Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament on 2nd February 2011.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7818, in the name of Jim Mather, on the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its work in considering the bill and preparing the stage 1 report. I also thank those who gave evidence to the committee and who contributed to the development of the proposals in the bill.

The Gould report into the 2007 local government and Scottish Parliament elections found that the fragmentation of roles and responsibilities was a critical constraint on the smooth administration of elections. We passed the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2009 to decouple local elections in Scotland from elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Having separated the two sets of elections to remove confusion and to give each its place, we have introduced the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill with two main objectives. The first is to establish the electoral management board for Scotland and the second is to extend the Electoral Commission’s remit.

The bill will establish the electoral management board on a statutory basis to supervise Scottish local government elections. The board’s general function will be to co-ordinate the administration of local government elections in Scotland by assisting local authorities and others to carry out their functions and by promoting best practice.

I recognise the arguments in favour of the board having responsibility for Scottish Parliament elections. The United Kingdom Government’s Scotland Bill will devolve some powers for the administration of Scottish Parliament elections, but we cannot anticipate that transfer by including Scottish Parliament elections in the board’s proposed remit. Therefore, we will extend the board’s functions as soon as it is practicable to do so and we are considering how best to do that.

The committee suggested that the board’s remit should be extended to cover elections to other bodies, such as health boards and the crofting commission. As members know, such elections tend to cover specific geographical areas or functions. I see no need for such national co-ordination, but the board could continue to offer ad hoc advice. The Scottish Government will keep the matter under review and will consider extending the board’s remit if the need to do so is clear.

The bill establishes the post of convener and provides for the convener, who must be a returning officer, to be appointed by Scottish ministers. The convener will have the power to give returning officers and electoral registration officers directions that will relate primarily to administrative issues. The bill requires the convener to consult board members and the Electoral Commission before giving a direction. That process will help to ensure consensus about the need for any direction.

In the committee’s evidence sessions, whether the board’s convener should be able to be named in court cases that arise as a result of a direction being given was discussed. We consider that the convener could be the subject of an election petition under existing provision. Section 128(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 provides that

“any returning officer of whose conduct the petition complains, may be ... a respondent to the petition.”

Given that the convener must be a returning officer, that section would apply. However, for a challenge to be founded, the direction would need to fall within one of the statutory grounds for challenge.

The financial memorandum sets out the costs that are associated with supporting the board. The committee and the interim board support the option of a dedicated secretariat and policy function. In any event, the Scottish Government will provide funding towards the costs of operating the board and will work with it to implement its preferred option.

Discussions have been held with the Scotland Office about support to the board, given that it will have a non-statutory role in European and Westminster Parliament elections. We will continue that dialogue in the coming weeks.

Members will know that the bill requires the board to provide an annual report to Parliament on the conduct of its functions. I stress that the report is to provide information on the board’s activities and is not a report in the context of performance management. Subsequently, it will be for the Parliament to decide whether to have a detailed discussion of the report.

I would now like to say something about the Electoral Commission. The commission was established in 2000, post-devolution, but the legislation and resulting functions did not apply to local government elections in Scotland. With that, I come to the second objective of the bill: to extend the Electoral Commission’s existing functions to include local government elections. This extension reflects the spirit of the Gould report, in particular the need to remove fragmentation in responsibilities. It also provides consistent oversight of elections. Some of that activity—for example, public awareness campaigns—has already been done by the commission on an ad hoc basis. The bill formalises that work. During its evidence sessions, the committee heard some concerns about the commission’s power to provide advice to candidates in local elections. We believe that the bill as drafted will allow this. However, my officials are in discussions with the commission to look again at the issue. If necessary, we will lodge an amendment at stage 2.

The financial memorandum sets out the likely costs of extending the commission’s functions. Based on discussions with the commission, we believe that the total costs will range from between £1.69 million and £2.89 million until 2013-14. The actual annual cost will depend on the level of activity that is required from the commission—obviously, it will be more in election years. The bulk of spending covers information and awareness campaigns, which would be required regardless of legislation to confer powers on the commission. The Scottish Government will reimburse the commission for expenditure on local government elections and will agree a maximum amount in advance.

The bill requires the commission to report to this Parliament, rather than ministers, on the performance of its functions. That is important in reinforcing the commission’s independence from Government. Again, it will be for the Parliament to decide whether it wishes to have a detailed discussion on the content of the commission’s report.

The bill is a definite and further step towards improving the administration of elections in Scotland. The bill is part of our programme. Working with the electoral community, it will give voters the electoral system that they deserve.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

I apologise to you, Presiding Officer, the minister and my colleagues for being slightly late. I had to be present at a meeting with a local colleague who faces a difficult situation, but I accept that there is no excuse for being late.

As convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I am pleased to take part in this debate on a bill that is designed to improve and benefit the administration of local government elections in Scotland. I thank all those who provided written and oral evidence to the committee. I also thank our committee clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre researchers and, of course, my fellow committee members for all their efforts during our stage 1 scrutiny of the bill.

As we have heard, the bill does two main things: establishes, on a statutory basis, an electoral management board for Scotland to oversee local government elections; and extends the Electoral Commission’s remit to cover local government elections in Scotland. We already have an interim electoral management board that operates on a non-statutory basis and there was widespread support for the next step: putting the board on a statutory footing. Of course, the Scottish Parliament already has powers in relation to local government elections, but not in relation to elections to the Scottish Parliament or House of Commons or European elections. Therefore, the provisions in the bill are restricted to local authority elections. As we know, the Scotland Bill makes provision for the Scottish Parliament to have control over its own elections. Therefore, it seems logical that the electoral management board’s remit should be extended to include other elections in Scotland, as and when that is appropriate.

When the minister gave evidence to the committee, he confirmed that the Scottish Government is considering the available mechanisms to extend the board’s remit once responsibility for Scottish Parliament elections is transferred. We welcome the minister’s comments in relation to those elections. We also acknowledge the UK Government’s role in bringing forward legislation to give the board a statutory role in relation to other elections. Therefore, we have called on the UK Government to consider further extensions to the board’s remit that would allow it to cover elections to the House of Commons, European Parliament elections and referenda. In addition, the wealth of electoral expertise that the board will have could be valuable in the administration of elections to institutions such as health boards and the crofting commission, and we have asked the Scottish Government to consider that.

There was a great degree of consensus on the bill’s provisions, but slight disagreement arose in one area. The convener of the electoral board will be a returning officer, will be appointed by Scottish ministers and will, in turn, appoint the other eight members of the board, five of whom must be returning officers or depute returning officers. The Electoral Commission expressed some concern about having depute returning officers on the board as, in its view, they would not be legally accountable for their actions in the same way as returning officers are. However, members of the interim electoral management board and the minister rejected those concerns, on the basis that depute returning officers provide much-needed practical experience and do their work on behalf of returning officers, who are ultimately accountable to the courts. Having listened to the arguments, we agree with the approach that is taken in the bill—that depute returning officers should be eligible to be full members of the board, especially given the expertise that they will undoubtedly bring to bear.

Under the bill, the convener of the board will be given a power of direction in relation to local government elections. The Electoral Commission expressed some concern that the bill did not provide for any sanctions if a returning officer failed to comply with a direction issued by the convener. Both the former and the current chair of the interim electoral management board envisaged that there would be a great deal of consultation and consensus and that there should not be any surprises. The former chair, Tom Aitchison, took the view that if a situation arose in which one direction was being issued after another, the board would have failed. However, we noted that the power was needed as a backstop against unforeseen eventualities.

Effective planning should reduce the need to issue directions. We also think that compliance with a direction will be dependent on returning officers and electoral administration officers adopting a consensual approach. In our report, we recommend that the Scottish Government monitor the effectiveness of the power of direction going forward.

The board will be required to produce an annual report. We agree with that provision.

Finally, the bill extends the function of the Electoral Commission to cover local government elections in Scotland. Again, that is a logical step, given that those are the only elections in respect of which the commission has no formal remit. As with so much in the bill, there was agreement on that provision, which will benefit electoral administration in Scotland by promoting consistency and good practice. We also welcome the requirement for the commission to lay an annual report before Parliament.

Although some of the bill’s provisions needed clarification, there was a high degree of consensus on what the legislation sets out to do. The committee is of the view that the main provisions will improve electoral administration in Scotland. We support the bill’s general principles.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

I am pleased to be able to take part in this afternoon’s debate. I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee and all concerned for bringing us to this point.

Fortunately, this is a debate on a piece of legislation that has broad consensus. There are no major political or ideological differences between the parties on it, so there is nothing for anyone to get heated about. Unfortunately, as there is broad consensus in the debate and there is nothing for anyone to get particularly exercised about, the bill is likely to be placed on the growing list of worthy but dull legislation with which the Parliament has had to deal.

However, the bill is worthy of our consideration and support—for a very important reason. No one can forget the problems that we encountered with the ballot in the 2007 local government and Scottish Parliament elections. Lessons must be learned. We must move on from those events and the scarred memories that most of us carry from the 2007 election counts, and must introduce measures to improve electoral administration in Scotland.

