Gould Report

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 10th January 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:15 pm, 10th January 2008

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-1110, in the name of Bruce Crawford, on the Gould report. Members may wish to note that a further revised section A of the Business Bulletin has been produced. For clarity, I am referring to the section A that shows a revision time of 12.30 pm on its cover. The specific revision to the business programme is the addition of an amendment in the name of Annabel Goldie to the amendment in the name of Andy Kerr. Amendment S3M-1110.3.1 was lodged this morning, and I have selected it for debate. On the basis of that selection, amendment S3M-1110.1, in the name of Annabel Goldie, has been withdrawn.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 2:57 pm, 10th January 2008

I open the debate with mixed reactions. It is clear that the events of the election night in May should not have happened and must never happen again. [ Laughter. ] Members are all clear that I mean the process.

The reason for this debate should be a matter of regret for us all. On the other hand, the Gould report gives us an opportunity to improve our systems for elections to the Parliament and to local authorities. It is an opportunity that we in this Parliament and our colleagues in Westminster should seize. It is therefore a matter for optimism that we are gathered here to debate the improvements that Gould identifies for the representation of the people of Scotland.

The problems that Gould identifies are not all of the Parliament's making, but they are nevertheless problems for us in this chamber. They concern public confidence in the elections to the Parliament, and we should be allowed to take ownership of, and responsibility for, putting matters right. Gould identifies a failure to put the voter first in the preparations for the 2007 elections. Our response to the report must not make the same mistake. It is therefore crucial that we take the opportunity provided by Gould to restore the trust of the voters in our electoral systems. It is incumbent on all of us who operate in the political system to regain the respect of the voters for the competence and integrity of that system. The Parliament represents the people of Scotland. They must have confidence that it does so properly. We must respond to the report in a sensible and pragmatic way.

Gould identifies a wide range of practical and organisational problems, which we believe need to be approached using common sense and logic, to reduce the complexity and fragmentation that the report describes. We do not believe that current institutional barriers should be allowed to stand in the way of effective solutions.

The Scottish Government has given a clear response to the opportunity presented by the Gould report. The First Minister has accepted its recommendations. For example, we have accepted that local and Scottish parliamentary elections should be decoupled. As Ron Gould makes clear, the primary advantage of that change would be to give due prominence to local elections in their own right and ensure that the electoral processes—and the issues—are clear to the electorate. The creation of a chief returning officer is also recommended. The exact role and responsibilities of the new chief returning officer and their relationship with Scottish ministers, local returning officers and the Electoral Commission require further work.

We know that the Parliament's Local Government and Communities Committee has already taken evidence from Ron Gould and the Electoral Commission on the implications of the report for local government elections. I am sure that that work will make a valuable contribution to the Parliament's consideration of those issues, and I look forward to the committee's conclusions.

The recommendations on the decoupling of elections and the creation of a chief returning officer are, of course, of great importance in taking forward the Gould report to improve our electoral system. However, I believe that the main feature of the report, which colours the whole report, is the description in chapters 2 and 3 of the truly shocking fragmentation of law and responsibility.

To quote Ron Gould's conclusions:

"Our review of the present legislation, as it affects both the Scottish parliamentary and the local government elections, has led us to conclude that it is so fragmented and antiquated that it fundamentally interferes with the ability of electoral stakeholders to make timely decisions and to carry out all activities related to planning, organising and implementing an election effectively."

He arrives at those damning conclusions because, under the structure that we live with at present, five different arms of Government are involved in the election arrangements in this country.

Gould identifies a dozen pieces of primary and secondary legislation, dating back to 1973, that govern election night in Scotland. Some of those were made at Westminster and some here at Holyrood; some can be updated and changed by us, but many cannot.

It is perhaps not surprising that a steering group with representatives of nine different groups was required to organise the elections, or that that steering group required no fewer than six sub-groups.

Ron Gould describes this landscape—with commendable restraint—as "complex and fragmented". He also talks about the patchwork approach that had been taken, and states:

"As long as the responsibilities for the decisions which have an impact on the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections are divided between the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government, it cannot be guaranteed that these electoral processes will be conducted effectively, due to the fragmentation of the legislation and decision-making in this context. As a result, we would recommend that exploratory discussions take place with a view toward assigning responsibility for both elections to one jurisdictional entity. In our view, the Scottish Government would be the logical institution."

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I would like to ask a genuine question of clarification. On this occasion, I am not trying to make a party-political point—normally I do, of course.

The minister said "the Scottish Government". Surely, however, he must mean, the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I was quoting directly from Ron Gould's recommendations, which say:

"In our view, the Scottish Government would be the logical institution."

The question is, what do we do about the problem? Should we, as some have suggested, tweak around the edges? Perhaps we should just decouple the parliamentary and local elections, and hope and pray that that does the trick. Should we regard the problems as the result of an unfortunate aberration caused by too much new-fangled thinking?

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

I have an open mind in relation to the decoupling of parliamentary and local government elections. However, has the Government undertaken any work to examine the elections that were held in 1999 and 2003, when parliamentary and local government elections were held on the same day without there seeming to be any great difficulties for members of the public? We want to engage with as many people as possible and encourage them to come out to vote. However, does the minister think that having an election almost every year—which is more or less what would happen if the elections were decoupled—might discourage people from voting? Has the Government done any work on that question?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

No work on that has been done at this stage. A number of issues are involved, but the most fundamental issue for local government is that people recognise its democratic legitimacy, its rights and its place, and that it should be able to have separate elections.

Perhaps it would be okay if we returned to the system that we had in the good old days—a simple cross in the box. [Interruption.] I thought that that might get the Tories going. Alternatively, should we grasp the opportunity to fix the incredible structural problems that Ron Gould identifies so thoroughly and shamefully for us? The reactions to that recommendation have been mixed but, again, there could be grounds for optimism. We in the Parliament are discussing constructively that fundamental recommendation, even though issues to do with additional responsibilities for this Parliament are often those that we most fiercely argue over, and those that can create the most division.

All of us in the chamber are now committed—one way or another—to developing the devolution settlement. I sincerely hope that this issue—the fundamental question of taking responsibility for the conduct of our own elections and for cleaning up our own electoral house—is one that can be taken forward in a manner that protects it from the usual politics of the constitutional debate. That is a challenge to all of us, but one that I believe we will meet because, ultimately, it is not about any constitutional end point—it is about the degree of responsibility that we take at Holyrood for ourselves.

Again, however, there could be matters for regret. The United Kingdom Government has not so far accepted the serious structural problems that Gould describes, never mind the logical way forward that he also describes. Instead, it has declared itself unconvinced. I hope that our debate today will help it to see that we are making the right decision. I hope that it will now engage with us fully and effectively, as our motion suggests. Indeed the UK Government's response to the Gould report does not even discuss that recommendation seriously, but accepts only that exploratory discussions should be taken forward.

We are at least entitled to expect the consultation document to weigh the arguments for and against change and to explain why Des Browne remains to be convinced.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

In a moment.

The document might also have expressed some concern about the fragmentation and tangled patchwork that is revealed by Gould. However, on those matters, which take up two full chapters of the Gould report, the consultation document—the official response of the UK Government—remains silent, as if the whole subject had been airbrushed from the debate.

I give way to Margo MacDonald.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The member will have to be brief—the minister is in his last minute.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

On the response from the UK Government, is it true that if it can be shown that all members in the chamber agree with the specifics of the changes that we would like to see, that would be a stronger position than the wider terms of the Scottish Government's motion? Does the minister agree with me on that point?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I agree. I have no doubt that it would be highly advantageous if the Parliament was to concentrate on one single agreement—that we should take responsibility for the running, conduct and administration of the elections. In fact, I am delighted to see that the motion and all the amendments that are before us today take that on board.

We do not believe, however, that the UK response has been adequate, and—to coin a phrase—it is not fit for purpose. No modern or sensible democracy could look at the tangled mixture of law and accountability that Ron Gould describes and think, "We'll tinker a bit, and that will be good enough for the voters." We must be free here in the Parliament to choose, after proper reflection and debate, whether to legislate on the many proposals that Gould describes. We believe that that is the best way forward to address the crucial issues of voter trust and confidence.

None of us who are concerned with politics in Scotland can contemplate a further election debacle with anything other than dread. The motion rightly calls on the Scottish and UK Governments to work together on a timetable for implementation, and to commit publicly to a timetable now. The Government is committed to delivering the elections and is already considering the practical steps that are required. It is time to find solutions that make common sense and are pragmatic, and that is why I have pleasure in moving the motion.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the Gould report, including the recommendation calling for the further devolution of executive and legislative powers to the Scottish Government and the Parliament for the conduct of its own elections, and calls on Her Majesty's Government and the Scottish Government to discuss, agree and publish a timetable for appropriate implementation of the report's recommendations.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour 3:10 pm, 10th January 2008

When the minister is sipping some Benylin and reflecting on his speech as he reads it back, he might be confused, like many members in the chamber were, by the conclusion that he reached. He made a moderate, controlled and—I have to say—good argument about why we need to make changes, but it did not reflect the fact that the Parliament's Local Government and Communities Committee is at work, as are a parliamentary committee at Westminster and the constitutional commission.

I welcome the more moderate tone of the minister's approach to the matter, but I do not think that it is reflected in the motion or in his conclusion and what he said about the way forward. I ask him to reflect on that point. I share his view that all members are intent on ensuring that we address the key issues and concerns in the Gould report. In running elections, we must learn the lessons, respond and regain people's confidence. I share that view absolutely. We must guarantee that there is no repetition of the events of May 2007.

The tone that the minister adopted today is different from the tone of our previous discussion on the matter, on 24 October, when the First Minister made a statement to the Parliament. Unlike Mr Crawford in his speech today, the First Minister in his statement failed to recognise that we are all responsible for many aspects of what is now largely regarded as a debacle in the election. The First Minister's quotes on that day were partisan in their own right. I want to follow the tone that Mr Crawford adopted to try to ensure that we build some consensus around the issues. That is what the electorate expect us to do. In building that consensus, I strongly believe—and our amendment reflects this—that we must allow the committees of this and other Parliaments to do their investigation and analysis and make recommendations.

On page 120 of his report, Mr Gould states:

"Almost without exception, the voter was treated as an afterthought by virtually all the other stakeholders."

That is a damning indictment of us all. Indeed, Mr Gould is on the record as saying that

"Party self-interest ... is not ... related to one party."

