On 5 May, the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to ensure that their voices are heard and to give us as politicians their feedback on our performance. More important, they will have the opportunity to tell us what the priorities for our country should be and how they should be tackled. That direct engagement is a key benefit of devolution on which we must build.
Last November, we debated the forthcoming clash of the alternative vote referendum and this year’s Scottish parliamentary elections. The arguments for avoiding the clash centred on issues such as respect. The Parliament’s status as Scotland’s key legislative body must be recognised, and the importance of the issues on which we decide needs to be given proper regard.
Another issue was focus. We recognised that important matters need to be given the space and time that they deserve. Clarity was also raised. Each election must be given due prominence and one must not overshadow the other. Campaigns for more than one legislature should not take place at the same time.
Putting the voter first was another issue. After the 2007 elections, Gould said that
“the voter was treated as an afterthought”.
We need to consider voters first and avoid adding complications when they are not needed. We also need elections to be properly administered. We must ensure that people know whether they are eligible to vote, that those who are eligible to vote can do so and that voters have clarity about the issues that are being voted on.
Although a majority in the Parliament called on the United Kingdom Government to prevent the clash in May, the UK Government refused to do that. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 received royal assent on 16 February so, on 5 May, people will vote on reforming the voting system for future elections to the Westminster Parliament as well as on the priorities for Scotland. That is regrettable, but electoral administrators will continue to work to ensure that both polls are properly delivered and that our electors can cast their votes. I put on record my thanks for those efforts.
As we all know, the clash this year is not the only one to be caused by the UK Government’s legislative proposals. The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill will establish five-year terms at Westminster, and the first election that is scheduled to take place under that arrangement will be on the first Thursday in May 2015, which is the same day as elections to this Parliament are meant to take place.
The UK Government’s proposals risked the integrity of the campaign process and of our elections and would have complicated matters unnecessarily for our voters. The Scottish Government and many others objected to the UK Government’s proposals and made the case for a policy change on that important issue. We argued that a risk of campaign confusion would exist—with two separate electoral contests would come two simultaneous campaigns. Parties would campaign on UK-wide and Scottish issues and we would run the risk that the national UK media’s coverage of the UK campaign would dominate Scottish issues, which would be sidelined.
I am pleased to say that the UK Government recognised the concern about the coincidence of elections. In response to widespread concerns about the clash of dates in 2015, the Presiding Officer brought together party leaders from across this Parliament to reach a common position. Last month, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform wrote to the Presiding Officer to offer to table an amendment to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill to enable elections to the devolved Administrations to be moved by up to one year in either direction.
Today’s debate represents our response to the offer. The motion invites the UK Government to avoid a clash of dates by moving the next Scottish Parliament election after May 2011 to May 2016.
However, we do not simply need a fix for 2015; we need a fix that, barring unforeseen circumstances, will ensure a permanent separation of election dates. We have sought the UK Government’s agreement that it will consult on moving Scottish Parliament elections to a five-year cycle. The motion looks forward to our taking part in a full consultation about the future electoral cycle. If the motion is agreed to, it will provide a strong indication to the electorate about when it can expect the next Scottish Parliament elections to take place. We expect the UK Government to table amendments to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill before the dissolution of this Parliament. The public need to know who is making the decisions on Scotland’s key issues and for how long they will do so, so it is only proper that the motion gives an expected date for the next Scottish Parliament election.
For the longer term, we should seek views on whether five-year parliamentary sessions are desirable but, as we in Scotland are not currently empowered to do that, we must rely on the UK Government to act. It should do so sooner rather than later. The decision cannot be made solely by politicians, Parliaments and the devolved Administration in isolation; we must also ask the public for their views. Do our electorates want Governments to stay in power for longer periods? Will that enhance or hinder democracy? We talk a great deal about being shown respect, but we must also show respect to the people of Scotland and allow them to participate in making these important decisions.
I welcome the recognition of the need to avoid a clash in 2015 and the UK Government’s offer of movement on that. It is only right that each election, whether for the UK Government, the Scottish Parliament or local authorities, is given its place. By supporting the motion, we can enable that to happen.