I am particularly pleased that the bill will extend the remit of the Electoral Commission to include local government elections in Scotland and that the commission will now be required to produce an annual report.

I believe that the electoral management board for Scotland—the EMB—will be of great benefit to many people in promoting best practice and providing information, advice and training for local government elections.

Given the faith that those who took part in the consultation and in the consideration of the bill have placed in the future of the board, we have to wonder why it was not set up a long time ago to deal with the complex issues of local government elections. The bill creates the body to fill the gap that was identified in the Gould report, and I welcome the proposal to establish it now.

Like other members, I would like the remit of the board to be extended, as the Electoral Commission has called for, although I recognise that that has to be decided elsewhere. It surely makes sense to have one board covering all elections in the future, which would provide a great deal of stability for us all.

It is important to note, as the Local Government and Communities Committee did, that concerns have been expressed that the bill does not give the EMB powers to sanction those who do not follow a direction. I encourage the committee to look a bit further into that issue, to ensure that opportunities are not missed and that potential pitfalls are addressed.

I am also concerned that if a direction that is issued by the EMB is followed but subsequently leads to court action, a returning officer could be petitioned but the EMB would be exempt. Surely that loophole should be considered further.

I do not wish to add too much of a note of discord to what is otherwise a non-contentious debate, but this point should be made. The Gould report highlighted

“the additional complexity faced in Scotland in 2007 due to the use on the same day of the single transferable vote system for local government elections and the first past the post system and the Additional Member System for Scottish Parliament elections.”

We find ourselves facing the same problem with the election this May, with the potential alternative vote referendum likely to fall on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections. I hope that Liberal Democrat and Conservative members will speak to their colleagues in the coalition Government in Westminster and remind them how difficult it was in 2007 when we had that problem. I will leave it at that for the moment, but I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I, too, pay tribute to the work that was done by the Local Government and Communities Committee and its clerks in preparing the stage 1 report on the bill. I was not a member of the committee until the very last minute so, although I voted to approve the committee’s report, my colleague David McLetchie had the major input, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say later in the debate.

The issues surrounding the bill are largely non-contentious, and all members who have spoken in the debate so far have made that point. However, anyone who was around an electoral count on the night of that first Thursday in May in 2007—or perhaps the Friday morning—saw what happened as we appeared to sleepwalk into a situation in which hundreds of thousands of Scots had their votes discounted. That was a mistake that should have been foreseen, but the institutions did not exist to point out the problem. The bill marks a major step towards ensuring that such institutions do exist in future.

The terms of the Gould report made it clear that changes were necessary. The Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2009, which was designed to separate Scottish parliamentary and local government elections once and for all, was a major step. The Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill, which will have the effect of establishing an electoral management board for Scotland, and which will extend the statutory powers of the Electoral Commission to cover local government elections in Scotland, is the second major step forward in achieving the objective of avoiding the problem that we had before.

I was listening carefully to what the minister was saying, particularly in relation to the future remit of the electoral management board for Scotland. I accept what he said about not going forward or extending it to the whole range of subjects to which it could be applied, yet I welcome the minister’s intention to ensure that the board’s remit is extended to Scottish Parliament elections. I look forward to hearing what is said during the further passage of the bill on a range of other possibilities.

Much of what has to be said about the bill has been said already, so I do not intend to go into too much detail. However, I am interested in something that Michael McMahon raised, which I was tempted to raise myself but dismissed: the AV issue. I would dispute Michael McMahon’s assertion that a referendum on AV on the same day as the Scottish election might be disruptive. I think that asking people to give a simple yes or no will not cause confusion or difficulty, but I am genuinely worried about what might happen in the longer term, when we could end up with an AV election and a Scottish Parliament election on the same day, which would result in our walking into a multiplicity of electoral systems. I am glad that, once it has been passed, the bill will have the effect of giving us bodies that can administer that properly. I am sure that everyone is well aware of the fact that I am opposed to AV, but you never know what might happen, so we should be prepared.

The Conservatives will support the general principles of the bill at stage 1. I believe that it is a major step forward that will complete the process that was necessary to overcome the problems that we experienced back in May 2007. I look forward to working in conjunction with the minister and the other parties to ensure that the bill is complete when it becomes an act later in the year.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

I join colleagues in congratulating fellow committee members, the clerks and Scottish Parliament information centre colleagues on all the work that they have done to get us to this stage, and I welcome the opportunity to open for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

As a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee over the past few years, I have taken a great deal of interest in issues relating to local government elections; as someone who has some 15 years’ experience as a councillor, I experienced quite a few of them. As we have heard, the bill has a dual purpose: first, it will establish the electoral management board for Scotland; and secondly, it will extend the remit of the Electoral Commission to include Scottish local government elections.

