I beg to move,
That this House
considers that the rejection of 146,097 votes in the constituency and regional elections to the Scottish Parliament, the equivalent of over 1,000,000 in a UK general election, to be totally unacceptable and an affront to democracy;
notes that the number of rejected ballots exceeds the winning majority in several constituencies and that different formats of the regional ballot paper were used in different parts of Scotland;
further notes that serious concerns have been raised about the issuing of postal ballots for the elections and the electronic equipment and processes used for counting votes;
further notes that repeated advice not to hold the local government elections under the newly introduced single transferable vote system on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections was ignored by the Scotland Office and the then Scottish Executive;
calls upon the Secretary of State for Scotland to accept responsibility for the failures in the conduct of the Scottish Parliament elections and to apologise to the people of Scotland;
further notes that the Electoral Commission is to carry out an inquiry, but considers that such an inquiry should be independent of the Commission, which had a significant role in the conduct of the elections, if public confidence in the electoral process in Scotland is to be restored;
and accordingly further calls upon the Government, working in conjunction with the Scottish Executive, to instigate such an inquiry.
It would be remiss of me not to use this first opportunity to congratulate Mr. Salmond on his appointment as First Minister of Scotland and to wish him and his new Scottish Executive well as they discharge the responsibilities devolved to the Scottish Parliament. As I have said before, I believe that the Secretary of State for Scotland will rue the Government's failure over eight years to put in place appropriate mechanisms for dialogue and interaction between London and Edinburgh. However, that debate is for another day. I understand that today the First Minister is expected to make a statement on his programme for government. I shall watch with interest to see whether he makes any reference to the conduct of the Scottish elections, given his previous support for an independent inquiry.
The House will recall the statement by the Secretary of State on
"we owe the people of Scotland an apology."—[ Hansard, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 33.]
That apology is still not forthcoming. Instead, the Secretary of State has sought to use the Jack McConnell approach to the cost of the Scottish Parliament: everybody is to blame, so nobody is to blame.
The Secretary of State has already initiated an independent inquiry into this matter. Does not the Conservative party's choice of the subject of the Scottish elections have more to do with wishing to avoid its war about education and grammar schools, the issue of the patient's passport, which is set to be ditched, and the issue of the economy? The only thing that the hon. Gentleman's side could reasonably say would be, "Well done Labour!"
If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government have set up an independent inquiry, he is mistaken. They have not; they have referred the matter to the Electoral Commission. We regard this debate as one about an issue of great importance to the people of Scotland.
During questions on his statement, the Secretary of State seemed to suggest that the then figure of 100,000, cited in the media as representing the number of rejected ballots in the Scottish elections, was too high. In fact, the figure turned out to be too low, by nearly 50,000—there were 146,097 rejected ballots, the equivalent of 1 million in a UK general election. If that is not an important issue and an affront to democracy, I do not know what is.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some papers were deemed to have been spoilt because the first, single-Member ballot space was blank? That need not have been a mistake. Voters for the Green party, the two Trotskyist parties or the two religious extremist parties might have decided not to vote in the first-past-the-post section because there was no candidate for them.
I agree that there is a differentiation to be made between spoilt and rejected ballot papers. One thing on which Members across the House will agree is that the guidance to returning officers on what is a rejected ballot paper must be much clearer.
Since the Secretary of State's statement, further information about the use of different ballot paper formats in different regions of Scotland has come into the public domain. We Conservatives believe that the case for a fully independent inquiry is now even more compelling if public confidence is to be restored in the democratic process in Scotland.
I conceded that the Conservatives did not object to the single ballot paper. However, I said that we made it absolutely clear that the ballot paper should not be used on the same day as another ballot paper on which people were encouraged to make more than one mark. That is clear.
Today's debate is a further opportunity for Members to highlight their concerns. It is also an opportunity for responsibility to be taken and an apology to be made. We do not seek to score political points, but there are clearly deep concerns on both sides of the House. We are not calling for the elections to be rerun; nor are we calling for the Secretary of State's head, as others may have done—at least not yet. We simply want the Government to accept responsibility for the debacle on
On that point, I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Electoral Commission has responsibilities that it is now carrying out, and it has gone a bit further in by involving Mr. Gould. However, the hon. Gentleman specifically asks the House to support the appointment of an independent inquiry. No doubt he has costed that, so will he say what would be the cost and who would bear it? Would it be Westminster or the Scottish Executive?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, any costs would be a subject for the discussions—now regular, I understand—between the Scottish Executive and the UK Government. To date, the debacle has cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds. The matter must be put right if we are to restore integrity and confidence in the electoral system in Scotland.
May I ask for clarification from the Conservative Front Bench? The issue is important. The Conservative party motion calls for the UK Government to initiate an independent inquiry. The hon. Gentleman said that he would welcome the initiation of something by the Scottish Executive, and the First Minister has pledged that. Why does the hon. Gentleman want the UK Government to initiate a parallel inquiry?
As the hon. Gentleman knows but may not accept, the UK Government are responsible for the conduct of the Scottish elections and the Scottish Parliament is responsible for the conduct of the local elections. My view, and that of my party, is that this Parliament and the Scottish Executive should work together, and not in conflict, on such issues.
As I was saying, the purpose of such an inquiry would be to determine why so many electors were disfranchised from having their votes counted, why there were significant delays in the issuing of postal votes and why the arrangements for the counting of votes were so unsatisfactory. Most importantly, we want to ensure that this ludicrous situation is never allowed to happen again, in Scotland or anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I am thinking of the operational aspects of the elections and the holding of two elections on the same day under completely different voting systems.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen the briefing prepared for today's debate by the Electoral Commission? It outlines the terms of reference and method for the inquiry that Ron Gould has been asked to undertake. Will the hon. Gentleman indicate for the benefit of the House whether he would add anything to the terms of that inquiry?
That the Electoral Commission issued that document at least restores my faith in the impact of Parliament in requiring the production of that information. The hon. Gentleman does not understand the point of our motion, however. The point of this debate is that we want the inquiry to be independent of the Electoral Commission.
People keep referring to the Electoral Commission and many of us have observed its work since it was first established. I am sure that Sam Younger is a very nice man—I have had long chats with him. However, Sir Alistair Graham, appointed by the Government to look after standards in public life, criticised the
"lack of courage, competence and leadership" in the Commission's "regulatory and advisory approach" and said that it
"should have shown greater focus and courage in alerting the risk to the integrity of the electoral process from legislative changes".
He went on to recommend a change in statute to streamline and refocus the Electoral Commission. That is the point: the Electoral Commission does not have a good record, which is why we want an independent inquiry.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. A further, specific point is that the Electoral Commission was a key stakeholder in the process and played an instrumental part in the design of the ballot paper.
Nobody can argue that a 700 per cent. increase in the number of rejected ballots since the last Scottish parliamentary election is acceptable. There can be little doubt that the changes in the conduct of the election had a detrimental impact on the ability of electors to have their vote counted. The report on the London mayoral election, reinforced by the Arbuthnott commission, showed that that was entirely predictable if two elections using different voting systems were held on the same day, especially when both ballot papers were in a new format. I and others raised that issue with the Secretary of State and his predecessor on numerous occasions, but the response was always to brush aside such concerns and carry on regardless.
There is no evidence that any one political party or candidate was disproportionately disadvantaged by the number of rejected ballots, but it cannot be satisfactory that the number of rejected ballots exceeded the winning candidate's majority in more than 20 per cent. of constituency contests. In Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, for example, there were a massive 2,521 rejected ballots compared with a majority of 1,382. If "rejected" ballots had been a registered party in Glasgow Shettleston, it would have come third, with 2,035 votes—about 12.1 per cent. of the total votes cast.
Such figures strike at the heart of the United Kingdom's reputation for the conduct of elections, which was an example of best practice to the rest of the world before the Labour Government began meddling with the electoral process. Compared with many countries throughout the world that want to hold democratic elections, Scotland and the UK have the expertise and technology needed to conduct elections in a successful and professional manner, but only when the advice of professionals is taken and adhered to.
It is self-evident that the Electoral Commission has a duty to report on elections and its statutory review of the Scottish elections is welcome—but as part of a wider public inquiry, not instead of it. The basic premise of natural justice dictates that the same organisation should not be responsible for all lines of investigation when, as I have said, it played a significant role in the elections; in particular, setting out recommendations for the design of the single ballot. The Electoral Commission employed Cragg Ross Dawson to undertake research that was used as a basis for deciding on a single ballot paper. It could certainly be argued that the commission put an over-positive gloss on that report in its letter of early August, seemingly omitting to disclose the finding that the single paper option was more likely to lead to errors, and thus contribute to a higher number of invalid votes. If the Secretary of State has actually read the report, perhaps he will use this opportunity to clear up the media speculation in that regard.
The Electoral Commission also ran the "Vote Scotland" campaign jointly with the then Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive to ensure that people knew how to vote correctly. Before the elections, the commission repeatedly appeared in the media to reassure people about the process, especially the issuing of postal votes. Only an inquiry that is not conducted at the behest of a stakeholder will satisfy the desire for an impartial investigation into how many people were disfranchised.
No one would disagree that a debacle took place on election day, but I think the professionals created the problem, so it would be very unwise to say it was all the Electoral Commission. The matter is going to the Electoral Commission, so we should see what happens before we take the next step. I do not accept that people were not disadvantaged by the situation; parties must have won when they should not have won. Perhaps the easiest thing would be to go back to the Conservative policy—first past the post across the board for both local government and Scottish Parliament elections.
In the new spirit in Scotland of parties working together, perhaps my party could discuss that issue with Labour. I was surprised that Mr. McConnell succumbed to Liberal Democrat demands to introduce the single transferable vote, when combined Conservative and Labour votes in the Scottish Parliament at the time could have defeated the proposal.
The hon. Gentleman has to explain to the House why he concludes that just because Ron Gould has been appointed by the Electoral Commission he cannot be independent of the commission. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is some connection between Mr. Gould and the Electoral Commission that puts a question over his impartiality or independence? If he cannot provide such evidence, the logic of his position is that if the Scotland Office appoints somebody to conduct an inquiry, that person will not be independent either.
