Alternative Vote Referendum Date

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 18th November 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:15 pm, 18th November 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7427, in the name of Jim Mather, on the alternative vote referendum and 2011 Scottish Parliament election clash.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party 2:57 pm, 18th November 2010

This is our first debate on electoral matters since I took portfolio responsibility for elections. It comes at a time when we are a mere six months away from the next elections to the Scottish Parliament. As always, the elections next May—the fourth since devolution—will be keenly contested. I know that I am not alone in hoping that the election and the debate that precedes it will capture the imagination of Scottish voters and that they will turn out in large numbers.

The elections will be important to the people of Scotland, for voting is the single most important action that citizens can take to ensure that their voices are heard, and the elections next May will give the Scottish public the opportunity to do just that. By voting for their preferred candidate or party, the Scottish people will choose the members who will sit in the Parliament and make decisions that affect them and their families every day. That is one of the direct benefits of the devolution that most of us fought and argued for, and it is a benefit that we must look to build upon.

As the current generation of politicians, we are all working for a high turnout next May, but a high turnout is not an end in itself. As well as encouraging and motivating large numbers of people to vote, we should also be looking to ensure that those who vote are able to do so on an informed basis. That is what is at issue in today's debate. In addition, and in support of that objective, it is important for democracy in Scotland that the elections to the Scottish Parliament are given the space and prominence that are required for the public to make their decisions. As things stand, however, that will not happen next year. As part of its first legislative programme, the United Kingdom Government has introduced legislation that will mean that the next Scottish Parliament election will not be given the space or prominence that it deserves.

As members know, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill provides for a referendum on voting reform for future elections to the Westminster Parliament. Today's motion and debate are not about the merits or otherwise of the alternative vote system. The problem is one of timing. The UK Government plans to hold the referendum on 5 May 2011, which is the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved legislatures in Wales and Northern Ireland. Whether that was intended or not, the consequences are that elections to the Scottish Parliament will have to share election day and the preceding campaign period with a UK-wide electoral contest. That cannot be a good thing for democracy in Scotland.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Does the minister regard the American system, in which people vote for Presidents, members of Congress and everything down to dog-catchers on the same day, as a negation of democracy?

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

There was a time when the American electoral system might have been held up as a good example here, but I am afraid that those days have gone.

There is precedent for movement on this matter. The UK Government has recognised real concerns about the coincidence of elections, and yesterday the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform wrote to the First Minister and others to ask for views on a proposal to avoid a clash of dates in 2015. We will consider the proposal with others in this Parliament and respond shortly, but I point out that it relates only to 2015. The UK Government does not yet accept that similar problems will be caused in 2011—which is regrettable, given that those problems are palpably there.

The UK public went to the polls in May 2010 and, after some negotiation, a new coalition Government came to power with talk of a new way of doing business. On his first visit to Scotland on 14 May, the Prime Minister called for an

"agenda of respect between our Parliaments", saying:

"This agenda is about Parliaments working together, of governing with respect, both because I believe Scotland deserves that respect and because I want to try and win Scotland's respect as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom".

The fact that our elections are taking place in May next year should have come as no surprise to the new UK Government. After all, the Scotland Act 1998 provides that elections to the Scottish Parliament will be held on the first Thursday in May every four years. Given that the provision has been in place for more than 10 years, a simple check would have enabled the UK Government to realise that. Alternatively, it could have picked up the telephone, written a letter or sent an e-mail. However, despite knowing the date of elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK Government still chose to hold a referendum next May. I fail to see the "respect" in introducing legislation that will create a clash of dates and interfere with elections to this Parliament. On such evidence, Mr Cameron needs to try harder on that agenda, because he is not delivering so far.

I am sad to say that, to make matters worse, neither Scottish ministers nor this Parliament were advised of the UK plans in advance. As politicians, we have a vested interest in elections, and, as members of this Parliament, we have a vested interest in the Scottish Parliament's status, and the UK Government's actions run counter to both those interests.

More than anything else, though, elections must belong to the voters. More important than our concerns as politicians is the impact that the clash of dates next May might have on the voting public. Their needs must be paramount and the UK Government's proposals undermine the integrity of the campaign process and our elections as well as unnecessarily complicating matters for our voters.

Of course, it will not just be a question of different ballot papers on election day. With two separate electoral contests, one UK-wide and the other specific to Scotland, will come two simultaneous sets of quite different campaigns. There will be national and UK-wide yes and no campaigns for the alternative vote referendum, with the possibility of individual organisations running separate and additional referendum campaigns. In addition, we will have campaigns for individual MSP candidates and for their parties based on the Scottish Parliament's responsibilities.

Given the strong influence of the London-based media and in view of what happened earlier this year in the general election campaign, there is a real risk that the AV referendum will eclipse the debate on issues that are key to the Scottish parliamentary elections. Voting reform might be an academic issue for many voters, which might be reflected in the interest in the referendum, but the Scottish Parliament is the decision-making body for many of Scotland's key issues. For the majority of Scottish people, the predominant issues in the campaign will be our economy and jobs; the strength of our health and education services; the strength and resilience of our communities; and the future of this great nation. For our part, we should be encouraging the public to have views on those key issues and to use their votes accordingly. I am sure that we can all see the risk of multiple messages causing confusion and limiting the quality of debate and engagement that Scotland needs.

We are all aware of the difficulties in 2007 when the Scottish Parliament and local government elections were held on the same day. Following that experience, the Electoral Commission asked Ron Gould, the international elections administration expert, to conduct an independent review, in which he concluded that separating the elections would prevent national issues from dominating local government campaigns and would give greater prominence to local issues. Moreover, he believed that separation would also minimise the potential for voter confusion caused by two elections being held at the same time for different institutions and using different voting systems.

In the light of those findings, the Scottish Government introduced, and the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed, legislation to separate local government and Holyrood elections. Now, in spite of that material and co-ordinated effort, the United Kingdom Government is recreating and imposing the same problem, thus negating earlier time and effort and undermining the focus and clarity that we have earned.

Under the current proposals, each voter will receive two ballot papers; the referendum will add a third. The public will be asked to vote for a constituency MSP and a list party or candidate and then to specify whether they wish the alternative vote system to be used.

As things stand, it is for the UK Government to act to avoid the difficulties that a clash of dates would cause in May 2011. The Scottish Government has made clear its opposition to the proposals for a combined poll next year. We have also made it clear that we are prepared to engage with the UK Government to find a way round the problem. It wants to talk about 2015; why not 2011 as well? In the absence of any reciprocal willingness to work with us, I urge the UK Government to hear the compelling arguments and simply change the date of the AV referendum, especially given that the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution recommended that the secretary of state's responsibilities for the administration of elections to the Scottish Parliament should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government.

The UK Government has said that it will introduce a bill shortly to implement the Calman recommendations, but a restricted interpretation of the Calman proposals would still see Westminster being responsible for deciding the electoral system to be used for Holyrood elections, the franchise at parliamentary elections, the number of MSPs, the electoral boundaries to be used and the timing of the elections. In that case, the Scottish Government would be responsible simply for preparing the regulations under which elections to this Parliament were run, and it would then be for this Parliament to approve the regulations. All in all, that cannot be right, and we will continue to urge the UK Government to transfer full legislative as well as administrative responsibilities for elections to this Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament notes with real concern the UK Government's intention to hold a referendum on voting reform for UK Parliament elections on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament and other devolved institutions in May 2011; regrets the UK Government's failure to consult the Scottish Government or the Scottish Parliament on this matter, and calls on the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government to agree a new date that will avoid a clash with elections to this parliament.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 3:07 pm, 18th November 2010

In an ideal world, there would of course be no coincidence in the dates for holding elections to our Parliaments or councils or for the conduct of referenda. However, this is not an ideal or perfect world and there have been such coincidences on many occasions. Indeed, not so long ago, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, when in government in this Parliament, were insistent that Scottish Parliament and council elections should be held on the same day. They stubbornly resisted proposals from the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party to change the coincidence of dates.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

Is the member saying that an ideal world would mean no clash of dates?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I said that, in an ideal world, it would be possible to timetable different dates. However, I also pointed out that this is not an ideal or perfect world, and there are occasions on which a coincidence of dates is fully justified.

The change in the timing of elections to this Parliament and councils was agreed only after the 2007 debacle and the high number of spoilt ballot papers. However, it is fair to say that when we examined the reasons behind the problems, the coincidence of dates was a minor factor; other factors relating to ballot paper design, for example, were of far greater significance. Indeed, so far as my party was concerned, the principal reason for decoupling Scottish Parliament and local government elections was not administrative but to ensure that council elections receive fair and separate consideration by voters and that councils and local issues have their own day in the sun and are not overshadowed by elections to the Parliament.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No. I want to make some progress.

Let us be clear that it was always possible to have dates that coincided, even when not by deliberate design: on many occasions in the past, elections to the UK Parliament were coincidental with local elections in other parts of the United Kingdom. There is nothing particularly novel about the issue of coincidence that justifies anything like the volume of excitable criticism that it has generated.

We are in this situation because Nick Clegg had the courage to spurn the advice of his Labour-luvvie predecessors—most of whom were Scots, such as Steel, Kennedy and Campbell—and recognise that the country needed a stable Government with a Commons majority to take the difficult decisions that had to be taken to tackle the problems inherited from Labour, not least of which is the appalling state of the public finances. As we know from our experience in this Parliament, the foundation for any formal coalition is a partnership agreement, negotiated between the coalition partners. In such negotiations, the prospective partners will have policies on which they insist and others on which they are prepared to compromise, and so it is that agreement is finally reached on a programme for government.

As we all know, one of the concessions that the Conservatives made to our friends the Liberal Democrats in the coalition agreement was that the new Government would bring forward legislation to hold a referendum on changing the voting system for elections to the House of Commons, from the present first-past-the-post system to the alternative vote system. We were very pleased to accommodate our Liberal friends and allies in that respect, not because we like the concept of the alternative vote—we do not, and we will campaign against it—but because it was in the wider national interest that we have a coalition Government to tackle the real problems that Labour bequeathed to us.