That the Parliament notes the potential clash of UK and Scottish general election dates in 2015; invites the UK Government to set the next Scottish general election after 5 May 2011 for Thursday 5 May 2016, and looks forward to UK Government consultation on a legislative provision that would set apart UK and Scottish general election dates on a permanent basis.
The Scotland Act 1998 was the end result of years of campaigning and consultation on a devolved Parliament for Scotland. It represented an opportunity to style a different way of conducting and electing a Parliament, and to adopt a different system and approach from Westminster. That was to be achieved through a new voting system, the adoption of a committee system that was to be central to our Parliament’s openness and accountability, and the use of a four-year fixed-term system.
The UK coalition could have adopted a four-year fixed-term system for the UK Parliament instead of the five-year system, but it did not. The coalition’s political agenda and its harmful cuts and tax rises will be tested at the next general election. The UK Government opted for a longer fixed-term session immediately, despite the resulting clash with elections to the devolved Parliaments of Scotland and Wales.
It all began last summer when the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, wrote to our Presiding Officer to consult on our Parliament having the power to move the Scottish Parliament election six months on either side of the fixed date in May 2015. That could have meant a three-and-a-half-year parliamentary session, but it would not be credible for a new Government to take forward its programme in three and a half years. It could also have meant a four-and-a-half-year session and a winter Scottish Parliament election six months after a general election, when the electorate would, arguably, be suffering from voter fatigue. The parties that contested such an election would be stretched and at a disadvantage in communicating their message to the electorate so soon after a general election.
It is argued that a clash could have happened anyway—it may have, although I do not believe that that was that likely—but that does not justify Westminster’s decision to cause a clash in 2015. We would rather not be in this position. We would prefer the UK Government to have respected our established four-year fixed terms and worked around that.
The lessons of the 2007 election, which were the subject of the Gould report that Jim Mather talked about, tell us that the use of two types of voting systems in elections that are held on the same day can lead to problems. We cannot ignore the principle of the Gould recommendations so soon after the chaos that ensued in that election. We owe it to voters to make that our primary concern. That is not the only reason for avoiding a clash, but it is a key consideration. It is not only that voters would have to deal with voting in two parliamentary elections on the same day; there would be many practical disadvantages.
There would be two high-profile campaigns; arguably, Westminster would dominate the airwaves, although it could be the other way around. It could cause confusion for voters when they watched the health debate being conducted around England and Wales in the national news, as we have a clearly distinct national health service in Scotland that is not accountable to Westminster. It is not a key factor, but political parties would have to split their resources in two big election campaigns. Those resources are necessary for parties to get their message across to the electorate.
Given the establishment and use of television debates in recent years, it would be hard to strike a balance between two large elections, to ensure that there was fair coverage—leaving aside the arguments that we have had in the past about fair time for additional parties. We do not want to put to the electorate on the key date a crowded agenda that involves the additional member system, with constituency and list candidates, alongside a first-past-the-post system or, depending on the result of the forthcoming referendum, a new alternative vote system.
With two elections on the same day, election communication would be unbelievable for the voter. I am sure that those who are already campaigning are getting grumblings from voters about the amount of communication that they get for one election, which would be doubled if we held both elections on the same day. Political coverage, which is important for voters, would also be more complex.
We are voting today to avoid a clash in 2015. People must be able to hold both Parliaments to account for what they do. The best way of doing that in the UK and Scottish elections, in the interests of democracy and accountability, is not to hold the elections on the same day. For that reason, the Parliament has no real choice but to vote today to give the electorate a clear choice. The next Parliament and Government should serve for five years to avoid a clash. As Jim Mather said, it is essential that—whoever is in charge—there is full consultation with the electorate, to allow them to have their say on whether there should be a permanent move to avoid such a clash in the future.
As all of us know, one of the key features of the coalition agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties was the introduction of a bill to establish fixed-term Parliaments for the House of Commons and to fix the date of the next general election as 7 May 2015, after a successful five-year term of office.
