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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Joe Benton
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Browne, Des (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab)
Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Charnwood) (Con)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh, South) (Lab)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
McKechin, Ann (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
McGovern, Mr. Jim (Dundee, West) (Lab)
Mason, John (Glasgow, East) (SNP)
Moore, Mr. Michael (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD)
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
Reid, John (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Roy, Lindsay (Glenrothes) (Lab)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Chris Stanton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 13 July 2009

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2009

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Ann McKechin): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2009.
Good afternoon, Mr. Benton. It might help the Committee if I briefly set out the background to the order, which is made under sections 12 and 113 of the Scotland Act 1998. Last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, who was then Secretary of State for Scotland, announced his response to the Gould report on the 2007 Scottish elections. Following the elections, Ron Gould was invited to review what had caused the problems that had occurred and to make recommendations for improvements.
I am pleased to say that the order takes forward many of those improvements, including reverting to separate ballot papers for constituency and regional votes. The unacceptable number of rejected ballot papers in 2007 was caused in no small part by the fact that the two papers had been combined. The Government accept the rationale to revert to two papers and the order effects that change.
Equally contentious was the use of what Mr. Gould called “naming strategies” on the regional side of the ballot papers. He recommended that, while parties should still be allowed to use registered descriptions on the regional ballot paper, it should be in a place secondary to the registered party name. We are making that change along with the change to the constituency ballot paper, where only the registered party name will appear—again, in line with Gould’s recommendation.
As a consequence of the change, we have accepted the case for allowing the prefix “Scottish” to appear in front of the registered party name. We envisage it being used when the registered party is a United Kingdom-wide party. It is our view and the view of all the other major parties that that is less confusing to voters.
John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Does the Minister agree that it is not exactly honest to put “Scottish” in front of the name of a party that is not basically a Scottish party?
Ann McKechin: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, being Scottish is also being part of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. All the major parties, be they the Labour party, the Conservative Unionist party or the Liberal Democrat party, would regard themselves as being as equally Scottish as any other minority party that may represent Scottish interests.
It is our view that such policy is less confusing to voters and is something with which they are familiar. The order also removes the option of conducting an electronic count of ballot papers. The disruption and confusion caused by e-counting machines performing poorly in 2007 was well publicised. Ron Gould rightly recommended that they not be used again for Scottish Parliament elections until systems have proven themselves to be more reliable. We are also extending the timetable for elections so that there is more time between close of nominations and polling day to allow for the efficient issue and receipt of postal votes. With more than 10 per cent. of voters in Scotland now voting that way, it has become more important than ever that their votes count. There were delays with postal votes in 2007, which meant that some voters were not able to cast their vote, never mind be certain that their vote counted. We have accepted Gould’s recommendation that more time is needed to ensure better administration of postal votes. There will now be 23 days between close of nominations and the poll—an increase of one week, which will bring the elections into line with European elections.
The changes, along with a small number of minor amendments, have been subject to wide consultation with electoral administrators, political parties and others. In accordance with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, we have fully consulted the Electoral Commission. Voters have also been asked for their views on matters relating to the ballot paper. I am happy to report that the changes we are making are broadly welcomed, and I therefore commend the instrument to the Committee.
4.34 pm
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Good afternoon, Mr. Benton. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I apologise on behalf of my colleague, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. His wife has been taken ill and he is unable to be here. I also apologise for the fact that my BlackBerry got extremely wet at a garden party last Tuesday. It ceased to function during the weekend, as a result of which I was unaware that I would be a member of the Committee until a few moments ago. I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton for supporting me this afternoon.
The Scottish Parliament elections of 2007 displayed a certain amount of bungling on the part of the Scotland Office, which was and remains responsible for the rules and the administration of such elections. A huge number of Scottish voters were disfranchised because they could not understand the convoluted ballot papers. I understand that approximately 146,000 votes were rejected. Furthermore, many counts were paralysed by malfunctions in the electronic counting machines, which were being used for the first time. Finally, some candidates were allowed to stand under flags of convenience and the ballot papers gave the impression that Scottish National party candidates in the regional polls were standing for “Alex Salmond for First Minister”, rather than for the SNP, which looked worryingly like a tactic to secure a spot at the top of the alphabetical list of candidates.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): Does my hon. Friend consider that the increasing strength of the Conservative party north of the border may have something to do with the arrangements that she is discussing?
Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend is right. Other candidates are seeking ever more imaginative tactics to combat the increasing support of the Conservative party in Scotland.
The Government might have shown more contrition about the events of 31 May 2007 than they have. When the instrument was debated in the other place, the Government Whip who spoke to it described the elections as “less than perfect”—surely the understatement of the year. The Secretary of State for Scotland at the time has not apologised properly yet; ironically, he has now been given responsibility for promoting electoral reform in the developing world.
That said, the problem of the convoluted ballot papers was the responsibility of the Scottish Executive of the time as well as of the Scotland Office because, between them, they decided to hold the local government elections on the same day as those for Holyrood, which meant that electors had to cast three votes at once under different voting systems. Many put “1” where they should have put “x”, and so forth. It was entirely predictable that that would happen. The Arbuthnott commission predicted it, all the returning officers predicted it and the Conservative party predicted it. We called for the elections to be decoupled, to minimise voter confusion, but we were ignored.
John Mason: The hon. Lady makes the point that a lot of the predictions came true, but does she accept that the prediction that the voters would not understand the single transferable vote proved false? The number of wasted votes on that was small—in fact, the electorate understood STV well.
Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman is correct. Certain aspects of the elections were better understood by voters than others.
I welcome the instrument in so far as it goes, and therein lies a phrase. I am pleased that we finally have legislation that will stop the constituency and regional ballots being combined on to one sheet of paper. That reform, along with the decoupling of the Holyrood and local government elections, should ensure that the number of rejected ballots returns to normal levels in 2011. Discontinuing the use of electronic counting machines should also ensure that the counts proceed more smoothly. Allowing more time between the close of nominations and the poll is a sensible precaution, as it will, I hope, allow returning officers to pre-empt any problems that might arise, even under the new arrangements.
Turning to principle rather than practicalities, the Government action has closed the gap in the rules that allowed the use of misleading slogans in place of the political party name on the ballot paper. However, I note that in the other place doubt was cast on the robustness of the statutory instrument in that regard. I ask the Minister to give her reassurance that sufficient rigour has been used in preparing the provisions to prevent the order from being circumvented. Incidentally, we are pleased that the instrument makes provision for parties to preface their names with “Scottish”, which was not originally shown on the sample ballot papers displayed by the Scotland Office in its “Sorting the ballot” consultation, an omission that was highlighted in the Conservative response.
We welcome the instrument in so far as it goes, but we believe that the Government have not yet done enough in implementing the Gould report. There is no provision for a chief returning officer and the SI does not constitute the consolidation of all rules and regulations governing the Scottish Parliament elections into one legislative instrument, which is what we were promised. I therefore ask the Minister to tell us the Government’s reasons for deciding against having a chief returning officer and when they intend to introduce the consolidation instrument. Notwithstanding that, I do not intend to divide the Committee on the order.
4.40 pm
Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I, too, do not intend to divide the Committee, but I hope that the Minister will clarify one or two points. I commend the hon. Lady on recovering from her drowned BlackBerry so eloquently this afternoon, and I wish the wife of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre all the best in her recovery.
The hon. Lady was right to point out that we in Scotland at the time of the 2007 elections experienced an embarrassing shambles, which was repeated in the financial sector two years later. It was important for our reputation as a country that we recovered the situation. We must hope that the Gould report and these detailed provisions go a long way towards doing that.
I was intrigued to see in the background papers that not only was there quite properly a consultation about the provisions, but when the consultation did not get the full range of responses that the Scotland Office was looking for, it consulted a focus group. Perhaps the Minister will share with us the insights that came from the focus group, which perhaps changed the provisions that would otherwise have been introduced.
A number of legislative tidying-up exercises are going on within the statutory instrument. We are privileged to have the former Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, with us. Perhaps he will be able to tell us whether the statutory instrument measures up to the provisions that he was overseeing at the time of the report. If he passes on that, we will assume that he is happy.