The hon. Gentleman and his party made it clear in their amendment, which was not accepted, that they support the role of the Electoral Commission in that process: we do not. We believe that the inquiry should be independent of the commission because it is a principal stakeholder in the process. [ Interruption. ] I have made that as emphatically clear as I possibly can.
As I said before, although the Conservatives did not oppose the introduction of a single ballot, we never agreed to its use on the same day as another ballot paper on which the making of more than one mark was actively encouraged.
No, not at this point.
Voters were told that they had two votes, but it appears that a large number of them interpreted that information as the need to mark two crosses in one column instead of one in each column, thereby rendering their vote invalid in each election. Is that really surprising when the explanation of the STV system was that it gave people more than one vote?
Any inquiry must also address whether the use of candidate names in party descriptions for the regional vote may have misled voters into thinking they were voting for their preferred constituency candidate.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. However, he will be aware that all the names on the ballot paper were sanctioned in advance and all party names were ratified. He says that people may have been misled. Will he consider the language he is using?
If the hon. Gentleman listens, he will hear me say that some people argue that it was a political masterstroke for the Scottish National party to designate itself as "Alex Salmond for First Minister", but the question is whether the appearance of that designation on the top left of ballot papers was a cause for confusion. Whoever conducts the inquiry, they must address that issue.
I must make some progress because we have a limited time for the debate.
There can be little doubt that the presentation of candidate names and party logos was compromised on many ballot papers. There was an attempt to accommodate the names of too many candidates on a defined size of ballot paper. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the elderly and people with sight problems, in particular, struggled with the instructions. Worse still, ballot papers issued at polling stations in Glasgow and Lothian did not resemble the sample papers previously shown to parties. It is a fundamental tenet of our democracy that a person voting in Shetland, for example, has the same format of ballot as a fellow citizen voting in Linlithgow. It is now clear that ballot papers across Scotland lacked uniformity. We regard that as entirely unacceptable—on a par with Florida's hanging chads.
As I voted in Moffat, I naively assumed that people voting in Edinburgh or Glasgow would be presented with the same form of ballot paper, but I was wrong. In the regions of Glasgow and Lothian, ballot papers had different instructions from ballot papers in other areas of Scotland. The arrows telling people in which columns to put their crosses were removed. Not surprisingly, those two regions recorded the highest number of rejected ballots: a staggering 7.85 per cent. in Glasgow and 5.2 per cent. in the Lothians. Only an independent inquiry can get to the bottom of those kinds of decisions.
We need to know from the Secretary of State how decisions were made on the final design and layout of ballot papers. Did he see the final variations in the ballot papers for all constituencies and regions across Scotland? Did he sign off the decision to remove the instructional arrows from the ballot papers in the Glasgow and Lothian regions? More importantly, what level of consultation did he undertake with political parties, candidates, returning officers, DRS and the Electoral Commission before making the decision? Why did he give precedence to the electronic counting process rather than to candidates and electors? I have no doubt that if market research had been undertaken on the final ballots, they would have been rejected outright—had the research documentation been read by the Secretary of State.
No doubt the use of e-counting in the elections played a major role in the decisions to change ballot papers. Electronic counting was introduced as a means to an end. It was adopted initially, it was said, to shorten the amount of time taken to count local ballots, because counting votes manually under the new STV system would take days rather than hours. But it is quite clear that e-counting became a means in itself in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where, instead of altering the ballot papers by deleting instructional information, there should have been a manual count if the machines could not cope.
The willingness to change fundamental aspects of the election process to suit the needs of electronic counting and DRS—its operator—has compromised the integrity of the electoral process. We must ask ourselves the serious question of whether, after these events, e-counting can give everyone the confidence that the election count is being carried out appropriately. Many candidates complained in the media that they had no idea of the outcome of their election until a few minutes before it was announced—unlike what happens with the traditional hand count.
May I deal briefly with postal ballots? Every right hon. and hon. Member from Scotland will have heard from constituents who were unable to vote owing to the late arrival of postal ballots. That is simply administrative incompetence striking at the heart of the democratic process. We may never know how many electors were disfranchised by the postal vote debacle, which saw probably hundreds of people unable to return their ballots in time. It is ironic that postal votes arrived on polling day and that the only way to make them count was to take them to the polling station—if the elector was lucky enough to be at home to receive that vote. The Government have always known about, and encouraged, the trend of more and more people opting for a postal vote. The election date was hardly a surprise and there is no excuse for not putting arrangements in place to guarantee that, at least from an administrative perspective, postal voters received their postal ballots on time.
There can be no doubt that the Government had a genuine opportunity to work with the Scottish Executive to reduce the possibility of voter confusion. The key to that would have been to decouple the two elections, as many people advocated. That is the view not just of the Conservatives or the newly appointed Scottish Executive, but of the Government's own Arbuthnott commission, which recommended it. The Electoral Commission made the scale of the difficulties clear during the evidence that it gave to the Local Government and Transport Committee of the Scottish Parliament. The Arbuthnott commission summed up the arguments perfectly, saying that holding the elections on separate days would
"reduce the complexity of voting, potentially reduce voter confusion and keep the number of invalid votes to a minimum. It would also reduce administrative complexity in the planning, management and counting of the elections, and enhance the transparency of the electoral process, especially allowing attention to be focussed on local issues."
It is ridiculous of the Secretary of State and his predecessor to argue that only the Scottish Executive were responsible for the date of the local government elections, when obviously holding those elections on the same day would have an impact on the Scottish Parliament elections. He may have no influence with the Scottish Executive now, but he did then. When I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I introduced the Local Government Elections Bill to do just what I have been talking about, but Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Ministers thwarted constant attempts to get the Bill through. Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament will continue to pursue the cause and will look to the new Scottish Executive for support this time around.
The high level of rejected ballot papers in the local council counts compared with the last elections—the level almost tripled—is also unacceptable. The system is certainly not the great triumph that the Electoral Reform Society or the Liberal Democrats would have us believe. The confusion, in terms of which councillor does what, has not even begun. Even if STV is accepted, what can be the purpose of holding such elections on the same day if, as was shown in the London mayoral elections and voting in Northern Ireland, having two separate systems in operation always exposes us to the risk of a disproportionately large number of people having their ballots rejected?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the proposal that the investigation should also look at the impact of alphabetical position on candidates' success rates and at the impact of not grouping candidates from the same party together on the ballot paper? Those issues are an important aspect of the review, but they have not been included so far.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. All the flaws of the STV system, which the Liberal Democrats advocate again today, were highlighted at the time of the introduction of the process in the Scottish Parliament. Just as Rhodri Morgan in Wales appears to be willing to accept that sort of arrangement, Labour in the Scottish Parliament accepted the introduction of STV.
Whatever our view of the outcome, the conduct of the Scottish elections cannot be described as a success in any way, shape or form. That was and is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland and no amount of trying to divide up the blame can hide that. It is time to take responsibility and to apologise.
Our motion sets out a basis on which to restore confidence and faith in our electoral system not just in Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom. We want the serious issues that arose at these elections to be exhaustively investigated, independently of all stakeholders responsible for conducting them. We also want proper consideration to be given to decoupling the Scottish parliamentary and local council elections, to reduce both the possibility of voter confusion and the number of rejected ballots. I urge the House to support the motion.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
'notes that a statutory review of the Scottish Parliament elections is already underway conducted by the Electoral Commission as required by Parliament;
further notes that, at the prior request of the then Scottish Executive, this review will also cover the Scottish local government elections;
welcomes the appointment of an international authority on the management and organisation of elections, Mr Ron Gould, the former Assistant Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, to lead the review;
further notes that his terms of reference include examining the role of the Electoral Commission in the preparation of the elections, as well as matters relating to postal ballot delays, the high number of rejected ballots, combining Scottish local government and Scottish parliamentary elections, and the electronic counting process;
and believes that this statutory review which is now in progress should complete its report in order to inform decisions in relation to any further steps which may be necessary or appropriate.'.
The substance of today's debate is not whether lessons will be learned or answers will be given in the light of the difficulties encountered in the Scottish elections, but how that process will happen. In the days following
We have never suggested that we will not countenance further inquiries. Instead, we argue that it is right on balance to let the statutory review led by Ron Gould report before deciding on the next steps. The motion calls for an independent review of the conduct of the Scottish elections. It also calls on me, as Secretary of State for Scotland, to accept responsibility and to apologise to the people of Scotland. As I will set out, a review is in progress that is independent of the Government and headed by an international authority on elections. As Secretary of State, I accept responsibility for the actions and decisions of the Scotland Office. If the review finds fault with those actions and decisions, I will, of course, apologise.
The House established the independent Electoral Commission and gave it the duty through legislation to carry out statutory reviews of elections. As I indicated in exchanges following my statement to the House on
Of course, it is for the usual channels to determine the debates that take place in the House. However, let me reiterate a point that I made in my statement: the House will of course be updated at the conclusion of the review. Technically, the review will go to the Scottish Executive, the Scotland Office and electoral returning officers, but we will ensure that it is made available to all hon. Members. My hon. Friend asks how Members of Parliament can set out their views to the review. I certainly hope that Mr. Gould will take cognisance of this debate. It remains open to any hon. Member to provide evidence or information to the review as it undertakes its work.
Under the terms of the review, I note that the Electoral Commission welcomes the views of members of the public. May I suggest that it needs to do much more than that? It should take direct evidence from voters of all relevant ethnic, socio-economic and gender groups to ensure that we get a true representation of what voters think about the process.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, it is not for me to prescribe the format of the independent review. However, I take heart from the fact that the further information that was provided on the terms of the review at the beginning of this week indicated that there would be an opportunity for public meetings to be held. I certainly hope that a wide cross-section of people will have the opportunity to provide evidence and opinions to the review.
So is the right hon. Gentleman's point that he does not think that he or his colleagues in the Scottish Executive owe the people of Scotland an apology at the moment, and that only if the report says so will he be prepared to come to the Dispatch Box to say sorry for 140,000 people losing their votes?
May I offer the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to correct the factual error that he made in claiming that 140,000 people lost their votes? As I will demonstrate during my speech, if he was familiar with the situation in Scotland he would realise that he could not make that claim before the House with any authority.
