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Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, and to speak also to the amendments in my name, which are in similar terms to those debated on the first day of the Committee stage.

Noble Lords will recall that on that occasion I referred to a letter which Councillor Keith Geddes, the President of CoSLA, had written to the Secretary of State on this point. He stressed that there were a number of reasons why, on a cross-party basis, the members of CoSLA were against the idea that the first elections to the Scottish parliament should be on the same day as the local government elections. He said, among other things, that the issue was one of substantial concern within the local government community.

He listed four topics. One was the likelihood of considerable voter confusion, about which I shall say more in a moment. The second was the concern that, because a local government poll was being held on the same day as one for a new national government, voters would vote on national issues on both polls and not on local issues in the local government poll.

Thirdly, he instanced the enormous pressures that would be placed on political parties in resourcing two simultaneous elections. Linked to that is the good point made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, that in some instances an individual may be standing for a Scottish parliamentary constituency in one area and a local government constituency in another. If that person won both seats, presumably he or she would immediately resign the local government seat and a by-election would have to be held, which does not seem to be very sensible. The fourth point that CoSLA made was that combined elections might disadvantage independent candidates, who are given certain voting rights in the system that has evolved.

Notwithstanding the considerable experience in local government of Councillor Geddes, his views, conveyed on behalf of all members of CoSLA, do not appear to have cut any ice with the Secretary of State. They do not seem to have done Mr. Geddes much good either, because, when I last read about him in newspaper reports, he seemed, far from being a hot tip for a likely Labour win in the election, to be having difficulty in being selected.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, mentioned that the Secretary of State was troubled that confusion might be caused. That is undoubtedly correct. Since this matter

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was last debated that has taken on a significance that I do not believe was addressed at that time. We understand that the Secretary of State is concerned that the same electorate who read and understood the voting system in the White Paper and voted wholeheartedly to support it may now have difficulty in understanding it when they get to the ballot box at the beginning of May next year.

To some extent the Government are not entirely to blame for this matter. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, will forgive me if I quote from an article in the Scotsman on 23rd September this year which referred to the approach by the Liberal Democrats to the question of where voters should place their second vote. It was reported:

    "the Lib Dems yesterday revealed their plans to get Labour voters to give them their second vote in the parliamentary elections next May".
According to the authors of the article it was the clearest signal yet that the Lib Dems were preparing for a coalition with Labour and it was a strategy apparently to be deployed not only in Scottish parliamentary elections but also in the European Parliament.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, the information from my Conservative friends is that we are much more likely to get the Conservatives' first and second votes.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, I take what the noble Lord says with a pinch of salt. I do not wish to embarrass him but I recall that when I moved these amendments last time he did not support them. He said that I had a point but it was not a very good one. Obviously, his noble friend and Deputy Leader, thinks along lines similar to mine. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I do not dwell too much on his views at this time.

The article quotes a spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the chief executive--one Willie Rennie--who says:

    "There is nothing to hide. People have used the first-past-the-post system's inadequacies to their advantage and we will do the same. This voting system isn't perfect, therefore we're going to work the system to the best advantage for the benefit of the voters".
I suspect that he is misquoted on that point and that it is for the benefit of the Liberal Democrat Party. There follows a quote from the Leader, Mr. Ashdown:

    "I am happy for us to follow any policy that will win us votes".

Against that background it is hardly surprising that the Secretary of State is somewhat concerned about the possibility of confusion. As those of us in Scotland know, the answer to that confusion is to mount a £2 million campaign to educate the voters as to how the voting system will work. Having sought to explain the voting system to people in Scotland, both informally and at party meetings, it must be recognised that it is a complicated system. There can be little doubt that come next May, whatever campaign is mounted and whatever its cost, even if it is done with cross-party support as appears to be likely, a significant number of people will

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not fully understand when they turn up to vote why they have been given two voting papers and what they are meant to do with them.

If there is to be a third voting paper that day, as clearly there will be unless the Bill is amended, I believe that there is a substantial risk of confusion. That was the first of the items listed by Councillor Geddes in his letter to the Secretary of State. I understand that that was considered by the Government and they rejected the views of CoSLA. But in the light of the growing concern--here I join with the noble Lord, Lord Steel--I hope that the Government will be prepared to think again. This is not a matter of party political affiliation but of cross-party concern. I do not expect a positive response in the sense of a concession tonight. However, I expect a positive response in the form of a willingness on the part of Minister to go back and discuss the matter with the Secretary of State and other officials who are no doubt involved in planning the vote. If there is no change there is no doubt that there will be considerable confusion come 6th May.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, as in the case of other amendments discussed today, this is a matter that we have already considered at length in Committee. A good number of the points that have been made have been discussed backwards and forwards in Committee. I doubt that I can add a great deal to what was said then but I shall try to deal with the points that have been raised by noble Lords. The Government understand the genuineness of the concerns that have been raised.

