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Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord for his exposition of this substantial draft orderit is of course a consolidation orderwhich is particularly welcome in advance of next year's Scottish parliamentary election. I should perhaps explain that I am dealing with the
The first point I wish to raise relates to the provisions for the combination of polls. As I understand it, in the 1999 elections, not only was the new two-vote electoral system used in Scotland for the first time but the Scottish parliamentary poll was combined with the local government poll. This combination of polls is due to happen again in May next year. Did the Scotland Office or the Scottish Executive make any analysis of instances of voter confusion arising from the new system and combination of polls? If so, what steps are being taken to prevent a repeat of any such confusion in 2003?
I am told that the practices of local authorities in the organisation of polling stations, ballot box arrangements, counting procedures and so on varied throughout Scotland. What analysis has the Scotland Office or the Scottish Executive made of best practices among local authorities with a view to encouraging less efficient authorities to adopt the more successful procedures?
Finally, on the combination of polls, will the Minister confirm that the polling hours for the local poll will be the same as those for the parliamentary poll. It is the norm for local election polling hours to be from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. but for parliamentary polls to be from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. If the polling hours are not coterminous, would it not be impractical and unfair for an elector arriving at a polling place before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. to be prohibited from casting a vote in the local poll while he or she could vote in the parliamentary one.
As to Article 40 in Part III, relating to the limitation of candidates' election expenses, candidates and their agents will make much of the planning for and commitment of expenses well in advance of the start of the election campaign. Rolling electoral registers are now in place which can change the total number of electors, and hence the maximum expense limit, on a month to month basis.
Will the Minister state what leeway would be allowed for candidates whose expenses were within the limit allowed by the number of electors in the period immediately preceding the campaign but whose expenses are marginally over the limit as a result of a drop in the number of electors on the rolling register?
I turn to Schedule 2 and in particular to paragraph 25. Will the Minister clarify what the position would be if, after the close of nominations, a candidate who had been included on the regional list of a registered political party defected to another political party? Would that candidate be excluded from the list, or would he or she still be elected if his or her previous party was allocated a sufficient number of regional seats? Would he or she be free to sit as a representative of another party? The eventuality is unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
I have a query regarding the recount procedure described in paragraph 56 of Schedule 2. If I understand the drafting correctly, the agent of a registered political party at a constituency count of regional votes may request, within reason, a recount of the regional votes before, but not after, the transmission of the count to the regional returning officer. Paragraph 63 of the schedule allows the agent present at the calculation of the regional totals to request prior to the allocation of seats,
I find that ambiguous in one respect. Does it mean that agents have the right to request a recount of the regional votes in each constituency; or does it mean that they have the right to request the recalculation of the sum of constituency totals already received? If the latter is the case, will the noble Lord accept that the occasion on which a recount of regional votes is most likely to be required is after the final tally of regional votes from each constituency within the region, as it is on these totals that the number of regional seats allocated to each party will be based? In the event of a handful of votes determining the allocation of the final regional seat, will the Minister make provision for a recount of regional ballots in each constituency at that juncture?
I should be grateful if the noble Lord could explain an aspect of paragraph 71(3) of Schedule 2. If a constituency poll is abandoned because of the death of a candidate, in what ways can the return of regional members for the region in which that constituency is located be completed, given that the calculation for the allocation of regional seats is dependent on the total number of constituency seats won by each party within the region? Again, it is an unlikely scenario; but stranger things have happened.
More generally, will the noble Lord give an assurance that ministerial special advisers in the Scottish Executive and the United Kingdom Government will not engage in activities that could be helpful to a particular political party during the campaign leading up to the election next May?
I hope that the noble Lord can give assurances that announcements and advertising by UK government departments during the Scottish parliamentary election campaign will not be designed or timed to be of advantage or disadvantage to any particular political party in Scotland.
I hope that some care will be taken by United Kingdom television and radio broadcasters when dealing with United Kingdom political issues that could be deemed to be unfairly persuasive in the context of the Scottish parliamentary campaign. I know that this is a difficult area, but we hope that UK broadcasters will aware of the Scottish parliamentary election and that they will endeavour to be as fair and impartial as possible.