I appeal to the minister today in the same spirit in which I appealed to the First Minister on 24 October. The only element of partisanship that we have today is contained in the minister's motion, which seeks to drive the Parliament in a certain direction without our committee and our members having the right to reflect, to consider and to bring forward their own ideas and conclusions.

In relation to the point that George Foulkes was getting at in his intervention, I say that, in my view, with due respect, there was too much mention of the First Minister agreeing to this and deciding that. It is for the Parliament, its committees and all of us to be involved in the matter. That is the best way in which to proceed and that is the spirit of our amendment.

We should stop the partisanship. I believe that we can do that, but not by supporting the SNP motion. We have our committees, and the Parliament has agreed to set up the constitutional commission. I have to say, and I say this genuinely, that if Westminster debated a Government motion that was shaped in the language of the SNP's motion today, there would be outrageous girning from the SNP. There would be sabre rattling. There would be messages going out and press conferences would be called. We should reflect on that and ensure that we respect the work of our committees, our Parliament and, of course, other Parliaments too. That is all that the Labour amendment seeks to achieve. We should maturely take those points on board.

The Parliament and its members—I am as guilty as everyone else—were party to some of the key decisions that later transpired to be at the heart of some of the difficulties that we faced on 3 May. For example, the decision to move to a combined ballot paper was taken by all parties. It grew out of the Arbuthnott commission, which gained widespread political support in the Parliament. That is one of the key issues that led to some of the difficulties that we faced. The decision was made not at Westminster, in England, or anywhere else, but in Scotland. Many quotes from party spokespersons and leaders exist that will verify that.

On the issue of holding the local government elections and the Scottish Parliament elections on the same day, only the Tories took a different position. They argued for decoupling, and that is reflected in their amendment today.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I assure the member that the SNP opposed the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002, which brought both elections together. Furthermore, when Parliament passed the legislation to introduce proportional representation for local government elections, I lodged a reasoned amendment to decouple the elections. On both occasions, we were opposed by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

I will reflect on that point. I clearly need to do further research, although I have information that that is not the case. However, my point is that blaming another Parliament for the situation that we found ourselves in when the decisions were taken in this Parliament—by whatever means—puts in doubt the approach taken by the SNP.

Mr Gould is clear on another significant issue raised in his report—sloganising. He says:

"The use of 'naming strategies' by political parties to seek an advantageous position on the regional side of the Scottish parliamentary ballot sheet was raised consistently as a problem by many".

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Kerr said that Parliament shares an element of responsibility. Does he accept that part of the problem is the disaggregation of responsibilities for election organisation among different institutions in different places? Would not the clarity described in the Government's motion assist in resolving the issue that Mr Gould rightly identifies as serious?

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

I do not disagree fundamentally with what the member has said, and I do not think that Des Browne disagrees either. However, I am appealing for us to take the work forward in a reasoned manner through the committees of this Parliament. Rather than following the route described in the motion, we should allow investigation and analysis and draw conclusions from that work.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

Does Mr Kerr agree that coupling the elections did not prove to produce problems in the 1999 and 2003 elections? Should we not let the committees of the Parliament work through that issue and take decisions only once we have their findings and recommendations?

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

As we all know, people did not have much to say about the coupling of elections in 1999 and 2003. In his report, Mr Gould recognises that coupling the elections has increased the attention paid to local government elections and the turnout at them, and he balances his conclusions on those points. We should not forget that.

That brings me back to the fundamental point: it is appropriate for the Parliament's Local Government and Communities Committee to take a reasoned overview and make recommendations to us so that we can more fully consider the points.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

As a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I have some information for the member. We are examining not the Scottish parliamentary elections but the council elections.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

I acknowledge that, but we are discussing the linking of the elections and the problems that that may have caused. I thank the member for his information, but I understood that point.

Let us not forget the progress that has already been made for the future: ballot papers will be counted manually; ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament will be on two separate pages; there will be a longer period between the close of nominations and the date of the election; any changes in the law governing the conduct of elections must come into force at least six months before the date of the election; and a single legislative instrument will provide, in one place, all the regulations and rules that govern the conduct of the Scottish Parliament elections, alongside guidance issued by the Electoral Commission. Those five key and core recommendations from the Gould report have already been taken forward by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

There are many other things to say, but I rightly opted to take interventions. Labour members want to consider all and rule out none of Ron Gould's recommendations, but in a way that befits the status of the Parliament and recognises the role of its committees. We want to ensure that we make the important links between the local government elections, which are rightly being examined, and the Scottish Parliament elections in a way that guarantees the confidence of the people of Scotland.

I move amendment S3M.1110.3, to leave out from "conduct" to end and insert:

"administration of its own elections; calls on Her Majesty's Government and the Scottish Government to discuss, agree and publish a timetable for appropriate implementation of the report's recommendations having regard to the conclusions from both the Scottish Parliament's Local Government and Communities Committee and the House of Commons' Scottish Affairs Select Committee, and believes that the proposed Scottish Constitutional Commission should consider the full legislative framework for Scottish Parliament elections."

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative 3:19 pm, 10th January 2008

It is with pleasure that I open the debate for the Scottish Conservatives. The complete shambles that we saw at the May 2007 elections raises material questions about the management of elections in Scotland. All members will agree that it is unacceptable that more than 146,000 ballot papers were rejected in the Scottish Parliament election alone. That sorry mess cannot be repeated, because it demeans the political process and, much more important, it erodes public confidence in the political process.

I make it clear at the outset that the Scottish Conservatives agree with the Gould report that the Scottish Parliament should have responsibility for the administration of the elections to the Scottish Parliament—I emphasise the word "administration". The Scottish Conservatives do not agree that the devolution of responsibility should extend to empowering the Scottish Parliament to hold referenda or change the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament. Those matters are outwith the scope of the Gould report and they are not for current consideration.

Because of time constraints it would be impossible for me to go through even half the recommendations in the Gould report, but I will highlight the most important. The biggest folly that led directly to the election fiasco was the Scottish Parliament and local government elections being held on the same day.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

On that point, the Gould report clearly says:

"There is very little evidence to support the argument that the simultaneous local government election using STV contributed substantially to the higher rejection rates in the Scottish parliamentary election".

How does the member reach her conclusion?

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

There was a cocktail of events. Mr Gould was looking at one issue in isolation. I am pointing out that I think that a conjunction of factors led to a very understandable confusion on the part of the voters. They included the new design of ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament vote and the fact that the votes used different systems.

The chamber will recall that the Conservatives called in the Parliament for the elections to be decoupled. It was clear to us at the time that the conjunction of elections was a major cause of voter confusion. Members will also recall that our arguments were ignored by the Labour Party in this Parliament and at Westminster. I say to Mr Kerr that I hope that the Labour Party can lay its past resistance to rest.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I will just proceed with a point that I want to make.

I say to Cathie Craigie, who intervened on Bruce Crawford on this point, that there is overwhelming support for the elections to be decoupled. I invite her to listen to a few of the views that have already been expressed. In oral evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee, Mr Gould said:

"Separating the two elections would minimise complexity, and many of the problems that arose this time would be avoided."—[Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee, 21 November 2007; c 268.]

The Electoral Commission said:

"in the Scottish context, early consideration should be given to the timing of the next Scottish Parliamentary and Scottish local government elections, with a view to 'decombining' them."

That is Electoral Commission speak for decoupling.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

The UK Government consultation document said:

"Many of the administrative problems at the elections arose from the combination of the two very different types of elections on 3 May."

In his response, the First Minister said that we would accept Gould's recommendation, which would mark an important step forward in addressing the administrative problems that the Gould report identified.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I am encouraged by that comment and I agree with it.

The Scottish Conservatives further believe that such decoupling will increase local government accountability. If people vote for their local councillors according to their performance on the council, decoupling will strengthen local democracy as more people become aware of local elections and, hopefully, become engaged in local politics.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

I do not disagree with the points and argument that Miss Goldie is making. However, given that parliamentary committees are having a look at the issue just now, is it right for the Parliament to take such a decision before the committees have reported? Why does Miss Goldie believe that this is the right time?

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I seem to be doing two things here, Presiding Officer, and I hope that I can reassure Mrs Craigie. I am pointing out my party's clear view about the implications of the conjunction of elections on the same day for electoral understanding and clarity for voters. I am also correct in saying that, if Mrs Craigie looks at the text of today's amendments, she will see that her party's amendment, which my party supports, subject to a further amendment by my party, respects the roles of the bodies to which she has referred. It is appropriate that those bodies should have their say, and the general debate would benefit from it.

In its deliberations, the Parliament must not lose sight of the importance of local government elections in Scotland. In his inquiry into the electoral fiasco, Mr Gould set out his belief that the local government message cannot get across when its elections compete with parliamentary elections. I said to Mrs Craigie that an impressive series of opinions is now being expressed on this subject, and those opinions indicate that decoupling is not only desirable but a priority. As my friend Mr McLetchie will highlight in his speech, we must focus on that matter, because there are some very important timing implications not just for serving councillors but for candidates of all parties who might seek to be elected to local government at the next election.

I am comforted by Mr Crawford's intervention and urge the SNP Government to commit itself to decoupling. If my party is not satisfied with progress on the issue, we will certainly reintroduce our member's bill to achieve that aim.

It should never be forgotten that the people of Scotland were let down unacceptably in this election fiasco. It is the responsibility of everyone in the chamber to ensure that such a fiasco is not allowed to happen again. I reiterate that we broadly welcome Mr Gould's recommendations, with the caveat that any devolved responsibility should cover only the administration of existing elections. We call on the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government to take these matters forward.

We will support the Labour amendment if the amendment in my name that amends it is agreed to. I move, as an amendment to amendment S3M-1110.3, amendment S3M-1110.3.1, to insert after "its own elections":

"and the decoupling of future elections to this Parliament and Scotland's councils".

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 3:26 pm, 10th January 2008

No one is under any illusion that last May's Scottish Parliament elections were nothing but a farce. Thousands were denied their vote because they were confused by an appallingly designed ballot paper and because of the Scotland Office's incompetence and the failure of its Labour ministers to discharge properly one of the very few functions that they have left: the administration of the Scottish Parliament elections. If ever we needed to make a case for scrapping the Scotland Office, that case has now been made.

The Scottish elections review that was established by the Electoral Commission and led by Ron Gould was both necessary and essential. It provided valuable insight into what went wrong and set out some irrefutable conclusions and recommendations. For example, there is no doubt that we need greater professionalism and consistency in electoral administration. Indeed, I know that the election professionals in my party have been calling for that for years.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Are there professionals in the Liberal Democrat party?