In the second reading debate on the bill in the House of Commons, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, described the measure as a simple constitutional innovation but one that would have a profound effect, because for the first time in our history the timing of general elections would not be a plaything of Governments. I agree with Nick. However, it is not a constitutional innovation as far as the mature democracy that is the Scottish Parliament is concerned. We are about to complete our third four-year fixed term. For two of those terms, we had a coalition majority Government; latterly, in the third, we have had a single-party minority Government.
A number of other permutations may evolve in years and parliamentary sessions to come and be similarly put to the test as to their sustainability, but I suspect that that will have little to do with whether the Parliament’s term is fixed or flexible. However, if we look at the comparative evidence of parliamentary democracies around the world, we must acknowledge that fixed-term Parliaments are more the norm than the exception, so the innovation that has been introduced for the House of Commons should be welcomed. I have no doubt that the political cycle at Westminster will adapt to the certainties surrounding future election dates, just as we have done here in Scotland for this Parliament.
When it became apparent at an early stage that the introduction of a five-year fixed term for the House of Commons would result in a coincidence with the 2015 Scottish Parliament elections, there was an unseemly degree of parochial hysteria on the part of some.
We seem to have quite forgotten that this Parliament is a devolved Parliament—a creature of statute that was passed by our sovereign Parliament in Westminster, in which Scotland is fully represented. However, it was certainly valid to point out that it would be undesirable to have two elections to two separate Parliaments on the same day, and that an adjustment to the timetables would accordingly be appropriate. To its credit, Her Majesty’s Government recognised that at an early stage and has been engaged in dialogue with this Parliament, and with leaders of the parties in it, to achieve a resolution of the clash of dates. The outcome is reflected in the motion that has been lodged today in the name of the First Minister, with the support of the other leaders of the parties represented in this Parliament. That is important.
Today we are, in fact, agreeing to a legislative consent motion. When it is enacted in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, the measure will establish beyond question that the new Scottish Parliament, which we are about to elect on 5 May, will endure for a five-year term, to be departed from only in the same exceptional circumstances—and on a weighted majority vote—as is the case with our present four-year fixed term. In consequence, we will all know when we stand, where we stand and for how long we will sit, if elected.
Thereafter, as Pauline McNeill and the minister have said, we will need a consultation on the duration of subsequent sessions of the Scottish Parliament, and on whether we should change permanently from a four-year fixed term to a five-year fixed term. That can be done in a more leisurely manner in the course of the next session of Parliament. That is reflected in the terms of the motion, for which I signal the support of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.
It is absolutely clear that the next UK parliamentary election would—if action were not taken—coincide with the scheduled Scottish parliamentary elections in 2015. All four leaders of the political parties represented in the Parliamentary Bureau, together with the Presiding Officer, have joined together to request the UK Government to amend the law to ensure that the immediate problem of a clash of elections in 2015 will be avoided.
The motion before us, if we vote for it at decision time, will invite the UK Government to amend legislation going through Westminster to set a date in 2016 for the next but one election to the Scottish Parliament. The UK Government has indicated that it will do that if two thirds of MSPs support the motion at decision time.
The motion before us also looks forward to the UK Government’s commitment to consult on a proposal to set apart UK and Scottish Parliament general election dates permanently. That separation of dates is not a foregone conclusion. However, the consultation would quite rightly be the process by which everyone in the land could submit their views. Those views would be considered by the UK Government as part and parcel of the consultational, and constitutional, process.
However, we must not assume that everyone is too concerned about a permanent clash of election dates; I am sure that many people believe that having elections on the same day is a good idea. It often increases turnout and participation, engaging more people. We saw that when we had separate council elections and then when we had elections to councils and the Scottish Parliament on the same day, when turnout increased. We are all concerned about turnout, as was Gould. Of course, having elections on the same day would save the taxpayer money. We in this chamber must not assume a monopoly of wisdom.
As the minister said, on 5 May we will have, together, a referendum on voting reform for Westminster—long-overdue voting reform—and a Scottish parliamentary election. I certainly do not see that as a problem. I do not see there being a real problem with Scottish voters going out and putting three crosses on three ballot papers. It is a simple process; it is a simple issue. In itself, having elections on the same day is not a problem—depending on the type of elections.