The scenario proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, for a regional member defecting has in fact happened. Dorothy Grace Elder, who was elected to the Parliament on the SNP list has now left that party to become an independent. Unfortunately, she has not gone the stage further as envisaged by the noble Lord; she has not joined another party.
I thank the Minister for his introduction and explanation of this substantial 156-page order. I must praise the Explanatory Notes provided by the Scotland Office. I hope that it will continue with this new high standard.
The order seems to be a complete document for working referenceexcept that, I suspect, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act will also be prescribed bedtime reading for candidates and agents.
Consolidation of the several recent orders makes considerable sense and has allowed for some new changes to be made. For example, I note that the declaration of election expenses will not have to be signed before a justice of the peace. Many justices will be relieved about the abolition of this inconsequential duty. Similarly, returning officers will be forwarding copies of returns and declarations to the Electoral Commissionwhich is a new body; hence this is a new duty.
The order also incorporates the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002, which synchronises the local government elections with the Scottish parliamentary elections, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy. This issue is somewhat controversial. Although some find that it downgrades the status of local government, I see the practical politics of reducing the number of polling daysin Scotland we now have elections every two years and we also have the European elections. Further concerns relate to voter fatigue and political party financial overstretch.
Perhaps the best parts of the order lie in the two sections relating to the free distribution of electoral registers to MSPs and candidates and the reduction of the period of dissolution of the Parliament to 21 days. The second has the merit of meaning that the election need not be called until 31st March. The public will be glad of the shorter election campaign, and MSPs will no doubt be glad of a few more days' salary.
I hope that the Minister will agree to investigate the issue. Given that seats in the Parliament and the formation of the Executive could depend on it, it would be disappointing to descend into the realms of the Florida presidential election, chads and all. In Schedule 2, paragraph 53, surely the extraordinary formula used for the number of counting agents belies the fact that one counting agent per table is needed?
I suspect that there will soon be a Scotland Act (Amendment) Bill to deal with changes in constituency boundaries and MSP numbers. On these Benches, we hope that future Scottish parliamentary election orders will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and that provision for that will be included in such a Bill. That would satisfy our commitment to a proper federal structure for the United Kingdom. Meantime, this order will contribute to a satisfactory Scottish general election next May. Of course, I cannot let pass the opportunity to mention that this will be the second Scottish general election since May 1703.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I shudder to think, having been a polling agent during all the recent elections, including the last Scottish parliamentary election, what would happen if the noble Earl's suggestion were implemented. It is essential to do what the Government have done; that is to say, make as many of the rules as possible for Westminster elections and Scottish Parliament elections the same. It is very confusing for people if the rules differ. We have an enormous number of elections in Scotland, so the least possible burden should be put on people. I therefore hope that the arrangements will remain a reserved matter.
My noble friend on the Front Bench asked about voter confusion. I shall be interested to hear whether the Government have any evidence. It was interesting that people in the area where I was working understood clearly which ballot box to use, and what they were doing. People in Scotland have a sophisticated understanding of elections. The poll tends to be quite high, and people were particularly keen to vote in the last Scots Parliament election. I have no experience of voter confusion, but I should be interested to hear the Government's information.
My noble friend on the Front Bench was right to ask about special advisers. The Scots Parliament is close to everyone, so special advisers work closely with the public and are deeply involved in issues. It is important that their behaviour during the elections is neutral. My noble friend also made an important point about how the United Kingdom political process operates during the Scots Parliament elections. It may be very annoying for people south of the Border to think that
The Government have done very well to consolidate all the information. Recent changes have been many and frequent. It is vital to have all the provisions in one order. Do the Government produce a handbook for those conducting elections, or must they use the order? I think in particular of agents, many of whom are not professionals. Many parties cannot afford professional agents. People are conducting this complicated operation following much change. I congratulate the Government on the legislation. They seem to have been asked many questions. I do not know whether they have the answers. If they have, it will be interesting to hear them.
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