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

We are very good at winning elections.

Establishing a chief returning officer for Scotland who would be charged with co-ordinating and overseeing all aspects of the electoral process for elections in Scotland would be a welcome step forward. Such a move should help to ensure that rules, regulations and guidance are all in place well before the election to the benefit of all stakeholders.

Related to that is the role of the Electoral Commission. There might be a case for extending the Electoral Commission's formal remit to include Scottish local government elections, to ensure a consistent approach across all elections in Scotland.

The Gould report also highlights the need to ensure that all electoral legislation is in place at least six months prior to the date of the election. There is no doubt that the delays in finalising the rules on ballot paper design contributed significantly to the problems, particularly in the distribution of postal ballots.

In relation to the local government ballot paper, Mr Gould refers to

"the political parties' inability to come to agreement on whether candidates would be listed alphabetically by surname or alphabetically by party grouping".

Of course, we all know that the Labour Party was the only party that could not reach agreement on that matter. Every other party was agreed. Delays could have been avoided had it not been for Labour's intransigence on the issue.

Most of the administrative changes that Mr Gould recommended are common sense. However, I want to turn to the fundamental issue that he identified as the primary cause of the spoiled papers fiasco.

First, on the red herring of decoupling, as I said to Annabel Goldie, Mr Gould makes it abundantly clear on page 52 of his report that

"There is very little evidence to support the argument that the simultaneous local government election using STV contributed ... to the higher rejection rates in the Scottish parliamentary election".

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

As was pointed out in evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee, the number of spoiled ballot papers in last year's local authority elections was three times higher than that in the previous local government elections. What would be the reason for that?

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

The rejection rate of papers in the local government elections was very low compared with that in the Scottish Parliament elections. With respect, I must make progress. [ Interruption. ] I have not studied the matter, so I cannot answer the question. Duncan McNeil needs to ask people who have studied such matters.

Gould said:

"the main reason there were much higher rates of rejection in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections than in previous elections was a result of the combined ballot paper."

I make no bones about the fact that there were differences of opinion on decoupling in my party, but our party policy, which was confirmed at our recent conference in Glasgow, is against decoupling. In my view, the argument for decoupling is largely bogus. Gould made it clear that there is little evidence to show that holding the elections on the same day contributed to voter confusion over the Scottish election ballot papers. Indeed, the rejection rate of papers in the single transferable ballots in the local elections was much lower than the rejection rate in the Scottish Parliament elections. I have never believed that voters are unable to distinguish between local and national issues when they cast their votes. Most fundamentally, those who argue for separating the elections

"by a period of about two years", as suggested by Gould, rather forget that we have other nationwide elections in Scotland. There are UK general elections, which are generally held midway through the Scottish Parliament session, and European elections. We could end up decoupling local elections and Scottish Parliament elections, only to see them coupled with other nationwide elections, and not end up any further forward.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I do not have enough time. I must conclude.

The problems that we all saw at our counts in the early hours of 4 May and which the voters saw on television screens left a strong impression that the electronic counting of votes was to blame, but the problems in the counts were a factor of the real culprit, which was the design of the ballot papers. The high volume of invalid papers clogged up the electronic counts; it was not the electronic counts per se that caused invalid papers. Therefore, it would be wrong to rule out electronic counting for future elections, as Des Browne, whose hobby is being Secretary of State for Scotland, has done. Despite what Mr Browne says, Gould did not recommend that ballot papers be counted manually in future. In fact, he recommended

"against introducing electronic voting for the 2011 elections, until the electronic counting problems that were evidenced during the 2007 elections are resolved."

That is, we should get the system right, not scrap it.

When I first saw a mock-up of the combined ballot paper, I did not believe that it was the final version that was to be used. It was immediately obvious to me that the instructions to voters went nowhere near providing the clarity that was required and which was why Arbuthnott originally recommended introducing a combined paper. It bore little relation to the example from New Zealand that Arbuthnott proposed. I contacted the chief electoral office in New Zealand, which advised me that the number of votes in respect of which the voters' intention could not be ascertained in New Zealand when a combined ballot paper was used was 0.46 per cent of party or list votes and 1.1 per cent of constituency votes, which are significantly lower figures. By comparison, even the "Inadequate research" of the Scotland Office showed a failure rate that was remarkably close to that on the night. Despite that, Scotland Office ministers showed a level of incompetence for which they should have been sacked on the spot by going ahead with the failed design rather than changing it.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

He was not a Scotland Office minister. The Scotland Office rather than the Scottish Executive designed the ballot paper.

Gould has rightly pointed out that voter confusion was exacerbated by the SNP's Alex Salmond for First Minister naming strategy, for which we still await an apology from the First Minister or the SNP.

The problems could be resolved simply by changing to a single transferable vote

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I am concluding.

The success of STV in Scotland's council elections shows that it will work in a multiparty system and that it is the right system for Scotland's Parliament.

I move amendment S3M-1110.2, to insert at end:

"but believes that changes in the powers of the Parliament should be for a purpose and notes that a single transferable vote (STV) system offers the most effective way of electing parliaments, giving voters more choice than any other system, wasting fewer votes and increasing accountability; further notes the successful use of STV for the local government elections in 2007, and therefore believes that the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections should be conducted using STV."

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

We will now move to the open debate. It is probable that one back bencher will not be called, as most of the front-bench members ran over their time.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party 3:34 pm, 10th January 2008

Last May, government in Scotland was hit by two great events. One, of course, was the long-overdue election of a forward-thinking and positive SNP Administration; the other was the badly organised voting and counting fiasco that reduced Scotland's democratic credentials to a punch line for satirists. What a welcome present from the Scotland Office. It did not give flowers or chocolates; it simply made Scotland look like a country that cannot even run an election properly.

However, we do not really run our own elections in Scotland. Running Scottish Parliament elections is only one of a multitude of things that the Westminster Government implicitly seems to think that Scotland cannot handle. I could ridicule that position as absurd, but the Scotland Office's performance last May has done that more effectively than I ever could. I am delighted that we now appear to have an emerging consensus in the Parliament that the situation must change.

As someone who worked for some years in the administration of elections, I am personally aware of many colleagues in the Association of Electoral Administrators—I should perhaps declare an interest as a member of that association—who were very concerned in the months and weeks before the election about several key aspects. As public servants, individual elections officers and returning officers will usually spurn public comment such is their determination to maintain their well-won reputation for impartiality. However, I was well aware of the concerns that they were expressing to one another before the election. They believed that the last-minute changes for the May elections were ill thought out and the changes to the design of the ballot papers very wrong. The change to the ballot paper was well understood as a blatant attempt to corral list votes that some parties believed they had previously lost because voters treated the list vote as a second-choice vote rather than a second vote.

To lay one myth to rest, I never heard one elections officer say that the title that the SNP used for the list vote was wrong or misleading or even at odds with the spirit of the election. I do not deny that we may have caused a wry smile and a certain amount of regard for how we used the legislation to its maximum potential, but none of the election professionals to whom I spoke had any doubt that we were completely within the rules. We should not equate that with the mistakes of the Scotland Office. Those mistakes cannot be cancelled out by attempting to portray our innovative use of party titles as anything other than legitimate.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I do not disagree with the member's description that the title that was used was within the rules, as that seems to be due to an oversight in the rules rather than anything else. Can the member explain why a ballot paper in Glasgow should say "Alex Salmond for First Minister" any more than a ballot paper in Gordon should say "Convener—Tommy Sheridan" when neither of those individuals was standing in those ballots for regional representatives?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Alex Salmond stood as a representative of the Scottish National Party, which had a candidate for First Minister who was Alex Salmond. Andy Kerr quoted the Gould report as stating that the voters were treated as an afterthought; I assure members that, although I had no part in the decision, I know that when the decision was taken to use that title, the voter was at the very centre of the decision.

It is widely known that many mistakes were made in other aspects of the elections. The changes to the postal voting were late in coming, very complex and hard to deal with. The electronic counting system was horrendous, expensive and cumbersome. For the Ochil constituency, it was proposed to hold the election count in Stirling. Much though I would have liked to share Bruce Crawford's triumph on the night in Stirling, it is completely wrong that local election counts for Clackmannanshire Council should take place outwith the council area. However, that was proposed because the accommodation could not take the electronic counting system. The contempt for the democratic process that was shown by the DRS Data Services staff who were involved on the night when things started to go wrong should never be repeated. We should never have got into that position, but most of those problems were widely known. They came as no surprise to many people who were involved in administering the elections when they came to fruition at the election time. That is why the Parliament is right to welcome the Gould report, especially its central provision that we should run our own elections.

The Gould report also recommends that we should overhaul the system of returning officers in each constituency. As someone who has acted as a deputy returning officer, I have seen at first hand how much that is needed. Folk should be aware that the actual work for elections is carried out not by the returning officers but by the deputy returning officers and elections officers, who do not get the compensation that returning officers receive. We should end that fiction.

We should also accept Gould's crucial recommendation that the Scottish Parliament and local elections should be decoupled. I remember arguing, as leader of Clackmannanshire Council, with Iain Smith and the Local Government Committee that the elections should be decoupled. At that time, no other party supported that position, but it has attracted the support of the Conservatives within the past year or so. I welcome that party's conversion to the cause as much as I welcome Labour's conversion to the idea of the transfer of powers. Decoupled elections are, quite simply, the fairest way to run things. The new relationship between central Government and local government that gives councils far more freedom to spend and work as they see fit means that, now more than ever, we cannot allow local elections to be overshadowed by a national campaign.

If powers over elections are transferred to the Scottish Parliament, at least any mistakes that we make will be our mistakes. The last thing that we need is for the Parliament to be blamed by the public for matters that are, once again, beyond its control. I have confidence in the abilities of the Parliament and, like the voters of Scotland, I definitely have confidence in the abilities of the Scottish Government to deliver that.

I have faith that Scotland can run its own elections successfully, just like Quebec, Catalonia and jurisdictions as small as the Isle of Man. That is why the Gould report recommends that the Scottish Parliament would be the logical institution to take responsibility for the two sets of elections. It will surprise no one that I would like the Parliament to take on responsibility for elections to the European Parliament and other institutions, along with all the other powers of a normal independent country. I urge the Parliament to unite to pass the Government motion and to send a clear signal that Scotland is ready and grown up enough to bear this new responsibility.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour 3:40 pm, 10th January 2008

I do not know whether members have heard of the Alastair Campbell prize—it is for spinning. The prize for 2007 must go to the person who spun the Gould report as a criticism solely of the Scotland Office. That person is the second most powerful person in the SNP—not John Swinney, certainly not Nicola Sturgeon, and not even election mastermind Angus Robertson, but the SNP chief spin doctor, Kevin Pringle. He managed to dupe the Scottish media—of course, some in the media were willing dupes—into believing that the report criticised only one party.