I agree with the Minister and the hon. Member for Upminster about the importance and fairness of including “Scottish” in the descriptions put on the ballot paper. I reassure the hon. Member for Glasgow, East that it is an honest position for each of the parties in Scotland to be able to talk about their Scottishness. For our part, we are a federal United Kingdom party, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats are separately constituted within that.
The separate ballot papers will hopefully address the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East that voters had no difficulty with the supposedly more complex STV arrangements for local government. If we can take steps to end the confusion over what is meant to be a more straightforward arrangement, that has to be welcome.
The earlier closure of nominations is an important development. That was a recurring theme in the build-up to the elections, which I picked up on the doorsteps. People were angry that they had not had ballot papers and did not know when they would get them. Many people going on holiday were denied a vote.
As for electronic counting, I do not think anybody wants to defend that fiasco—there were so many variations on a theme experienced around Scotland on that particular evening. I listened to the Minister carefully and she indicated that the arrangements are for now and that we will look at the issue again. I hope that is true, because no one wants to go through that again, and yet no one wants to turn their back on the prospect of a more modern way of voting and getting more people to vote.
Finally, the argument for linking the council elections to the Scottish Parliament elections was partly built around the idea of getting a higher turnout. If that link is now separated—Mr. Gould was very clear that he did not buy that argument—what measures does the Minister envisage will now be necessary to fill the gap or to bolster turnout in local elections?
4.45 pm
John Mason: Broadly speaking, we welcome the order and do not have a problem with most of it. The Minister was right in saying that there were problems in 2007, particularly with two votes on one ballot paper. People found it confusing when we had the two votes on one side, and so on. However, as I said, the single transferable vote part of the election went much better, and there were far fewer spoilt papers—only 1.83 per cent. in the local government elections compared with 4 per cent. in the Scottish Parliament elections, which happened on the same day.
The additional member system is fundamentally flawed. It is a lot better than first past the post, but it does not have an inherent logic to it that the electorate can understand. By contrast, STV, which is not just used for our local elections, but widely used for trade unions and pension funds, is a sensible system and puts the power into the hands of the electorate.
Having the two elections on the same day was somewhat unwise and it complicated things. Over the years, we have argued for separate elections, something that Liberal Democrats have also tended to support. That would put the focus on the Scottish Parliament when it is the Scottish Parliament elections, and on local government when it is local government elections. I am glad that the Labour party has belatedly changed its tune and will support separate elections. Therefore, we will have Scottish Parliament elections in 2011 and 2015, and local elections in 2012 and 2017.
On electronic counting, to some extent there is more faith among the public, and perhaps even among some of us, in a manual system, which we can all see and check. Certainly, there were problems in a number of areas. However, there were not many problems in Glasgow city council. I congratulate the staff there for getting the votes counted efficiently and well, with few problems. I believe that in the longer run, as has been said, we need to modernise the voting and counting systems. I do not think we should discount electronic counting altogether.
On the names, flexibility seems to have been introduced for some parties and not for others. I am sure that there is a bit of a background purpose to that. The fact that some parties need to change their names for Scottish elections implies that they are not Scottish parties, but British parties putting on a little bit of a Scottish veneer when it suits them.
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the use of the phrase “Alex Salmond for First Minister” was at best naughty, and at worse probably just another example of the First Minister’s massive ego?
John Mason: At the risk of being told off by some of my colleagues, I accept that it probably was naughty. As we know, over recent months people have pushed the rules and limits. I favour the idea that names used should be those of the parties. If a party is registered as the “British Labour party” or the “British Conservative party”, that is what it should stand as, because that is what it really is. It raises some interesting questions such as whether there will be a Scottish British National party or a Scottish UK Independence party. Presumably, that is allowed, and we will have to wait and see.
The control of elections in Scotland should be moved wholly to Scotland. We should not have a mish-mash, which was part of the problem—some elections were organised from Scotland and some from the UK. I hope that if both bodies work together, they will do so positively, and we will no longer have the tendency that we sometimes had, with the folk in Westminster causing problems in Scotland. Having said that, we broadly welcome the order.
4.49 pm
Ann McKechin: It has been an interesting discussion. As a member of the original Statutory Instrument Committee a few years ago, when we agreed the original joint ballot paper, I have a certain sense of dA(c)jA vu, because we are back here again talking about the design of ballot papers.