The hon. Gentleman's intervention was telling. During the speech made by David Mundell, I felt that opportunism was vying with statesmanship—and opportunism won. He simultaneously predetermined the outcome of the review and demanded that an independent inquiry be established, incidentally by the Government, no doubt in consort with the Scottish Executive. The problem for Mr. Heald is that after just the introductory Front-Bench speech, the Conservative party's argument, as set out in the motion, is in severe danger of collapsing under the weight of its contradictions.
The Electoral Commission has already commissioned a report for the Secretary of State by a man called Cragg Ross Dawson. That report first highlighted the difficulties with the single ballot paper. What were the Secretary of State's conclusions about that report and what did he do to address the concerns expressed?
I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman's questions. The Cragg Ross Dawson report was produced not by an individual, but by a company. It was commissioned by people in the Scotland Office, who had requested that work be undertaken through the Electoral Commission. The report was sent to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend David Cairns, with whom I discussed the matter. It formed part of a consultation exercise that received 28 responses, along with three further responses that, technically, arrived after the consultation had concluded. We took account of the responses when we reached our decisions. I then had the opportunity to receive from officials a summary of the conclusions of all the consultation responses that we received, including work commissioned by the Electoral Commission. I discussed the report with the Under-Secretary and officials before making decisions.
The House established the independent Electoral Commission and gave it a duty to carry out statutory reviews of elections. As I said, only when we have sight of its report will it be appropriate to determine the next steps to take. Let me remind the House of the remit of the commission and point out why I believe that it is only sensible to let it get on with its job before deciding what further steps might be necessary.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 established the Electoral Commission and tasked it with, among other things, the job of reviewing the conduct of elections and reporting back to both the Government and Parliament with its findings and recommendations. That duty was conferred on it by the House without dissent. So far, it has reported on general elections, European elections, the 2003 elections for the Scottish Parliament and elections for other devolved institutions.
The commission's review of the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections is under way. Before the elections, the Scottish Executive asked the commission to review, as it did in 2003, the conduct of the Scottish local government elections, for which the Executive have legislative competence. Frankly, that makes sense. The decision of the Scottish Parliament in 2002 to move the date of the local government elections so that they could be held on the same day as the parliamentary elections had the effect of synchronising the elections.
The Secretary of State is being generous with his time. Does he think that, with the benefit of hindsight, the House might have to accept that it got the constitution of the Electoral Commission wrong? Does he accept that the insistence on not giving any of the political parties representation on the commission is seen as one of its major weaknesses because few on the commission have hon. Members' day-to-day political experience of being involved in elections? Will he speak to Ministers with responsibility for the commission to determine whether there is any prospect of an early review of its constitution?
The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Bridget Prentice, who is sitting on the Front Bench, assures me that consideration is being given to all those points. However, the House will understand that given the importance of the statutory review, the independence of Ron Gould and the important task that he is taking forward, it would not be appropriate for me to offer an opinion at this stage about the role and remit of the Electoral Commission. However, I say that without prejudice to the fact that the House will no doubt return to the matter in due course.
It is important that the review examines seriously the role of the Electoral Commission and the representation of political parties. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the parties had been represented on the commission, there would have been little likelihood that "Alex Salmond for First Minister" would have been allowed as the name of a political party on the regional list?
I was about to say, "In fairness to the SNP", which is an uncharacteristic phrase to pass my lips. However, it is fair to acknowledge that, as the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale pointed out, that designation for the party was approved ahead of the elections in the standard procedures, but it would be entirely for the independent leader of the review, Ron Gould, to consider whether that is a material consideration in his review. I do not wish to prejudice his right to consider that and other matters by commenting on them today.
May I follow up the important point made by my hon. Friend Ann McKechin on the need to have public input to the review? Will my right hon. Friend consider the Scotland Office and the Scottish Executive running a joint advertising campaign to inform the public on how they can have input to the review? There is likely to be next to no public input if no one knows how to do it.
It is not for me to prescribe the means of publicising the review, although, as I have already assured the House, I hope that those leading the review will look carefully at the comments made in today's debate. The review is to be funded through the Electoral Commission, not by the Scottish Executive or the Scotland Office, so there is no issue of budgetary constraints being exercised to prevent the public from being made aware of their opportunity to contribute to the review. It is important proactively to give people that opportunity, because when one looks at where there were the highest levels of rejected ballot papers, one sees clearly that there are some constituencies where it is important to hear the voices of people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to have their voices heard in the debate.
I wish to make a little more progress before giving way again.
As I said, the decision of the Scottish Parliament in 2002 to move the date of the local government elections so that they were held on the same day as the parliamentary elections had the effect of synchronising the two elections. The arrangements for the synchronised elections were overseen this year by an elections steering group, chaired by Scottish Executive officials and comprising officials from the Scotland Office, the Electoral Commission, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Parliament and representatives of returning officers, registration officers and other election administrators. The presence of the Electoral Commission on the steering group, as well as the wider role that it played during the preparations for the elections, has prompted questions in this debate and in the discussion following my statement to the House on
The commission has acknowledged and sought to address those concerns regarding the work of the review. In particular, it has appointed one of the world's leading experts in the conduct of the elections to "lead" the "Scottish elections review". I welcome that appointment. Mr. Ron Gould, who has agreed to take on that important role, is a former assistant chief electoral officer of Canada. He has participated in more than 100 election assistance missions in more than 70 countries since 1984 and he is considered to be one of the leading world experts on the organisation and management of elections. At the time of his appointment, Mr. Gould said:
"I look forward to working with all those involved in the Scottish elections to enable us to develop a clear picture of exactly what happened and why."
The commission's latest announcement, made on
Given the narrowness of the SNP victory both in overall seats and in several individual seats, does the Secretary of State agree that it is quite possible that the will of the Scottish people was that Labour should be the biggest party and still hold the post of First Minister, and that the large number of votes that could not be counted made that impossible?
I did not make that claim in my previous statement and I will certainly not make it today. As in every other election, it is open to individual candidates who wish to challenge the veracity of a constituency result to do so by means of a petition to the electoral court—there is a period in which such an approach may be made. It is not for me to comment on individual results—that would not be appropriate. However, in the light of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I do reflect on the fact that, had I been minded to suggest a different type of review given the closeness of the result, I would have been subjected to heavy criticism by the Opposition for not being willing to accept the decision of the Scottish electors as manifested in the constituency and regional list results that emerged from the events of 3 and
The Scotland Office—Ministers and civil servants—will co-operate with Mr. Gould's review. As I have said, Mr. Gould will be able to consider the points made in this afternoon's debate, and I am sure that Members of this House will want to submit evidence to the review. Although the commission has said that it expects the review to report in the summer, the time scale will ultimately be determined by Mr. Gould, who leads the review.
Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that Mr. Gould and the inquiry team will have the opportunity to speak with the senior management of Royal Mail? There seems to be some ambiguity about when people received—or did not receive—their ballot papers.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. One of the issues that the Electoral Commission identified for the statutory review and which I requested that the review consider is delays affecting postal ballots. It is not for me to speculate at the Dispatch Box today; I simply observe that there seem to have been different circumstances in those areas where there was difficulty with postal ballots and it seems entirely appropriate for the review team, if they are so minded, to make inquiries directly with Royal Mail, given its involvement in dispatching postal ballots.
The commitment to impartiality demonstrated by the commission's announcement reinforces my belief that if I were to accede at this stage to the urgings of those who wish to establish a judicial or some other form of inquiry at the present time, we would be in the position of having two parallel investigations into precisely the same events examining the same issues, talking to the same people and reviewing the same decisions at the same time. That does not strike me as the most sensible course of action, particularly when the Electoral Commission has said that the review is expected to have completed its work in just over 12 weeks' time. I believe that it is better to await the report and then to take decisions informed by its findings and recommendations.
After the elections on
I am aware that a number of colleagues are keen to speak today and time is short, so I shall not repeat all the detail that I set out in my statement. However, because I am sure that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire would never intend inadvertently to misspeak in the House of Commons, I am keen to clarify exactly what I said about the number of rejected votes in the course of the exchanges following my statement. I said:
"a final tally is still to be reached on the number of spoiled papers".—[ Hansard, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 29.]
At that time, the final authoritative figures were in the process of being collated. There has been much speculation about the level of rejected votes—figures of 5, 7 and 10 per cent. have been quoted in the press and elsewhere—but the actual figures have now been published. Across the regional and constituency sections, 3.47 per cent. of the total votes cast in the Scottish Parliament elections were rejected. That breaks down as 60,454 rejected papers in the regional vote, representing 2.88 per cent. of the total votes cast in that section; and 85,643 rejected papers in the constituency vote, representing 4.07 per cent. of the total votes cast in that section. The level of rejected papers and the problems encountered with e-counting and the administration of postal votes are subjects of Mr. Gould's review.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the terms of reference for the Electoral Commission's statutory review. Obviously, I would like there to be an independent review, but I nevertheless welcome the initiative whereby information officers were placed at polling stations. However, there is anecdotal evidence that in the council ballot, those officers advised people to put an X by each of their three choices, rather than to put 1, 2 or 3 by their names. The advice given by information officers on the day may have been wrong. Could that be considered as an important part of the review?
To rehearse a point that I have already made, it is not for me to prescribe the work of the review, but clearly if such activity was taking place at polling stations, it is wholly unacceptable. As I understand it, such a matter would be the direct responsibility of the electoral returning officers, but that is one of the issues that it seems entirely appropriate for the independent review to investigate. There was, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, a recognition of the need to ensure that people were available to explain the systems of voting that were in place, but it seems entirely appropriate that the review should consider the matter that he raises.
The Secretary of State mentioned the number of ballot papers that were spoiled. Can he tell us how many of them were spoiled as a result of over-voting or something similar, and how many were spoiled by being left blank? As I said to David Mundell, it is entirely possible that many of those ballot papers were deliberate abstentions, and should therefore not be counted as spoiled papers, as it was the voter's intention to spoil them.
