) instead, are to remain in the returning officer’s custody (and be endorsed by the officer as required by that rule),
(b) the references in rules 56 and 57 to the relevant registration officer are to be read as references to the returning officer (and rule 55(1A) is to be disregarded),
(c) the reference in rule 57(1) to the documents to be retained is to be read as a reference to the documents remaining in the returning officer’s custody under sub-paragraph (a)(ii).”’.—[Mr. Wills.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Wills: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 127.
Mr. Wills: I shall be brisk. The purpose of the new clause and the amendment is to transfer responsibility for storage and provision of access to UK parliamentary election records and documents in Scotland, including the marked register, from sheriff clerks to the parliamentary returning officer. The overall aim of the provision is to improve access to the documents, particularly for parliamentary colleagues.
After a Westminster election has been contested in Scotland, election material, including the marked register, is sent by the constituency returning officers to a local sheriff clerk for safe keeping. The sheriff clerk is obliged to make some of the material available for public inspection and to destroy all the material after a year, unless otherwise ordered. However, there have been difficulties with the current arrangements, including around access and the fees to be charged, and sheriff clerks’ offices do not feel that they are set up to carry out those functions effectively.
The change will bring Scotland more into line with the position in England and Wales, where local authorities, through electoral registration officers or acting returning officers, are responsible for those functions by virtue of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, as well as for existing arrangements in Scotland for local government and European election records.
The new provision has the full support of stakeholders in Scotland, including electoral administrators, political parties and the Electoral Commission.
Mrs. Laing: The new clause seems perfectly reasonable, but I always have to question Ministers when they say, “Such and such a measure brings Scotland more closely into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.” As a principle, I do not see why Scotland has to be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Wills: I was not suggesting anything other than that the people in Scotland have asked us to do this and we are responding to their wishes.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the Minister for that explanation, which I entirely accept.
Mr. Tyrie: That is what they said in 1707.
Mrs. Laing: If my hon. Friend mentions 1707 in the same vein, I understand why. I was merely suggesting that sometimes it would be good if the rest of the United Kingdom came into line with Scotland, which has an excellent legal system and many other excellent institutions.
Mr. Reid: I cannot resist asking the hon. Lady whether she believes that that should also be the case for local government electoral systems.
Mrs. Laing: I understand why the hon. Gentleman asks the question, but in that it would not be best for the rest of the United Kingdom to come into line with Scotland. I was thinking more along the lines of the excellent Scottish legal system, which is based on extremely good principles that have lasted many centuries—
The Chairman: Order. I am not allowing this debate. Please let us concentrate on the Government new clause.
Mrs. Laing: On the Government new clause, I give way to the Minister.
Mr. Wills: I am afraid, Sir Nicholas, that I was about to divert from the new clause.
The Chairman: I am glad you did not.
Mrs. Laing: We support the Government new clause, with the caveat that, as a principle, it is not always right to bring Scotland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, just for the sake of it. I declare an interest and admit a bias, as I am a Scots lawyer. That is the problem. Having made my small protest on principle, I accept that this is something that the electoral administrators and others in Scotland have asked for. It makes perfect sense and we support the new clause.
Mr. Reid: I, too, support the new clause. To make a more streamlined administration, it makes sense that, if a returning officer is in charge of all aspects of an election, he or she should also be in charge of what happens to the documents after polling day.
The Minister referred to problems of access with the sheriff courts and with fees. I can confirm those, having experienced similar problems. The new clause, combined with an order passed recently on the fee structure, will improve the administration. I have one question for him: is it the Government’s intention to introduce legislation so that documents are dealt with in the same way after Scottish Parliament elections?
Pete Wishart: I very much agree with the new clause. Historically, the sheriff clerk has looked after the documents because he was given the task of ensuring that the electoral register was compiled. There is a good case for saying that that task should be returned to returning officers and local authority chief executives. That is what we want in Scotland and it is something I particularly support.
My question for the Minister is along the same lines as the question asked by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute: what happens to the Scottish Parliament? As far as I understand it, an amendment would have to be made to the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007, so that the practice could be introduced for the Scottish Parliament as well. That prompts the question, why is Westminster making these tinkering amendments to Scottish elections? We have had the Gould report in the last few months, which addressed the biggest post-war electoral disaster—
Mr. Reid: The SNP won.
Pete Wishart: About 147,000 voters were disfranchised. I am disappointed at the hon. Gentleman’s flippant remark.
Almost 150,000 people were disfranchised during the Scottish Parliament elections. That suggests to me more than anything that the powers and responsibilities for arranging Scottish elections should be returned to the Scottish Parliament, instead of having these little orders coming through Westminster to ensure that we are up to speed on new electoral law. I want the Minister to confirm that there will be an opportunity for local authority chief executives in Scotland to be responsible for the Scottish Parliament elections, as well as for the Westminster elections.
Mr. Tyrie: I have one brief point to make. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but as I understand it, we are talking about the storage of election material—if there is a row, we will have something to refer to afterwards.
Mr. Wills: And access.
Mr. Tyrie: And access, indeed.
We are changing the norm only with respect to Scotland. I do not want to detain the Committee, but I have thought for a long time about the access provisions in England and Scotland—we have been discussing bringing Scotland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom—and wondered whether the arrangements that we have for the rest of the United Kingdom are the right ones. I raise that in the context of what my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest referred to earlier—the so-called hanging chads issue.
Will the Minister consider taking a look at the so-called sunshine provisions that operate in a number of states in the United States? Those provisions enable a much higher level of access to information than is available under most UK law, and they can provide a high level of reassurance about the integrity of an election result. I do not know whether that was considered in the Gould report, because I confess that I have not read anything other than summaries of it, but I suspect that it may have been alluded to as part of that advice.
Mr. Wills: In relation to the points made by the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute and for Perth and North Perthshire, the intention is to make similar provision for Scottish Parliament election records and access through Scottish secondary legislation. I understand that that is likely to be the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2010. The intention is also to apply revised access provisions as provided for under sections 42 to 44 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
I will resist the temptation to pursue the other points raised by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. With great reluctance, I restrain myself on that, but I am sure that we shall return to the subject.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Chichester, I am ideologically disposed towards sunshine and am happy to consider the matter. If I may, I shall investigate further and write to him, as I think that it is slightly outside the Committee’s remit, but I am interested in what he has to say.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
11.45 am
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 19 November 2008