I am glad that we have cross-party support for some of the key proposals. As Michael McMahon quite rightly said, the bill is not one that will exercise us a great deal as far as our political differences are concerned, but in due course we will want to look, with the minister and others, at some of the detail.

As we are aware, the Electoral Commission invited Mr Ron Gould from Canada, an international expert on electoral administration, to conduct an independent review of the 2007 elections fiasco. His subsequent report made a series of recommendations, which included options for ensuring clear lines of responsibility and accountability in the future. Hopefully, the bill will, as Alex Johnstone said, be a major step towards that.

Prior to the local government elections in 2007, I had the opportunity to attend a trial of the new counting scanning machines. I decided to test the system by removing one of the dummy ballot papers from one of the piles to see whether the system would highlight the anomaly in any way. That caused some unease among the officials of the company that was giving the demonstration but, as they were determined to show how robust their system was, I was equally determined to test it. Despite the fact that the system passed my test, we all know that, on the night, the operation of the equipment and software was nothing short of shambolic.

Next Monday, I and other members of the Local Government and Communities Committee will go to see a demonstration of the new counting machines. I wonder what spanner I can throw in the works this time to provide a more robust test.

One of the Gould report’s recommendations was that a chief returning officer for Scotland should be established, but the responses to the consultation in 2008 indicated that there was little support for that role. As a result, the Scottish Government is taking forward the setting-up of an electoral management board for Scotland. I would be interested to know whether the minister feels that local elections in Scotland would be better served by a chief returning officer or an electoral management board, and why he feels that to be the case.

In committee, I had the opportunity to question the minister on the financing of the board, and I was pleased to hear that the Government had had positive discussions with the Scotland Office about its contribution to the board’s funding. Working together is, indeed, the way forward, and I wonder whether the minister can give us an update on discussions with his Westminster colleagues in that regard.

The Liberal Democrats consider that it would be beneficial for the electoral management board to have wider responsibilities for co-ordinating the administration of other elections in Scotland, particularly given the expertise that it will have in the administration of elections.

In summary, the bill is a welcome step in making the arrangements for elections to Scottish local authorities more robust. It does not present a perfect system for any of us, but it is a welcome step nonetheless and, for that reason, the Liberal Democrats will be happy to give it our support at stage 1 at decision time.

Photo of John Wilson John Wilson Scottish National Party

Members who have stood in elections will have their own experiences, but the positive and negative aspects of the May 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament and local government will live for a long time in the memories of those who participated.

I welcome today’s debate on the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill. The bill deals with two specific items: the establishment of a statutory electoral management board for Scotland; and the extension of the Electoral Commission’s remit to include local government elections in Scotland.

In its report on the bill, the Local Government and Communities Committee states quite clearly that it

“welcomes the proposal to establish the Electoral Management Board on a statutory basis”.

The bill is part of a wider response to the events of the 2007 Scottish Parliament and local government elections. The number of rejected ballots in the 2007 local government elections was significantly higher than the number of rejected ballots in the 2003 and 1999 elections. However, it should be noted that the 2007 local government elections were held under the new single transferable vote ballot.

The Gould report reviewed the general administration of the 2007 elections and made several recommendations. The report is quite clear in advocating the separation of parliamentary and local government elections. The decoupling of those elections was enacted in the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2009.

The holding of a referendum on the alternative vote and the elections to the Scottish Parliament on the same day runs the substantial risk of doing a disservice to the public in Scotland. It is not as if we have not been in this situation before.

Although the Electoral Commission’s response to recent developments was not wholly negative, it maintains that

“The Government must support the Commission in putting in place a robust process to ensure ... planning for 5 May 2011”.

Furthermore, the commission states that

“Adequate provision must be made for appropriate public awareness” to support voters’ understanding of the voting process.

The same point could have been made four years ago in the run-up to the Scottish Parliament elections. Lessons must be learned from the previous elections, and the Gould report on the 2007 elections states quite clearly that there was cause for serious concern about how the elections were conducted throughout Scotland. The Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill attempts to address the need for change and challenges some of the antiquated election practices that we use. Clearly, the Parliament believes that the decoupling of elections is the way forward.

It is bad enough to hold the alternative vote referendum on the same day as the 2011 election, courtesy of the UK’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—we face the prospect of the coalition Government driving through the referendum as policy. However, as part of the coalition of the willing partnership agreement, the UK Government is also committed to holding the UK elections on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections are scheduled to take place in 2015.

