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SOLAR—the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland—responded:

“In order to further explore those issues in advance of a decision as part of the consultation, the Scotland Office also requested the Electoral Commission to research with voters the impact of any possible change to the ballot paper format. On 4 August 2006, Sir Neil McIntosh wrote to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, enclosing the findings of that research, which involved focus groups carried out in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Dundee. A copy of the research has been placed in the Library of the House, together with the covering letter from the Electoral Commission. In that covering letter, Sir Neil McIntosh wrote:

The findings of the focus groups supported the move to a single ballot paper, with a significant majority of respondents agreeing with the overall preference in favour of a single combined ballot paper rather than two separate papers.

“Only after that extensive consultation involving the widest possible range of stakeholders, the support of the main political parties that expressed a preference, the research received indicating the best interest of the voter being served by a single ballot paper, and clear official advice, was a decision taken to proceed with a single ballot paper for the Scottish parliamentary elections.“There is also the issue of delays in the administration of postal ballots. The handling of postal votes is increasingly of public interest and concern, which is why we already have stiff penalties in legislation to prevent fraud. The use of postal votes in higher numbers than before makes that all the more important. When it became clear that such delays were occurring in the days prior to polling day, I instructed my officials to contact the Electoral Commission to ensure that these matters would be fully investigated. “However, the process at local level for the preparation and delivery of postal votes is for returning

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officers and their staff. They make the contractual arrangements that they judge appropriate for their area. They are well aware of the tight timescales involved in getting out the papers to voters. When the Electoral Commission reports, I will of course examine whether there are steps that the Government can take to help ensure that the postal vote problems that certainly beset regions such as the Highlands, Dumfries and Galloway, among others, do not happen again.“Finally, I will turn to the issue of e-counting. In 2005, the Scottish Executive approached the Scotland Office to discuss the option of using e-counting at the combined poll. That arose mainly because of the benefits of handling a count of ballots under the single transferable vote method. Manual counting of STV would take many days and be highly complex. My predecessor as Secretary of State, after careful assessment of advice, gave an agreement in principle to the option, but stressed the need for systematic testing and evaluation of the equipment and software.“That took place through late 2005 and into 2006, up to the final procurement decisions. Many tests and demonstrations were held for electoral administrators, political parties, special interest groups and others. Various contingencies were tested, including power failures and ballot papers that had been creased or folded. The process was led by a steering group comprising officials from the Scotland Office, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament, as well as representatives from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators, the Scottish Assessors Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. I am advised that none of these simulations gave any evidence of the kind or scale of problems we saw in some centres on Thursday night and Friday morning. Clearly, this is an issue which will be absolutely central to the Electoral Commission’s report.“Mr Speaker, there are clearly a number of issues that need to be explored in relation to the problems encountered in the conduct of these elections. The Electoral Commission must now be allowed to undertake its statutory review which, as I have said before, will be available by the summer. I will, of course, update the House at that stage, in the light of their conclusions”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.16 pm

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. Speaking of the Scottish elections, it would be remiss of me not to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who is unfortunately not in his place, on his successful election to the Scottish Parliament. His only sadness must be that it looks as though he is to be denied the opportunity of asking the same kind of congratulatory questions of government Ministers there as he was able to do in this place.

Scotland has been wished four different voting systems. That has been a source of confusion for a

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start. The Government were warned by no less an authority than the Electoral Commission, and equally by the Arbuthnott commission, of the dangers of trying to hold an election for two different systems on the same day. The Labour and Liberal Democrat Members of the Scottish Parliament were likewise warned by the Scottish Conservative Members of the dangers of combining the local government elections with the Scottish parliamentary ones. Still they persisted. Does this not bring to mind the fiasco that we have all witnessed over the single farm payments in England, where an arrogant belief in a rational and intellectual but complicated system runs completely foul of reality?