In fact, one of the report's most damning criticisms was of the use by the SNP of a slogan as a party description. I say to Keith Brown that I have received many complaints about that, which was the biggest con trick in electoral history. It is not the case that Alex Salmond's mum was prescient enough to give him a first name that he could use to get to the top of the list, as he constantly reminds us, but it is the case that Alex was devious enough to take advantage of that lucky coincidence. Frankly, he was able to do that because of the slackness of the Electoral Commission on party descriptions. It is right that the commission should sort out the matter, and not before time.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

Margo MacDonald agrees with me.

The report does not criticise only one party on the ballot paper design and the combination of the list and constituency elections on one ballot paper. Rightly, it criticises all the large parties, including the Liberal Democrats, which agreed to that proposal. I say to Iain Smith that the Liberal Democrats urged the UK Government to combine the ballot papers—no doubt to the disadvantage of small parties such as the Greens—and succeeded in having that done.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am grateful to the member for giving way, but he may not be grateful for my intervention. We would have to be a bit naive to imagine that, when responding to a consultation, political parties will not have somewhere in the back of their minds their own interests. However, the Secretary of State for Scotland must make decisions about the administration of an election on a neutral basis. The distinction between a political party responding to a consultation and a minister acting on behalf of the Government is important. How does the member react to that argument?

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I understand the point that the member makes, which will no doubt be considered during the debate.

However, my Alastair Campbell award winner has been at it again. He has now spun that today's debate is all about whether Holyrood or Westminster should have both administrative and legislative responsibility for the Scottish Parliament elections. Again, many in the media have swallowed it. As we have heard, the debate is about much more than that. It is about ballot paper design, the counting method, the timetable, party descriptions and decoupling of local and parliamentary elections, as well as administrative and legislative responsibility. Most of us agree that, for both democratic and administrative reasons, local and parliamentary elections should be decoupled, so that local authorities can be seen to have their own mandate. If we have agreed that, the main argument for giving Holyrood administrative responsibility for the Scottish Parliament elections falls.

I accept that there is still a valid debate to be conducted on the pros and cons of the devolution of administrative responsibility for the Scottish Parliament elections. However, sadly, the SNP sees the issue as part of its fight with Westminster. The SNP's press release on the matter, which describes Scottish Labour MPs as the dinosaurs of Scottish politics, is not the most rational contribution to the debate.

The SNP also sees the issue as part of its argument for greater powers. I have great misgivings about transferring legislative responsibility for the elections to the Scottish Parliament. While we still have a United Kingdom, there is no argument in principle for doing that.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I ask about the logic of what George Foulkes has just said. If he is concerned that we should not have administrative responsibility for our own elections, for which we must account to members of the public who might ask us about them, does he therefore propose that Northern Ireland should look after the Welsh elections, that they could look after ours and that we could look after theirs?

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I said that there is an argument on both sides as far as administration is concerned and Margo MacDonald put that argument extremely well. However, I am saying that I do not see the argument for transferring legislative responsibility.

We need a safeguard in Scotland, where we see increasingly the development of a powerful autocracy, resulting in the civil service and—dare I say it?—even the officers of this Parliament apparently cowed by an overassertive leadership. When we have a First Minister who is arbiter of almost everything, it is good to have at least some areas where he cannot impose his will arbitrarily. We need proper consultation and careful decision making on the matter; otherwise the Parliament—and even more so the Executive—could be accused of being guilty of what Gould described as treating the electorate as an "afterthought".

Presiding Officer, you will not be surprised to hear that I support Andy Kerr's excellent amendment.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 3:46 pm, 10th January 2008

Presiding Officer, 3 May 2007 was the best of times and the worst of times. My pleasure at winning the constituency of Central Fife—the fulfilment of a promise that my friend David Alexander and I made to each other on the dismal night of the 1987 election count—was tempered by the grotesque chaos of the election process. That process denied thousands of people postal votes. It infuriated those who were similarly denied their right to participate in the election by virtue of ballot papers that had been changed since the previous election and not properly explained. Those ballot papers added to the confusion surrounding a new voting system for local elections and the combining of Scottish Parliament and local government elections on the same day.

It is easy to be wise after an event, but what does one say to the two separate bodies responsible for the two elections who were warned in advance that holding two elections on the same day and changing the voting system would inevitably lead to chaos and that it would all end in tears?

Andy Kerr has recognised his role, particularly in the decision to hold two elections at the same time. Ron Gould said in his report:

"What is characteristic of 2007 was a notable level of party self-interest evident in Ministerial decision making".

He also said:

"It became clear that both the Scotland Office and the Scottish Executive were frequently focused on partisan political interests in carrying out their responsibilities, overlooking voter interests and operational realities within the electoral administration timetable."

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I ask Mr Kerr to let me finish this point. I have no problem with Iain Smith having a go at the Labour Party and the Scotland Office. However, Iain Smith is denying that, as part of the Scottish Executive, it was the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats who were responsible for bludgeoning through this Parliament the coupling of the elections in the first place and for the lateness of the information given to the local government administrators.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

I had hoped for better from the member. Will she reflect on Mr Gould's point that party self-interest in this context was not necessarily related to one party? When I asked him whether it was just the Labour Party that was at it, he said that they were all at it.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

That is certainly not what he said in the report, although he might have said that later after a bit of pressure.

It is self-evident that responsibility and accountability for the Scottish Parliament elections should rest with the Scottish Parliament.

We also need to recognise that the chaos of May 2007 was not a one-off event. There were problems in 1999, regardless of what Cathie Craigie said. I recall that, when the Scottish Office put out material about the Scottish Parliament elections, it said that voters should use their two votes and never mentioned the fact that there was a local government election on the same day.

To try to deny that there were problems in 1999 and 2003 is to deny the truth, which is that the electoral system in Scotland and the UK is broken and needs to be fixed. The present system, in which returning officers are autonomous in their own areas, is simply unsustainable. There must be a chief returning officer, and election administrators' practice and training must be consistent throughout Scotland.

We, the body politic in Scotland, must get it right. I am relaxed about a fuller review and about the committees of this Parliament and the UK Parliament considering the matter, but any review must be concluded early enough for arrangements to be approved in plenty time before the 2011 elections. That is the key point. The culture among, and training for, election administrators must be changed. We are all partners in the election process but, in future, the voters and their interests—not those of the political parties or the political institutions—must be paramount.

Two principles must underpin any review: first, the responsibility for the Scottish Parliament elections must be passed to the Scottish Parliament; secondly, the Scottish Parliament and local government elections must be decoupled. Way back in 2000 and 2001, both McIntosh and Kerley recommended that the local government elections should be decoupled from the Scottish Parliament elections. For Andy Kerr's benefit, I point out that, in 2001, the Scottish National Party and the Conservatives voted against the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Bill at stages 1 and 3. In 2004, the Parliament approved PRSTV for local government elections, but the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats rejected a reasoned amendment in my name to decouple the two sets of elections. I pay tribute to the role that David Mundell played in that attempt. He, Tommy Sheridan and I tried to amend the Local Governance (Scotland) Bill—which introduced PRSTV—to decouple the elections, but that measure was ruled to be outwith the bill's scope.

So 3 May 2007 was an appalling night for democracy for the people of Scotland. We must take steps to get it right before the 2011 elections. Otherwise, the electorate will not forgive us.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 3:53 pm, 10th January 2008

The failures in the conduct of the Scottish Parliament and council elections in May last year made Scotland a laughing stock, diminished our democracy and are a salutary lesson to those who like to mock or lecture others about the conduct of elections elsewhere in the world. Inevitably, there has been a degree of recrimination and a desire to apportion blame for the outcome and the Gould report has been minutely dissected in that respect by the protagonists. However, whatever the qualifications regarding the role of Opposition parties, there is no doubt that the principal responsibility for the failing lies politically and constitutionally with the accountable ministers in the Scottish Executive and the Scotland OfficePatrick Harvie made that point well.

Inevitably, the main focus was on the number of spoilt ballot papers in the Scottish Parliament elections. However, we should not allow that to obscure the fact that, as Duncan McNeil pointed out, the percentage of spoilt papers for the council elections, which were operated under the STV system, was three times higher than had normally been the case under the first-past-the-post system. In particular, there was a high element of double crossing. Not that that is unusual in politics but, in this case, double crossing was where the voter placed crosses against the names of two candidates from the same party that he or she wished to support rather than ranking the two in an order of preference, with the result that the ballot paper was deemed to have been spoilt.

The system was foisted upon us by the previous Scottish Executive in an astonishing act of self-destruction by the Labour Party, whose members must occasionally reflect that, if Scotland can function with a minority Government with 47 members in the chamber, it could most certainly have functioned with a minority Government with 50 or 56 members in the Parliament. However, that is all said with the benefit of hindsight. What we now need is foresight, and a willingness on the part of Scotland's two Governments and two Parliaments to pursue the recommendations for the approved administration of the Scottish parliamentary and council elections, as set out in the Gould report.

The Government motion focuses, as one would naturally expect, on the recommendation that legislative and executive powers relating to the conduct of the elections should be assigned to a single jurisdiction, which should be the Scottish Parliament/Scottish Executive. We have no problem with that principle, as long as it is clear that conduct in that context relates only to the law governing election administration—which is the context in which the recommendation was made by Gould. In so far as the Labour Party's amendment reinforces that point, we welcome it, as should the Government—if that is indeed its position.

I note that the Liberal Democrat amendment proposes the introduction of STV for the election of members of this Parliament. Apparently, that is also the policy of the SNP. All I can say is that, in light of last year's election result, the SNP should rethink that policy fast, as it achieved a far better result under the present additional member system than it would have done under STV. I remind members that the Conservatives were the only party in the Parliament to vote against the introduction of STV for local government elections. We tried our best to save the Labour Party from itself and from the consequences of allowing the Liberal Democrat tail to wag the dog, but Labour would not listen to us.