As I said in the chamber on 9 October 2008, “Scottish Council Elections 2007: Results and Analysis” by Bochel and Denver, which was published by the University of Lincoln in 2007, offers some useful background to provide context for the debate.

I welcome the general principles of the bill. I also put on record my thanks to those who provided oral and written evidence, the committee clerks, SPICe and, in particular, my committee colleagues for examining the issue. I look forward to the day when the Parliament controls all the elections that are held in Scotland.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Like my colleagues, I have been to many election counts in my time. I have attended just three as a candidate but many more as a Labour Party activist and full-time official. In my time, I have experienced some close calls, recounts and counts that were delayed because of the problem of getting all the ballot boxes in from rural communities.

I have also witnessed elections in which the votes were cast on the Thursday, verified on the Friday and not counted until the Sunday. Such delays are unsatisfactory and I sincerely hope that the returning officers will think again about introducing them for the votes cast and decisions made by the electorate in May this year.

I had never experienced a situation like the one that followed the Scottish Parliament and local government elections in 2007. The local government count was always going to begin on the Friday morning, but I do not think that it was ever envisaged that we would still be counting constituency votes at 4 am on Friday in Glasgow and abandoning counts in other areas at 6 am.

As we know, the Gould report was commissioned as a result of the debacle. The debate that we are having today is a direct result of Ron Gould’s inquiry, and it picks up on some of his recommendations. The minister alluded to previous legislation on the issue that was passed by the Parliament.

The bill that we are considering at stage 1 today provides for the establishment of an electoral management board for Scotland to oversee and co-ordinate local government elections in Scotland, and it extends the remit of the Electoral Commission to include local government elections in Scotland.

As we have heard, the discussions in the Local Government and Communities Committee were largely consensual, and we agreed that the establishment of the electoral management board is a positive step. However, we were also of the view that the United Kingdom Government should consider the possibility that the board should also have oversight of the elections to the House of Commons and the European Parliament and of referenda. We welcomed the comments of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister for Parliamentary Business, who were both positive about the board’s involvement in elections to the Scottish Parliament. As others have said, the committee was also of the view that the board might play a part in elections to, for example, the crofting commission.

Imbuing any body with a power of direction is often controversial, but I think that in this case it is both warranted and useful as it will allow the board to ensure consistency across Scotland and help it to deal with unforeseen events. However, I genuinely hope that, more often than not, a consensual approach will be adopted in the relationship between the board and individual returning officers.

The Local Government and Communities Committee welcomed the minister’s commitment to consider whether there should be a way of petitioning the board or its convener when a grievance arises as a result of a direction issued by the convener. I heard the minister address the issue today, and I am sure that the committee will happily listen to and think seriously about the points that he made.

Given the level of responsibility that the board will have and its role in our democracy, I believe that it is important that it produces an annual report that is laid before Parliament, and I am pleased that such a provision is included in the bill. Expanding the remit of the Electoral Commission will help to promote good practice and—just as important—consistency across Scotland.

The debate has been consensual, and I look forward to the stage 2 discussions on the bill. I am sure that the dialogue with the minister will continue to be consensual and that all the efforts to improve the administration of elections will be positive. That can only be a good thing for everyone.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Like other members, I start by thanking the clerks, SPICe, fellow committee members and all those who gave evidence, written and oral, to the committee for their assistance in helping us to reach the stage 1 proceedings today.

For many people listening—if there are many people listening, that is—this is a rather dry and dusty debate, but that does not make it unimportant. It is vital. Michael McMahon and Patricia Ferguson rightly pointed to the 2007 elections debacle as the reason why action is needed. I do not think that anyone should forget Professor Ron Gould’s comments that in the whole process the voter was “an afterthought”. I will come back to that point.

We should remind ourselves of the problem areas: combined elections, spoiled papers, electronic vote counting and the single ballot paper design. The problems went on and on, but at their heart was fragmentation—in the planning, the powers involved, the responsibilities and the accountability. Who was to blame? Where did power lie? Where did the buck stop?

Since then, action taken by the Scottish Government—in a consensual way with parties across the Parliament—has dealt with some of those problems. The Parliament supported the decoupling of Scottish Parliament and local authority elections, which is to be welcomed.

When we look back on today’s debate, we will see it as the point at which we started to deal with the fragmentation in the system. Whether or not that is seen as the motivation today, the bill is about dealing with fragmentation. Putting the interim electoral management board on a statutory footing is vital in the process. Also vital is the independence of the board from Government. It will not be accountable to ministers, although its annual reports will be scrutinised. The minister said that the annual report will relate to the board’s activities and not its competence. I would like more information about that. How will we drill down to scrutinise the effectiveness of the board, and what will the parliamentary procedure for that be?