The outcome is causing anger and dismay across Scotland. Noble Lords will be aware that in one constituency, Shettleston, there were over 2,000 spoilt ballots. A small country that thought that it was being offered the chance of a higher profile on the world stage has been turned into a laughing stock. I notice that it was claimed in another place that all the spoilt ballots from a few constituencies are not known. Can the Minister tell us how many spoilt ballots are known?

The final legislation for both elements of these elections was passed through this House after a Grand Committee on 7 March. The Statement highlights the problems of postal ballots. There have been stories of postal ballots being delivered on 2 May for an election on 3 May, or not at all. Can the Minister say why so little time was given to the returning officers to complete their tasks? The Statement talks of the tests and demonstrations of the machines for the electronic counting systems. Was the lateness in finalising the design of the ballot papers a factor in the electronic counting fiasco? What proportion of the votes was subject to recounting? In particular, did they have to be recounted manually as a result of the e-counting malfunction?

The Minister is a good and decent man. In his heart of hearts he will be as dismayed as the rest of us by the mess that the Secretary of State has created; yet another example of the consequences of the Government’s constant tinkering and messing about with our tried and trusted voting system. If the Prime Minister is looking for a legacy, he need look no further than the complicating and discrediting of a voting system once unquestioned anywhere. Once we sent out the international election inspectors and advisers; now they are heading to Holyrood to find out why Scottish electors are being robbed of their votes in their tens of thousands. What a shambles and a disgrace.

Is the Minister aware that in 11 general elections from 1964 the proportion of spoilt ballots was never more than 0.38 per cent, and usually below 0.2 per cent? In the first round of the recent French election, with 12 candidates and 37 million voters, spoilt ballots were only 1.4 per cent. By contrast, does he recall the fiasco of the London elections in 2004, the closest parallel to these events? Several voting systems were run in parallel on the same day and over 500,000 Londoners saw their votes spoilt; 3 per cent of mayoral votes and nearly 7 per cent of the Assembly votes were

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rejected. What was said then? The senior returning officer said that the legislation was not passed in time. The Electoral Reform Society said that the problems were foreseen but ignored. The Government said that they would learn the lessons. The shameful reality is that they did not listen then and they did not learn. As a direct result, Scotland has suffered a similar fiasco.

It is all very well the Electoral Commission and the Government promising an inquiry now and the Liberal Democrats calling for one, but they have all been complicit in creating the debacle. The most obvious place to look for solutions is not from those who presided over the debacle in the first place. I do not consider that the appointment of an inquiry into this fiasco, while necessary, is enough to absolve the Government of all responsibility.

5.21 pm

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I join in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement of the Secretary of State. Dismay at the outcome of the elections held on the same day is widely felt throughout Scotland. In passing, I note that the Scottish Conservative Party was not among those that gave advice about the process of having a double ballot on one paper. Some of us would prefer not to jump to conclusions as to which of the novelties was responsible for what appears to have been a catastrophically mismanaged election.

We welcome the Electoral Commission’s decision to put in hand the inquiry into the spoilt ballots, the postal voting and electronic counting; all of them had novel features and appeared to have contributed in some measure to denying perhaps as many as one in 20 of the Scottish electors the opportunity of contributing to the outcome of the election, as they believed they had done. There have been instances of voting for two authorities on the same day in the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland in 2005. There was a warning issued by the Electoral Commission at that time. In the report on that election it stated:

I think that it is fair to say that not much had been done in Scotland prior to the elections last Thursday. The Minister’s Statement indicated that the Government considered that there was not a sufficient gap between the decisions and the election to introduce legislation. Is legislation is really necessary to enable the education of the electorate to take place?

The problem has unquestionably vitiated the authority of those democratic elections. With such a high proportion of spoilt ballots, there must be great grievances in particular constituencies. It is extremely difficult for individuals who may have suffered from this to pursue their cause through an election court, particularly as there are so few precedents to guide the returning officers on what was appropriate behaviour and to enable the court to decide what would be unreasonable. I hope that, in considering these matters, the Electoral Commission will give thought to the possibility of manually checking e-ballots where the voter’s mind

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was not able to be read. The old system of manual checking was regarded as being effective and pretty accurate by and large.