There is of course a simple way to resolve the matter, and that is for our Liberal Democrat friends to drop their insistence that we have a referendum on a voting system in which they do not believe and have never believed; which will not deliver their holy grail of proportional representation; and which, if approved and enacted, would make a true PR system for elections to the Commons an even more distant prospect. However, I suspect that our Liberal Democrat friends will not change their minds and so, having agreed to legislate for the holding of a referendum, the next issue is the date. Given the constitutional significance of the decision, it is desirable to maximise the number of voters who will participate in it. Equally, it is clear that the intricacies of the alternative vote system are so mind-numbingly tedious that, on a free-standing basis, only the political anoraks would be in the least bit bothered about it one way or the other.

In that context, it makes sense for the referendum date to coincide with the date for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and councils in many parts of England, which will involve more than 30 million voters. It is an insult to our intelligence to suggest that Scots voters are uniquely incapable of making up their minds on two matters on the same day. The Conservatives and our Liberal Democrat friends are prepared to treat our fellow Scots as intelligent adults; the patronising parties—the SNP and Labour—seem to think that they are stupid children.

Having decided for reasons of turnout and participation to hold an election and a referendum on dates that coincide, it is worth noting that holding the votes on the same day across the United Kingdom will save approximately £17 million.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, thank you.

I know that £17 million is small beer in the grand scheme of the gargantuan debts and deficits that were left behind by the Labour Government but, nonetheless, every little helps.

One of the more absurd arguments that I have heard against the coincidence of dates is that somehow the Scottish Parliament elections will be overshadowed by the referendum. The idea that a whimper from Tavish Scott on the subject of the alternative vote is going to drown out a roar from Alex Salmond on who should govern Scotland betrays an extraordinary lack of understanding of how the Scottish media work and how Alex Salmond works. It is even disrespectful to Tavish Scott, who I think would put the Scottish Parliament elections far ahead of any AV referendum in his scale of priorities for his party. The truth is that the AV referendum in Scotland is but a footnote to the main event, and everybody knows that that is the case.

The latest report from the Electoral Commission, which was published just last week, stated that it was

"broadly satisfied that sufficient progress has presently been made to enable the local Returning and Counting Officers to run the polls well and that voters will be able to participate in them."

That conclusion was confirmed yesterday in evidence given by the Electoral Commission to the Parliament's Local Government and Communities Committee.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Do I? Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. By all means, then, I will take an intervention.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Will the member acknowledge that the Electoral Commission said:

"The rules on how the referendum will be conducted must be clear from at least six months in advance"?

Have we not passed that date?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The member might want to get picky about a few dates here and there, but I do not really think that it will be too difficult, even for an SNP brain, to work out how to put a yes or no on one piece of paper to choose between first past the post and the alternative vote. We are capable of grasping the basic proposition. We then take that piece of paper and put it in a ballot box, which will say on the front of it "AV Referendum", and the votes will then be counted. I just do not think that that is too difficult a task for us Scots to accomplish, notwithstanding what happened in 2007.

It is also worth noting that the AV referendum count across the United Kingdom will not commence until 6 May, allowing an overnight count of votes in the elections to this Parliament to take place. Her Majesty's Government has willingly acknowledged that the Scottish Parliament count will take precedence.

In all of that there is no lack of respect. Any lack of respect is being shown by the Labour Party and the SNP, who want to insult the intelligence and capability of voters in Scotland. We certainly do not.

I move amendment S3M-7427, to leave out from first "with" to end and insert:

"that holding a referendum on voting reform for UK Parliament elections on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament and other devolved institutions in May 2011 will save the taxpayer £17 million and commends Her Majesty's Government for its wise stewardship of public finances in this respect."

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 3:15 pm, 18th November 2010

The Scottish Liberal Democrats support the decision to hold a fairer vote referendum on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections. Holding the two polls simultaneously has two distinct advantages. First, as has been said, it will increase turnout, which I have no doubt that every politician in this chamber would like to see—[ Interruption .] Does somebody wish to contradict me? Secondly, it would save £17 million to boot, as has been pointed out. Again, I would have thought that every MSP in this chamber would welcome that saving.

We have heard much about the respect agenda. I do not want MSPs to be so precious that they cost us £17 million, and I hope that everyone in this chamber—

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I ask members to let me get started—we do not normally intervene in the first minute of a speech.

I hope that everyone in the chamber will think that saving through. Far from the Electoral Commission saying that the plan would be challenging, the chamber should note that it says that every election is challenging. It also says that, in this case, it is satisfied that both votes can take place without incident or disadvantage.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I am so grateful to the member for taking my intervention.

On the respect agenda, if the member's arguments are so strong, surely he agrees that it was incumbent on the coalition Government to consult the elected Government of Scotland so that it could at least work out the impact of the simultaneous votes. Would that not have been at least respectful?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I think that the so-called respect agenda is interesting and I will address it in more detail in just a minute.

Despite the misgivings of both the SNP and the Labour Party, we believe that the Scottish people are more than capable of distinguishing between a vote on who they want to represent them here in Holyrood and a vote on a fairer voting system. Heavens above, are the SNP and the Labour Party really saying that the Scottish people are so thick that they cannot put three crosses on voting papers? It would be a simple cross for their constituency MSP, a simple cross for the regional party that they want to support, and a simple cross to show their view on a referendum—yes or no.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Is that attitude not so insulting? Where is the respect agenda now?

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

I am grateful to the member for giving way a second time.

Does the member agree that it is not just casting the votes on the day that is important, but the debate around the issues? Does he agree that the UK media will be concentrating on the AV referendum, which might not allow a full and proper debate on Scottish Parliament issues?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Are Brian Adam and his SNP colleagues really so lacking in confidence in their ability to articulate their views to the Scottish people? That is about the respect agenda—they are not treating the Scottish people with respect.

If the Electoral Commission says that it feels "broadly satisfied" that our returning officers are up to the task of running a joint poll, and if we know that it will increase voter turnout, what could be the reason for SNP and Labour Party objections to the proposal? Pretending that the issue is to do with the campaign is interesting—what is it about the campaign that the SNP is really worried about?

The Liberal Democrats believe that the benefits of holding the votes on the same day far outweigh reasonable objections. I challenge the myth, about which we have heard already, that the Gould report argued against the joint poll. What the Gould report actually said was that there are benefits to holding elections on the same day. It said that there was

"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."

I have no problem whatsoever with holding the UK general election and our Scottish parliamentary election on the same day in 2015. I think it is eminently sensible for the UK Government to ask us in this chamber about that—if two thirds of us want to change the timing of our elections, that should be up to us.

The Gould report said that the SNP's tactic of calling itself "Alex Salmond for First Minister" was confusing. That was raised consistently as a problem and it was one of the reasons for so many spoilt ballot papers at the previous election. Despite that, Nicola Sturgeon, who I know is not here, said:

"I don't accept that caused confusion".

She also said that the nationalists played no part in what went wrong and called Mr Gould's point, "ridiculous". I did not hear that word being used about Mr Gould today.

I suppose that I should not be surprised by the SNP saying that the situation was not its fault. After all, we get that from Mr Salmond at First Minister's question time each week—and today was no different.

I am afraid that Labour's position is also bizarre to me. Labour, like us, rightly criticised the waste of taxpayers' money on the SNP's referendum plans—or rather, the SNP's lack of referendum plans—while failing to recognise the savings of £17 million of taxpayers' money—

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

No, I have given way enough—unless I have time, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

Thank you.

When the member talks about cost, he might want to look at the wider picture. If holding the referendum on the same day as the election has the effect—which I believe it will have, given the dominance of the UK media—of lower turnout, reduced engagement, fewer active citizens and fewer people being aware of how they can make a difference in their own country and getting involved in the debate, will that not mean that other, dramatic costs will accrue to Scotland?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I cannot believe that a minister responsible for elections in the Scottish Parliament has just said that he believes that, because there will be two votes on the same day, turnout will be reduced. I cannot believe that that is what I have just heard from the minister. I am sorry, but I just do not accept that.

I return to the Labour Party. Iain Gray asked Alex Salmond about his referendum plans, saying that, for the £9 million cost,

"Scotland could have 300 more teachers, 600 more nursery nurses or two new primary schools. I know what most Scots would rather have."—[Official Report, 12 November 2009; c 21160.]

I could not agree more. That is why I am surprised at Labour's position. It has not lodged an amendment. I assume that it will support the Government.

When Labour was in charge of it, the Scotland Office said:

"The Government does not agree that it is always necessary to hold elections on separate days. Sometimes, as happened in the past, there is a positive advantage in combining elections on the same day in order to increase voter turnout and to reduce administrative burdens and costs."

Boy, how times have changed. I certainly cannot fathom exactly why Labour is against this move to combine polls. Its position defies logic, because combining polls is the right thing to do.

Holding the referendum on fairer votes and the Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May next year is sensible in every way. It will save £17 million of taxpayers' money, increase voter turnout and engage the electorate even more. Every MSP in the chamber should support it for those reasons. All we have from the SNP and Labour are feeble objections. They should put them to one side and support the Liberal Democrat and Conservative amendments to this pathetic excuse for a motion.

I move amendment S3M-7427.1, to leave out from "notes" to end and insert:

"believes that the people of Scotland are clever enough to manage to vote in a Scottish Parliament election and the AV Referendum on the same day".

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 3:23 pm, 18th November 2010

Labour will support the Government tonight because we believe that it is wrong to tag a referendum on to the most important Scottish elections since devolution and, importantly, because of the failure of the UK Government to consult the Scottish Parliament, which was elected to represent the voters on devolved matters. Its failure to respect the devolved settlement is unprecedented and it did so by choice. David McLetchie would have us believe that it happened by accident, but it was by choice.

There will be not one but two clashes with the Scottish Parliament elections—one with the referendum next year and another with the general election in 2015. I do not think that either Mike Rumbles or David McLetchie are particularly comfortable with the position that they are arguing today. [Interruption.] I am afraid that Mike Rumbles was not convincing.

The clash of election dates in 2015 is unacceptable and unworkable, and it undermines the devolution settlement. It is disrespectful to Scottish voters. The critical point made by my colleagues, which I think the Liberal Democrats are deliberately ignoring, is that not a shred of consultation has happened on any aspect of the proposal.

The Parliament and the Scottish Government should have had a say in the proposed clash of election dates, and the Electoral Commission should have been asked for an opinion before a decision was taken. Our opinion should carry weight with a UK Government that claims to respect the Scottish Parliament.

The Tory-Lib Dem Government has been hell-bent on imposing the date of the referendum, despite what has been said. That smacks—whatever people think about changing the voting system—of a crusade of vested interests of the highest order.