Nevertheless, I welcome the bill and think that it brings a coherent structure to the expertise in running Scotland’s elections that clearly exists throughout the country in the returning officers, the deputy returning officers and the various council officials who have generations of experience of running good elections. None of us should forget about that. The bill will allow information sharing and the sharing of best practice right across our nation and will provide a powerful framework for all elections—not, I hope, just council elections.

I will finish on the broad, cross-party consensus that we have achieved today. The Secretary of State for Scotland has intimated that the Government is poised to give the administration of Scottish elections to the Scottish Parliament, and the minister has said that he would speedily change the provisions in the bill to ensure that that was within the competence of the electoral management board. However, I would go further than that. We need full legislative competence over Scottish elections, and administrative competence in relation to UK elections. Of course, I would rather have the great efficiency saving of eradicating UK elections altogether—of not having any.

I mentioned the idea of fragmentation because, as far as the bill goes, the buck still does not stop in the one place. We must ensure that we have one Government, one minister and one management board with direct responsibility for all Scotland’s elections. That is the only way in which we will get direct accountability and drive up standards in the process.

In terms of a respect agenda, it is an absolute farce that the Scottish Government—never mind Scottish voters—was not consulted on whether an AV referendum should be held on the same date as Scotland’s elections. We should never forget the main reason for the problems with the AV referendum: in UK law, the chief counting officer for the UK determines certain things at 1 pm on the Friday, and certain other things must be done with the AV referendum at 4 pm. That shows complete disrespect to the Scottish Parliament, to Scotland and to democracy.

However, we cannot deal with the AV referendum just now. The bill deals with what we can process and I welcome its principles at stage 1.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

As many of us expected, this has been an interesting, if short and consensual, debate. Some of the key points, especially concerning the electoral management board, have been highlighted by a number of colleagues, including the minister, Duncan McNeil and others. A key function of the bill is to ensure that the system will be much more robust than it is at the moment. Having returning officers’ experience as part of that is welcome, but we are not convinced by the decision that returning officers be appointed by ministers. I challenge the minister, in his summing up, to justify that decision.

The extension of the Electoral Commission’s remit has also been mentioned as a key area. John Wilson, Bob Doris and others referred to some of the issues in that regard. Even Alex Johnstone suggested that we sleepwalked into the situation that arose in 2007, when the results came out. Like him and many other members, I felt the dragging on of those long hours—my colleague Patricia Ferguson alluded to that. Although this did not happen during my count, many colleagues had to come back the following day, in the middle of the afternoon, to get the results. For many of us, the 2007 election was a fiasco. For example, I did not get the result for Dunfermline West until 4 o’clock in the morning. It was a long night for everybody concerned. Many colleagues around the country faced similar situations. That is why, in looking at the details of what we want to take forward, we ask the minister to look in detail at what is imposed in the bill, what is necessary and, to some extent, what is not necessary further down the line.

There has to be more robust testing. That testing must not be just someone potentially throwing a small spanner in the works during a visit on Monday; it must ensure that the minister and the Government are absolutely satisfied that the electoral positions that this bill will put us in have been robustly tested in detailed, practical ways, including through discussions with the electoral management board and whoever leads it, once it is set up.

I hope that the chamber will join me in ensuring that we put as much pressure as possible on the Government to take forward the key recommendations in the committee’s report.

The bill is designed to improve local government elections. I have some sympathy with colleagues, such as John Wilson, who wish the provisions to be extended to cover European or, perhaps, United Kingdom elections.

We have lessons to learn from the 2007 elections. We might not have got it right last time, but I urge the minister and the Government to ensure that we get it right next time.

Despite the fact that there will be a manual count for this year’s Scottish Parliament elections, there will be an automatic count for next year’s local government elections—rightly so, given the complexities of the voting system for those elections. We have to ensure that, this year, the current Government and the new Government that comes in, whatever shape it might have, do all that they can do robustly to check what is needed for those elections to ensure that they proceed correctly.

We commend the bill at stage 1.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

As a former member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I had the pleasure of participating in the evidence-taking sessions on the bill, but not in the compilation of the stage 1 report. That task fell to my colleague, Alex Johnstone. However, I should say that I agree with the conclusions and recommendations that were reached by my former colleagues on the committee.

As a number of members—Michael McMahon, John Wilson and Patricia Ferguson—have narrated, the unhappy genesis of the bill was in the problems that arose with the conduct of the 2007 elections to this Parliament and to Scottish councils, which led to the Gould report and its detailed recommendations about how we might improve the administration of elections in Scotland.