Today, we offer the same sound and free advice to the Scottish National Party, with the added thought that, not for the first time, everybody comes round to the Tory point of view in the long run. That point is no better exemplified than in relation to the issue of decoupling the Scottish Parliament and local government elections. As Tricia Marwick pointed out, that was recommended years ago by the Kerley committee, the McIntosh commission and, most recently, the Arbuthnott commission. Indeed, it has been recommended by every independent body that has seriously examined the issue in recent times. The idea has considerable merit in its own right, by giving local government elections, local authorities and local issues their place in the sun, rather than their being ignored and overshadowed, as at present, by the Scottish Parliament campaign.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

There are many arguments on that point, as David McLetchie would recognise. Would he comment on the turnout problem that existed in local government elections in many parts of Scotland before 1999? How could that be overcome by again having separate local authority elections?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The average turnout percentages that were highlighted in one of the papers that I have read in that connection were 46 per cent pre-1999, and 54 per cent after. There is a gap, which I acknowledge, but we can try to address it. Thinking of voter education, if we moved to decoupling, we could have a much more focused campaign on how the system works and drive down the failure rate to a much more acceptable level. That is why decoupling is one of the Gould report's recommendations. I note, however, that it has taken the democratic calamity of May 2007 to reach that point of view. I was going to describe it as a democratic catastrophe, but as Nick Clegg is in town I changed my speech in his honour.

The decoupling policy has long been advocated by the Scottish Conservatives, and it was the subject of a member's bill in the previous session, introduced by my colleague, David Mundell. It found wide support across Scotland, although it cut no ice with the Scottish Executive at the time. Accordingly, we welcome the support that the present Government has given to the proposal, which we hope will be law before too long, to allow all those in local authorities who are affected to prepare for the next elections, on a date that they will know with some certainty. I support the amendment in the name of my colleague Annabel Goldie.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 3:59 pm, 10th January 2008

It is a unique experience to hear a Conservative politician recommend how we can maximise our voter appeal to the people of Scotland, given the history of his party over the past 20-plus years. I think that Bruce Crawford used the phrase "mixed reactions". Perhaps "with mixed emotions" is a better phrase to describe how members responded to the elections—the outcome was successful for SNP members, but disappointing for Labour members. We all experienced the election counts and subsequent discussions within our constituency or regional areas and in our own parties.

The Gould report is a reasonably good snapshot of some of the lessons that need to be learned and the culpabilities of individuals, organisations, parties and the process of politics itself. It took me a long while to move from my previous advice that people should use their second vote wisely to saying that they should use their first vote—which was for the regional list—wisely. I was that confused by the changeover that I was still telling voters to use their second vote wisely even on the day of the election.

I am enough of a romantic to enjoy the count—I do not suffer from a long evening count. There is a certain drama to evening counts, which many of us treasure as part of the political process, even when we get disappointing news at 2.30 in the morning. We should not necessarily throw out the overnight counting option, which the Gould report mentioned and which the Scotland Office wants to consider.

The debate centres around what lessons we learn from the process itself. The design of the ballot paper in the two major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh had a substantial impact on the number of rejected ballot papers. Members have raised additional issues about using the X instead of preferential numbering in the STV system. Either there needs to be a major programme of voter education or returning officers—and the electronic counting system—need to be able to recognise the intention of voters who use an X rather than numbers.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Has the member heard rumours that the counting machines that were used particularly in Edinburgh and, I am told, in Glasgow were below par?

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

There is reasonable evidence to indicate that that might well have been a problem. The way in which the papers were designed and the language that was used was responsible for some of the poor losses of papers, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In my constituency, we had one of the highest numbers of spoilt papers.

The Gould report also raised the issue of the description of parties, to which my colleague Andy Kerr referred. It was quaint and possibly ironic when we saw "Solidarity—Tommy Sheridan" on the ballot paper. That is okay when we are talking about a far-left insurrectionary organisation, but it is not okay for mainstream political parties that are looking to engage with the democratic process to take the same approach. The use of "Alex Salmond for First Minister" on the ballot papers was insulting to voters and a clear manipulation of the electoral process. The tactic has been successful in some respects, but it should certainly not be repeated.

It is said that 85,000 constituency ballot papers and 60,000 regional list papers were spoilt in May 2007—that is 3.5 per cent of those who voted—and yet in the most hotly contested and disputed election in recent western democratic history, the number of spoilt papers in Florida was 2 per cent. One of those elections resulted in the contested election of a right-wing, arrogant, populist leader taking his country in the wrong direction and the other resulted in the election of George W Bush.

It is important that we have an opportunity to give a "measured response". Those are the words that the First Minister used in his first major statement in the chamber. When we arrive at conclusions and come up with ideas about creating a new, modern, inclusive Scotland, it is important that we engage with an evidence base and involve as many people as possible. The best course of action on the Gould report is to allow the consultation process to be fulfilled through the Scotland Office and to allow a committee of the Parliament to interrogate these issues.

Members have different opinions on the broader debate, but I think that the commission that has been established to look at the nature of the Parliament's powers and the way in which it should operate in the future is the most appropriate place for such debate. If we take that measured response, I hope that we will manage to avoid what happened in May and to ensure that the 2011 election—regardless of its outcome overall or for individual members who may wish to stand in it—will be, rather than an embarrassment, something for which Scotland can be commended.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat 4:05 pm, 10th January 2008

I welcome this afternoon's debate on the Gould report and look forward to the questioning of Mr Swinney and others at next week's meeting of the Local Government and Communities Committee.

I have taken a strong interest in the procedures that were used for the most recent elections in an effort to help ensure fairness, accuracy and speed in determining the public's choice of representatives in this Parliament and Scottish local authorities.

Several months before the election, I took part in a trial of the electronic counting system that was being considered. During the trial, I sought to test the new system, in the full knowledge of those present, by trying to throw a spanner in the works. I removed one of the dummy ballot papers to find out whether the electronic system would detect its absence. I noted the concern on the face of the organisers when I did that, but they were all highly relieved when the system highlighted the anomaly. That gave everyone who was present more confidence that the system would handle any unexpected problems that it might face.

Some time later, I was dismayed to find that the SNP was able to circumvent the spirit of a free and fair ballot by putting "Alex Salmond for First Minister" at the top of the regional ballot paper, thereby taking advantage of the system. Professor Ron Gould called it a "naming strategy" and "sloganisation". The Electoral Commission said that that was one of the top three subjects of the complaints that it received about the election. Professor Gould said that it was done to

"achieve a higher position on the ballot paper."

I call it simply disgraceful behaviour.

Although that practice undoubtedly affected the ballot results, it is now clear that combining the regional list and constituency voting options on one side of A4 paper was the main reason for the high number of rejected ballot papers. I am one of the 16 constituency members in the Parliament whose majority is less than the number of spoilt papers, so I am angry that even more people did not get their chance to support me or any other candidate on 3 May. However, I must pay due respect to my predecessor, who did not challenge the result of the votes that were counted.

The report recommends that the interests of voters would be best served by having separate ballot papers in future elections, regardless of whether Scottish Parliament and local government elections are held on the same day. That measure would greatly help to iron out the confusion that voters experienced on election day last May.

The move to an STV system for local government elections that was implemented last year was backed in June 2004 as part of the coalition agreement between the parties of the previous Administration. The system was proved to work well—the spoilage rate was much lower than that for the system that is used for elections to the Scottish Parliament. That points to the success and clarity of the STV system, which is easy to understand and to explain to everyone—even the Tories, some of whose members are smirking.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

The last time round, there were about 17,000 spoilt papers in the local government elections. This time round, there were about 38,000 spoilt papers. Is that acceptable?

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

Although no number of spoilt papers is acceptable, as Mr Smith pointed out earlier, the use of the STV system has proved much more successful than the regional list system that is used for elections to the Scottish Parliament. It is clear that, in the population's mind, the STV system is easy to understand.

A key finding of the Gould report was that the division of responsibility for the combined elections between the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government leads to fragmentation of legislation and decision making. The report recommended exploratory discussions to assign responsibility for both elections to one body. The major problems with the May 2007 elections have proved that responsibility for elections should pass to the Scottish Parliament rather than, as Professor Gould suggests, the Scottish Government. An excellent case has been made for the Scottish Parliament to have more powers.

I urge the Government to consider carefully all the recommendations of the Gould report and to reach agreement on the way forward. We need a system that works for the people of Scotland and we need it to be in place by the next elections.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party 4:10 pm, 10th January 2008

We are so alike—it is easy to be confused.

Many members have talked about how important it is for the Parliament to take decisions on the running of Holyrood and local authority elections, which would be eminently sensible. After all, as I suggested to Mr Gould, who is a Canadian, during a meeting of the Local Government and Communities Committee, it would be preposterous if the United States of America presided over the running of Canadian elections. It is daft for the Scottish ministers and the Scotland Office to have their oars in the water; we must conclude that the process should be devolved to Scotland.

The ballot paper design clearly caused confusion and difficulty. I am sure that lessons will be learned. I anticipate that whoever designs the next ballot paper will acknowledge that having two, separate, Holyrood ballot papers is essential.

More thought should be given to which parties are permitted to put their name on the regional ballot paper. Voters are confused by the plethora of minuscule three-men-and-a-dog parties—often recently formed and with as few as three members—that are allowed on the regional list. I am aware of no other legislature that allows such nonsense. It is clear that some voters are confused when they are confronted by ballot papers that include such parties. That does nothing to advance the democratic process.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I am curious to know what the member thinks about one woman without a dog.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Not a lot, if the truth must be told.

Thought should be given to ensuring that each party on the regional list has at least 100 members and has existed for a year or more before polling day.

It is hardly surprising that voters are weary of campaigns, given that everyone who stands for Parliament—although not for local government—is permitted a free postal delivery from the Royal Mail. A veritable rainforest of leaflets is delivered to our doorsteps. In my constituency, an obscure fringe party called the Scottish Liberal Democrats was able to take advantage of the free mailing, despite having no campaign whatever. The party's candidate, a Mr Hutton, failed to turn up for all but one hustings meeting, at which—this was bizarre—he sat in the audience and watched the real political parties discuss the important issues of the day.

Why should small, insignificant parties that lack activists who are willing to deliver leaflets and chap doors have a free leaflet drop? Surely that undermines the process.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

In a minute.

Members have talked about STV. When two or more candidates for the same party stood, 92 per cent of the councillors who were elected were the ones whose surnames came first in the alphabet—so Alasdair Allan would have a greater chance of being elected than would William Wallace. I support STV, and at the 2001 Scottish National Party conference I moved that STV be used in all elections, but the alphabetisation issue must be resolved, perhaps by randomisation of names when two or more candidates stand for the same political party.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I agree with the member's identification of the alphabetisation problem in the local government elections. Is the answer randomisation not in terms of where the party lists stand but across 50 per cent of the ballot papers, so that the ballot paper list turns upside down in terms of half the ballots, in some sensible way across the ward? That would be fair to candidates across the board—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I think that you have made your point.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

The member makes a good point. I have no particular stance on the issue; I have an open mind. We should consider all options for STV.