However, let me be clear—if the motion is agreed to tonight, that will simply be an expression of this Parliament’s view. I am sure that our Westminster Parliament will, as indicated, amend the law accordingly.
The setting apart of the UK and Scottish general election dates on a permanent basis will depend on a successful consultation process, in which everyone has the right to have their say. It is not about politicians stitching up a deal; it is about properly consulting people throughout the land.
The Liberal Democrats will support the enabling motion—it is an enabling motion; David McLetchie called it a legislative consent motion and it is similar to an LCM—so that we can give a clear indication to the UK Government to go ahead and amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.
I am happy to point out to Mike Rumbles that all five political parties in the Parliament have signed up to the motion. I am sure that his remark was not an indication that the respect agenda is slipping.
A lot of nonsense has been spoken about the respect agenda. No sooner had the phrase surfaced than the UK Government decided to gatecrash our next two elections. When people respect one another they do not wait to be asked to show consideration for one another—they offer it automatically. That is the sign of respect, and I do not think that such respect currently exists—
The principle of fixed-term Parliaments is important. Westminster sometimes likes to portray itself as the mother of Parliaments in a mature democracy, as though age and maturity are more important than relevance and modernity. However, there are serious limits on voters’ power to create change at Westminster: the first-past-the-post system is one of them; a lack of transparency, before the Freedom of Information Act 2000, was another; and elections that are set by ministerial whim is another. It is good that Westminster is at last starting to catch up with modern democracies, by eliminating those barriers.
If each election that takes place is to receive the appropriate focus, it is important that elections are separated. As members said, in essence there are two options for the permanent separation of elections. One is to have four-year terms at all levels. Can we imagine having an election every year? We would vote on 1 May, every May. Do the voters deserve no respite from our continual demands for their attention and votes?
The option of four-year terms at all levels is unlikely to be adopted, given that the European Parliament and Westminster Government are pretty solidly focused on five-year terms. The other option is for every election to be on a five-year cycle. That would at least give us a break every five years. There would be one year in which there was no election—what a luxury that would be.
Whatever option we go for, the Scottish Parliament should have the ability to set its own voting systems and other internal processes and procedures and its own electoral cycle. I urge Liberal Democrat and Conservative members to speak to their colleagues in London, and I urge the Scottish Government to speak to the Government in London, to urge the UK Government to include in the Scotland Bill provision for the Scottish Parliament to make its own decisions on such matters.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
When I consider the signatories to the motion and what I have heard in the debate thus far, I suspect that there will be a degree of unanimity at decision time.
When we look at the processes of democracy it is always useful to consider history and experience elsewhere. The President of Iceland, for example, is elected for a single year and he or she may not stand again for a further 10 years after one term of office, because the presidency is a symbolic role. In Australia, at Prime Minister’s question time, each question is timed out after seven minutes, whether or not the participants have finished.
Perhaps the example that touches most vividly on the issue that is before us comes from the United States, where people are faced with a vast array of propositions, which might be associated with presidential or state elections. It is worth considering the effect of such an approach. As is the case here, in the US there is space in the media for debate about only one essential election, which is generally the presidential election, the gubernatorial election or the elections to the Senate. The propositions—we would call them referenda—receive scant attention.
There is a real danger when a series of unrelated decisions that an elector has to make are drawn together to be dealt with in a single visit to the polling booth. I apply that not only to the co-incidence of a UK Parliament election and a Scottish Parliament election but, of course, to the forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote, about which there has been no public hubbub and little comment. Not a single constituent has raised it with me.
Let us not imagine that we are introducing something new with AV. We used to have multimember, single transferable vote seats in the Westminster Parliament. The last general election in which that was the case was 1945. We saw the ludicrous situation of Graham Kerr, a Conservative who received 1,361 votes in the first ballot in an overall vote of 32,786—4.15 per cent of the first-preference votes—nonetheless getting elected on the second ballot.
Perhaps the Conservatives will support the AV referendum after all, because it certainly can lead to results for them. However, we need to have the debate, and we can do that only if there is time for it.
It is a great pleasure to speak on the motion. I, of course, will support the unanimity that I expect to see at 5 o’clock and I hope that everyone else will do so as well.