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Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Before the Minister replies, perhaps I can intervene. I am sure that he is in close touch with CoSLA. I wonder whether they appreciate that, in making this request, according to what the Minister has told us already, they are ensuring that the parliament is reduced to 100 or so members, because the boundaries would have to be coterminous.
Members of the Committee will be aware that voters in Scotland face three elections next year: to the parliament, to local councils and to the European Parliament. Local elections are due in May and European elections in June. The thinking behind these amendments appears to be--it is confirmed by what was said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon--that electors should have to turn out separately three times in a row in short order to vote in each of these elections. We take the view that that would not be a reasonable demand. We think that we would risk "voter fatigue" and that turnout would suffer. We think we should do what we can to avoid that because all of these elections are important. For that reason, we intend to hold the elections for the new parliament on the same date as has been set for local council elections; that is, 6th May 1999. The election date for the parliament will be formally set by an order to be made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State under Clause 2 of the Bill.
We are aware that some in local government, in particular, argue that a combined poll will be confusing to voters. I am of course aware of the letter quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, and mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy from CoSLA to the Secretary of State. However, we do not agree with the problem raised in relation to confusion among voters. We do not believe that voters will find it difficult to distinguish between the two polls on the day and believe, as was put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, that that argument does not do justice to the electorate. I firmly believe that voters would be much more unhappy at having to make no fewer than three visits to polling
Moreover, we are hopeful that going down the route of a combined poll will substantially increase the turnout for the local elections. We should all be seriously concerned that the turnout in local government elections falls well short of the turnout in general elections. The need to improve local election turnouts was, in our view, one significant reason in favour of combining these elections next May. We are keen to ensure that Scottish local government should enter its new relationship with the Scottish parliament with the strongest possible democratic mandate. That can best be achieved on the basis of a high electoral turnout. This is indeed an opportunity to renew democracy at both national and local level throughout Scotland. It should be welcomed and planned for on those terms and not regarded as an inconvenience.
We accept that it will be a more complex task to manage a combined poll. That goes without saying. But nothing we have heard from election professionals leads us to the view that what is proposed cannot be done. We are working closely with all those involved in the conduct of elections to ensure that we put in place sensible, workable arrangements which will deliver on the day. It is worth remembering that combined polls are not unusual in England. For example, the 1997 general election coincided with local elections and to the best of my knowledge this worked perfectly well.
These amendments seem to be an over-reaction. No one denies that a combined poll is a more complex task to run than a single election from the point of view of those managing the system. But from the point of view of voters, we firmly believe it is a far better option--indeed one bringing some real benefits--than that canvassed by the noble and learned Lord. I therefore invite him to withdraw his amendment.
I turn now to Amendments Nos. 24, 25 and 27, which I understand are drafted with the aim of avoiding the possibility that at some future point the elections for the Scottish parliament could fall on the same date as the elections for local councils, purely as a result of the operation of their two electoral cycles.
I accept that there is a possibility that local government and parliament elections could coincide in future. However, I doubt that providing that in those circumstances there should be two polls, a week apart, as these amendments appear to do, is a particularly sensible answer or one which voters would welcome. For the reasons I have already explained, we do not share the noble and learned Lord's total resistance to combined polls. We believe that there are times when these will be the most sensible way forward.
It may be worth adding that it would in any case be a mistake to legislate in this Bill on the basis of assumptions about the future shape of the local government electoral cycle. The commission chaired by Neil McIntosh is currently looking at the relationship between local government and the parliament, and part of its remit is to make recommendations about the future electoral arrangements for local government. I should
I cannot see that simply moving by one week the usual date for Scottish parliament elections would in any way be a sensible answer to whatever concerns noble Lords may have about combined polls. I note the noble and learned Lord said that he was not completely wedded to one of these amendments. I would therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: Before the noble Baroness sits down, although I do not support the amendment moved by the Conservative Party because I believe there should be flexibility in this matter--there may be occasions when it is sensible to run polls concurrently--there was one sentence in what she said that took me a little by surprise. She said that none of the professionals in the Scottish electoral process had made representations on this point, or words to that effect. I certainly read press reports that the electoral administrators had lodged a complaint with the Secretary of State about the local elections and the first parliamentary elections falling on the same day.
I make one serious suggestion to the Government which they might like to consider. There is a difference between the first election and future elections. We are introducing a new system. There will be two ballot papers. We will have discussions later on in the proceedings on the Bill about the nature of those ballot papers. At the moment we are proposing to run local elections on the same day so there will be three ballot papers. Is it not sensible to consider possibly delaying the local elections next year by one month and running them on the same day as the European Parliament elections in June in the hope that we might thereby increase both the turnout for the local elections and the European elections-- both of which give us cause for concern--and leave the Scottish parliament election free-standing with its new system and two ballot papers on the same day in May? That is a constructive suggestion which I hope the Government might consider.
Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: What I said was that nothing we have heard from election professionals leads us to the view that what is proposed cannot be done. We have had representations. I did not wish to lead the House into thinking that I was saying that we had not had discussions and problems raised with us. We do not believe that they are insurmountable.
We have looked at the specific point of the European elections. We cannot see that the alternative of combining the European elections with the local elections would be any simpler. The next European elections will also take place under a new voting system. It is also a complex matter. We have looked at it. We do not have closed minds on anything. At the moment, we feel, as I said, that this is the best way forward and has advantages apart from the complexity of administration.
Lord Hughes of Woodside: Can my noble friend answer a question to which I should perhaps already know the answer? When she speaks about a combined election, I assume that she means an election on the same day? My limited experience of two different elections taking place on the same day is that the voter has to go to one polling station, get the ballot paper, vote, and put it in the box within the same building. Then he has to go to a different polling station and go through the process again. My only experience of that was that a number of people--I do not know how statistically significant they were--voted once and said, "Och, I have done mae duty, I'm nae going to bother voting again.". That was a local government situation. During the regional council elections there was a city council by-election in Aberdeen.
Has the possibility been examined of the voter collecting the ballot papers for both elections at the same time and putting them in the same box? The separation process at the counting of the votes would be slightly prolonged while the papers were sorted out into the different areas. The complication is that in local government elections the seats will certainly not be coterminous with the parliamentary seats. But it should not be beyond the wit of the returning officer to make sure that ballot papers are provided within each polling station. One does not just wander in and go anywhere. It is all set out where one has to vote. It is possible to have the papers for the local government elections issued in the right place so that there is no confusion in the voter's mind. This may already have been decided in which case my speech is superfluous. It is an issue that came to mind that we should look at the possibility.
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