As the minister said, the bill takes the Gould report forward in relation to local government elections in Scotland. Of course, not all Mr Gould’s recommendations in that respect have been implemented. For example, his recommendation to establish the post of a chief returning officer for Scotland has not been adopted and instead the bill proposes to establish an electoral management board. At this stage, its remit will cover only the administration of local elections but I welcome the fact that the Scotland Bill, which I am now considering in a parliamentary committee, will transfer administrative responsibility for the conduct of elections to this Parliament to the Scottish Government, and that the new electoral management board can thereafter exercise that responsibility, if so directed by Scottish ministers.

However, that transfer of administrative responsibility for the conduct of elections should bring with it a budget line for the financing of elections. I was struck by the evidence from the City of Edinburgh Council to the effect that councils are short-changed in relation to reimbursement of the costs of holding the Scottish Parliament elections. We expect a lot of our councils, in terms of the conduct of elections, and they and returning officers take a lot of flak and criticism from politicians and the public at what we all know is a stressful time. The least that we can do in return is to ensure that our councils are fully reimbursed for their costs in that respect.

I believe that the problem in 2007 arose not from the coincidence of elections but from the design of the Scottish Parliament ballot paper and the adoption of a new STV system for electing councillors, which, as we know, produced treble the number of spoilt votes in the council elections—a failure rate that would have been considerably higher if single Xs had not been counted as 1s, which demonstrated that many more voters did not clearly understand the new system.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the member accept that there were in fact far more spoiled papers among the single X ballot papers?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, there is no evidence to that effect at all.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

The evidence is that the number of spoiled votes was treble what it had been before. If Mike Rumbles wants to consult the committee’s report, he will find that evidence. Facts are chiels: even Mr Rumbles cannot deny facts, despite his best efforts to do so.

It has been suggested, as some members have mentioned, that similar confusion may arise from the holding of the alternative vote referendum on the same day as our elections on 5 May this year. However, I do not think that that will be case. Putting a single X on a single ballot paper in council elections at the same time as Scottish Parliament elections in 1999 and 2003 did not cause any significant problems, so it is not obvious why putting a single X on a referendum ballot paper should cause problems.

Disappointment has recently been expressed about the possibility of delays in conducting the count for the coming election. There is no doubt that once administration for our elections is transferred to the new board, there will be even greater political pressures on returning officers to stick with overnight counts for elections to the Parliament and to councils. That should be a matter for discussion by the political parties with returning officers and the electoral management board, rather than one for ministerial direction.

At the end of the day, those who are given the important role of conducting elections, whose independence and impartiality guarantee the integrity of our democratic system, must be free to make independent judgments as to the appropriate timetable, although I hope that we will be able to continue with our tradition.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

It is standard practice in debates such as this to thank all those who took part in the discussion of the bill at the start of the debate, when one begins to consider the analysis of the bill and the consultation that took place. I decided to leave that bit until my closing speech on behalf of the Labour Party, in case there was nothing else left for me to say.

I therefore thank the clerks and the members of the Finance Committee and the Local Government and Communities Committee, who have contributed a great deal to the consideration of the bill. As I said at the beginning of the debate, it is a worthwhile piece of legislation that, in hindsight, should have been in place a long time ago.

Having listened to the debate, I remain of the view that there is a valuable debate to be had around the extension of the electoral management board’s remit to cover all elections in future. However, I am pleased that, through the bill, local government elections will for the first time be managed in an appropriate way.

As we have heard, all political parties recognise the need for the bill and agree with most aspects of it. However, I hope that the proposed greater powers for the EMB, which would enable it to order sanctions against those who do not follow directions, will be re-examined; I would be interested to see how that debate continues to move forward.

It is important that we listen to the views of the EMB and support its requests if and when we can, as Patricia Ferguson mentioned. I understand that the committee is of the view that effective planning will result in fewer directions being given, and I hope that that is the case.

I believe that greater and more effective management of local elections will provide for the smoother running of elections. That will ultimately benefit all political parties and, it is hoped, lead to greater turnout at those elections, which would be welcomed across the political spectrum.

I heard David McLetchie and Alex Johnstone valiantly trying to defend their party’s decision to go ahead with an AV referendum, even though they probably do not believe in what it is about in the first place. Mr Johnstone gave us the opportunity to ponder that.

John Wilson, Patricia Ferguson and Bob Doris made very strong arguments. I was reminded of the time when I was on the Local Government and Communities Committee during its consideration of the changes to the electoral system for local government elections. I was quite struck by the fact that when we looked at America, we saw that they were able to hold elections to elect the local dog warden, the local sheriff and the President on the same day without much difficulty. Having seen the evidence from Northern Ireland, where European elections, Westminster elections and local elections were all held on the same day with different voting systems, I felt confident that the people of Scotland would be able to manage two elections on the same day with different systems.