People are not fooled by the red herring that £17 million will be saved. That is £17 million that the UK Government is choosing to spend, so it is not a saving.

I am not surprised that the Tories are trying to foist the proposal on Scotland, but I am genuinely surprised at the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, who were key players in bringing about the devolution settlement and who claim to be in a federal party in which they make their own decisions. I call on Mike Rumbles to stand up for Scotland and to reject the clash of election dates. That is the right thing to do.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Mike Rumbles wants to intervene, so I will ask him a question. If the Parliament votes tonight to reject the clash of election dates, will he respect the vote?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I thank Pauline McNeill for giving way—it is so generous of her to do so. She says that the proposal is somehow anti-democratic and is being foisted on the country, but it is no such thing. As she knows well, it is going through the proper parliamentary process in our UK Parliament. We are very much a federal party and the right decision is being made in the right place for Scotland.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Now I am concerned that Mike Rumbles, as a Scottish Liberal Democrat, does not think that the Scottish Parliament is the right place to discuss the Scottish elections. Shame on him.

It is interesting that the amendments in the names of Mike Rumbles and David McLetchie say nothing about consultation. The Scottish Government should register a formal dispute through the joint ministerial committee, because the matter is serious—Labour is taking it seriously. I ask the Liberal Democrats whether, if we vote tonight to reject the clash of election dates, they will respect that.

Michael Moore has written to the Presiding Officer to offer to give the Parliament the right to move the Scottish election date by six months either way. It is ironic that that is proposed to be provided for in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, because our moving our elections by six months—the implication is that that would be six months earlier or later than a UK election—would mean that our term was not fixed.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I am sorry—I do not have time.

We might have to reduce our parliamentary term to three and a half years. Do the Liberal Democrats support that? Alternatively, we could extend it to four and a half years, which would shorten the following term. Labour rejects that. Michael Moore has sent a letter to Iain Gray; the Liberal Democrats can tell Michael Moore that that is the answer to that letter.

It is interesting that the New Statesman has highlighted the fact that the Liberal Democrats favoured a four-year fixed term. Why have they not argued their position in the Westminster Parliament?

The Scottish Constitutional Convention selected May and fixed terms for good reasons. Undermining that is a serious matter.

I will address the question whether voters can cope with voting on three ballot papers. My lasting memory of 2007 is of angry voters leaving polling stations and telling me that they would not come out to vote again. That feeling was replicated across the country. Nick Clegg describes 2007 as a mishap. It is clear that he does not understand the fiasco in 2007, when 146,000 ballot papers were rejected.

I will emphasise a point that Jim Mather made, which the Scottish Liberal Democrats are deliberately ignoring. [Interruption.]

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Presiding Officer, please can I have a little order? I will take no more interventions, because the time for my speech has been cut by three minutes.

Gould said that holding elections on the same day had benefits, but you choose to ignore his conclusion, where he came down in favour of separating the elections, whether we like it or not. The failure to recognise the importance of the Gould report is your failure.

Jim Mather is right that it is not just about voters choosing from the alternatives on ballot papers; it is also about the three-week campaign in the lead-up to the vote. The Tories and Liberal Democrats are kidding themselves if they do not think that a UK referendum will mean that UK broadcasters will devote their broadcasting time to the referendum and that the Scottish election will suffer as a result.

We know that voter confidence should be an important issue. Given the fiasco of 2007, it is all the more important that, at the next two Scottish elections, people are allowed to hold this Parliament to account, with pure, Scottish elections uninterrupted by any other issue. Stand up for Scotland, do the right thing and respect the vote today at 5 o'clock.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party 3:31 pm, 18th November 2010

Having seen the amendments to the motion that have been lodged by the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, I can only say how disappointed I am to see that they have decided not to engage seriously with this important issue. I am disappointed, but far from surprised.

For Mike Rumbles to suggest that the issues at stake are in some way related to the intelligence of people in Scotland, as he does in his amendment, clearly shows that yet again he has either missed the point or is being deliberately obtuse. This is a serious issue that deserves serious debate, not the ridiculous approach that the Liberal Democrats have taken.

For David McLetchie to be so dismissive of the arrangements to be made by the returning officers is insulting. We are so far out from arrangements being in place that we do not even know the electoral rolls that will be used. Will it be Westminster rolls for one and Scottish Parliament rolls for another? Can members imagine the chaos that is likely in polling stations?

The fact is that for as long as we share media coverage with the UK, the better-funded and more prevalent London-based media will, as Pauline McNeill suggested, always have the power to overshadow events in Scotland. We need look only to the Westminster election just past, when wall-to-wall coverage of the TV debates was broadcast across Scotland with no recognition of the specific political situation here. Scottish issues were marginalised at that election and people in Scotland were subject to constant coverage of issues that did not affect them and could serve only to mislead.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Does the member not accept that, as it was a UK parliamentary election to elect a Government, a Parliament and, indeed, a Prime Minister, for the UK, that is different from the elections to the Scottish Parliament?

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Not if parties in Scotland that are also standing in that election are not allowed their due position in the debates.

If the AV referendum goes ahead on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections, does anyone in the chamber truly believe that we will not see similar wall-to-wall coverage of Westminster representatives of the UK parties putting their cases for and against AV? We all know that that is exactly what will happen and that it will inevitably overshadow the debate on what direction the next four years at Holyrood should take.

It has long been an article of faith that, because of the media's substantial power to influence people, there should be balance in television coverage, particularly during elections. That is not an abstract concept but a key component of a balanced and fair democracy. I hope that nobody in the chamber would wish to see the alternative, whereby TV stations are able to promote a particular political party, 24 hours a day, through rolling news coverage. Allowing the AV referendum to proceed on the same day as devolved elections would irreparably shatter the balance.

What makes the hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats and the Tories even worse is that their counterparts at Westminster know full well that the UK media circus would inevitably overshadow the debate in Scotland. Why else would they have accepted that there is a need to prevent elections to Holyrood and Westminster from clashing in 2015? I might find deplorable their high-handed way of decreeing that the devolved elections should move, but at least they have acknowledged that there is a problem.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the election dates must be separated to prevent the London media circus from overshadowing the 2015 election, the AV referendum and Holyrood elections in 2011 must also be entirely separate. Any other approach can only be described as utter hypocrisy. The fact that the Liberal Democrats at Westminster are pushing so hard for the referendum to take place at the same time as the devolved elections is a sign of their desperation to show that they have achieved something—anything—by selling out and entering into a coalition with the Conservatives. Their support is in free fall and they hope that holding a referendum for a voting system that they do not even want at the earliest possible opportunity will somehow stop that slide. It simply will not work, and it is disgraceful that they seek to undermine the fairness of the Holyrood elections to achieve their desperate aims. They made the decision to enter government with the Tories without getting anything substantial to show for it, and they must face the consequences.

The integrity of the Scottish elections cannot and must not be sacrificed in the way that the UK Government wants. It is putting the worst kind of short-term political expediency ahead of the right of the people of Scotland to have a proper debate on the issues ahead of the coming election. The Liberal Democrats and Tories should think again, and accept that the dates for the election and the AV referendum must be separate.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 3:36 pm, 18th November 2010

This is a welcome debate. As many members know, I am now a member of Parliament at Westminster, and I have followed the debate there with great interest. In one of the many contradictions that I would like to make to what Mike Rumbles has said this afternoon, I have to tell him that the legislation is indeed controversial, and the Government has been challenged on many fronts about how it has introduced it. An enormous number of technical amendments, for example, have had to be tabled. The idea that all is sweetness and light at Westminster is quite wrong.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Does Margaret Curran nevertheless accept that one of the major complications is the Labour Party's volte face on the substantive issue of the AV referendum?

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

No, and I will make that clear as I go through my arguments.

It is vital that the Scottish Parliament takes a view, because I have been trying to articulate the view of Scottish politics when I am down there. I am staggered by the fact that the first engagement between the coalition Government and MSPs about the issue was with MSPs who were elected to the Westminster Parliament. That is insulting to the Scottish Parliament.

Since I went to Westminster, many people have asked me about my experiences of the two institutions. I could talk for a long time about that, but I will just focus on one point. The standing of the Scottish Parliament is high in Westminster circles. It is respected, and regarded as important and an interesting development in the body politic. That is why it is staggering that the coalition Government, within weeks of making an announcement about the respect agenda, apparently breached it. Not one plausible argument has been put forward today to explain why the coalition Government did not undertake the simple act of consulting the elected Government of Scotland. There has been no explanation of why that could not have been done.

The proposal has been made with no consideration of the impact or response that it will have in Scotland. I know that people want to characterise the debate by saying that only the Labour Party and the SNP are deeply concerned about the situation, but that is not true. There are concerns throughout institutions in Scotland about the way in which the proposal has been made and the impact that it will have. It would be foolish to disregard those concerns.

To hold both votes on the same day diminishes the importance of the Scottish parliamentary elections, and the importance of the AV referendum. It represents a dilution of the debate and a distraction from the key issues that are to be determined in the parliamentary elections. This evening, I hope that the Parliament will take the view that the centrality of the Scottish parliamentary elections, and their importance to the future direction of Scotland, should not be undermined in principle, particularly in such a cavalier fashion. I say that—and it has been said already—particularly because of our experience of the previous election. Before some of the Lib Dems get up to say that the conduct of those elections was our fault, I stress that the critical point is to learn from them.

For the life of me, I cannot understand David McLetchie's argument. He asks, "How dare we insult the intelligence of the Scottish electorate by saying that they cannot make two decisions at the same time?" Apparently, however, it was wrong at the previous Scottish parliamentary elections to ask people to make their decision in the council elections at the same time. That is a completely illogical position.

That, however, is the sort of assertion that we hear from the Deputy Prime Minister all the time: that those of us who object to the decision are somehow implying that the electorate are stupid. That is such a misunderstanding of the context in which the elections will be held. Ron Gould told us in his report that one of the big mistakes was that the voter was treated as an afterthought, and that the institutions were thinking too much about their own processes.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

No—I would love to, but I do not have time.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Let me emphasise this point. What we are asking voters to do next May is to put a cross on a ballot paper for their constituency MSP, a cross on the regional ballot paper and a cross against a question. Is that too difficult?