One of the striking features of the authoritative figures that I have just shared with the House is that the regional vote, which for the first time appeared on the left-hand side of the joint ballot paper—that, of course, is a matter of contention—had significantly fewer rejected votes than the constituency section of the ballot paper, which was on the right-hand side of the paper. In that sense, it is entirely relevant for the independent review, if it is so minded, to consider that issue. It is at least possible that, in a certain number of cases, people were determined to vote for a particular party on the regional list section of the ballot paper, and were determined not to vote for any candidate on the constituency section. I do not for a minute suggest that that explains the scale of the number of rejected papers, but it has been suggested, at least anecdotally, that there may have been individuals who, for example, were determined to vote for the Green party on the regional list, but who decided not to vote in the constituency section. That is a matter that will need to be considered by the independent review.
I do not quite get the right hon. Gentleman's maths; 140,000 votes were lost, but he is saying that the figure is somehow less than 140,000 because the votes were in two different categories. How many people is he saying were disfranchised?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has a grasp of geography or of electoral systems. He alleged, before the House, that 140,000 people had had their votes denied. Given that there was a vote both in the regional section and in the constituency section, it is perfectly conceivable that the same people are accounted for in both figures. I am not able to give a figure for the number of people involved, but I can rehearse the authoritative figures, whereas the hon. Gentleman, with absolutely no factual evidence— [Interruption.] He has now accepted that he may well be wrong; well, that is significant progress.
That argument would perhaps explain a small loss of votes, but let me tell the Secretary of State about the position in my local area. In Lothian, there was a list system on the left-hand side of the paper and the constituency section was on the right; they basically ran on from each other. We lost hundreds of votes because people voted for the Scottish Labour party under the list system and did not transfer over to the other side of the paper. The design of the paper is a crucial part of the inquiry.
I will come to the issue of the design of the paper and the responsibility for the variations in design across the country. That issue was rehearsed by the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, who spoke for the Opposition, and was referred to at least implicitly in the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Devine.
I have been generous in giving way and now I will make a little more progress. A key concern of the Arbuthnott commission was the need to enhance the understanding of the regional vote, which we have just been discussing. The process that led from the Arbuthnott commission first drawing attention to the combined ballot paper model used in the New Zealand elections to the final design was inclusive and consensual. Consultation was extensive and detailed. As I have already told the House, there were 29 responses to that consultation, and three late responses were also taken into account. Political parties, voters, election administrators, representatives of disabled peoples' organisations and all other interested parties were consulted.
Under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998, I am responsible for laying before Parliament the orders that set the statutory requirements for ballot papers for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Those requirements are set out in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections (Returning Officers' Charges) Order 2007, which was approved by both Houses, without Division, in March this year. As in other elections, including general elections, returning officers have statutory responsibility for implementing the rules covered in the elections order, and have scope to alter the design of the ballot papers provided that they do not diverge from those statutory requirements. Those are all matters that will be covered in Mr. Gould's report, so the Government amendment asks the House to allow him to do the job for which he is well qualified. When he has finished his task, we will be able to take stock and form a view about what further action is necessary. A statutory review led by an independent expert is already under way. The Government have made it clear that they will co-operate with the review and will consider whether further action is necessary. It is expected that the review will be concluded in just over 12 weeks' time. I ask the House to support the Government's amendment.
I start by joining in the congratulations to Mr. Salmond on his recent election to the post of First Minister. I just wish that he were here so that I could offer those congratulations to him in person. We will have to hope that he is an avid reader of Hansard and still has the time to keep up with what is happening in the House.
We were all appalled as we watched events unfold on the night of
On the hon. Lady's point about welcoming the debate, I note that she has said:
"I welcome the review that the right hon. Gentleman has said will look at the contentious aspects of the spoiled ballots, the postal voting and the electronic counting...we should wait for the review to understand properly where the problems lay."—[ Hansard, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 27.]
Is that not jumping on the Tory bandwagon? May I tell the hon. Lady that she should be very afraid of opening Pandora's box when it comes to the Scottish parliamentary elections, because we made the amendment to introduce first past the post.
I welcome the hon. Lady's intervention, and her warning, which I am sure was kindly meant. We certainly welcome the review, as we stated in the Liberal Democrat amendment, which was tabled but not selected. Obviously, many Members of the House have views on the Scottish elections and, as has already been said, I am sure that Ron Gould will be taking special notice of this debate and the experiences that hon. Members will want to share. The opportunity to share those experiences was perhaps more limited when the Secretary of State for Scotland made his statement on
Obviously, the purpose of the inquiry is to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. Some mistakes can be forgiven, but failing to learn from them cannot be forgiven. We need to look in detail at the circumstances surrounding the selecting of the ballot paper design. We need to ask why problems occurred, not only with the e-counting. but with the postal vote; clearly, that should have been one of the least troublesome aspects of the election. It was the one part that we were already used to, as it had been used in previous elections. We need to ask whether, as David Mundell suggested, decoupling the Scottish and local elections would succeed in reducing voter confusion while maintaining turnout levels.
On the issue of spoiled ballot papers, as has been said, there were 15 constituencies in which the winning Scottish National party's majority was smaller than the number of rejected ballots. As has been pointed out, the highest difference was in Edinburgh East and Musselburgh. Interestingly enough, the second highest difference was in Glasgow Govan, where the number of spoiled ballot papers was greater than the majority by 1,106. Like others, I do not want to call the election result into question, but it is worrying that the figures provide a sound basis for those who want to do so. Whatever people's views on that, it is certainly true that the high levels of spoiled papers undermine the public's faith in the electoral system. We need to put that right.
The single ballot paper commanded general support among political parties and other organisations that were consulted in the run-up to designing it. In Committee, a draft ballot paper was circulated and we discussed how clear it would be for voters. However, two issues need to be raised: first, how it was tested; and secondly, the difference between it and the ballot papers in Glasgow and Edinburgh. As has been mentioned, the testing was carried out by a company called Cragg Ross Dawson. That involved 100 people being interviewed and asked their views on five different ballot paper designs. Interestingly, the single ballot paper was the most popular, as the Minister said in Committee.
Looking in more detail at what happened in the testing process, 7 per cent. of the test subjects mistakenly spoiled their ballot paper. The Secretary of State gave the figures for spoilage in the different elections. If one combines them, it could be 140,000 individuals, although I accept that it is impossible for us to find out exactly how many individuals spoiled their ballots without compromising voter privacy.
Does the hon. Lady accept that although it is impossible for any of us to know at this stage, it is not impossible for Ron Gould to discover it by examining the individual papers? Indeed, it is possible to remove identifying remarks from ballot papers and to make them widely available so that anoraks can study them.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Electoral anoraks, as it were, having a look at the ballot papers and where the confusion lay, obviously with identifiers removed, will be an important part of the process. That would clearly take some time, but, dare I say, with the technology of the different barcodes it may even be possible to find out how many individuals were affected, although given our experience of the technology so far that may be easier said than done.
Taking the figure of 140,000 to be the total number who spoiled their ballots, that could be as many as 7 per cent. of the population, which is the proportion that were spoiled in the testing stages. Given that this was the ballot paper design that produced mistakes, should not the Electoral Commission have been a little more robust in its testing? A sample size of 100 is not very large in statistical terms; it equates to just seven individuals, which may not be statistically significant.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady will comment on something that she said in Committee on
"I welcome the new design. The dual colour scheme will make it clear that the separate votes are to go on one paper. I also welcome having a single paper for the Scottish Parliament and a separate paper for local government because it will help remove confusion among voters". ——[Official Report, Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee,
I accept that. As I said a moment ago, there was acceptance on both sides of the Committee that a single ballot paper was the best way to proceed. We all believed that and are dismayed by what has happened. That is why it is important to have the inquiry to find out what could have been done differently. I urge Ron Gould, in the conduct of his inquiry, to investigate thoroughly why, after that level of testing, the Electoral Commission did not then probe further, conduct further tests and see how the spoilage rate could have been reduced. That may well be instructive for what to do in future.
How hands-on were the Secretary of State and the Minister with the testing process? In terms of making the decision, I can understand their saying that it was the most popular option, but it would have been fairer to say that it is likely to have a higher spoilage rate. Will they publish any correspondence and communication that they had with the Electoral Commission so that it can be in the public domain and everyone in this House and among the public is able to see what went on?
The spoilage rates in Glasgow and Edinburgh are of particular concern, because of the top 10 constituencies with high spoilage rates, seven were in Glasgow and Edinburgh. About 1,000 more papers were spoiled there than in the next nearest region. As a voter in East Dunbartonshire, I did not realise until after the election that a different ballot paper had been issued for Glasgow and Edinburgh. I understand that that was because there was a problem with fitting all the names on to the ballot paper that had been drafted. I have seen an example of the one used in Glasgow, which seems to have 23 different parties contesting the regional list side of it. The ballot paper does not have the clear arrow design that was shown to us in Committee. It has information at the top of it, but not the very obvious arrows pointing to the columns where the individual would need to vote. I can understand why it was more confusing. Indeed, the spoilage rates were on average 2 per cent. higher in Glasgow and Edinburgh than in the rest of Scotland, so there is good evidence that it led to confusion. The Secretary of State said that this is just a matter for returning officers and that he had nothing to do with it. However, when we were shown in Committee the draft ballot paper design with arrows on it, we were all led to believe that that was how it would be designed. That was at the beginning of March. When was the decision made to change it? Did the Secretary of State know about the change? Did he approve of it? Could not the need for it have been foreseen? There would have been room on the ballot paper to include the arrows, so why was that not done?