Iain Smith, Jim Tolson and other Liberal Democrats are wrong to imply that there are no problems with STV—as has been said, the number of spoilt ballot papers in the local government elections was three times higher than it was in 2003. I am sure that many people did not realise that they could vote for three candidates, but thought that they could vote for only one candidate.

I apologise to Patricia Ferguson, who wanted to intervene.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I thank the member for giving way and point out that it is not only the Liberal Democrats who failed to do much campaigning in certain constituencies.

I wanted to intervene on the question of candidates such as Ms MacDonald—with or without a dog. Would it be better if parties or individuals who want to stand for election in the regional list had to pay a deposit, just as candidates in constituencies do?

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I absolutely agree. That would get rid of people who are not serious and allow other parties to come forward.

Charter 88 and Unlock Democracy produced a report for the Local Government and Communities Committee that all members will have received. It shows that 26 per cent of the volunteers Charter 88 recruited to monitor the election did not understand how STV works. It is clear that there is much more work to be done.

Some political parties fielded more than one candidate in an area. It goes against the grain of STV when multi-member wards are divided. For example, in my wife's ward, where there are three Labour Party members and one SNP member, the Labour members divided the ward into three sections. That should not happen. Although parties can deal with matters as they wish, surely the voters should have the opportunity to go to whoever they want to. If such a strategy is going to be used in an election, voters should be told in advance that the ward will be divided up, so that they are not deceived.

We have heard about the "Alex Salmond for First Minister" issue. It is another way in which voters are not being given all the information that they should be give prior to an election. We have to widen the issue out beyond the aspects of the Gould report that previous speakers have focused on; we must consider the entire issue in the round.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour 4:16 pm, 10th January 2008

I agree that the tone of the debate has been less adversarial than it was in the immediate aftermath of the Gould report, but some of our discussions put us in danger of excluding voters. We should remind ourselves that the electoral system is not the sole property of members—or, indeed, of members of the Westminster Parliament, or of local government colleagues. At the risk of sounding pious, the electoral system belongs to the electorate. It is the property of those who use it to elect, not of those who are elected.

Ron Gould famously said that voters were treated as an afterthought when arrangements for last May's elections were drawn up. He is right, and we are in danger of excluding them again today. As I said when it was first published, the Gould report confirms well-held fears that we have failed the people of Scotland by pursuing a politicians' agenda. Was it the voters who wanted a new voting system for council elections? Did they want council and Scottish Parliament elections on the same day? A single Holyrood ballot paper? Electronic counting? No. Those were all the demands of politicians. We—and by we I mean the entire political class—let our narrow interests take precedence over voters' right to have their voice heard. As Patrick Harvie implied, we are political animals. We are in adversarial politics and we want to win.

If we take the politically expedient move of rushing through a quick fix without due consideration of the consequences, we will repeat exactly the same mistakes as before. As has become clear in the debate, aside from political expediency, there is no reason to push through hasty, ill-thought-out changes. We are, after all, three years away from the next scheduled Scottish Parliament and local government elections. At the risk of shocking the chamber, the public outside these walls do not hold us in reverential esteem. They already think that politicians are out of touch and solely motivated by self-interest; let us not prove them right by taking another decision that leaves voters' interests lying ignored in the corner.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Does Duncan McNeil agree that while it is important that these issues are not rushed, any changes that are made for the 2011 elections should be in place in good time so that they can be understood by the population?

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

That is an important point, but we should not ignore the consequences of decisions that are taken too hurriedly. There is too little knowledge in the chamber for us to ignore the Electoral Commission's reports on the election timetable, the election administration and the design of the ballot paper. We do not have enough knowledge to say that the Local Government and Communities Committee's report and its testing of the evidence from Gould do not matter.

Indeed, the case was made that we need to read the evidence that the Local Government and Communities Committee took from Gould because much—or, at least, some—of what has been said here today has been tested by Gould and stiffer emphasis has been given to certain aspects. I do not believe that we should rush ahead on this matter. We cannot afford to ignore the work that the Scottish Affairs Committee has done or neglect the Government-to-Government work that needs to take place. The commission's work and the Local Government and Transport Committee's work is extremely important in relation to any decision that we make.

Apart from anything else, May's fiasco taught us one lesson above all: beware of the law of unintended consequences. That is why I argue that the detailed work that has already begun must be allowed to continue. We must look closely at how any changes will operate in practice and close any loopholes that could be exploited. Whenever a sharp move gains one candidate an extra vote, the legitimate recipient of that vote loses it and, more important, so does the elector.

We should not forget that the job of the electoral system is to help as many voters as possible to exercise their democratic right—everything else is secondary. I assure the chamber that if it has anything to do with me, that will be the case in relation to the Local Government and Transport Committee's investigation. I ask the chamber to allow us to continue our work, get on with our job and play a part in helping this Parliament to make considered decisions about the future of our electoral system.

Photo of Dave Thompson Dave Thompson Scottish National Party 4:20 pm, 10th January 2008

We are all too well aware of the comedy of errors that was the Scottish election on 3 May last year, when more than 146,000 votes—almost 3.5 per cent of the total votes cast—were rejected. However, despite that debacle, which highlighted the incompetence of the Labour Party, the election was a landmark step towards a better Scotland, with the election of the first ever SNP Government.

I had a somewhat interesting time at the aquadome in Inverness on Friday 4 May 2007—a day that I will never forget. At 5pm that afternoon, I challenged the Highlands and Islands regional returning officer, who was about to announce that the SNP had won no seats on the Highlands and Islands list, thereby giving the Labour Party victory in the crucial Scottish parliamentary election by 47 seats to the SNP's 45. If he had made that announcement, the historic SNP victory in the election would not have happened, Labour leader Jack McConnell would have won by two seats and crowed ever louder in his victory speech, while future First Minister, Alex Salmond, would have had to eat humble pie.

Of course, we would have challenged the result in the Court of Session on the Monday and the result would have been overturned, but what would the perception and mood of the country have been? It would have been that the SNP had won on a legality or a technicality and stolen the election from its rightful owners, the Labour Party. The amazingly optimistic mood in Scotland over the summer of 2007 would have been replaced by a negativity that could have sunk the fledgling SNP Government or even prevented it from forming.

I have never been quite so glad of my good Scottish grounding in mental arithmetic as I was that day. The dominie of Lossiemouth primary would have been proud of me—and I know that Alex Salmond is also just a wee bit pleased. However—maybe I should not say this—it was not all that difficult. Because a large number of papers were rejected by the electronic counting, there were, as members know, a substantial number of papers that had to be manually adjudicated. That allowed anyone who was interested to do sampling and mental calculations. It was an unintended bonus of the shambles that made up for the fact that we could not do our normal ballot box sampling. Over a few hours, I worked out that the SNP was likely to get around 35 per cent of the list vote in the Highlands and Islands, so we should expect to gain a total of at least five seats, if not six. As I would be returned for the sixth of those seats, I began to think that I might just become an MSP.

So it was with some hope that I returned to the Inverness aquadome on that fateful Friday morning, having had only a couple of hours to freshen up since the night before. It was not until 5.30 in the afternoon that I would be announced as the SNP's 47th member of the Scottish Parliament, thereby giving us a majority of one over Labour and making us the largest party in the Scottish Parliament. At that time, I became the SNP's slim majority—the majority that allowed us to form the first ever SNP Government and take a huge stride towards independence.

The delay in announcing the Highlands and Islands regional list result was the result of a decision to count and announce all 80 of the Highland Council results first, even though very little work remained to be done on the regional list result. That is another good example of why we should decouple the elections—to avoid such problems in future.

It was at around 5 o'clock that the returning officer called the Scottish Parliament regional list candidates together to give them the result. We all crowded around, eager for a glimpse of the figures. Imagine our shock and horror when the returning officer showed us a sheet with four seats for Labour, two for the Tories and one for the Greens. The Labour candidates ran off screaming that they had four seats and had won the election; the Tories were speechless that they had two, as they expected to get only one; and the Greens could not believe that they had got one at all. The returning officer asked us whether we were all happy with the result, and headed for the podium to announce the results.

I looked heavenward and asked the Lord how he could have done that to me, and immediately realised that the figures must be wrong. I had a quick exchange with my election agent and we leapt into action. I moved in front of the returning officer, while my agent took the rear. The weary—nay, exhausted—returning officer's face was a picture, as he was confronted by what were, in his mind, two disaffected bad losers. He asked whether we wanted to challenge the results, and we said yes. He asked whether we wanted to see the calculations, and we said yes. So off he went, and returned with his A4 Excel spreadsheet—which, by the way, is not recommended for use in such circumstances.

The returning officer kindly explained the d'Hondt PR system to me, with its calculation of total regional vote one, divided by total constituency seats one, plus one, with the party that ended up with the greatest remaining figure getting the first additional seat, and so on. It was clear as mud, but I am sure that members all understand. He went through each individual calculation, until I pointed out that he was not including the SNP column in his calculations. He left in a hurry and came back after 25 minutes with a revised calculation, which gave Labour three seats, the Tories two and the SNP two. I was an SNP MSP, and we had won the election—the rest is history. The returning officer's exhaustion, however, after around 36 hours with little or no sleep, nearly negated that historic moment, and is another reason why the system must change to ensure that we get it right next time.

Photo of Dave Thompson Dave Thompson Scottish National Party

I am just finishing.

The key finding of the Gould report was, however, that the Scotland Office's decision to combine the names of constituency and regional candidates on a single ballot paper was the main reason for the spoiled papers.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The member must wind up. There is another member waiting to speak and time is limited.

Photo of Dave Thompson Dave Thompson Scottish National Party

This is my final quotation. As Ron Gould stated:

"The Scotland Office and the Scottish Executive were frequently focused on partisan political interests ... overlooking voter interests and operational realities within the electoral ... timetable."

I think that says it all.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I call Patrick Harvie—I can give you four minutes, Mr Harvie.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 4:28 pm, 10th January 2008

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Perhaps that is not enough time to explain why I support the logic of a single legislative and regulatory layer joining up a fragmented system—the logic irresistibly means that this Parliament should take control. Perhaps I will have to cut some of that. Perhaps there is no time to have a go at the issue of a single ballot paper—I merely point out that the conclusion is so obvious that even the UK Government has already accepted it.