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

That point flies in the face of the issues around the arrangements for the previous election being so wrong. Let us be clear about what we are asking people to do. We are asking people to vote in the Scottish Parliament elections, and there are two parts to that question. We are also asking the voter to determine the voting system for a completely different election and a completely different institution. I think that that is unfair. [ Interruption .] I would prefer it if Mike Rumbles did not shout at me from a sedentary position. You might get away with shouting at other people, Mike, but you will not get away with shouting at me.

At our last elections, there was real confusion because we combined the decisions about different forms of government and different institutions. That was one of the conclusions of the Gould report. Further, there are some real, practical difficulties, as a number of members have said. How will the media shape the debate? How will we ensure proper focus on the Scottish Parliament election and on the AV election? How will the different stakeholders behave? How will political parties behave, with their different positions?

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

As long as I have confirmation that I will get all my time, as I still have other things still to say.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I point out that we are talking about an election and a referendum. The point about the coincidence of elections, which was covered by the Gould recommendations, has effectively been implemented, so avoiding a coincidence of elections is what Her Majesty's Government proposes for 2015. All that we are dealing with here is a simple referendum question—it is not a coincidence of elections at all.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

That is to argue on the head of a pin. The electorate will go to the ballot box wanting to know what decisions they have to make and how many votes they have. The last time, they went into polling stations with three decisions to make and mistakes took place. This time, they will have three decisions to make. The member's attempt to highlight some subtle difference does not translate into practice.

We have to think about the practicalities, and we must ensure that there is not a distraction from the key issues of the Scottish Parliament elections. As many people have said, we have no idea how the media will behave and we do not know how the various stakeholders will behave, including the political parties, which have different views about the AV referendum. We do not know how election materials will be dealt with. We still have to wait for clarification about which election materials will be paid for and which will not.

The debate on the AV vote will take a different shape in different parts of the country. In Northern Ireland, where there are to be three elections, there will be a very different debate about AV compared with the debates in Scotland and in England. That undermines the validity of the AV referendum, as those arrangements mean that it will not be fair and transparent.

I cannot believe what has happened to the Lib Dems during the short time that I have been at Westminster. Nick Clegg, who seems to eat his words on a daily basis, used to describe the AV referendum as a "miserable little compromise" that he would not accept. Now, all of a sudden, the Lib Dems have done a somersault and are pulling out all the stops to ensure that it happens.

The Lib Dems in Scotland have changed remarkably, too, perhaps with the honourable exception of Jim Tolson, who I believe has taken a principled decision on the matter. They seem to have changed so much. They used to be a distinct political party within a coalition arrangement, with a distinct agenda that had been properly negotiated. Now, they are turning everything on its head all of a sudden. Even Mike Rumbles has been muzzled to the point that he will defend the Government line at any cost. That is not the Mike Rumbles that I used to know—never loved, but used to know.

Now that the Lib Dems are with the Tories, they are turning themselves inside out. I cannot accept politically that they have sold so short the cause of proportional representation, which matters so much to them. They have harped on about that cause all the time that I have been in Scottish politics, but they have sold it short for an AV referendum and attached it to a political fix with the Tories. They are undermining their own cause. I would be open-minded about a referendum, but I am so offended that the Lib Dems have undermined Scottish legitimacy that I certainly would not associate myself with anything that they propose.

In conclusion, I will tell members about the real experience at Westminster. What has been proposed has all the hallmarks of a political fix. We are talking about a significant bill being rushed through the Westminster Parliament. That demonstrates a disregard for the Scottish Parliament and is completely unacceptable. I hope that the Scottish Parliament will send a strong signal to Westminster that it will not put up with it. I think that I have the Lib Dems on record as saying that the Scottish Parliament reflects the opinions of the Scottish people. I will go down to Westminster and argue for Scotland, even if other Scottish representatives will not do so.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Scottish National Party 3:46 pm, 18th November 2010

If, as the Con-Dems of this Parliament sincerely desire, we are to continue to operate here only within the straitjacket of devolved powers, surely they should ask their colleagues south of the border to show at least a little respect. If they are not worried about the level of disdain that London's imperial Parliament in Westminster shows to the Scottish Parliament, they should be.

There are two issues at the heart of the motion: the effect of having two different votes on the same day, and respect for the institution of the Scottish Parliament as the democratic voice of the Scottish people. I will address the former issue first.

I do not doubt that those who vote are capable of reading and comprehending a ballot paper. Of course, Mike Rumbles's amendment suggests that I doubt their capabilities, but I certainly do not, and that is not the issue in question. However, no one who attended a count in May 2007—I recall that the election night was a glorious night in Scotland's history—can doubt that there was confusion about the voting methods on some ballot papers. Who can forget the large number of unintentionally spoilt ballot papers that were incorrectly filled out and the problems that were caused by the counting machines? It is not a question of capability. Mike Rumbles may find this difficult to believe, but many people who vote quite rightly have concerns that are far more pressing than the technicalities of ballot papers. When we make things complicated for whatever reason, that makes it easier for folk to make mistakes on their ballot papers.

Pauline McNeill talked about angry voters leaving polling places in May 2007. Mike Rumbles and the other Liberal Democrats who support his amendment would describe those voters as stupid just because they did not understand the ballot paper. I find that deeply offensive. Given the trend for declining turnouts in most of the western world, surely it is our job to make the voting process as user friendly as possible. If the evidence from May 2007 is anything to go by, the absurd London Government referendum date proposal will clearly hamper our elections in Scotland and have an impact on the number of votes that are validly cast. If the Tories disagree with that, why did David McLetchie say that that would not happen in an ideal world?

Let us not doubt that, given the British media, our election will not be highlighted or publicly debated in the way that it should be if the referendum proposal goes ahead. When Maureen Watt made that point, I heard Mike Rumbles mumbling, "Oh, so this is what it's all about." That point is probably the most important point, and it is not ideological; rather, it reflects the current realities. Let us take the example of the recent "Question Time" programme from Glasgow, in which David Dimbleby declared that matters of relevance to Scotland are of no interest to people elsewhere in the UK. We can undoubtedly be assured that debates on the referendum in the media will completely overshadow the debates on our elections. If Mike Rumbles is not concerned about that, I am concerned about him. To the British media, our piddling little Scottish elections will be of no relevance for the UK. They will be of no relevance to the BBC, but they are our national elections, and the people of Scotland deserve to know about them.

David Dimbleby's declaration on the BBC's flagship political debate programme is worrying for Scottish democracy, particularly when such a rule seems to apply only to Scotland. If we couple that with the absurd timing of the AV referendum that the coalition Government has proposed, we have a ticking time bomb. We are talking about two competing campaigns. A referendum campaign and an election campaign would occur at the same time and votes would be cast on the same day. Of course that is a recipe for confusion. Anyone would think that it was deliberate. Not I, for I am not a conspiracy theorist, although I paused for a moment and smiled when I heard a suggestion that next year's royal wedding might also coincide with our elections. I do not think that that is likely, because too many members will be too busy that day putting out the union flag bunting and donning their tiaras to fight an election.

The Liberal-Conservative oxymoron of a Government has been an advocate of fixed-term Parliaments. Scotland has led the way with such a system, so how on earth can the London Government not have known that we have an election in May? In the years since devolution, the Scottish Parliament has been transformed into the primary forum for Scottish public debate and regained some of the esteem, if not yet all the powers, that it once had.

Let us be clear—the decision actively to clash with the Scottish parliamentary elections may not be conspiracy, but it is not mere coincidence either: it reflects the level of contempt that exists among not only London ministers but, I suggest, Whitehall civil servants towards this Parliament. The imperial Parliament of Westminster still believes that it has an empire and is still trying to crack the whip to show this Parliament who is boss. We are being told that we, the Scottish Parliament, and we, the Scottish people, are so low down its agenda that the London Government would hamper our national elections so that a fudged, compromised attempt at electoral reform can be decided upon.

That reflects badly on Michael Moore and David Mundell, who have been shown to be utterly incompetent at standing up for Scotland on the matter. However, the real villains of the piece are, of course, the Liberal Democrats, because they foisted the Conservative Government on Scotland. At least the 1707 parliamentarians were

"bought and sold for English gold", but modern Liberal Democrats are content to support Osborne's cuts at the price of a fudged piece of electoral reform that they do not even support and which will damage our electoral process. That will send a message to the Scottish people that the imperial Parliament does not believe that their elections, opinions or aspirations are worth a jot. I look forward to hearing the Liberal Democrats' justification for that.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour 3:52 pm, 18th November 2010

I welcome the debate as an opportunity to discuss the concern that voters in Scotland have not been adequately consulted on holding the Scottish Parliament elections and the AV referendum on the same day in 2011, or on holding the UK elections and Scottish Parliament elections on the same day in 2015.

As there is no convention for a committee convener to be allocated time in such a debate, I ask for the indulgence of my colleagues on the Labour Party back benches, because I intend to speak from a convener's point of view rather than take a party position.

As members are aware, following the debacle in 2007, the Local Government and Communities Committee carried out an inquiry into the elections and made many recommendations. Subsequently, we were the lead committee for the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Bill, which decoupled the local government and Scottish Parliament elections. Only this week, we began scrutiny of the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill, which picks up on some of our recommendations.

Those who were at the committee earlier this week heard the Electoral Commission in Scotland speak about the challenges that it recognises that the combined referendum and elections and the combined Westminster and Scottish Parliament elections will present. They also heard from the interim electoral management board for Scotland about the concerns that returning officers have raised in respect of those matters, which have still not been resolved.

The committee worked closely with the Scottish Government in holding a voter turnout seminar in the Parliament in June this year. Also, as recently as 30 September, it held a meeting with the UK Parliament Scottish Affairs Committee to discuss common ground and share the work that both Parliaments have done on the issue. Although, as we have heard in the debate, there were differences of opinion, emphasis and concern about the risks, there was also consensus among the committee members who met the Scottish Affairs Committee that holding the AV referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections raised a number serious concerns and gave rise to serious reservations.

In July, on the basis that the Secretary of State for Scotland wanted to work with those who expressed an interest in the matter, we wrote to the Presiding Officer, expressing our interest. On 7 October, we wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, on the issue, outlining our involvement in these matters and expressing an interest in being contacted and involved. To the Deputy Prime Minister's shame, he has not responded to the committee, despite the press reports that we read and the fact that ministers are dealing with Scottish MPs, Scottish Government ministers and party leaders on the matter. The Parliament needs to be brought back into the discussions; the fact that we have not been involved is not very satisfactory. Nevertheless, I hope that members agree that the committee has carried out a significant body of work that will help to inform our choices as we move forward on the issue.