Does the hon. Lady agree that the fundamental problem with the election was the voting system, namely PR? Does she agree that there is no credibility whatsoever in any PR system given what has happened in Scotland? Her party's core objective is to try to get minority parties represented, yet most of the minority parties in the Scottish elections did not get a seat.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I must correct him. My party's objective is not to get minority parties represented, but to get the election result to reflect the way that people voted so that everyone's vote counts. That is hugely important to the credibility of the voting system. I do not accept that the PR voting system was the problem. Indeed, we had the same system for the Scottish Parliament elections in 2003, and it was not a problem. The single transferable vote system that was implemented this year had a much lower spoilage rate than the Scottish Parliament system. That points to its success and clarity. It was easy for people to understand how to rank in order of preference, as opposed to the confusion caused by the spoiled ballot papers.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point very well— [ Interruption. ]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Let me turn to postal voting. Members on both sides of the House have encouraged postal voting as a way of ensuring that people find it easy to vote, and that is welcome. People want a postal vote for a whole variety of reasons. They include people who are working away from home—in Scotland, that can be offshore—people who are on holiday, people who are housebound, and people who have busy lives and it is one less thing to do. That is a trend that has been happening over several elections, and is not difficult to predict. We know that postal voting has been increasing. Surely, we ought to be able to get it right. That aspect of the election was not new—it had happened previously—even though more people applied for postal votes in the recent elections.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the elections presented a perfect opportunity to consider the early opening of postal votes and establish that a problem was about to happen on
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I hope Ron Gould will examine in the context of flagging up difficulties and perhaps issuing advice at polling stations to try to counteract the problems of spoilt ballots.
The hon. Lady has welcomed postal voting in the busy lives of the electorate. How much has the turnout increased since it was made more widely available?
I do not have the figures to hand. I did not realise that they would be an issue in the debate. However, many of my constituents welcome the opportunity to vote by post— [Interruption.]
My constituents tell me that they appreciate the opportunity of voting by post and the simplicity of doing that. That is welcome, but many were incredibly worried—they wrote to me and e-mailed me—because they were about to go on holiday and had been told that they would get a postal vote before they went but it had not arrived. People understandably feel strongly about being disfranchised. They have every right to be angry. As the Secretary of State knows, the issue was raised before the elections. I went on "Newsnight" and one of the points I made was that it was ominous that postal voting was the bit that should have been easy to get right, and it did not bode well for the electronic counting and so on.
We need to consider why lessons were not learned. Many of the same problems arose in the Greater London assembly elections in 2004: 423,000 Londoners registered to vote by post but 159,000 did not vote. Thousands of postal ballot papers were not even delivered. The Royal Mail apparently told the returning officer in Lewisham that it could guarantee delivery of only four out of every five ballot papers. A report was conducted about the GLA elections and we should have learned lessons from it. The Secretary of State has some explaining to do about the failure to take advantage of the experiences of 2004 to prevent further problems in Scotland.
Let us consider election decoupling, which the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale emphasised. I take issue with the Conservative motion's contention that the Government ignored advice about holding elections on the same day. I believe that they listened to the advice but took the view that holding the elections on the same day would increase turnout. I have much sympathy with that view.
The decision to hold elections on the same day was a matter for the Scottish Executive, of which the Liberals were part. The hon. Lady and I attended the debate about the Arbuthnott commission. One of John Arbuthnott's clear recommendations was not to hold the elections on the same day, but it was ignored.
I accept that John Arbuthnott made that recommendation. However, I believe that there remains a good case for holding elections on the same day. If we consider turnout figures, about which we all care deeply, the turnout in the three local government elections in Scotland in 1992, 1994 and 1995 varied between 42 per cent. and 45 per cent. In the three years when local elections were held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections—1999, 2003 and this year—the turnout was between 49 per cent. and 59 per cent. That is at least 5 per cent. higher.
Let me put the 140,000 spoiled ballots into context. Five per cent. more people going to vote in Scotland is the equivalent of 193,000 more votes being cast. That is important because it denotes another way in which people's voices are lost in the electoral system. There is, therefore, an argument for holding the elections on the same day.
Not that much evidence yet suggests that holding the elections on the same day caused the problem. The spoilage rate for the STV element of the election was low compared with that for the Scottish Parliament election. That suggests that the problem lies with the ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament elections. The logic of the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is therefore somewhat flawed.
Last week, I presented a Bill on STV for the Scottish Parliament elections. I believe that it would help solve the problem of decoupling because we could then hold elections on the same day but under the same electoral system, which would allow people's voices to be heard and reflected in the election results. I hope that the Government will reconsider that issue.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although there may be a case for ensuring that local and national elections are on a different day so that people can vote locally on local issues, the elections that we are considering definitely make a case for all elections in the UK to be on a 1-2-3 basis so that people have the same system, whatever the forum for which they are voting?
Yes, perhaps unsurprisingly I agree with my hon. Friend that a preferential voting system—1-2-3—is easy for people to do and means that their vote counts. [Hon Members: "What about 4?"] Let me make some progress— [Interruption.]
I hope that the Government will think again about introducing STV for the Scottish Parliament elections.
The Conservative motion also deals with the Secretary of State's failure to accept responsibility for the elections. He has been remiss in that. We want to hear the outcome of the inquiry, but we also need to hear an apology from the Secretary of State, who is responsible for the elections. People in Scotland are understandably annoyed about what has happened and about their votes not being counted.
Let us consider the e-counting. One of the problems was the involvement of private companies in the counting service. DRS has been involved in various election problems, not only in the Scottish elections. It apparently tested the machinery, which, according to the Secretary of State, did not predict any of the major problems. However, I understand from the Edinburgh Evening News that e-counting was introduced for the Scottish Parliament and local council elections at a cost of £8.8 million. I presume that most of the money went to the company. I do not know whether the full details of the contracts are under confidentiality agreements, but it would be useful to know exactly how much the company was paid for running the elections.
Some penalty clauses in the contract may be invoked so that the company might have to pay back thousands of pounds where problems occurred with the counts. However, a few thousand pounds out of a contract of £8.8 million constitutes getting off lightly given the chaos that ensued. I would welcome more details about the contracts and exactly how harsh the penalty clauses were. Clearly, the motivation for the companies to ensure that they got it right on the night was inadequate. Some of us who were sitting in television studios in the early hours of the morning saw that they blatantly did not get it right.
I welcome the appointment of Ron Gould to head the inquiry. He is clearly one of the world's foremost experts on the matter and has great experience in elections internationally. I was intrigued by the Opposition motion's words on that. Sadly, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale would not take an intervention on the subject. As my hon. Friend Mr. Carmichael said, if the Electoral Commission cannot appoint someone independently, who does the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale suppose should do the appointing? If the inquiry will not be independent if the Scotland Office or the Electoral Commission nominate somebody, does he want the Conservative party to stipulate who will be independent? I suspect that it will not be easy to hold an independent inquiry under his definition if an independent, international election expert does not fit the bill in his view. His argument is flawed.
Ann McKechin made a point about the public's input into the inquiry. I agree that it is essential to get the views of real voters who found problems with the ballot system. Frankly, we may not get that if we simply rely on people coming forward to the inquiry. Ron Gould needs to be proactive about seeking out people's experiences.
To conclude, the elections were a fiasco from start to finish. Many thousands of voters were disfranchised by the postal vote delay and the spoiled ballots, which ran to 140,000.
Counts were abandoned on the night as the technology crashed, and Scottish politics was made a laughing stock. I was left wondering exactly what the Scotland Office is for. The running of elections is almost the only thing for which it is directly responsible, and it cannot even get that right. The Secretary of State should be ashamed. He should apologise to the Scottish people and ensure that such electoral chaos is never repeated.
David Mundell started by congratulating Mr. Salmond on his new appointment. It would perhaps be churlish of me not to do the same, but it occurs to me that there is sometimes a place for a bit of churlishness in politics. Let me embody that for a moment.
Jo Swinson referred to the fact that we are not likely to see a great deal of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan down here. He is a busy man—he is running Scotland for the moment, for however long that might be—and we will observe carefully how often he represents his constituents in this Chamber.
I grant the hon. Gentleman that, but at that interim stage the Scottish Parliament was brand new. Twelve, 18 or 20 by-elections would have been necessary in Scotland, and no party supported that idea. We now have a new First Minister who, as all Members of the House understand, will rarely be able to come down here and represent his constituents.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Last year, I twice had the pleasure of going to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to observe two phases of the presidential elections. The Congo is the size of western Europe and has a population of about 60 million. The Kinshasa ballot paper, which was about 20 or 30 ft long, listed about 700 candidates. Most of the people voting were illiterate, but, somehow, a 65 per cent. turnout was achieved. Apart from a little bit of shooting here and a little overindulgence there—the guns and the alcohol aside—the result was universally agreed by the international community. Therefore, on the morning of
The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is trying desperately hard and failing to make the issue a party political one, but the reality is that there was consensus, to a substantial degree, before the event. All the parties were consulted. He equivocated slightly earlier—as we shall see when we look at Hansard—but he was unequivocal when he said:
As my hon. Friend Stephen Pound says from a sedentary position, there were probably one or two fewer killed in Scotland. I am simply saying that we were all disappointed by the shortcomings in the process. There was substantial consensus in advance, and apparently even the Scottish Tories acceded. My understanding is that the Scottish Tories did not reply formally to any of the consultations. The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale accepts, however, that they acceded.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present for the statement, but we have never suggested otherwise than that we accepted the single ballot paper. We did not accept, however, that that ballot paper should be used on the same day as another ballot paper, on which people were encouraged to place more than one mark.
The motion clearly criticises the Government in relation to holding
"local government elections under the newly introduced single transferable vote system".
The hon. Gentleman had said, however, that he acceded to that system, so it seems to me that that should not be in the motion.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier remarks and to remarks that I have made on numerous occasions in the House, he would know that I did not accept that the Scottish Parliament elections should have been held on the same day as the local government elections, when different systems of voting were being used. Nor do I accept that the Secretary of State for Scotland did not have a role to play in discussing with the Scottish Executive, with which he had some sway at that point, the need to ensure that those elections were not held on the same day, with the inevitable, entirely predictable confusion.
I am not sure whether that is the hon. Gentleman's personal view or the party view. In the past, to his great credit, he has been quick to criticise the Scottish Tories. Perhaps his comments are an implied criticism of the Scottish Tories—he does not always put such criticisms out to the press—but he is equivocating now, as his motion criticises the Government for something to which he agrees the Scottish Tories acceded.