The voters in Scotland face three elections next year: to the parliament, local councils and the European Parliament. Local elections are due in May and the European elections in June. Noble Lords opposite appear still to believe that electors could and should turn out separately three times in a row in very quick succession to vote in each of these elections. We do not believe that to combine them in the way suggested is the best method. We believe that it is better to combine them with the local elections. I believe that the House accepts that it is unreasonable to have three separate elections in quick succession. That is more than likely to exhaust the patience of voters and undoubtedly turn-out would suffer. Do we really want to go in that direction? I believe that none of us wants that.

We came to the very firm conclusion that we should hold the elections to the new parliament on the same date as that set for local council elections, 6th May. In case there is any misunderstanding--I was not clear that the position was understood from the way some questions were framed--it is now not possible to defer the local elections other than by primary legislation. Subordinate legislation to change the date would have had to be placed before Parliament before February this year because local elections are fixed by statute.

Noble Lords have said that some local representatives have argued against this. I am very familiar with the letter from Councillor Geddes. I shall not deal with the points raised in that letter that have been enumerated by

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the noble and learned Lord. But the letter went on to argue for the postponement of local government elections with a preference for a year's delay until May 2000. That would mean that the new mainland councils would have held office since the elections in May 1995 and that the three islands councils would have held office since the elections in May 1994. They would therefore have had a six-year term of office. CoSLA itself recognised that that would be very difficult to defend.

It has been argued by local government representatives and others that that will be very confusing for voters. All I can say is that the Government do not believe that voters will find it difficult to distinguish between the two polls on the day. We do not believe that that argument does justice to voters who would be much more resentful at having to make different trips to the polling station in just over a month. I believe that we should be more concerned about that.

A working party has been set up composed of experienced electoral administrators and representatives of the parties with whom we are considering the detailed arrangements for next May. All that can be said about those discussions at the moment is that the Government have not encountered any insuperable problems.

Noble Lords have raised the question of an individual who may want to stand for both a local council and the parliament. All I can say is that it is up to the individual. There is nothing in law to prevent an individual standing or taking seats in both. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, asked specifically about the review of local wards. The Boundary Commission has submitted almost all of its reports by now. The work to implement the review is continuing apace. We understand that the electoral administrators are preparing registers based on the new boundaries. We admit that the deadlines are tight but we believe that they are achievable. The final approval of the commission's reports must be completed by 31st December and we believe that we shall be able to achieve that.

The House should bear in mind that combined polls are not unusual in England. For example, the 1997 General Election coincided with local elections and, as we said in Committee, as far as we know that worked perfectly well. There is another reason why there would be benefit in having local government elections on the same day as elections to the Scottish parliament. We firmly believe that that would markedly increase the turnout for the local elections. The turnout at local government elections, as we all know, is not as high as it should be. That is something about which we all agree.

Scottish local government needs to embark on its new relationship with the new Scottish parliament with a well-founded mandate. Therefore, plans for next May ought to be on those terms and should not be regarded as an administrative inconvenience. We do not believe that the alternative of combining the European elections with the parliament's elections would be any simpler than what we are doing. The next European elections of course will take place under a new voting system and might indeed be the cause of more confusion than would

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be the case if they were held at the same time as local government elections, when people are familiar with the system of voting for local government. I would therefore invite the noble Lord involved to withdraw that amendment.

Speaking more specifically about Amendments Nos. 20, 126 and 127, we understand that they are aimed at 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 the two cycles. The arguments are much the same. The points I made on the other amendments apply equally to these amendments. We do not think there is a good enough reason for voters having to spend so much time going to the polling stations. If it is not unfair to say so, we do not honestly believe that there is any good reason to be so ideologically opposed to combined polls. There are times when these will be the most sensible way forward. In any event the commission chaired by Neil McIntosh is currently looking at the relationship between local government and the parliament; part of its remit is to make recommendations about the future electoral arrangements for local government. This Bill is therefore not the place to lay down long-term rules based on the present arrangements for local government. I would therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw these amendments.

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