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Scotland Bill — Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 21st March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative 9:30 pm, 21st March 2012

My Lords, the noble Baroness has, as usual, made a very persuasive speech, and I look forward to the Minister's reply to the points that she has raised.

Amendments 93 and 98, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Steel of Aikwood and Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, call for a much greater involvement of the Electoral Commission, which I strongly support, on account of two incidents.

The first incident involved the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. In the first election to the Scottish Parliament he and I were two of the last three to be elected in Scotland. The counters went on strike at 4.30 am because of the complexities of the proportional representational vote. As a result, we came back the next day and we were elected two out of the last three; the third was Robin Harper, the first Green candidate to become a parliamentarian. However, we did not know that 2,000 votes had not been counted.

When this became clear, with great alarm I wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland, now the noble Lord, Lord Reid. He replied that he did not have the powers to do anything about it, but that we could take legal action if we so wished. Happily, the chief executive had thoroughly studied the matter, and whichever way the votes were counted all three of us would have been elected. As soon as we knew that, we had no desire to take the matter any further. I think that the votes have now been destroyed and it is impossible to rectify the matter. However, that incident should never have occurred and if the Electoral Commission had been involved, I believe it would not have done.

The other incident occurred during the devolution referendum in 1979. I remember vividly the late Robin Cook being very much involved because 2,000 electors had written "No" opposite the word "No" on the ballot paper, and the counting officer said that writing "No" opposite "No" meant "Yes". I actually believe that they meant "No". We asked to speak to the chief voting officer in Scotland but he would not come to the phone. There were murmurings of calls on television for resignations if the matter was to be swept under the carpet. He did come to the phone. He was not very good tempered but he said he would look into it. Within two hours, they had rectified the matter and the votes were counted as no votes. This was important in that referendum because it was on a knife-edge; the results were very close and regarded as somewhat inconclusive at the time.

I mention these two episodes to emphasise how very warmly I welcome the Minister's statement that he wishes to involve the Electoral Commission in an overseeing role. If you have a Government at Westminster who take one view and a Government in Edinburgh who take a different view, it is very important to have an impartial body that has both objectivity and expertise.