My final point is on the review. In so far as there may be questions about whether the Electoral Commission conducted all the necessary preliminary inquiries and took the necessary steps, and given that it is, in a sense, involved in the outcome of this election, the Government will have to give some thought to whether further independent consideration needs to be given to those matters where it might be invidious for the commission to pronounce on its own performance.

5.27 pm

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, for his kind words about my noble friend Lord Foulkes. We on this side will miss him, and I personally will miss him a great deal, as he has been a breath of fresh air.

I disagree with the noble Duke’s point that this mess was created by the Secretary of State. That is a good political point, but if he listened to the Statement, as I am sure he did, he will know that the Scottish Executive made a number of decisions and local returning officers were responsible for many of the activities that resulted in the problems that he is laying at the feet of the Government. As I said, that is a good debating point, but it is not particularly fair.

The import of my right honourable friend’s Statement is that a number of things have gone wrong. He and the Government are determined to find out what went wrong. We have asked the Electoral Commission—an independent body with a statutory right and duty to look into these matters—to look into all aspects and report back. As my right honourable friend said a few minutes ago in another place, if, as a result of the Electoral Commission’s report, there is a need for further matters to be inquired into, we will not hesitate to do that. The intention is there; we are not avoiding any issue. That is an important point for all noble Lords to take on board.

Let me answer some of the specific points that the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, raised. The poll has been criticised, but the Scottish Parliament has, under the Scotland Act, the duty to come to those decisions. The local government elections are for Scottish Executive Ministers, not London, to decide on. There has been great discussion and concern about spoilt papers. As I have said, and as my right honourable friend said in another place, although that is a matter for the returning officers we think it would be unwise to comment upon it until we have the final tally. I am absolutely prepared to give an undertaking that these figures will be released once we have that tally.

On criticism of the Government about postal votes, and for not allowing enough time for those to be sent out effectively, their timetable is set by local returning officers. E-counting has clearly not gone as smoothly as anyone would have wished; that will also be an important aspect of the Electoral Commission’s report.

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Again, we cannot give precise figures at the moment on the spoilt ballot papers. There is a figure of 100,000 going around, but there is just a feeling—one to be confirmed or otherwise by the Electoral Commission—that that is rather high. We have no details yet of the local government ballot papers, so again it is best to wait to see what the actual figures are. On the high incidence of spoilt papers, I must underline that the Electoral Commission is impartial and can get an independent element into the review if so needed. If there is concern about the Electoral Commission, I should say that it can and will get independent, impartial advice within its review.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. The combined poll issue will form part of the Electoral Commission’s review, and the Government will consider carefully what is said on all points once that is available. I am afraid that we cannot comment on individual poll results, as there may be the possibility of further action. I hope that answers the major points that have been raised.

5.32 pm

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Statement, but I am disappointed by a number of aspects of it. First, I find it incomprehensible that some six days after an election we are not yet in a position to know the final tally of figures. It is the first election for 30-odd years, or nearly 40, at which I have not been present; had I had any involvement, I certainly would have been demanding that these figures be provided before the lights were put out in the counting stations. That point should be taken on board.

Secondly, none of us has any faith whatever in the Electoral Commission. Its ability to get behind the system in electoral politics seems almost the equivalent of a Chinese bureaucrat—a mandarin looking at a complex problem—who has a solution that does not necessarily bear any connection with reality.

