Scottish Parliamentary Elections
Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government
3:34 pm

Photo of Douglas Alexander

Douglas Alexander (Secretary of State, Department for Transport; Paisley and Renfrewshire South, Labour)

With permission, I will make a statement on the conduct of the elections to the Scottish Parliament held on 3 May.

A great deal of wholly legitimate public concern has been expressed about certain aspects of last Thursday's elections, and I entirely share that concern. It focuses mainly on three areas: the arrangements for the administration of postal ballots, the operation of e-counting machines, and the significant numbers of spoilt ballot papers on the night. When it became apparent in the early hours of Friday morning that difficulties were emerging, I contacted Professor Sir Neil McIntosh, the Scottish electoral commissioner. I expressed to him my concern that these issues be addressed as part of the statutory review of the Scottish elections that the commission is obliged to undertake, and as a matter of urgency. Sir Neil was able to offer me that reassurance, and that investigation is now under way.

The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to report on the Scottish parliamentary elections. At the request of the Scottish Executive, it will also be reporting on the local government elections. The commission is an independent body and is committed to ensuring that there is a full and independent review of the Scottish elections. In areas where the commission itself has an operational involvement—for example, in its statutory duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems—the commission will ensure that there is independent evaluation of its own work, as it has done in respect of previous statutory reports. The commission is currently finalising the scope and time scale of the review, but intends to publish a report in the summer.

One focus of public concern has been the adoption of a single ballot paper for the Scottish elections, and another has been the holding of those elections on the same day as the local government elections in Scotland. The poll for the Scottish Parliament elections is set in the Scotland Act 1998. It has a pre-determined cycle, which the Parliament at the time supported fully. I am not aware of there being any calls to change that. The decision to hold the local government elections on the same day was entirely a decision for Scottish Executive Ministers. It was enshrined in legislation which was fully debated and passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Without wishing to prejudice the findings of the inquiry, I would like to set out to the House the sequence of recommendations, consultations and decisions that led to the adoption of a single ballot paper for both elements of the Scottish Parliament elections, which are matters for which the Government have legislative responsibility. On 25 May 2004, my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr. Darling, announced the creation of a commission, under the chairmanship of Sir John Arbuthnott, to examine the implications of Scotland having four different voting systems. That commission was independent and included nominations from political parties. The commission issued a consultation paper in January 2005 and spent 12 months gathering evidence and carrying out a wide-ranging and extensive inquiry. The Arbuthnott commission issued its report jointly to my predecessor and the Scottish First Minister on 19 January 2006. The report contained a number of recommendations and suggestions, some of them to the Electoral Commission concerning voter education, others to the Scottish Executive—such as a recommendation to move the date of the local government elections—and several to the Government. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West made it clear that it was unlikely that we would be in a position to implement those recommendations in the report which would require primary legislation in time for the 2007 Scottish elections. However, there was one matter that could be progressed without the need for primary legislation—the suggestion that the two ballot papers for the regional list and constituency member be combined into one, with the regional list on the left-hand column, based on the example of the New Zealand paper. In light of the views of the Arbuthnott commission, I decided to proceed with a wider public consultation in order to test whether the suggested move to a single ballot paper commanded more general support, and to explore the appropriate design of such a ballot paper.

The Scotland Office launched that consultation on 9 June 2006. In addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State met with a range of interested parties, including representatives from disability rights groups, to explore these issues. There was a significant level of support for a single ballot paper. Of 29 respondents, the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity party, the Liberal party of Scotland, ENABLE Scotland and Capability Scotland were not in favour of a combined ballot paper. I have requested that all responses to this consultation are placed in the Library of the House. The major political parties who expressed a view were largely in favour.

Derek Barrie, the chief of staff of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, responded on their behalf on 15 June. He said:

"The Scottish Liberal Democrats warmly welcome and fully endorse the proposal to have one ballot paper only for the next diet of Scottish Parliament elections in May 2007. This is one recommendation of Arbuthnott that we fully agree with."

Peter Murrell, chief executive of the Scottish National party, responded on 16 August 2006:

"The Scottish National Party is in support of the proposed move to a single ballot paper for both votes in the Scottish Parliament elections. We believe that this will aid understanding of both elements of the voting system and, in particular, remove any misunderstanding that the regional vote is somehow a second preference vote".

Lesley Quinn, general secretary of the Scottish Labour party, responded:

"The Scottish Labour Party strongly supports a single ballot paper, as this will simplify voting, counting, voter awareness and understanding. A single ballot paper will reduce the potential for voter confusion and be easier for people to use".

No response to the consultation was received from the Scottish Conservative party.

Beyond the political parties, the Electoral Reform Society responded:

"The Electoral Reform Society supports the use of a single ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament Elections".

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

"The SOLAR elections working group unanimously agreed to support the proposal that both Scottish Parliament contests be contained on one ballot paper."

To explore further the issues in advance of decision, as part of this consultation, the Scotland Office 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 Under-Secretary of State enclosing the findings of that research, which involved focus groups 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:

"As you can see, the research draws a number of clear conclusions for the design of the Scottish Parliamentary Ballot Paper. These conclusions point to the interests of the voter best being served by: A design of ballot paper that incorporates both the regional and constituency ballot papers alongside each other on a single sheet of paper".

The findings of the focus groups supported the move to a single ballot paper, with a significant majority of respondents agreeing, and 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 who expressed a preference, research indicating the best interests 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.

I will now deal with the issue of delays in the administration of postal ballots. The handling of postal votes is increasingly a subject 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 those matters would be fully investigated as part of the statutory review.

However, the processes at local level for the preparation and delivery of postal votes are a matter for returning officers and their staff. They make the contractual arrangements that they judge appropriate for their area. They are well aware of the tight time scales involved in getting out the papers to voters. When the Electoral Commission reports, I will, of course, examine whether the Government can take steps to help ensure that the postal vote problems that beset regions such as the highlands and Dumfries and Galloway, among others, do not happen again.

Finally, I shall deal with 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 in relation to handling a count of ballots under the single transferable vote method. Manual counts 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 throughout late 2005 and into 2006 up to the final procurement decisions.

Many tests and demonstrations were held for electoral administrators, political parties, special interests and others. Various contingencies were tested, including power failures and ballot papers that had been creased or folded. That 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 in Scotland, the Scottish Assessors Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. I am advised that none of the simulations gave any evidence of the kind or scale of problems that we saw in some centres on Thursday night and Friday morning. Clearly, this issue will be central to the Electoral Commission's report.

There are several 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, will be available by the summer. I will, of course, update the House at that stage in light of its conclusions.

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