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Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: We are quite open in looking at all kinds of possibilities. I note what the noble Lord said and I am sure it will be looked at. The local government elections and the Scottish parliament elections have the advantage of being both on the same franchise. The date for the European elections has been announced as 10th June.

10.30 p.m.

The Earl of Minto: I wonder whether the noble Baroness will take her mind back to the progression through this House of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. It was the will of CoSLA (in an amendment that I moved on its behalf) to make the term

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of office of those in local government in Scotland four years rather than three. We do not know what recommendations we shall receive from the commission. If Mr McIntosh, its chairman, were to raise that issue, perhaps the noble Baroness could refer back to the papers and to the Hansards of that time because we very nearly won that vote. It was very close indeed. There are obviously good reasons for local government periods of office being coterminous with those relating to posts in water and health and for all to have four-year periods, rather than for water and health to have four-year terms and local government to have a three-year term as at present.

I advise the noble Baroness that this matter needs consideration - and not merely in relation to the letter from the president of CoSLA, with a copy of which he kindly furnished me some weeks ago, but also with regard to the history of the 1994 Act.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: I thank the noble Earl for that. His comments will certainly be noted. I believe that that letter from CoSLA was widely distributed. Many noble Lords have probably received a copy. We are considering the whole process. It will be for the McIntosh commission to consider the points which the noble Earl has raised.

Perhaps I may expand a little on my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. With regard to holding local government and parliamentary elections on the same day, it is expected that voters will attend only one polling station. Together with returning officers, we are considering whether separate ballot boxes could be used.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: The subject of voter confusion has been raised. Does the noble Baroness agree that since the elector has only to put a single X on each ballot paper, there should not be too much confusion?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: I agree.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: Despite the arrival of the noble Baroness at the Dispatch Box, the theme does not seem to have changed very much. One is reminded of the prayer with which the Highland Kirk session began its monthly meetings, "Almighty God, we pray that we may be right because we will never change our minds"!

In all seriousness, CoSLA's letter seems an example of consensus--a consensus debated no doubt at some length by its members. As the noble Baroness is no doubt well aware, that is not the first letter from CoSLA. There was one back in August of last year when CoSLA specifically raised the point of postponing the local government elections for one year to avoid the risk of having to have three elections, on whatever dates they might take place. This is not a matter to press to a vote at this time. No doubt whether he wishes it or not, the Minister's right honourable friend the Secretary of State will have to discuss the matter further with CoSLA. It was very much the views of the representatives of CoSLA, who are all elected representatives, that I placed before the House.

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The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, of combining European and local government elections merits serious consideration. It might well boost the polls of both. We want to avoid any confusion whatsoever in the first ever elections to the Scottish parliament, whether of ballot papers being improperly franked or the wrong ballot paper going in the wrong box, or what have you. Although the amendment is to be withdrawn, I hope that the Government will give the matter serious consideration. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 23.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon moved Amendment No. 26:

Page 2, line 17, leave out ("Presiding Officer") and insert ("First Minister").

The noble and learned Lord said: Amendment No. 26 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 29 and 31. The amendment raises the very short question as to why the responsibility for calling polls in certain situations rests on the presiding officer and not the first minister. It appears to us that, as the first minister will be the political head of the Scottish executive, if situations arise where, for example, the executive no longer commands the support of the parliament, a vote of no confidence having been passed against it, there is no reason why the offer of resignation which the first minister must make to Her Majesty cannot be combined with the request that a poll should take place. The amendment seeks to probe why this responsibility has been placed on the presiding officer and not the first minister.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: Although the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, moved the amendment briefly it is important in principle. The trouble is that the Conservative Party remains wedded to the translation of the Westminster system to Holyrood. As I read the Bill, there is no question of votes of confidence leading to the right of the leader of the government party to dissolve parliament, as happens here. On the contrary, the Bill clearly provides for a fixed-term parliament. That fixed term can be breached only by a two-thirds vote of parliament itself deciding that there be an exception to that term and that therefore there should be a dissolution. With great respect to the noble and learned Lord, I believe that he is fundamentally wrong in principle. It is right that if the parliament decides to breach that rule the person who dictates the date of the election should be whoever is in the chair of that parliament, not the head of the executive.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: These amendments would give the first minister a limited role in setting the dates for elections to the parliament. The key element of the Bill as regards the timing of elections is that there will be a four-year fixed cycle, proposed in the White Paper and set out in Clause 2(2). However, we envisage that there may be circumstances, albeit rare ones, where for some reason an election on the precise timetable set

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out in that clause may not be appropriate. For that reason we have provided that there should be some limited flexibility available as regards the timing of general elections. The date may be varied by up to one month either side of the day on which the election would usually fall. This is a commonsense provision intended to cover only very exceptional circumstances. The Bill also provides in Clause 3 for extraordinary general elections where clearly the provisions for a four-yearly electoral cycle will not apply.

In both these cases we took the view it was right that it should be the presiding officer who proposed the date of the election. This is wholly in keeping with the thinking behind a fixed cycle, removing decisions on the timing of elections from the control of the executive. It ensures that the decisions are taken in a politically non-partisan manner. I confirm that that was a key element in the thinking of the Scottish Constitutional Convention when it proposed a four-year fixed cycle. Against that background, to give the first minister the ability to influence the timing of elections would be quite out of place. It would mean that we would not in practice deliver the independent arrangements for setting election dates clearly implied by the White Paper and which this Bill has been deliberately drafted to achieve.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, that yet again noble Lords opposite appear to be overly-influenced in this matter by their experience at Westminster. I therefore invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, having never been in the other place and only having been here for a few years, I do not consider myself to be over-influenced by anything, certainly nothing that I am prepared to admit to in public.

I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, that my amendments are difficult to square with the provisions of Clause 3(1)(a) requiring a two-thirds majority, but he will be aware that that is the next issue to which I seek to turn.

It has been suggested that the presiding officer's powers under Clause 3(1) are to be exercised in a non-political or non-partisan way. When one looks at how that would come about--by either a resolution to dissolve the parliament, presumably passed in the face of opposition by the Scottish executive, or a failure to appoint a first minister--one does not need much imagination to know that there would be a lot of politics involved in such a situation.

It is clearly not a fundamental point but it was one which seemed worth airing. Having aired it, I seek leave to withdraw Amendment No. 26.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos.27 and 28 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Extraordinary general elections]:

[Amendment No. 29 not moved.]

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Lord Mackay of Drumadoon moved Amendment No. 30:

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