Regardless of the impact on our elections, the decision to proceed with a referendum on a fixed-term UK Parliament was disrespectful not only of our practice and procedures, but of the principles of openness and transparency that we have in the Parliament. I know that the Parliament can do better. We know that we can make informed choices, as we have done, and learn lessons. The committee knows that it can work across the parties and with the Scottish Government. Parliament surely recognises that there must be an opportunity for scrutiny of those who have created this situation. There must surely be scrutiny of those who support the decision, and there must be scrutiny of those who will have responsibility for running the election, because they know about the practical differences that we heard about earlier this week—the practicalities of the postal ballot, the different registers, the three ballot boxes and the reconfiguration of polling places that will be necessary. Those are practical issues that the Parliament needs to understand before we come to a view.

Finally, there must surely be an opportunity for individuals and organisations that have long taken an interest in the matter to be heard. I therefore look forward to the minister carrying out what he announced in his statement when he said that proposals from the UK Government would be considered jointly with others in the Parliament. I expect the Scottish Government to continue to work with the committee to bring before the Parliament a report that will allow us to take a majority, considered view in our response to the UK Government and decide how we want to proceed in the best interests not of the Parliament and the parties, but of the electorate of Scotland.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 3:58 pm, 18th November 2010

I can tell the chamber that the timing of the AV referendum is not the talk of the steamies where I come from or, I dare say, where most members come from.

There is a different tone to this debate, which is coming particularly from the Labour Party.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Do you mind if I get started first?

We must recognise that, for the Labour Party and the SNP, the debate is about raw politics. SNP members see the debate as a superb opportunity to agitate against the Westminster Government and the union. For the Labour Party, which appears to be joined together on the issue in a pretty uneasy coalition with the SNP, it is not about AV but about the equalisation of constituencies, which Labour members have been making such a fuss about at Westminster.

The reality is that the problems that we had in 2007 related primarily to the ballot paper, which, it should be mentioned, was under the control of, and subject to arrangements that were made by a Labour Secretary of State for Scotland. It may be true that Labour has repented and learned its lessons, as Margaret Curran said—if so, I welcome Labour's coming to a new realisation—but the issue was the ballot paper, not the holding of the two elections on the same day per se.

Back in 1997, the people of Scotland voted to support the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. They did so, apparently without difficulty, in a referendum that had two questions. Both were simple to answer, with yes/no choices, but both had substantial constitutional, administrative, financial and legal arguments of some complexity behind them.

Today, the ambition and the confidence of the Scottish Government and the Labour Opposition in this Parliament have diminished to such an extent that they believe that the people of Scotland, who voted so clearly and so enthusiastically in that earlier referendum, are incapable of handling an election and a straightforward voting-reform referendum on the same day.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

I find the member's comments quite insulting. I am sure that there is not one member who believes that the electorate in Scotland cannot make up their minds at any election, but this is different.

We live in a representative democracy. When elections are held, each of us has to make our case and say why people should vote for us, but we are talking about the holding of a referendum and an election on the same day. At that referendum, people will be asked to make an important decision about how they will elect their representatives in future. That deserves its own space, as does the Scottish Parliament election, when the issues in our manifestos will come up. We deserve to be given the space to deal with each of those important matters on different days.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Ms Craigie must have the record for the longest-ever intervention in the Parliament. The point that she made was not a particularly good one, but I will deal with it nevertheless.

Voting reform for the UK Parliament is an important issue. As far as Scotland is concerned, the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system survive in Westminster elections alone.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

No—let me make some progress.

Elections to this Parliament, to the European Parliament and to local authorities are now conducted along more proportional lines, using systems that give more value to the vote of each citizen and which provide a more proportional result across the country.

I make the point—because I want to widen the debate—that that has importance, in particular, for the constitution and the future working of the UK. There are, of course, differences in political sentiment in the different nations of the UK and in different parts of the UK, but they are grossly exaggerated by the current Westminster voting system. Scotland is normally a bit more Labour and England a bit more Tory than the norm, but Labour has never gained a majority of votes in Scotland and there has not been a Conservative majority of votes in England in recent times. Apart from its other deficiencies, the current voting system tends to undermine the union and to emphasise what divides us rather than what unites us.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I understand why Robert Brown, as a Liberal, wants to get into the referendum argument on why we should change to a PR system, blah, blah, blah, but, as a member of the Scottish Parliament—that is the institution that he has been elected to—he must address the central point, which is whether he agrees that it is disrespectful for the coalition Government at Westminster to make a decision about how elections to this Parliament are to be conducted without consulting Scotland's elected Government. Will he answer that directly?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I do not regard that as disrespectful, nor do I regard a debate about the fairness of Westminster elections as being a particularly bad backcloth to an election to the Scottish Parliament.

Let us keep the matter in proportion. We are talking about a narrow, largely self-contained issue, which, in my view, will hardly push the Parliament election off the front pages. That election will be dominated by issues of unusual importance to Scotland, not least the failure of the outgoing SNP Government to lay out any financial framework that would allow the police, the councils and the voluntary sector to plan ahead.

The Electoral Commission is satisfied that both votes can take place without incident or disadvantage, and international experience supports that view. I am referring not just to the multiple elections and referenda that have been held in some US states, which I mentioned earlier, but the parallel experience in New Zealand in 1993, when the holding of a referendum on voting reform and an election on the same day produced a much-increased turnout in the election and the referendum.

Let me turn back to the SNP's little helpers in the Labour Party. They want to impose the additional cost on the hard-pressed taxpayer of £17 million for what they presumably see as the vital priority of holding the two polls on different days.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I will not take a further intervention.

The sum of £17 million would build a couple of secondary schools, employ 700 teachers or support nearly 1,000 apprentices—all of which, it would appear, are lesser priorities for Labour. Oddly, it was exactly that analogy that Labour used when objecting to the cost of the SNP's vanished neverendum on independence. The final irony, of course, is that at the election it was only the Labour Party who supported the particular form of voting reform that is now on offer. Now, however, for reasons of higher party strategy, it is doing its best to sabotage it. A feeble SNP Government is matched by a feeble Labour Opposition that lacks any sense of principle in these matters.

Reform of the Westminster voting system is in the interests of Scotland, because it is part of our democracy in a modernised United Kingdom. The adoption of the AV system would not conclude business, but it would certainly be another step on the journey towards a modernised democracy. Liberal Democrats would be campaigning for a yes vote, and I hope that we will be joined in that campaign by Labour, which travelled a good distance on the constitutional reform journey but got off at the last station, and by the SNP, which jumped on the reform train halfway through the journey but constantly threatens to jump off it unless it goes where no one else wants to go—off the main line and up the siding to hit the independence buffers.

This is a debate about not very much, as it is only about the timing. We need to finish it and get on with the real business of the issues that are involved in next May's election and the important referendum on voting reform that will go with it.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party 4:06 pm, 18th November 2010

I normally enjoy listening to Mr Brown, whether or not I agree with him, but I thought that his speech was, by his standards, quite poor.

Duncan McNeil gave a well balanced and considered speech on behalf of the Local Government and Communities Committee. I might come back to it later.

This Parliament has taken steps to ensure that lessons were learned from the organisation of the May 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. As we have heard, the Local Government and Communities Committee, on which I sit, conducted an inquiry into those elections and took extensive evidence on the matter, including from Professor Ron Gould, who undertook the Electoral Commission's inquiry into the elections. The Local Government and Communities Committee and Ron Gould recommended that there be a decoupling of the Scottish Parliament and local government elections. That recommendation was made for a number of reasons, not least of which was the need to ensure that the count would run as smoothly as possible and that there would be less confusion for voters when casting their votes.

There were other reasons, of course. We must ensure that there is parity of esteem with regard to the various sets of elections that we have in Scotland. There was a feeling that the council elections were overshadowed by the fact that the Scottish Parliament elections were held on the same day. It is probable that a significant section of the electorate voted for a party based on who they wanted to form the next Scottish Government and that they did so not only when they voted in the Scottish Parliament elections, but when they voted in the council elections. In other words, for some, there might have been little consideration of the issues in the council elections because the understandably intense media focus on the Scottish Parliament elections squeezed out any meaningful debate on the various merits of individual council candidates or the track record of council administrations across the country.

That is why the Scottish Government, supported by the Parliament, decoupled those elections. The Parliament and its committees united to act in the best interests of running our democratic process as effectively as possible. I emphasise that unity because, although members of the Parliament have very different visions of how to take forward democracy in Scotland, following the 2007 elections we managed to work together, consider the evidence base and act to find a Scottish solution to the problems that existed at that point. Decoupling was an essential part of that approach. However, at a stroke, the UK Con-Dem Government has ridden roughshod over that Scottish democracy. To have a UK referendum on electoral reform on the same day as Scotland's elections to its national Parliament is a gross insult to Scotland's re-emerging democracy and is, in effect, an attempt to marginalise not only the democratically elected Parliament of Scotland, but the Assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland, which will also hold their elections on that day.

It is clear that the UK media will hook on to and provide wall-to-wall coverage of the UK AV referendum. Indeed, we have only to look at the leaders' debates during the recent UK election, in which questions and answers routinely focused on day-to-day devolved issues that related only to England.

Another example is the recent edition of "Question Time" to which Anne McLaughlin referred. The chair, David Dimbleby, ruled out of order a discussion on the construction sector in Scotland because that area is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. However, the following week the same Mr Dimbleby allowed an extensive discussion on tuition fees in England, despite the programme being broadcast throughout the UK. We cannot have confidence that our UK broadcast media will give due respect to the Scottish elections, and the Conservatives and Lib Dems cannot escape from that issue, much as they try.

Now we are to hold an AV referendum that applies across the UK on the same day as Scotland's national elections. I do not think that any Conservative or Lib Dem member really believes that the electorate will be fully informed as a result of the clash; I just do not buy the argument.

I suspect that the Lib Dems and the Conservatives very much hope that the AV elections will overshadow the Scottish elections, as they know that they cannot put up with the scrutiny that they will face in the latter.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Will Bob Doris explain to members the complications that he envisages arising from the issues surrounding the AV elections?

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I am pretty sure that I laid those out quite clearly.