However, as Bob Doris pointed out, something went badly wrong. The problem was due not necessarily to the voting systems, but to the fact that the electorate was not put at the centre of the considerations for the arrangements on the day. That is the fundamental problem that we have to address.

The bill is not contentious. Other non-contentious bills have failed in the Parliament because their financial memorandums have not been robust enough, but on this occasion we cannot even look to that issue for a dispute that will divide us, because the committee has made it clear that it considers the information on the resource implications of the bill to be robust. It is useful to know that, and we can take confidence from it.

In outlining all the issues on behalf of the committee, Duncan McNeil made it clear that there are some caveats in the committee’s report and that it will look at those issues further. That is reassuring. Any matters that are outstanding after stage 2 can be looked at again at a later stage. I look forward to the stage 3 debate, even though what we say then might reflect very much what we have already heard this afternoon.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

At this late stage in the session of Parliament, and at a time when there is disagreement about a number of electoral issues across the UK, I am pleased to note that today’s debate on the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill has been based on consensus. That is significant when we consider the significant expertise that is present in the chamber and which has been engaged through the committee.

We all know that, since the events of May 2007 and the subsequent analysis and recommendations of Ron Gould, there has been widespread agreement among those who are involved in managing and administering elections in Scotland about the need for improvement. There has been agreement about the action to be taken to secure that improvement, and there has also been agreement that the bill forms part of that action. The Local Government and Communities Committee’s stage 1 report states that the Government has consulted on the bill and that we have been responsive to the views of the key stakeholders, and I believe that that will continue.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the minister agree that, when we are debating this issue, it is important to get the facts correct and that David McLetchie was quite wrong in what he said? The fact of the matter is that there were more problems with the Scottish Parliament ballot paper than with the local government one.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

I feel as though I am being asked to adjudicate in “Just a Minute” fashion, so I am going to move on.

It is clear that there is consensus on the work that is in progress. For the record, the committee has welcomed the proposal to establish the electoral management board on a statutory basis and considers that to be a positive step in improving the administration of local government elections in Scotland. The committee has also welcomed the extension of the Electoral Commission’s remit and considers that that will benefit electoral administration in Scotland by promoting consistency and good practice.

However, there are issues that we have to address. I note the points that Patricia Ferguson made about the need for us to be consensual and also to continue to consult and focus on the residual issues so that they are dealt with at stages 2 and 3. An important issue that registered with me today is extending the board’s remit, which was called for by several members, including Alex Johnstone, Patricia Ferguson and notably Duncan McNeil. I take on board the concerns that have been expressed about what has come from the Electoral Commission and how that has been handled to date. Officials and the Official Report will capture the points that have been made and those points will feed in rather well to what happens at stage 2 and beyond.

Some specific issues have been mentioned that require a response here and now. In particular, Jim Tolson mentioned the testing of the equipment. I will be there on Monday and we will see how that goes but, in essence, once the trials are over, we will still have a year in which to work with the contractor and the local authorities before the next local government elections. Having a deliberately lengthy period of testing and going down among the people who are developing the equipment is the right approach, as that will give us a basis to avoid the problems that were encountered in 2007.

Mr Tolson also made a point about the idea of having a chief returning officer rather than a board. Although it is time to move on, and although there is wisdom in teams, in wider experience and in joint and several responsibility, we also consulted on the chief returning officer proposal. There was just no support for that. There was a preference instead for the strengthened board proposition. As for Mr Tolson’s point about the ministerial appointment, the convener of the board will continue to be a returning officer. By definition, that means that the applicants will be 32 of, and the Electoral Commission will be represented in the appointment via an advisory panel. That will be done in the most open way.

David McLetchie made an interesting point regarding administrative transfer and the need for a subsequent budgetary transfer. A respectful dialogue is under way on that matter, as he would no doubt accept.

Equally, Bob Doris made the important point that the voter should be an afterthought no more in this respect. We need to move on to a much stronger basis to give us what we require.

We can look forward to a very workmanlike process through stages 2 and 3, where we will be looking at issues such as sanctions and closer Scottish Government monitoring of the power of direction. We can bring those things out more fully.

The point about the need for sanctions as a backstop to cover unforeseen eventualities and Michael McMahon’s practical point about ensuring that directions are followed both tie in well. We now have a basis on which to move forward and ensure that we have a bill of which we can be proud.