The hon. Member for Upminster coped well, given the quick notice that she was given to cover the Committee. I am sorry to hear that the wife of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre has been unwell and I hope that she recovers quickly.
It should be recalled that the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections were also held on the same day as the local government elections without incident. The fact that the two elections were on the same day was not the key to the problem. However, there was a change in the voting system of the Scottish Parliament. That is an issue for the Scottish Government. It was a policy that had been determined by the Scottish Parliament and they are responsible for the date on which the local government elections are held. As the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk will be aware, a Bill is passing through Holyrood Parliament to ensure that the date does not coincide with the date of the Scottish Parliament elections.
It is important to note that the original idea for a combined ballot paper came from the Arbuthnott commission, which recommended a redesign of the ballot paper to reflect more accurately the way mixed member voting systems worked. At the time, there was a formal consultation with electoral administrators, political parties and the Electoral Commission, which also conducted research with voters. The research showed that a lot of different parties were responsible for the fact that the 2007 elections were, sadly, deeply unsatisfactory. There were also unintended consequences, particularly of the decision made by a number of electoral registration officers to take away some of the original instructions at the top of the ballot paper when presented with a far larger than anticipated number on the regional list. That caused an unacceptably high level of rejections, particularly in Glasgow and the Lothians.
The hon. Lady correctly raised a concern about the use of sloganising on the ballot paper. I can assure her that the order addresses that concern sufficiently and that the party name must be the first name on the list, alphabetically. We have considered that it is quite proper to have the word “Scottish” prefixed on the ballot paper. That reflects the views of the major political parties and also how voters ordinarily understand the ballot paper. It is important that when we make the decision, we put the voters first. The whole point of the recommendations is to try to ensure that the voters’ wishes and their understanding of the ballot paper are a priority.
That brings me to the two points that the hon. Lady raised regarding the Gould report. The first is the issue of consolidating existing legislation. She may recall that Gould’s recommendation was that we had to pass any relevant legislation six months prior to any election taking place. We are concerned to try to get in as many of the recommendations as possible in case a by-election occurs before the 2011 elections. We are fully involved with electoral administrators and the Electoral Commission about the review and consolidation of the legislation, and we will introduce an order nearer the 2011 election date to consolidate legislation at that point. I hope that she understands that we want as many of the changes as possible in place should a by-election occur.
The hon. Lady also made a point about the chief returning officer. As well as the UK Government coming out with a full consultation on the matter, the Scottish Government have carried out a similar consultation on local government elections. Neither consultation was conclusive and we are not yet convinced that the case for a CRO has been made. However, we anticipate that the Electoral Commission will report later this year following the European elections, and we also have the operation of the interim Electoral Management Board, which we set in place to co-ordinate action across Scotland. I have already spoken directly to Bruce Crawford, who is the Parliamentary Business Minister in the Scottish Government with responsibility for local government elections, and we have agreed that we will have dialogue and discussions following that report on whether further legislation might be required from either or both Administrations. I hope that she is reassured on that point.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk asked about the focus groups. They helped us to decide that the overnight count should be retained and that we should not have random selection of candidates on the ballot paper. Basically, voters confirmed that they prefer the list to be in simple alphabetical order, with registered party names first. We thought that that made the case for retaining the status quo.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the single transferable vote. It is important to point out that votes that were rejected for the local government elections were still higher than in the previous elections of 2003. Although the record was not as bad it was for the Scottish Parliament elections, there were still difficulties.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we all have a duty to bolster turnout. There is a duty on electoral administrators to encourage participation in all elections, except local government elections, which are an issue for the Scottish Government. Again, I am in contact with Bruce Crawford on that. We are planning a fact-finding visit to Northern Ireland to look at individual registration and how we can ensure that as many people as possible are registered as we make the changes to registration.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Glasgow, East mentioned electronic counting. We accepted Gould’s recommendations that such options were not appropriate for the next set of elections, but we would certainly not rule them out for the future, provided that the technology is well tested and trusted, which obviously might take a bit of time.
With that, I think that I have answered most of the questions afternoon.
Question put and agreed to.
4.57 pm
Committee rose.

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