The Electoral Commission thinks that it can meet the challenges of the election process—in other words, putting a cross on a ballot paper—which the Lib Dems and Conservatives have patronised members in the chamber by trying to point out. The issue, however, is that people need to understand the consequence of the cross that they put on the ballot paper and what it means for their country.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Does the member recall that the Electoral Commission made it clear in the run-up to the 2007 elections—which were a total debacle—that it could carry those out?

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

That point is well made. It is worth pointing out that the Electoral Commission believes that it can get the process right, but is not sure whether it can get the message right. In the previous Scottish elections it thought that it could get everything right, and nothing went right. That is an important point.

I will address the UK Government's lack of consultation of this Parliament, its committees and the Scottish people. It is an absolute farce and shows disrespect to our nation—not to our Parliament or its committees, but to the Scottish people. I give a tiny bit of credit to the Scottish Affairs Committee, which did its best at the last minute to come and speak to the Local Government and Communities Committee and get our views, despite the UK Government not caring one jot what those views were. Things must change, and quickly.

We have heard that Ron Gould considered that the voter at the previous Scottish elections was treated as an afterthought. For next year's elections, the voter has not been considered at all. I believe that the electoral management board that will be set up in Scotland this year will eventually take power over European, UK, Scottish and local elections, and it will be accountable to this Parliament on an annual basis.

My final plea is for some parliamentary committee—perhaps the Local Government and Communities Committee—to have a remit to scrutinise all elections in which the Scottish voter participates, to ensure that we get it right for the voters of Scotland. One thing is for sure: the Lib Dems and Conservatives will get it wrong every time.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour 4:13 pm, 18th November 2010

It is a great pleasure to follow such a thoughtful speech by Bob Doris; I never thought that I would find myself saying that.

I say to Mike Rumbles and Robert Brown that the debate has been useful; it was out of order for Robert Brown to dismiss it as an irrelevance. The Westminster bill has not yet been enacted—it is still a bill, and it has not yet been agreed by the House of Lords. Amendments are this very day being tabled in the House of Lords, including one that changes the date of the referendum—if any referendum is agreed, of course. I know that independent-minded Tories—and, yes, Liberal Democrats—in the House of Lords will support that amendment, unlike the puppets that we have here today.

I say to Mike Rumbles that there are two major issues of confusion—campaign confusion and voting confusion. Let us take campaign confusion first. For the election, there will be party campaigns, but for the referendum, there will be cross-party campaigns. Does David McLetchie recall that, when he was a young man, he and I campaigned in the referendum in favour of Europe? Indeed, I sent him all round Scotland delivering leaflets. I can tell members that he did it very well. He and I would be on the same side again. We would be against the alternative vote system. Imagine David McLetchie chapping on doors in Wester Hailes and saying, "Vote for me for this constituency." He would also have to say, "Vote for me for the list," because he is not too sure about winning the constituency, by the way. Then he would say, "Vote against AV, and, by the way, George Foulkes agrees with me on that." The voter would say, "But he doesn't want you to be elected." David McLetchie would say, "Oh no, he doesn't want me elected here." Imagine the confusion.

Think about the campaigns that we are all involved in. We would have lots of loudspeakers going round saying, "Vote McLetchie," and others saying, "Vote No." People will say, "Wait a minute. Vote McLetchie? Vote no? I don't quite understand this. It's confusing." We would have posters up saying "McLetchie. No." People would say, "Wait a minute. Do they not want McLetchie?" We would have leaflets going round. Imagine the confusion. If nothing else, his message would be somewhat clouded.

The referendum is not really necessary. The Liberal Democrats do not want the alternative vote system. Robert Brown admitted that. They want STV. The referendum is a battering ram, or the thin end of the wedge. As Margaret Curran said, Clegg described it as a "miserable little compromise". Imagine the enthusiasm: "Vote for our miserable little compromise!" I say to Robert Brown that that will not get them all out into the streets.

The Tories are against the referendum. Deep down, they do not want it. I also say to David McLetchie that it would save an awful lot more than £17 million if we did not have a referendum at all, because we would save money on not just the voting, but the campaign.

There was a question—I think it came from Mike Rumbles—about Labour's position. Labour's position is quite clear. [Interruption.] If you listen, you might actually learn something.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I noticed.

We were in favour of a pre-legislative referendum, not a post-legislative referendum. There is a big difference. We were in favour of an advisory referendum, not a binding referendum. There is a substantial difference.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

No! Wait a minute. Do not talk, Rumbles. I met someone who thought his Christian name was Belly, by the way. Anyway, he talks a lot. If he listened occasionally, he might learn something.

Let us come to voting confusion. We are not saying that the Scots electors are any more stupid or clever than anyone else. What we are saying—Maureen Watt is the only person so far who has put her finger on it—is that there are two different franchises. There is the parliamentary franchise for the referendum and the local government franchise for the election. What difference does that make? The parliamentary franchise includes overseas voters. The local government franchise includes citizens of other European countries. There is huge confusion about who will vote. I presume that you have all got copies of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. David, have you got a copy of the bill? If you turn to page 220, you will see—[Interruption.]

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

The bill costs only £14.50, so members can get copies quite easily.

If you do not have two registers, you can have one register. The bill states:

"In a case where a referendum ballot paper, and a constituency ballot paper and regional ballot paper, are delivered at the same time, a single mark must be placed in the register against the number of the elector under ... the referendum rules, and ... the Scottish Parliamentary Election Rules ... In any other case, a mark must be placed in the register against the number of the elector identifying the poll to which each ballot paper delivered relates."

Is that not clear? The presiding officer would be scrabbling around to find which one the person was voting for. They would say, "Are you French? Oh yes. You can vote for this." They would ask the next person, "Are you from overseas?" Members can imagine the confusion and delay.

You might remember that in Nick Clegg's seat in Sheffield some electors were unable to vote because they did not have enough time to get in. Next year we will have queues at voting booths of people confused about the system.

As others have pointed out, we decided to move the council elections away from the Parliament elections to separate the campaigns and ensure that there would be no confusion in voting or campaigning. We wanted people to vote for local councils, not according to what they thought of the Parliament. I find it really crazy to reverse that decision and add the referendum to next year's elections, simply to satisfy Nick Clegg's vanity. The Con-Dems might have vanity photographers and valets on the taxpayer, but our vital and precious democracy should not be sacrificed to their vanity.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party 4:21 pm, 18th November 2010

I congratulate George Foulkes on that entertaining and energetic performance.

On 5 May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut. Twenty days after that historic mission, before a joint session of the US Congress, President Kennedy made his historic pledge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade and safely return him to earth. You will be relieved to know that that is not a set-up for some space cadet pun, but I have to wonder about the circumstances in which an AV referendum on 5 May next year could in any way be described as historic. It is a referendum on a policy that no political party supports unconditionally and for which, from speaking to the people whom I represent, I hear no great clamour. Robert Brown made great play of the fact that the timing of an AV referendum is hardly the talk of the steamie. That statement is absolutely true, but nevertheless I find it extraordinary. A referendum on AV would hardly be the talk of the steamie at any time.

On 5 May next year, people will have to make a historic decision: to re-elect the first ever Scottish National Party Government and consider the decisions that the Parliament and the elected Scottish Government will have to take in the coming years. Voters in Scotland should—indeed, must—be allowed to focus on such matters next May. Decisions about the electoral system at Westminster should, quite literally, be left for another day and members have highlighted many good reasons for that. First, the Gould report, which was unanimously endorsed by the Parliament, clearly stated that different kinds of elections should take place on different days. One of Gould's key findings was that separating out elections would prevent wider issues from dominating local government campaigns. I would have thought that there was a real danger of the AV referendum overshadowing Scotland's general election because of the dominance of UK and London-based media but, according to David McLetchie, the referendum will be the footnote to the Scottish Parliament election. I see him nodding his head at that, but I would have thought that anyone out there who actually supported AV and wanted to make the case for it—whoever they might be—would not want to risk the debate on AV being overshadowed by the Scottish Parliament elections.

Contrary to what the Liberal Democrat amendment suggests, there are certain widespread and legitimate concerns about the administration of these two polls on the same day that have nothing to do with the Scottish people's capability to vote on a referendum on the same day as voting in an election to this Parliament. Having been told that opposition to the holding of both ballots on the same day is patronising to the Scottish people, I find the Liberal Democrats' argument in that respect to be patronising in the extreme. As for the Tories, if they are as concerned about value to the public purse as their amendment suggests—and, indeed, as David McLetchie argued with Mike Rumbles's eager backing—surely we should be thinking about saving not £17 million but the £90 million to £120 million that the AV referendum will cost across the UK by ditching the whole thing. I find it extraordinary that David McLetchie should advance the proposition that the Tories do not want this referendum when they seem willing to spend nearly £120 million on holding it.

As Maureen Watt and George Foulkes have made clear, there is a danger that, if the referendum is conducted under Westminster voting regulations, the two polls will be conducted on different boundaries and possibly under different franchises, which will cause only confusion.

There were suggestions that returning officers would be told that the referendum would take priority in the counting process, which would have led to a delay in establishing the shape of our Parliament and who would form the Scottish Government. We heard from David McLetchie that that will not be the case and that the UK Government has somehow graciously conceded the point, which is evidently something that we should be grateful for. I must say that anything other than that position would have been a total and utter disgrace, and we have nothing to be grateful for from the UK Government in this regard.

As Pauline McNeill set out, there has been no genuine consultation and no discussion in advance. Anyone with the most basic grip of Scotland's political system knows that this Parliament has fixed terms, and the dates of our future general elections are clear. As Jim Mather suggested, perhaps the Tories and Liberals have not looked at next year's calendar—and who can blame them for not wanting to think too much about next year's elections, such will be the judgment cast against them? Anne McLaughlin asked how the UK Government could not have known that there is a Scottish election next year. It does know, but the truth is that it does not want to think about it too much.

The clash of the election and referendum on 5 May 2011 is not the only potential clash of polls. The UK Government's Fixed-term Parliaments Bill will establish a UK general election on the first Thursday in May 2015 and on the same day every five years thereafter. This Parliament will also be up for election on the first Thursday in May 2015. I understand that the UK Government has conceded some ground on the issue—although I am not particularly grateful for it, Mr McLetchie—and that this Parliament may be empowered to change the date of its election to prevent such a clash.