The inquiry under way is a statutory inquiry, which is required by Government and legislation. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, however, the hon. Gentleman seems to want a concurrent inquiry. It would be common sense, however, for a statutory inquiry to take place, finish and give a result, and then to decide whether to have another one. An independent inquiry could be held. We shall see what the result of the initial inquiry is. A number of actions will take place and Members will have views on what those should be. However, it seems to make sense to all of us—except perhaps the Tories—that that should happen after the initial inquiry. It is as simple as that.
The most disappointing aspect of the evening of the elections, however, was not the party political stuff, but the performance of DRS. The evening took on the nature of a sort of mass social science experiment in sleep deprivation. At one moment, at the count in Falkirk, the returning officer said that she was about to announce the results, but then could not do so—she was told that by the DRS staff. It took another hour and a half to get the results. It was clear at that point that something was going badly wrong in the DRS processes. I saw on television a chirpy DRS spokesperson saying that everything was going marvellously. There was not a moment of doubt in DRS's mind, even after the event when it was manifestly clear to everyone in the Chamber, everyone on the ground, and everyone in the hall that it was making a complete hash of it.
I shared some of my hon. Friend's experience. I was disappointed by the fact that DRS could not organise things properly on the night. I was doubly disappointed, however, by its total lack of acceptance and its arrogant response. I was not sure how senior the person put up by DRS was—she might have been a very senior person. It seemed to me, however, that DRS had shoved someone out to take the rap on the evening.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Apparently I could not be seen when I rose earlier—there was a cloud blocking out the sun. Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the National Audit Office should investigate the contract with DRS to see whether it was suitably arrived at and suitably achieved?
That is an interesting suggestion. I do not know what costs were involved—a point already raised by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire—but DRS's efficiency is certainly an issue. One of the DRS reps in Falkirk said to me, "It's not our fault. We've just got trouble with the IT." The mind boggles. We often hear that phrase used in public, but on the evening when DRS's IT was critical, it was a preposterous statement.
At the count in Ochil in the early hours of
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The whole DRS experience was disappointing. I hope that there is a detailed inquiry to come.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there was great disappointment for those of us waiting in Strathkelvin and Bearsden—a huge Labour gain? Sue Bruce, the chief executive, made the right decision. She was the first person to suspend the count until the following day. Thus, there was no sleep deprivation in Strathkelvin and Bearsden, just great celebration.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I cannot remember how huge that victory was, but it was unbelievably massive. When I think of sleep deprivation experience in retrospect as a social experiment, it would probably be best if there were no guns or alcohol the previous evening. With all those people, not necessarily the best of buddies, in the same room, that might have added a bit of juice to the occasion.
In Falkirk, West—the part of my constituency with which I am most concerned, because we lost it—there are some details that worry me greatly. One is that the margin of the Scottish national party victory—about 750 votes—was substantially smaller than the number of votes that were apparently spoiled, about 1,200. I do not call the result into question, but the difference is substantial. For me, the key figure is the difference between the number of votes spoiled last time—about 100—and this time. There is clearly a fundamental problem. I suspect that there is something in the idea that some people deliberately spoiled their votes, as we have heard. A few people may have voted for a minor party in the list and chose not to put a second mark. My experience of standing and looking at the screen suggested that many people had voted Labour but put nothing down the middle. That was probably the case for other parties as well. It seemed to be the general pattern.
From speaking to constituents after the fact, although this is not a scientific sample, I suspect that a good number of the people who did not follow on and put a second cross in the constituency section were older than the average among the voters. In particular parts of my constituency there are high flats occupied primarily by old age pensioners. If there is a pattern, it seems to me that it was those people in particular who had difficulty with the ballot paper.
In conclusion, it is for the inquiry to decide what to examine. As it goes about its business, it is enormously important that it addresses the issues raised by other hon. Members today. When I think about the way that the evening was conducted, my primary concern was the efficiency, or lack of it, of DRS, which sadly underperformed on the evening.
I shall be brief because, as an Englishman, I feel that I am intruding on private grief, but as a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, I feel that I am entitled to express a view.
Growing up in Britain, I was always proud that our democratic system was a benchmark of success that nations across the world wanted to replicate. Election monitors from this country used to travel to the third world and emerging democracies to make sure that their elections were above board and honest. I imagine that Ron Gould, who I believe is an excellent chap, was expecting to spend more time in Zimbabwe in the coming months than in Scotland, so when he got the phone call he must have been a little surprised, but willing to take on the challenge none the less.
On a point of information, may I point out to the hon. Gentleman that Westminster is not running Zimbabwe's elections, although it did run Scotland's elections.
About six years ago, many in this place mocked the electoral system in the United States of America, especially the hanging chads, on which history was changed. One moment there was a Democrat President, and the next moment there was a Republican President, who is still in office, though fortunately only for another couple of years. We in the Chamber thought that it could never happen in the United Kingdom, yet in Scotland history may well have been changed by the appalling electoral system that was foisted on the people of Scotland.
It is possible, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood pointed out, that we might have had a Labour First Minister if the votes cast had been properly counted or had counted. But no, they were not counted, and we have a new first Minister from the Scottish National party. If Scotland becomes an independent nation in a few years, as the SNP wants, historians in 100 years time may say that what changed Scotland was a failed electoral system devised by the nations that gave the world democracy. It seems bizarre, but it could happen.
What is so depressing about what happened in Scotland is that it further disfranchises a cynical electorate. We in the House are desperate to push up turnover—sorry, turnout. We have cajoled and persuaded people that it is their democratic duty to vote—so when people vote, perhaps for the first time, it is not unreasonable for them to expect their vote to count. Unfortunately, in this case it did not.
Should there not be a simple and easy method of voting? That is the point that I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to make.
I agree. I have served with the hon. Gentleman on the Scottish Affairs Committee and he always makes useful contributions.
It is not unreasonable to expect people to walk a few hundred yards to a polling station once a year or once every other year. Democracy needs to be treasured and valued. In the pursuit of increasing turnout, we can sometimes devalue the system of democracy. I therefore have concerns about postal voting and its wide availability. England has had problems in Birmingham, with ghost voters appearing on electoral rolls. We must be very careful that we restore confidence in the democratic and electoral system, not only in Scotland but in England.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my belief that one of the most valuable aspects of the traditional way of counting votes in Britain is the emphasis on transparency and checks and balances? Does he agree that the refusal to recount in two of the constituencies in Scotland is perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of that election? For all involved in the political process and for all political parties, we must ensure that we enshrine those checks and balances and transparency in the future.
The hon. Lady makes a hugely important point.
Speaking as someone who has a great love of the country, let me say that Scotland did not need what happened earlier this month. It neither needed it nor deserved it. What happened was an embarrassment, of which we should all be ashamed.
I conclude by agreeing that elections are very special things that need to be treasured. I remember my first election and I am sure that every hon. Member remembers theirs and the excitement of seeing the ballot papers counted and of watching the scrutineers do their work. Participating in the democratic process is hugely important, but, as I say, it was hugely damaged three weeks ago. We must not allow it to happen again.
I welcome Mr. Gould's appointment. I do not rule out the need for further inquiries, but it would be premature to define the exact nature and extent of any such inquiries until we have had at least an initial examination by a person with international experience of voting systems.
I would argue that the problems experienced over the past few weeks are largely the result of the failure—largely a collective failure—to put the views of the voter first. The voters were distinctly secondary in determining the new voting systems in the first place, and they appeared only on the periphery of the many discussions, meetings, debates and commissions that were held over the past two years.
Mr. Walker raised an important point. Despite the calls to improve voter turnout, the worst figure of all was the turnout of below 52 per cent. If we take away the rejected votes, it was below 50 per cent., despite the fact that this was viewed as the closest-run Holyrood election since the Scottish Parliament was constituted. Let us today kill the myth that changing the voting system improves voter turnout.
If we analyse the groups that did not vote, the largest sections are young voters and those from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds. Yet for the latter group, rather than encouraging more to vote, we created a system that disfranchised them even more. It is no surprise that the largest number of spoilt papers were in the areas of the highest socio-economic deprivation—more than 2,000 in both Glasgow, Pollok and Glasgow, Shettleston.
Mr Gould's review needs to ensure that the voices of all voters, and particularly the marginalised voters—whether it be the young, the poor, our ethnic minorities or the disabled—are properly heard. It should also ensure that, in future, the methodology used by the Electoral Commission in testing original proposals is properly robust and takes all relevant factors into consideration.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the returning officers have an important role? What was striking during the last election was the number of people, many from poorer areas, who were not on the register.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that electoral registration officers have a very poor record indeed in respect of their ability to deal with marginalised groups, and this month's events have unfortunately made the situation even worse.
From my own experience of representing a Glasgow seat, I know that problems with adult literacy among many in our population remain acute. Scotland has some of the lowest levels of literacy not only in the UK, but in the whole of western Europe. When someone's literacy is poor, form filling is a daunting experience and many people lack the confidence even to admit that they have a problem in the first place. If people receive two pieces of paper with two contrasting sets of instructions, by the time they put pencil to paper, we can expect a small but significant percentage to be confused.
Do I think that the elections should have been held on separate dates? Not necessarily. Some polling clerks used their initiative on the day to hand the papers out separately, giving out the second ballot after the voter had completed the first vote. It would probably have been better for the ballots to take place in different rooms in the polling station, so that only one set of instructions was given for each vote. The disappearing "guiding arrows" in Glasgow and Lothian only made a bad problem even worse. If forms are something that people tackle only occasionally and then often with help from a third party or friend, it should have been anticipated that some looking at the form would have read it as one long list that simply continued on to the right hand side of the page. The regional list was not even in strict alphabetical order. Branded names came first, based on the first letter on the line. Political parties, however bizarre or tiny, came next, and independents came last. The latter positioning reinforced the sight line that the four or five names at the top of the right-hand column were simply a continuation of the independents' names on the left side. I was not alone in witnessing the hundreds of papers that showed one cross on the left-hand side and no votes on the constituency side. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Davidson that that was deliberate in some cases, but I do not believe that an overwhelming majority intended to abstain. By that point, they must simply have been baffled.
Branded names have to be analysed. I certainly accept that the Scottish National party is a perfectly legitimate party and that it used the rules as it was entitled to under the law. However, I certainly have a question about the British National party describing itself as a local party for local people. We need to be very careful, because the system could easily be abused. It is no credit to Scotland that more than 24,000 people voted for the BNP in those elections.