Perhaps there is no time to talk at greater length about my views on sloganising, whether it is, "Alex Salmond for First Minister" or Tommy Sheridan, or anybody else. There is merely time to point out that 100 per cent of people in Scotland outwith Gordon could have voted for Alex Salmond for First Minister, but if the people in Gordon had not elected him as their constituency MSP, he would not be here; that is why that is a problem. There is no time either to talk about the overnight count or the electronic counting, save to say that it is a grave mistake and one that we simply do not need to make. The Electoral Commission describes manual counting as 19th century technology—what nonsense. Doing things by hand is every-century technology, and it works.

There is no time, either, to go into the positions in the Conservative and Liberal amendments. I support the substance of both, however—the decoupling of the elections, and STV. I will cut all that and move directly to my rant about the Labour Party's position, which is a lot more fun than the rest of my speech anyway.

I suppose that much of the general substance of the Labour amendment is broadly okay. It is something that I might be able to accept rather than applaud and tolerate rather than celebrate. However, I have reservations about two aspects that seem to strike the wrong note. The first is the call for us to have regard to the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster. Now, I watched that committee. I was not that bored during the recess, but I watched it earlier. I watched almost in disbelief as the committee rigorously grilled the Electoral Commission and gave an exceptionally easy ride to the UK Government, which the committee exists to scrutinise and which so grossly misused and bungled its powers of administration and legislation.

I watched in despair as Labour and Tory MPs joined in attacks on the principle of proportional representation, which was not criticised by Gould. I know that some Labour MPs at Westminster regard PR as a thorn in their side, but how dismal it would be if the 2007 election fiasco—for which Labour must accept a generous helping of blame—was used to promote regression to first past the post, which is the least representative and least pluralistic election system outside Cuba. We should be thankful that Scotland's democratic representation is no longer solely in the hands of such people. I would be happy to ignore that committee's views on the matter.

The second issue is the constitutional commission. I have no problem with the commission considering the matter—or indeed any other matter—but perhaps Mr Kerr should alert his colleague Mr Brown to the expectation that it will do that. When the Prime Minister was asked whether he supports the commission's work, he said:

"This is a debate that has to be held at some point ... about accountability for money spent."

He seems to regard the commission as considering purely matters of financial accountability and not powers in any other area. If the UK Government or the three UK parties that initiated the commission want to pay for it, they can limit its work in any way, but if they want the Parliament to pay for it, it should be able to consider any matter.

I urge the Parliament to unite behind the principle of implementation of the Gould report's recommendations.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 4:32 pm, 10th January 2008

The debate has been interesting and relevant. As Duncan McNeil rightly said, speeches have been of high quality and relatively non-partisan for the most part.

The debate has raised a number of issues that are of great importance to Scottish democracy. Central to those is the fallout from the shambles of the number of spoilt ballots in the May elections. I am not one who gets excited about the blame game and attempts to nail blame on this or that minister or institution, but the reality is that a number of mistakes were made. Some were predictable, some were due to delay, and some were less predictable, but they all made their contribution. The Gould report helped to cast light on that and to point the way forward.

However, the report was not brought down from the mountains like tablets of stone. As with all reports, we should exercise our judgment against the background of our experience and with the assistance of the parliamentary committees. I entirely accept the Labour Party's point on that matter. The Government's attempt to claim the moral high ground by signing up to all the recommendations after 24 hours' consideration, as the First Minister did, was not particularly sensible.

However, Gould's central recommendation—that the divided administrative responsibility, combined with the lack of a single set of rules for four different elections and four different electoral systems, is a recipe for disaster—can hardly be gainsaid. I am pleased that most members recognise both that and the need for a single authoritative returning officer for Scotland.

The Gould report does not consider whether jurisdiction over the electoral system for the Parliament should continue to be reserved. It was not its role to do so. In my submission, however, it is impossible to consider the administrative issues in isolation, without considering the broader issues.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

On that point, regardless of what we think, we should have the voter in mind. The voter believes that we are responsible for all aspects of what happens in the elections to the Parliament and the proceedings of the Parliament. That suggests that we should have legislative and administrative powers.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am grateful for Margo MacDonald's intervention, because that is the point that I was going to make. It cannot be sensible to have four different electoral systems for the four different elections that we have in Scotland. It is certainly valid that the Gould report be considered in the context of that larger issue.

Indeed, it is time that our Parliament had responsibility for its own electoral system, with the pressure that that would automatically bring to move towards a similar or identical system for both local and Scottish Parliament elections. That is part of the unfinished workings-out of the constitutional reforms of the past 10 years, as Scotland adjusts to its place in a more federal United Kingdom.

As Kenny Gibson rightly touched on, we would all accept that there is no perfect electoral system, but I make no bones about the fact that the Liberal Democrats' preferred system is single transferable vote at both Scottish Parliament and local government level. I hope that it did not escape members' attention that the council STV system worked well despite its novelty. The Parliament's system caused the problems.

Liberal Democrats believe in the Parliament having powers for a purpose. In this instance, the purpose is an improved and harmonious voting system that is administratively competent to deliver an effective vote to all our citizens.

There may be some political momentum behind decoupling—I recognised that while listening to speeches from throughout the chamber—but it should be recognised that Gould was pretty conditional about that recommendation. There is a strong case for reconsidering the issue if the electoral systems are brought closer together. The arguments for holding elections on the same day remain: to counter both low council election turnouts and the double pressure on party resources and manpower of running double elections. Of course, party pressures do not bring tears of sympathy among the public, but the truth is that, unless the parties can engage effectively in the process, the elections will be a washout. Gould is also not right to say that there would be elections only every two years to cope with—he ignores the Westminster and European elections.

Some weeks ago, I had the interesting privilege of chairing a meeting on behalf of RNIB Scotland on its report on the challenges of the elections as seen from the perspective of a visually impaired voter. Many of the same issues were relevant, but I was struck by the inadequacy of several features of the election. For example, the colour contrasts on the ballot papers were inadequate and indeed the wrong colours were used for best effect. The print size was too small and was said in some instances to be faded or smudged. At the polling stations, the lighting of the polling booth was often inadequate. Those points all affected many elderly voters as well as visually impaired voters. Many of those points were raised in the lead-up to the ballot, but most were ignored or compromised against other considerations, such as the size of the ballot paper. Those matters were not, of course, considered by Gould. The electoral system is for all our citizens, and it must be organised and conducted in a way that gives equal access to all our citizens.

In my intervention on Kenny Gibson, I touched on the alphabetic effect of the council ballot paper. It is not acceptable that in 91 or 92 per cent—we have slightly different figures—of cases in which parties stood two candidates in the same council ward the person whose name was higher up the alphabet won. A fair system has to be found, although not the ballot system that was proposed by Gould.

Finally, let me summarise the Liberal Democrat attitude to the options available in the debate. We are broadly content with the motion, although I accept that there must be input from the relevant parliamentary committees and wider society as the issue moves forward. I acknowledge Duncan McNeil's valid considerations on that aspect.

Liberal Democrats initiated the idea of a Scottish constitutional commission and strongly support the mechanism, but giving our Parliament control of its electoral system should happen. That has been supported by Liberal Democrats for many years, and we are not persuaded that there is any need for further consideration—

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

In that regard, I welcome the debate, thank members for their contribution and add my little—

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative 4:39 pm, 10th January 2008

I will dispel three of the myths that have been perpetuated throughout the debate. The first is the myth put forward by the first Liberal Democrat speakerIain Smith—which was that Gould did not think that combining the elections was a factor in the fiasco that resulted. Let me refer him to page 36 of the Gould report:

"Another problem with combining these elections has to do with the confusion it creates among the electorate."

Later on the same page, the report says that

"it is clear that some voters were confused by the combined elections using two electoral systems and two ballot paper marking requirements" and

"The combination of elections in Scotland added complexity to the voting process."

We challenge the Liberal Democrat member's assertion that Gould did not think that combining the elections was a factor. It is down in black and white in the report at least three times.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

What about the quotation from page 52?

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

For good measure, I will add for Mr Smith the conclusion on page 115:

"In addition, separating the two elections would result in minimising the potential for voter confusion."

That makes at least four references in the Gould report to Mr Smith's one.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

No, thank you.

The second myth came from the Labour Party trying to blame everybody for the ballot paper that ended up being used in the Scottish Parliament elections. Andy Kerr did not talk about the testing that was done—or, I should say, the testing that was not really done—on the finalised ballot papers. For the Scottish Parliament election, only 100 people were asked to sit down and test the ballot papers. For the local government elections, likewise; only 100 people were asked to sit down and test the papers. More testing is done for the average edition of "Family Fortunes" than was done for the entire Scottish Parliament and local government elections.

Not only that, but there was a 4 per cent failure rate in the testing that was done. It should have been pretty obvious that there was going to be a problem, because the end result, not surprisingly, was a 4 per cent failure rate.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

Did David Mundell not accept the need for a single ballot paper?

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

There is a big difference between accepting in principle the possibility of having a single ballot paper and how that transfers into practice. It was incumbent on those who organised the election to test that ballot paper properly. Had anyone in the chamber—outside of the Executive, which knew about it—known that there was a 4 per cent failure rate, I am fairly sure that they would have taken a different view.

To add insult to injury, not only was weak testing done on both papers, but—this beggars belief—no combined testing was done whatsoever. Not a single person in testing was given a Scottish Parliament ballot paper and a local government ballot paper to see how they would react to having two different systems in front of them. The second myth is the testing of the ballot papers.

I think that we have already dealt with the third myth, which is the one that STV somehow worked and was a big success with the voter at local government level. As has been pointed out, the failure rate was three times that in the last Scottish local government elections, which resulted in 38,000 people losing their vote. That is unacceptable. Had it happened without the added fiasco of the Scottish Parliament elections, there would have been an almighty uproar. There was a trebling in the number of failed papers.

It is clear that the papers affected people's voting. According to the Gould report, 75 per cent of the spoilt papers from the local government election were spoilt because people had not only double crossed, as Mr McLetchie said, but treble and quadruple crossed; people thought that they were meant to put crosses on that ballot paper.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that the electoral system of PR and STV was not at fault? The fault lay with the instruction and information campaign, which was supposed to have started much earlier; it simply did not take place, and when it did it was inadequate.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

It was all those factors together. I accept that a range of things went wrong. Frank McAveety's point about how the elections turned out in Glasgow and the Lothians was particularly relevant. Those ballot papers were even worse, and instead of an average failure rate of 4 per cent, in the Lothians the rate was 5.2 per cent and in Glasgow it was 7.2 per cent, because of the additional changes to the papers. I accept that other factors were also involved.