I have two responses to that. First, by 2015, we will be operating in circumstances in which Westminster elections no longer figure in Scotland's politics because we will be independent. Secondly, and in relation to today's debate, if the Government is prepared to concede that there should not be a clash of Scottish and Westminster parliamentary elections, surely it stands to reason that it is not appropriate to have a clash with an AV referendum either, given that to all intents and purposes it is a Westminster election too.

All that speaks to a complete lack of respect for Scotland's democratic processes and structures on the part of the UK Government. It is not so much that the coalition sees what goes on in Scotland as a distraction from its agenda; our issues and concerns do not even feature on its radar. When the coalition Government first announced the plan for fixed-term parliaments, concern was immediately raised about the possible clash of elections in 2015. Despite that concern and the Government having several months to think about it, it went ahead and announced that the AV referendum would take place at the same time as the Scottish Parliament elections next year.

In conclusion, the merits of the alternative vote—whatever they may be—are the real distraction on 5 May next year. Robert Brown says that constitutional reform at Westminster is important to the people of Scotland. The genuine alternative that is open to people in Scotland—the constitutional reform that will really improve democracy, accountability and the future prospects of the country—is independence and Scotland's withdrawal from Westminster.

Some members who vehemently oppose a referendum on independence want to cheer on a referendum on an obscure voting system and risk obscuring the important issues that we need to discuss in our next general election. A successful referendum on independence would give us the powers to grow our economy and develop our public services to find the best way to help Scotland emerge stronger from the global economic downturn. That is the referendum denied to voters in Scotland, and that is the referendum that people in Scotland need.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come now to closing speeches. I can offer each closing speaker one minute more than they were advised—it may become mandatory later on.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat 4:28 pm, 18th November 2010

There has been a lot of hype, hyperbole and hypocrisy today from members on the SNP and Labour benches. Let me remind Labour members that they supported two different elections on the same day in Scotland at every election from 1999 onwards. The 2007 electoral arrangements, which they have so resoundingly criticised this afternoon and which were indeed resoundingly criticised by the Gould report and many other observers, were masterminded by the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, Douglas Alexander. Let me tell the SNP members that if they were offered an independence referendum on any election day—Scottish, UK, European or local—they would be like the cats that had got the cream.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

Does the member recognise the fact that, against what he is proposing, an independence referendum coinciding with a Scottish election would be one institution talking to one electorate through one medium? Compare and contrast.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

There we have it: this is all about politics and positioning, and nothing about principle.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

No, thank you.

I recall my first visit to the United States, when I went to California and studied the voting system there. Voters were issued not with ballot papers but with a booklet showing all the votes that they could make on the one day—for the President, for the state Congress, federal Congress and federal state representatives, for judges, for police commissioners and for things that they called propositions. There was not just one proposition on that one polling day; there were endless propositions, on environmental, equalities and taxation issues.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

All those were taken to the voters on that occasion because the electorate had decided democratically that it wished those propositions to be voted on on that day in California.

I am happy to give way.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Finally—thank you very much. It is interesting that the member talks about the American system. Is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats suggesting that there has never been a problem with an American election? I seem to remember one in 2000.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

I assure the member that that problem had nothing to do with the voting system that I studied in California. It has worked successfully for many decades and is absolutely the normal system for voters in America. The issues in Florida were very different.

In this country, the Electoral Commission says that the proposal can work. It has stated:

"we believe that it should be possible to deliver the different polls proposed for 5 May".

For me, the issue is vital and we have to get on with it. We have to ensure that the nation has a new and fairer voting system for Westminster in place for 2015, and there is much to do.

I would like other changes to be made to create less confusion and greater fairness for the electorate. Our Scottish Parliament election system continues to cause confusion and should be reformed. We should introduce the single transferable vote in multimember constituencies. That would be a single, fair and proportional vote for Scottish elections. As far as I can see, the only reason why that was rejected by the Labour Party when the Scottish Constitutional Convention considered the voting system back in the 1990s was that it was supported by the Liberal Democrats.

In time, I believe that the same fair system should be introduced for Westminster. The single transferable vote would give a proper proportional system for the Westminster election. However, for now, the best prospect for greater fairness is to back the fair votes referendum and to support AV.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

Does the member accept that the differences that have been expressed today and his vision for any future changes should be dealt with appropriately through the procedures, principles and committees of this Parliament and that such measures should not be imposed on the Parliament?

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

As has been said repeatedly, we are talking about a UK issue to do with the voting system for the UK House of Commons. It is important that it is dealt with appropriately, and that is being done, in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. There has been great controversy and heated debate, but I believe that the issue will shortly be resolved. In my opinion, it must be resolved speedily.

The fair votes campaign needs to be won. It will be good for democracy if there is a high turnout for the election. Members should ask themselves whether the people of Scotland would thank the Labour Party and the SNP if they were asked to vote in May 2011 in the election for the Scottish Parliament and then to vote again in July 2011 in an AV referendum. Would people thank the Labour Party and the SNP if those parties put back the introduction of fair votes for the House of Commons in the UK?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

He is in his last minute.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

Scots are intelligent, capable and discerning individuals. Many intelligent Conservatives will vote in favour of fairer votes at Westminster, while others, including David McLetchie, will not, but none of that will confuse them about voting for their party in the Scottish elections. This afternoon, Labour and the SNP are together in the chamber. How swiftly and smoothly they work together. However, they protest too much. My summary is simple: two issues, on one day, simple and straightforward. Let us get on with it.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 4:35 pm, 18th November 2010

This has been an interesting debate, but I had hoped that it might be slightly more light-hearted. I hoped to get some entertainment out of the debate; in fact, there would have been none at all had George Foulkes not pulled the cat out of the bag at the last minute and produced something that entertained us, even though it may not have served to inform us further.

The issue of whether we can hold a referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament election is interesting to discuss and good to debate. In his opening speech, Jim Mather said that he had a strong opinion on the issue, but he kept his remarks reasonable and rational. I will begin by addressing the points that he made.

Jim Mather wanted to ensure that people were able to deal with the vote on an informed basis. I have heard nothing in today's debate that tells me that the people of Scotland cannot vote in a referendum on an informed basis on the same day as a Scottish Parliament election. The argument against that seems to be based on the fact that we had some problems on the day of the 2007 election, but there seems to be some confusion or misunderstanding about what happened on that day.

As has been mentioned, the Labour Party was perfectly happy for local government and Scottish Parliament elections to take place on the same day in 1999 and 2003. Those election days were successful because the electoral systems that were used did not lead to confusion. In 2007, the same two elections took place on one day, but a different electoral system was in place. When electors cast their votes, they knew perfectly clearly for whom and for what they wanted to vote, but they applied the wrong electoral system to the wrong ballot paper. We lost a lot of votes because of that. However, I do not suggest for a moment that people did not understand what they were doing when they set out to cast their votes.

It is proposed not to hold two elections on the same day but to have a referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament election. There will be a simple question, to which the answer will be yes or no. The Scottish electorate is perfectly qualified and able to make up its mind about that question.

I am rather more concerned about something that has been running through the debate at a deeper level. I accept that, when such issues come along, the SNP will use them as an opportunity to raise the temperature of political debate, to set out its arguments for independence and to try to drive a wedge between Holyrood and Westminster. What has surprised me about today's debate is how vociferous the Labour Party has been in trying to do the same thing.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

You mentioned independence. In this instance, your proposition seems to be that you support a referendum on a principle that you do not support. Why will you not support a referendum on independence on the same basis?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

That would involve rewinding the argument slightly. You will realise that I am not necessarily in favour of the proposition that is being put forward. We have agreed that a referendum should take place and are delighted for it to do so on the basis of that agreement. The SNP once had a policy to hold a referendum but chose not to bring that proposition to the Parliament—it was that party that withdraw the proposition.

I return to my concerns about the Labour Party. The argument that Labour members such as Pauline McNeill and Margaret Curran presented today was dangerous and divisive in nature. I was disappointed by their use of hyperbole, their partisan stand against the proposal and the disproportionate way in which they attacked it. I had expected Labour to present a rational, reasonable argument, but I saw Labour jump on to the same bandwagon that the SNP before it had been so happy to jump on to. I saw a change of attitude and direction from the Labour Party—one that seems to take it back to the days before 1997 when it appeared to try to outflank the SNP in its desire to move Scotland forward in its own direction. That is why I believe that the turning point today is so dangerous.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

Who is accusing who of hyperbole now? You are claiming that we have all sorts of motivations. Can you not understand the fundamental principle that I tried to articulate: people are deeply offended because the coalition Government started by saying that it would respect Scotland but its first act was to disrespect Scotland? Do you not understand the deep feelings that exist about that?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Do I understand? I have to say that in a certain respect, I do not, because I personally am not deeply offended. You appear to be, but I am not. I am concerned about that.

Maureen Watt raised a concern about the effect of the media. The suggestion that Scottish voters cannot discern the difference between the campaigning issues in a Scottish election and the campaigning issues in the referendum is disrespectful of the ability of the Scottish electorate to separate those issues.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

He is in his last minute.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

The media are so intertwined in this country today that there will always be news broadcasts from south of the border. We need to respect the ability of our individual electors to make a constructive decision.

We are not trying to run two elections on the same day; we are running a referendum with a simple question—yes or no? The Scottish people are able to deal with that. We should take the opportunity to have the referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections, for the reasons that have been set out. We will therefore be supporting the amendment in the name of David McLetchie and the amendment in the name of Mike Rumbles, because they make good common sense.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I remind members that they should speak through the chair at all times. There has been a great tendency not to do so this afternoon, which is regrettable.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 4:42 pm, 18th November 2010

A number of powerful speeches have been made this afternoon, none more so than the one from George Foulkes. I say that not because he congratulated Bob Doris on his speech, which I know will do him no good in his constituency party, but because he forensically examined a number of the challenges that we will face throughout Scotland and a number of practical considerations for electioneering on election day next year, if the bill is passed.

I declare an interest in this issue. I hope that, if the AV referendum is held, it results in a massive no vote. I am sure that that comes as no surprise to the likes of Mike Rumbles, Iain Smith and Nicol Stephen—at least I am clear about my position. I would like to see the issue put to bed once and for all. I do not see it as a priority—in fact, it is a total waste of good public money. I can think of better things to do with millions of pounds.