The font size on the form, made to fit the machine, was ridiculously small. That was repeated on the constituency side, even though there was plenty of unused space for an enlarged font size. Instructions such as the guiding arrows should not be removed simply for the convenience of the machinery or at the sole discretion of electoral registration officers. They are fundamental to allowing people to vote as they intend, and that should be a democratic right.
The bewildering choice of regional list candidates, a significant number of whom were making a once-only appearance, needs to be reviewed. It was clear, particularly for individual candidates, that many were also standing for council seats but were canny enough to work out that getting on to the regional list secured them a Royal Mail freepost delivery, meaning that they did not have to trek around delivering everything by hand.
Does the hon. Lady acknowledge the danger of commercial companies, such as those on the Lothian list, using their presence on the ballot paper to get a free mail shot through every door in Lothian, which could be used to advertise their business?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I am aware that at least two of the so-called political parties were simply the creations of one individual, and that one was used to promote an individual's own publication. Standing for elections to the Scottish Parliament involves considerable public expenditure on freepost, and it should be based on serious intent. I believe that candidates should show an appropriate number of supporting nominations. That would not exclude genuine, serious independent candidates.
The prior publicity about the changes in the voting systems was poor. The detailed instructions arrived along with an avalanche of election literature and probably ended up in many cases going straight into the bin. They came too late and were not sufficiently embedded in the general public's knowledge. Again, I would question the apparent lack of work on voters who are difficult to reach. The instructions on completion for postal voters contained a number of disparities.
"You have only one vote in the council ballot" is clearly not an accurate way to describe numbering under STV, and there was a total absence of advice for voters about how many councillors per area were being voted for. Why do we keep the voters in ignorance?
In the council elections where parties fielded more than one candidate per area, there were repeated incidences of forms containing two or three crosses against candidates rather than numbers, and in almost every case, a candidate's chance of being elected was substantially increased if the initial letter of their surname was near the beginning of the alphabet.
I am astonished that the Electoral Reform Society should have declared the council elections a success. The rejection rate was high, and candidate selection in highly marginal areas being determined by their position in the alphabet cannot be seen to be progressive. There was no increase in the numbers of women or ethnic minority councillors. In fact, we probably ended up with fewer, including the loss in my own constituency of the sole Asian female councillor in Scotland. There was no significant increase in turnout, and despite the fact that, like myself, members of all the main political parties spent a lot of time trying to inform voters about the changes, many people were baffled by their consequences, including losing the long-cherished ability to vote out an unpopular representative.
This is not the time for shouting the odds at each other and spouting media soundbites. We all have a degree of responsibility for this result. The voters lost out and anyone who is interested in democracy needs closely to examine what went wrong and truly listen to the electorate before we make further changes. They deserve no less.
I am delighted to follow Ann McKechin. I hope that any investigation to be conducted by the Electoral Commission or commissioned by the Scottish Executive will look closely at all the points that she has raised. I concur with almost every one of them.
I am pleased that, among the contributions that we have heard this afternoon, there has been little doubt—I cannot say "no doubt"—cast on the result of the elections. Not only did the SNP win, but all the United Kingdom parties lost seats. I thank leading members of all the UK parties for their regular visits to Scotland, which were very beneficial to the SNP's campaign.
As we speak, the SNP Government and the First Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Salmond, are setting out priorities for the new Administration in the Scottish Parliament. I hope Members in all parts of the House will wish that Government well, but today, here, we are discussing the technical problems associated with the polls rather than the result—although I am certain that the SNP majorities and gains could have been more significant than they were, given the national swing.
There has been mention of elections in other countries. That is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about the debacle that we experienced in Scotland. In the past, many of us who spend time in countries that are emerging democracies have been able to say with great pride and absolute confidence, regardless of our politics, that we are in no doubt about the result of a particular election. I have sometimes found it hard to listen to politicians or political party activists in other parts of the world explain their difficulties and lack of trust. We all know of countries where the degree of coercion is great. As the problems in Scotland have shown, however, something extraordinarily minor can cause the great problems that we have seen. Certainly I cannot imagine that any politician in Scotland or the rest of the UK would scoff at the electoral problems suffered by Florida a few years ago.
The hon. Lady has made her own point in her own way. Perhaps she will reflect on that later.
It was not, however, only the issue of postal votes that gave cause for alarm in advance. On
"At first glance, the statement on the example ballot paper, 'You have two votes', could be misleading."
Other Members have made that point as well. Before the elections, similar problems were drawn to the attention of the Arbuthnott commission. The SNP's submission stated:
"Certainly, having entirely different voting systems for elections on the same day leaves the door open to confusion... If both systems were to be used on one day, then a great deal of voter education would be essential."
Most tellingly, the SNP said:
"There will be new arrangements in... the local government elections. That will mean a vote using STV, and, as previously stated, unless the same system is introduced for the Scottish Parliament election on the same day, or those two elections are decoupled, then there is every chance that confusion will be a factor in those elections."
That confusion did, of course, come about.
The SNP also made a submission to the Scottish Electoral Commission. A letter from Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive, raised three points with Andy O'Neill, head of the commission, two of which were ignored completely. Those were not the only warnings, but I want to put it on the record that warnings were passed to a number of relevant authorities before the elections.
All of us SNP spokespeople were sitting in the BBC Scotland studio as the surreal events unfolded. I do not know how long colleagues were told they would have to stay in their seats and keep things going until they were replaced by elected MSP colleagues. I was told two hours, but I sat there for five hours before I was finally relieved and left the studio—it was just after a number of fantastic SNP gains. However, during that time we learned not only about the problems as they were being reported—there were literally thousands of spoiled ballot papers—but about something else, which Mr. Joyce reminded me of: the extraordinary scene of a DRS spokesperson almost laughing off what was happening when addressing anybody involved in the political process, including the politicians and the pundits involved in the programme. As we witnessed that we thought, "My goodness, she has absolutely no idea how serious the situation is."
Although the SNP regularly makes the point that we do not want to tell the good people of England how they should make their own arrangements, I strongly advise the Greater London authority and Mayor Ken Livingstone to take a careful look at the electoral experience that we in Scotland had. London had its own problems in its first elections—in which I understand DRS was also involved—but I hope that it does not go through what we in Scotland have just had to go through.
The motion discusses the inquiry issue. I am pleased that the Scottish Cabinet yesterday discussed that. First Minister Salmond and his colleagues are looking into that; he remains committed to an inquiry taking place, and the details will be announced in due course. However, I and my party colleagues have a problem with what the Opposition motion calls for in terms of an inquiry. I intervened to try to get clarification from David Mundell on who should initiate an inquiry. It is inconsistent to be against the Electoral Commission being in charge of the inquiry and then to call on the UK Government to conduct it, because we know what their role and that of the Scotland Office in this matter was. That is why the SNP will not support the Opposition motion. We will support the Scottish Executive.
I was at a public meeting with Angela and I congratulated her from the platform.
The hon. Gentleman's leader has spoken about the moral authority of the result—it did not seem to apply in terms of local government, but it seemed to apply in the Scottish Parliament. If the hon. Gentleman's party establishes an inquiry and it shows that the people were disfranchised, will he support having the elections re-run, particularly in places such as Livingston which had 1,700 spoiled papers when most had about 800?
Some people might be interested in a re-run. Owing to the popularity of the new Government, I am certain that the SNP majority would increase—even seats close to the hon. Gentleman's constituency that we just failed to win would fall within our grasp. No serious case is being made for re-running the election, and I do not think that the electorate—whatever their political views—would encourage that.
I will conclude shortly, as other Members wish to speak, but I first wish to raise a couple of matters to do with the Secretary of State for Scotland. He was right to warn Members against mis-speaking in terms of what is said in the House. He went on to quote from his own contribution of
"I urge caution on two fronts. First, a final tally is still to be reached on the number of spoiled papers"— and there he stopped. The rest of that sentence reads
"but according to the information that I received this morning, it does not reach 100,000."—[ Hansard, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 29W.]
As we know, there were more than 100,000 and we should not try to talk down the seriousness of this situation.
I shall conclude by repeating the questions I asked the Secretary of State on
It is important for all those questions to be answered and to be a matter of public record. Frankly, the Secretary of State's contribution was underwhelming—much like his initial statement—and he seemed to be saying, "Not me, guv", rather than anything else. It is not good enough. Thank goodness we now have a Scottish Executive who will treat this issue with the seriousness that it deserves, unlike the UK Government, who are running away from their responsibilities.
Given that time is short, I shall make only a few points. First, I ask that the investigation examines the decision to have both ballots on the same day, not only in the context of possible erection irregularities —[ Laughter. ] I know what I meant. [Hon. Members: "Keep it up."] I will endeavour to do so. That is a fair point —[ Interruption. ]
The observation that I wanted to make was about the impact on local government. It was my experience that the local government campaigns were almost totally submerged in the discussion of the Scottish Parliament results. That is not good for local democracy at the local government level. I would be very interested in any evidence about the extent to which there were discrepancies in this election, as distinct from others, because my impression was that the tide flowed in the same direction in the Scottish Parliament elections and those for local authorities, irrespective of the merits of individual councillors, which is inappropriate and unwise.
I would also ask that as many as possible of the ballot papers be made available. The point that I made earlier about anoraks being able to see them is important. Much work could be done to establish correlations that will help us to avoid mistakes in the future. It should not be swept under the carpet.
My third point is about the issue of bias on the forms. There was clearly an alphabetical bias and the local government results bear that out. The nationalists are not guilty of breaking the rules, but it was sharp practice to put "Alex Salmond" at the head of the list. That obviously had an effect. I would like to see that investigated and possible remedies applied in future. We should also examine the extent to which it was made more difficult for people who clearly intended to vote for candidates of a single party to do so because the candidates were not grouped. It would have been sensible to have candidates of the same party grouped together, and that should be investigated. Similarly, my understanding is that if voters who sought to vote for candidates of the same party put three Xs, all the votes were ruled out. It should be possible to devise a system in which the last remaining vote—after the other candidates had been elected or eliminated—could be given to the candidate.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if two candidates for the same party had two Xs, they should have both been given a preference at least?