Thirdly, on the counting of the papers, and the spoilt ones, as far as I can see there was no consideration given to a consistent approach to the issue. One would have thought otherwise, given the possibility for complexity—and I speak as a first past the post person, for I like the British electoral system when it is simple, with a result where you can kick up hell if you get beaten, knowing at the end of the day that you must wait four years to really solve that. It is extremely naive to assume that we would somehow have spoilt papers of the order of 0.1 or 0.2 per cent, as we would in a general election. We who have participated in general elections all know that the spoilt papers come at the very end. Most people are tired—the victors are elated and the defeated usually sickened—and not in a position to make rational judgments. Although the returning officer may only start work at 10 o’clock on election night, the rest of us have had rather a busy period before that and are probably too tired. Yet there is no excuse for abdicating responsibility and saying, “We’ll just set them aside”.

This was a disgrace and an embarrassment that lays grave questions on the competence of the officials who gave advice to hapless Ministers, who acted upon it in

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all good faith. I blame not the Ministers but the system, and I worry terribly that the same incompetents are to be required to report on themselves.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am grateful—I think—to my noble friend for his comments. He regards it as a scandal and a disaster that spoilt ballot papers have not been counted several days after the election, but I have said that we will come back to that once we know the tally. We do not know it, and there is no point in noble Lords getting up and complaining about it when that reality confronts us today. As I have said, that issue must and will be looked into and the figures will be passed on.

I must protest and disagree with my noble friend’s views on the Electoral Commission, which I have worked with for a number of years. It is independent and quite brilliant in the work that it does. Section 5 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires the Electoral Commission to review the conduct of each parliamentary election. It can involve external elements in reviewing an area where it feels that any previous involvement on its part—real or perceived—could prejudice its impartiality. I call on noble Lords to have confidence in the Electoral Commission; I am convinced that, when it reports, it will deal with all the problems that we have been talking about this afternoon, and that we will then be able to learn from what has happened and move on.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, the Statement that we have just heard was quite disgraceful. I have never seen so much buck-passing. It was the Government who introduced devolution and a different system for every set of elections in Scotland, and the Government must carry responsibility for this absolute scandal. With 100,000 people disfranchised, surely the issue we should be talking about is not whether the Electoral Commission should report, but whether we should rerun the election from start to finish. Hundreds of people have been disfranchised in their constituencies; the Minister has come here to say that we do not actually know how many spoilt ballot papers there were, when I heard them being declared—two thousand here, a thousand there—in constituencies where the majorities were tiny.

This is a huge democratic scandal that has reduced Scotland to a status that no self-respecting banana republic would have regarding its democratic procedures, and the Government must take responsibility. For the Secretary of State to make such a Statement shows that the Government have no idea of the anger and resentment in Scotland because of bungling by Ministers who will no longer take responsibility for the consequences of their own policy.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, says but, first, we are talking about a Statement on which noble Lords are invited to ask questions—not, in my view, to deliver an answer to a Statement to which the noble Lord did not enjoy listening.

Things have gone wrong. We are determined to find out why, and we feel that the Electoral Commission will do that for us. If there is the need for further

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inquiries after that then, as I have said, we will put those in place. I feel that the noble Lord is being most unfair to my right honourable friend in another place who, in my view, gave a Statement that accurately describes what has happened and said what was going to be done about it. We all need to learn from the unfortunate events of 3 May, and move on. I hope that all noble Lords will be able to move on with the Electoral Commission, once it gives its independent report.

Noble Lords: My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is the Liberals’ turn.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I begin by joining in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on his election to the Scottish Parliament. There were three of us from this House in the first Parliament; he is now the only one. We wish him well, although we will miss his habitual trenchant criticism of Her Majesty's Government in this House.

Seriously, my criticism of the Statement is that its tone did not seem to echo the gravity of what people feel went wrong in Scotland. I have spent considerable time in my retirement advising Parliaments and political parties and monitoring elections overseas. I do not know how I will be able to show my face in Africa in future, where I have seen counts conducted with chalk on the floor of a village school with much greater efficiency and accuracy than happened with our sophisticated system in Scotland. It is an acute embarrassment and a matter of public anger that so many votes were discounted. The tone of the Statement did not reflect that.

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