That said, if we are going to go to the trouble of holding a referendum, it should be done properly, not in the sloppy and rushed way that the Con-Dem Government has done it. Given that the Con-Dem Government feels so strongly about this important issue—Robert Brown referred to it as that—I find it alarming that it seeks to bring forward the referendum at any cost, no matter whom it affects. Let us be clear: holding the referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections will cause confusion throughout Scotland.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

If those sentiments are correct, why was the proposal for an AV referendum in the Labour Party manifesto?

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

It is a fact that the proposal was included in the Labour Party's manifesto, which contained a number of commitments. However, we do not see it as a priority in the current climate, given the challenges that many people in our communities face. An issue for the debate is the timing of the referendum and the contempt that the Con-Dem Government is showing the Scottish Parliament.

In the stage 3 debate on the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Bill on 17 June last year, David McLetchie said:

"local authority elections deserve to have their own day in the sun so that there can be a greater focus on local issues in determining the outcome."—[Official Report, 17 June 2009; c 18461.]

I will pose a question to him, which he can answer in an intervention if he likes. If local councils should have their day in the sun, why is that principle not accepted for the AV referendum?

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I will bring in David McLetchie if he is willing to answer my question.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I am willing to answer, because the argument is fairly obvious. We were dealing with two sets of elections of representatives to democratically elected bodies.

We will avoid the coincidence of those elections as a result of the changes that the Gould report recommended and we wish to avoid such a coincidence of the elections to this Parliament and the Westminster Parliament in 2015.

The proposal that we are now debating is to add a simple referendum question at the same time as the election, which will create no major problem. That will be just one more issue in a broader campaign that will cover many issues.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

Conservative members are again unconvincing. They fail to mention the challenges that we face.

David McLetchie is concerned to make potential savings by holding the referendum on the same day as the elections. Did he deliver that principle when he argued against holding council elections on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections? Holding those elections on the same day would make savings. He made a different argument on council elections last year.

The Gould report is one of the most comprehensive reports ever to be presented to the Parliament. Its recommendations were robust, it did not hold back on criticism and it took input from several parties. On combined elections, the report said:

"we are convinced that combined elections are not only a disservice to the local councils and candidates but also to the electorate as well."

If that principle is accepted for combined Scottish Parliament elections and local council elections, why should the referendum be treated differently? The principle is stated several times.

If the referendum has the X-factor that Nick Clegg believes that it has, why should it not be given the prominence of a stand-alone referendum debate? He could tour the country and attend mass public meetings at which I have no doubt there would be standing room only. The airwaves would be taken up with chat about the future of our voting system, and pubs and clubs would buzz with excitement. Let us be honest—as Conservative and Liberal Democrat members know fine well, the issue would have been a damp squib at the polls. Conflating the polls has provided cover for the commitment to spend an astronomical amount of public funds in these difficult times. Few of us can turn on Sky News or the other news channels without seeing George Osborne advising us of the difficult economic times that we face, yet we are willing to spend £120 million of good public money on a waste of time.

Several members have talked about respect. Annabel Goldie has said:

"We will build an agenda of mutual respect between Scotland's two Parliaments and Governments, because Scotland needs co-operation, not confrontation."—[Official Report, 27 May 2010; c 26626.]

Today—some months later—we have that confrontation.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

You were committed to having a referendum on AV. If the election arithmetic had worked out slightly differently, I presume that you might have had a coalition with the Liberal Democrats—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Through the chair, please.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer.

If Mr Martin's party had had a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, you—[Laughter]—that party would have had a referendum, which would have cost the same £100 million that he complains about, so what is your beef?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

My beef is nothing, Mr McLetchie, other than that people do not talk through the chair.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

The challenge in the motion is the timing, which the members opposite have failed to deal with. When the referendum issue arose, they forgot or did not consider that the so-called respect agenda is worth following. I do not think that they considered that issue as carefully as they should have. I do not know how many statements I have heard from David Cameron and Annabel Goldie since the UK elections on the so-called respect agenda. They have had the opportunity to consider this Parliament's concerns—Duncan McNeil made a powerful point when he referred to the opportunities that were afforded to the Con-Dem Government—but they have failed on a number of occasions to grasp the opportunity to show that they have respect for the Parliament. The members opposite have failed on a number of occasions to deal with that point.

A number of powerful points have been made by SNP—I do not say that very often—and Labour members. It has been shown once again that the members opposite have failed to respect the processes of the Parliament. I call on the Parliament to support the motion in the name of Jim Mather.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party 4:51 pm, 18th November 2010

I thank members from across the chamber for their contributions to the debate. The ideas and arguments that have been put forward are very interesting and it will be well worth analysing the Official Report to look at them in greater detail. I hope to refer towards the end of my speech to the points that have been made.

The Scottish Government has made known its opposition to the UK Government's proposals since they were first announced. The UK Government says much about respect, and that now needs to be proven by respectful actions. The status of this Parliament has to be recognised: it is the key legislative body for Scotland and the importance of the issues that we make decisions about here needs to be given proper regard. Sadly, if the clash of dates is allowed to stand, that status would be undermined, with the people of Scotland being asked to vote on other issues on the same day as they decide the make-up of this Parliament.

For our part, we have already recognised the need for issues of importance to be given the space and time that they deserve. That is why we legislated in 2009 to separate local government elections from the Scottish Parliament elections. There now seems to be common ground that elections should not take place on the same day and that it is vital that each Administration should have the opportunity to gain the clearest of mandates.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

The minister has made a key point. Having sat through the Local Government and Communities Committee's inquiry into the 2007 election fiasco, I am at one with Professor Ron Gould when he said in 2007 that the voter was "treated as an afterthought". I am a keen supporter of ensuring that voters throughout the UK have a right to a fairer voting system for Westminster. That is why I fully endorse the UK Government's agreement to hold a referendum on AV.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Could you make your point, Mr Tolson? This is not a speech.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

Yes, I will.

However, where I disagree with my colleagues is on having that referendum on the same day as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections and a third of English council elections. As we saw in 2007, any combination of elections, or, indeed, referenda, causes confusion and overwhelms the important issues—in the case of May 2011, the Scottish Parliament election.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Mr Tolson, you must please make a point.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

Does the minister agree that, although the AV referendum is welcome, having it on the same day as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern elections is a mistake?

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

Yes, I agree with the points made by Jim Tolson in his intervention, and I thoroughly commend him for making them. The clash of dates is avoidable. The movement that we are seeing on the 2015 clash is also a factor.

Another factor is the issue of clarity. We need to give the election the prominence that it deserves. In principle, that means that there should not be campaigns from more than one legislature at the same time—especially with votes on the very same day. That is particularly the case when there is a real risk, given the strong influence of the London-based media, that UK-wide elections or referendums could eclipse any Scotland-only campaign. Indeed, that is proven by the coverage of and around the party leader debates in the run-up to the 2010 UK election.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

I think that I have taken enough Lib Dem interventions for the moment, and I have heard the voice of Lib Demmery that I want to hear today.

The fact is that we owe it to the voting public to be absolutely clear about what they are voting on, and we have an obligation to do all we can to deliver that. Self-evidently, we can do so only by having a clear campaign space and total clarity about why the public's participation and votes matter. We need to put the voters first, as Gould—echoed by Jim Tolson—said.

There are also issues around proper administration. We have to make sure that people know whether they are eligible to vote, that those who are eligible to vote are able to do so, that voters are clear about the issues that they are deciding on, and that the votes are counted and the results are accurate and timely. The case is strong and, in the interests of time—I see that time has stopped, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

Mr McLetchie talked about an ideal world—he agreed that there would be no clash in an ideal world. He also talked about coincidence, but deliberate cause and effect are no coincidence. He also ignored the role of the UK media, which was particularly poor of him. A lawyer advocating that we should not be picky about due process amazed me, as did the fact that he was prepared to be cavalier and forget previous count problems.

Mike Rumbles ignored the movement of elections because of the clash in 2015, and the damaging effect of the media circus in Scotland.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

I have lots of words for Mike Rumbles, but he can just sit down now. He used the word "precious" about our aspirations for Scotland and fair elections. He used the term 10 times.

Pauline McNeill made a fantastic speech, and her female intuition about the discomfort of certain members was spot on.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Will the minister confirm on the record what communication he has had with the UK Government in relation to consultation on the clash between the election and the referendum?

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

There have been numerous contributions and letters. Pauline McNeill's key point was about registering a formal complaint. The joint ministerial committee dispute process is a possible tactic, and I have asked Fiona Hyslop to consider the options around that.

Pauline McNeill made another important point about our priority being voter confidence. I say to Mr Rumbles that that is the precious issue that we face.

Maureen Watt made an excellent speech about how our focus is on the integrity of our elections, and she again castigated Mr McLetchie for his cavalier attitude to that issue and to due process.

Margaret Curran exposed an interesting point when she said that the Scottish Parliament's first engagement on the matter involved the MSPs who are elected to Westminster. She also pinpointed how there is likely to be a simultaneous devaluation of the Scottish parliamentary elections and the referendum process.

Anne McLaughlin highlighted an important point a propos media coverage. She referred to David Dimbleby's recent declaration about the diminution in the coverage of Scottish affairs, which, along with the magnification of UK events in the run-up to the referendum, would be damaging to Scotland.

Speaking as convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee, Duncan McNeil highlighted the considerable body of work that will have to be done, and pinpointed the fact that a committee of the Parliament has written to the Deputy Prime Minister but has not yet had a response. That is revealing. It is not satisfactory and it is utterly disrespectful of what happens here.

Robert Brown tried the old Lib Dem trick of the false analogy by comparing 1997 with 2011. The 1997 referendum was one referendum, and it involved one institution. This time around, two institutions, a referendum and an election will be involved—plus the UK media, which will be dominated by the referendum issue. That is some analogy.

Bob Doris summarised it all rather neatly by pinpointing the fact that this Parliament decoupled local government elections from Scottish Parliament elections. The UK Government has now given the green light to decoupling the 2015 elections. However, there is no decoupling for the 2011 clash.

George Foulkes—unharnessed and allowed to run free—pinpointed the fact that party campaigns and cross-party campaigns do not go well together. He also described voters of a Tory persuasion saying, in the same sentence, "Vote McLetchie; vote no." There are quite a few weaknesses in the argument that has been put. The essential representation of the Lib Dem proposition is: "Vote for our 'miserable little compromise'." That is where we are: there is "a miserable little compromise" on the table, and I expect this Parliament to vote the right way—very soon.