I agree. Indeed, with two Xs, if one candidate were eliminated, the X for the remaining candidate should count as a full vote for them. I am sure that that can be done.
My final point is about the refusal of recounts, which is outrageous, capricious and done at the whim of the returning office in some locations. I have heard it said that many votes for Labour in Glasgow were wasted because they were cast on the second ballot. If only the Co-operative party had stood, many people would not have been disfranchised.
It has been a good debate, which has been welcomed on both sides of the House as an opportunity to raise serious concerns. On both sides of the House, there is a recognition that there needs to be a proper inquiry into what went on. Some 146,097 votes were lost. The Secretary of State admits that he does not know how many people that represents, but one thing is for sure—it could represent that very number. The Secretary of State, however, is not able to tell us.
Mr. Joyce described the election as having been conducted more badly than the Congo's, and my hon. Friend Mr. Walker talked about the "hanging chads" situation in America; those comments show how badly wrong the Scottish election went. Although I fully understand that the Secretary of State wants to wait for his inquiry, the fact is that when 146,000 votes go missing, there should be an apology from those responsible.
The elections involved two separate voting systems, so they were always going to be difficult.
The Government and the Scottish Executive were warned. The Arbuthnott commission made the clear recommendation that the elections should be decoupled because of the complexity, confusion and risk of invalid votes. It took the Government months to respond to that report. When we consider the warnings given by my hon. Friend David Mundell in a Westminster Hall debate and in his Bill as an MSP in Edinburgh, we see that the problems did not happen by accident. When he was an MSP, my hon. Friend put forward a Bill in the Scottish Parliament that called for decoupling, and the Conservatives have been saying the same thing throughout —[Interruption.] I am talking about the Scottish Parliament, which this Government set up—that very place. I am sure that the Secretary of State has come across it at some time in Scotland.
I have —[Laughter.] It is very interesting. The Liberal Democrats, the other guilty party that went along with it all, may be laughing now, but the people of Scotland will not be laughing about the fact that their electoral system was dealt with in such a way.
I turn now to other issues. The election does not seem to have been conducted well as far as postal votes are concerned; people got them very late or not at all. The Government have form on the issue: in Birmingham, postal votes were the cause of the Mawrey inquiry, which alleged that there was less protection in Britain than in a banana republic. The hon. Member for Falkirk raised what happened with DRS. What would his comment be as he looked back at that happy day in June 2006, when DRS claimed that it would provide
"the complete solution to delivering a system that can confidently manage the most complex of elections"?
It does not sound as if it seemed like that on the night.
Professor John Curtis of Strathclyde university reported that huge numbers cast two votes in one column and none in the other, rendering both votes void. The ballot paper said that people had two votes; that is how the confusion may have been caused. That concern has been expressed in this debate. The Secretary of State comes up with lawyers' arguments to say that the fact that 146,000 votes have been lost is inconsequential and is not a serious matter because what John Curtis says would reduce the number to 80,000.
The hon. Gentleman quoted Professor Curtis of Strathclyde university. Does he accept that the quotation he read out contradicts the assertion he made to the House earlier that 146,000 people were denied their vote? It is either Professor Curtis or the hon. Gentleman—which?
That is exactly the dancing on a pinhead—[Hon. Members: "Oh no".] Oh yes. The people of Scotland will read those lawyerly arguments—the advocate's argument—and realise that the Secretary of State should be apologising to the House, not trying to get round our powerful arguments.
We want an independent inquiry. Although the Electoral Commission was given a hard task to perform and although it brought in an eminent person, the fact remains that one of the bodies—or "stakeholders"—accused of not having performed effectively and properly should not be conducting the inquiry into their own activities. That is absolutely the first base.
It is not a problem at all— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fatuous point. The fact is that the inquiry is being conducted by the Electoral Commission, which is one of the groups that has been criticised. We say that the inquiry should be fully independent, with its own separate organisation. We do such things all the time in this country.
I have given way far too often for the silliest of points and I do not intend to do so again. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] I have only about half a second left—and we all know whose fault that was.
I am glad that SNP Members say there should be an independent inquiry. If they read our motion they will see that it suggests that the Scottish Executive should co-operate with the Government, so they will realise that we are not saying that the Executive should be ruled out. We think the Executive and the Government should co-operate to set up a genuinely independent inquiry, not one run by one of the parties that has been criticised.
Yes, to instigate. I am suggesting joint working. It would be sad if the first actions of the SNP were to deny such co-operation, because it is extremely important in the UK.
I had written, "This has been a serious and thoughtful debate"—perhaps I should now say it "had been" serious and thoughtful—as befits a serious and important issue. The Scottish people are looking for answers as to why difficulties were experienced by many voters at the recent elections. They want reassurances that those difficulties will not recur.
The debate has highlighted the fact that no major issues of principle divide us. We all agree that the events of
As many Members pointed out during the debate, the statutory review is already under way. The House established the Electoral Commission and specifically tasked it with the duty that it cannot set aside, and which cannot be set aside other than by fresh legislation, of conducting reviews into elections in the UK. Having given the commission that task, it is sensible to let it carry out the statutory review before deciding what further reviews or steps may be necessary.
Some have raised the objection—it was repeated again this afternoon—that the Electoral Commission cannot be independent in examining a process in which it had a role to play. Indeed, the Opposition's motion calls either for a duplicate, simultaneous inquiry or for the Electoral Commission to set aside its statutory duty to carry out its review.
No, I will not.
"Parliament has laid on the Electoral Commission two specific sets of responsibilities: one is to assist in the electoral process and advise returning officers, and the other is to report on elections. When the Electoral Commission makes a report and it has itself been involved in the matter in an operational role, it is always its practice to appoint an outside expert to advise on that so that its own role can...be scrutinised."—[ Hansard, 21 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 973.]
However, recognising the degree of public concern that has been expressed, the Electoral Commission has gone further than the appointment of an adviser; it has appointed an outside expert to lead the review.
Mr. Gould played no part in the Scottish elections, nor did the Electoral Commission staff who will support him. He has issued comprehensive terms of reference. When David Mundell was asked whether those terms of reference could be added to, he simply could not answer. The common-sense course is surely to let Mr. Gould complete his review so that, in the light of the findings, decisions can be taken about whatever next steps may be necessary or appropriate.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reminded the House, since
In the couple of moments that I have left, I want to address some of the issues that have been mentioned during the debate. The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale twittered on about the demands of natural justice, completing ignoring the fact that his motion allocates responsibility, demands an apology and then at the end asks for an investigation to gather the evidence. The demands of natural justice, about which he waxed eloquent, seem to demand that those things should happen in precisely the opposite order.
Jo Swinson mentioned decoupling the elections—an issue that was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including Mr. Heald. Sir John Arbuthnott, in particular, has been prayed in aid as somebody who made that recommendation. Let me read into the record Sir John Arbuthnott's recommendation. He said:
"We therefore invite the Scottish Executive to consider the postponement of the 2007 local government elections."
His specific recommendation was not to this House. [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire thinks that that is a lawyer's point, let me read him what the hon. Member for Gosport said:
"the commission recommended that the parliamentary and local elections should not be held on the same day. The decision that they should be held on the same day was taken by the Scottish Executive." —[ Hansard, 21 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 975.]
If the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire wants to raise that matter with the hon. Member for Gosport and accuse him of making lawyers' points, that is his business.
An entirely legitimate series of issues have been mentioned—from the design of the ballot paper to the performance of DRS, e-counting in general and postal voting. All those issues fall within the terms of reference of the inquiry to be led by Mr. Gould.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not as am in the last minute of my speech.
No one has raised a single issue on the Floor of the House that will not be covered by the statutory inquiry that is already under way. The inquiry will examine all the possible factors behind the difficulties experienced at the elections that have been identified. Ministers and officials will co-operate with the inquiry and the report is expected in a little over 12 weeks. That is why the Government's amendment simply asks the House to await the outcome of the statutory review so that its recommendations can inform decisions on whatever next steps might be necessary. The Conservative motion calls for another inquiry that would run simultaneously with the statutory review and duplicate its efforts, but that does not seem to be an especially productive thing to do, which is why I ask the House to support the amendment.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House notes that a statutory review of the Scottish Parliament elections is already underway conducted by the Electoral Commission as required by Parliament; further notes that, at the prior request of the then Scottish Executive, this review will also cover the Scottish local government elections; welcomes the appointment of an international authority on the management and organisation of elections, Mr Ron Gould, the former Assistant Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, to lead the review; further notes that his terms of reference include examining the role of the Electoral Commission in the preparation of the elections, as well as matters relating to postal ballot delays, the high number of rejected ballots, combining Scottish local government and Scottish parliamentary elections, and the electronic counting process; and believes that this statutory review which is now in progress should complete its report in order to inform decisions in relation to any further steps which may be necessary or appropriate.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are about to debate a motion tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends that states:
"the salary of the Secretary of State for Health should be reduced by £1,000."
I therefore found it surprising that one of the signatories of the amendment is the Secretary of State for Health, who will benefit from the decision, one way or another. That would not be —[ Interruption. ]
That would not be a matter of importance were it not for the fact that the Secretary of State for Health has personally made a number of statements about the wonders of the national health service, including the fact that is the best service that we have had, and she is being paid for it. I think that it is an unusual circumstance.
No, Madam Deputy Speaker. You kindly suggested that I have been in the House a long time, but at no point during that period have I ever known any circumstances in which the person under criticism signed the contrary measure. It is a new element, and I seek your advice on the matter.
I remind not only the right hon. Gentleman who raised the point of order but, indeed, all other hon. Members that it is up to each individual Member to judge whether they have a relevant interest that should be declared in any way. That is the norm for the House.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In the statement on the energy White Paper this afternoon, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry trumpeted his policy on carbon capture and experiments to achieve it. While he was on his feet, I understand that BP announced that it has withdrawn from what is probably the only carbon capture experiment. Do you have the power, Madam Deputy Speaker, to ask the Secretary of State to come back and explain the apparent contradiction in what he told the House of Commons this afternoon?