The Scottish Conservatives want to see two huge changes, the first of which, of course, is that we should return to having two ballot papers. I will not dwell on that any further. The second change that we seek is a move to decoupling, which has been our policy for several years; as has been mentioned, David Mundell introduced a member's bill in 2004 to push through that policy. We saw what was coming, Presiding Officer, and we are glad that others are now coming into the fold. We hope that the elections can be decoupled in time, because that will minimise confusion, as Gould clearly says at least four times. Just as important, it will give local government the prominence that it deserves. It could help us to re-engage with the electorate and make local government far more accountable. If decoupling does not happen quickly and effectively, we will reintroduce our member's bill to ensure that it happens in time.

Mr Gould said in his report:

"We obviously recommend that all those with a role in organising future elections consider the voters' interests above all other considerations."

It is time to return to two separate ballot papers; it is time to decouple; and it is time to restore faith in Scottish democracy.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour 4:45 pm, 10th January 2008

First, I must apologise to Tricia Marwick for misrepresenting her party's position on this matter. She was absolutely correct in what she said, and has provided me with all the evidence that I need to make that clarification.

I should also point out that because I took so many interventions in my speech, I did not reach my conclusion, which is that we will support Annabel Goldie's amendment to our amendment. Let us not have any misunderstandings about voting this afternoon.

With some notable exceptions, the debate has been very good. Members have been very open to the principles underlying the Gould report and its conclusions and recommendations. In putting forward her view that implementation of the report's recommendations should not cover referendums, changes to the electoral system or any further devolution of powers, Annabel Goldie sought to clarify certain aspects of the SNP motion, and I am interested to hear the response of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth to her comments.

I have to say that Iain Smith did not rise to the occasion. After all, his party was party to many of the discussions at Executive level on the matter. He sought to wash his hands of that history, but, as far as this issue is concerned, we all have history. I am in no doubt of the Labour Party's responsibility and culpability in relation to much of the matter. However, as I have sought to point out, other parties in the chamber supported not only the use of a single ballot paper but many other aspects of the running of the elections.

As I said in my opening speech, the fact is that, despite the criticism that has been made of the role of the Scotland Office, many of the key decisions were made in the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I want to give two quick points of information. First, the independents in the previous session of Parliament did not agree with the approach that was taken. Secondly, for the benefit of members such as Patricia Ferguson who seem to misunderstand the process, independents have to put up the same money as other candidates to be on the regional list. I had to pay £500, as did Patrick Harvie.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

With due respect to Margo MacDonald, I was referring to decisions made by the Parliament that were then implemented by the Scotland Office.

Duncan McNeil said that we should not make the same mistakes and made a valid point about the injustice felt by the electorate. We need to reflect on what happened and ensure that it does not happen again.

I did not think that, when the subject of sloganisation came up, some of the smug reactions from members on the SNP benches were appropriate or accurately reflected what Duncan McNeil was actually saying. His point was that a vote robbed through clever practice is simply a vote lost, and that that affects the electorate's confidence in the electoral process. I was disappointed to find some members being overly smart and smug about that.

Patrick Harvie made the valid point that it is the responsibility of ministers is to be non-partisan and to deliver for everyone. We can learn lessons from that. However, everyone was involved in the political process and in the decisions that were implemented. Although we all now support the comments made by the Conservatives and the SNP's Peter Murrell about a single ballot form, it is easy to be wise after the event and to say that it was a significant factor in how the public approached the elections.

I would like to touch on many other areas, but should return to the heart of the issue: the Gould report's recommendations and how the Parliament handles the electoral process. Our amendment does not seek to rule out, or in, any of those recommendations; it simply expresses the view that our parliamentary committee should have its opportunity to scrutinise the matter. Of course, decoupling will be central to any approach. That, combined with many of the initiatives that Des Browne has announced, will take us a long way towards resolving some key problems.

However, the SNP's motion is not about allowing the committee to conduct a measured examination and to take a considered approach; instead, it is about pre-empting the Parliament's scrutiny of the matter. At the heart of the debate is the question of the administration of and control over elections and whether we should have the power to change the electoral system. Interestingly, Mr Gould said in evidence that there should be one entity—the chief returning officer—to administer the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections. More important, he said that he did not envisage any difficulty in that person reporting to two bodies that would still retain legislative competence over the different sets of elections, particularly given that those elections would no longer be combined.

I strongly believe that the constructive approach that Labour has taken in its amendment—I repeat that we support the amendment to our amendment that the Tories have lodged—will allow us to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes that have been made in the past in respect of some of the Scottish people's big concerns about elections.

I go back to the decisions that we took in the Parliament about coupling the elections—I duly make the point that the SNP was against that—and single ballot papers. We can continue to examine how things were delivered through the Scotland Office—Gould brings that out in his report—but key decisions were made in Scotland.

It is interesting that when the Arbuthnott committee reported, Alex Salmond said:

"These are decisions of national consequence which must be taken forward on a non-partisan basis."

I appeal to members to recognise that and ensure that we allow the Parliament's Local Government and Communities Committee to bring its recommendations to us so that we can have a wider discussion and not jump to conclusions at this point in the debate.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 4:51 pm, 10th January 2008

In drawing the debate to a close for the Government, I must say that this has been a most unusual afternoon. Mr Kerr has been the epitome of consensus. His Christmas and new year holiday has done him the world of good. I will say more later about what he has contributed to the debate.

Some interesting speeches have been made. Obviously, Frank McAveety spent the whole of the Christmas and new year break thinking up a couple of interesting new jokes to bring to the chamber, and Kenneth Gibson rather tactlessly got into a needless contretemps with Margo MacDonald, whom I would never describe as one woman without a dog. However, he certainly made an interesting speech.

I somehow lost the thread of Robert Brown's argument, which involved turning ballot papers upside down halfway through, if I understood it correctly. I did not think that that would add to the clarity of the process or resolve the electoral challenges that we are all trying to resolve.

I am sure that Dave Thompson is pleased with himself that he has managed to get on to the public record the stress and frustration at the Inverness count on 4 May. Believe you me, those of us who eagerly anticipated the outcome of that election are glad that we heard about it in full detail today.

Of course, no debate would be complete without an extraordinary contribution by Lord Foulkes, who was concerned about the Electoral Commission's slackness. Many of us will ensure that he does not have such a concern about the antics of the Electoral Commission on matters closer to home in the period that lies ahead.

This has been an excellent and thoughtful debate, which has given us the opportunity to reflect on the many issues that members have raised in the Parliament. I think that there is absolute agreement that, following the elections in May last year and bearing in mind the volume of spoilt ballot papers and the elongated counting arrangements that many of us had to go through, public confidence and trust in the electoral system need to be restored. It is clear that we must place voters' interests at the centre of any changes that we make in response to the Gould report and the conduct of the elections. The Government accepts the requirement to do that. Accountability to Scottish voters and clarity of responsibilities are essential to the success of any reforms. The Government firmly believes that we should pursue the Gould report's recommendations to establish a chief returning officer and ensure that a single body—which would most appropriately be the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government—is responsible for the administration and organisation of the Scottish parliamentary elections.

The Gould report is a crucial document if we want to understand what went wrong in the arrangements for the May elections. It is clear that problems arose as a result of the circumstances of those elections and the fragmented patchwork of responsibilities and legislation in Scotland. We must take forward that agenda. We all agree that it is necessary to address the issues and make progress.

The Government believes that more radical reform is required and that it is right to take forward the logical solution that Gould proposes. Organisational and legislative responsibility for elections should be with the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government.

Today's debate has, I must say, been well-informed by the amendments that have been moved by members of other political parties. The Liberal Democrats have set out a not unsurprising and entirely consistent position on the use of STV for Scottish Parliament elections. However, today's debate is on the Gould report and on the issues surrounding the organisation of the elections. Although the Government may sympathise with the Liberal Democrat position on STV, we believe that that issue is for another debate and should be the subject of wider consultation with the public.

The Government has formidable sympathy with the Conservative amendment. I have already engaged in discussions with Gavin Brown about the proposition to decouple the elections to ensure that we are able to give local authorities their proper and rightful place in election debates so that local authority issues can be properly considered. I think that we all accept that that has not happened in the course of the past three local authority elections, which have tended to be obscured from the public mind. That position, which has been advanced both by the Government and by the Conservatives' Mr Mundell, is also the position of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Therefore, we welcome and endorse the Conservative amendment.

Finally, let me address the very welcome way in which Mr Kerr has advanced the arguments for his amendment. The important point is that the Labour Party has accepted that it is important to make progress—this is also the Government's position—on the further devolution of powers so that we can control our own elections. The amendment acknowledges that the issues that are raised in the Gould report must be taken forward and addressed in a fashion that enables Her Majesty's Government and the Scottish Government to make progress on changing the electoral arrangements to implement the recommendations of the Gould report. The Government takes great heart from the fact that the Labour amendment recognises the important need for

"Her Majesty's Government and the Scottish Government to discuss, agree and publish a timetable for appropriate implementation of the report's recommendations".

The Government believes that that is a sensible, pragmatic and logical way to proceed.

One criticism that has been made of the Government motion is that it somehow intrudes on the consideration of the issues that is being undertaken by parliamentary committees. As members will know, the Government is entirely respectful of parliamentary committees and would not wish to do that. However, I respectfully point out that the Local Government and Communities Committee is considering only the issues relating to the local authority elections, not the Scottish Parliament elections. I think that Mr Doris confirmed that on Mr McNeil's behalf. There is a need for us to develop further the arguments relating to the Scottish Parliament elections.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Sorry—I am in my concluding minute.

The Government believes that we require something more than consideration by the Local Government and Communities Committee. That is why we are content with the Labour amendment, which will put the Government into the driving seat for discussions to formulate a timetable for the appropriate implementation of the Gould recommendations, working with Her Majesty's Government in doing that. Therefore, on this afternoon of consensus, I am pleased to confirm to Mr Kerr after his outstanding contribution to consensual opinion that the Government will be happy to vote for his amendment.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

That brings us to the end of the debate on the Gould report.

I am sure that members will join me in welcoming to the gallery Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira, who is the vice-president of the Generalitat of Catalonia. [Applause.]