Clause 1 — Administration of elections
David Mundell (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Scotland; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, Conservative)
The Government are looking forward to the debate in the Scottish Parliament later this week when it will consider the legislative consent motion coming forward from the Bill Committee. It will be very interesting to see how the SNP votes in that debate.
Clause 1 transfers to Scottish Ministers certain Executive functions relating to the administration of Scottish Parliament elections that are currently the responsibility of the Secretary of State. Members will wish to note that the Bill Committee in the Scottish Parliament accepted this provision in its report on the Bill. However, as has been mentioned, the report also asked for consideration of a number of related issues such as the procedure for filling any regional seat vacancy during the life of a Parliament, the rules relating to disqualification, and reciprocal consultation. I wish to reaffirm that the written statement from the Secretary of State makes clear our commitment carefully to consider those recommendations, including those relating to this clause. The Scottish Parliament will vote on the Bill on Thursday, and we await the outcome of that vote.
The clause will enable Scottish Ministers to make general provision by order for the conduct and administration of elections to Holyrood, subject only to some necessary constraints. This power includes making provision about supply or otherwise dealing with the electoral register, the combination of Scottish Parliament elections with other elections falling within the legislative competence of the Parliament, and limitation of candidates’ election expenses. However, some elements of the powers will remain the function of the Secretary of State—that is, the franchise and the power to combine Scottish Parliament elections with other reserved elections. That will ensure that issues of constitutional importance continue to be dealt with by the UK Parliament. The Scotland Bill Committee in the Scottish Parliament recognised and accepted the continued reservation of those matters.
Amendment 10, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, would require Scottish Ministers’ first conduct order under the new powers to include provision requiring returning officers to start the count at Scottish Parliament elections within four hours of the close of the poll, or to publish a statement explaining why they were unable to do so. It is important to clarify at this point that the amendment would not apply to the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.
I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue, which has been set out eloquently by Mrs McGuire, Michael Connarty and my hon. Friend Mrs Laing. The drama and excitement of election night and the wish to know the election result as soon as possible are vital parts of our political heritage. I want returning officers to listen to what has been said in this debate. As hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies know, Mary Pitcaithly, the chairman of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, will be available to Scottish MPs to discuss the arrangements for the forthcoming Scottish elections at a meeting at the Scotland Office later this week. I am sure that the point about overnight counts will again be forcefully made.
In a recent response to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, I suggested that he and his colleagues should lobby for overnight counts. I had noticed that the counts in Conservative-led council areas such as Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire were scheduled to be overnight counts, and that Labour predominated in the council areas that were on the list of counts scheduled to happen the following day. I therefore thought that he might be able to bring more influence to bear than I in those areas.