Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16th March 2011.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The next item of business is the stage 3 debate on the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

I am pleased to be here for the debate. The parliamentary process has been fairly smooth and has reflected the consensus across all parties on the need to continue to improve the administration of elections. I am grateful for members’ support and, in particular, for the work of the Local Government and Communities Committee. I also thank the people who gave evidence and helped to develop the bill.

This is the second bill in this session of the Parliament that has been designed to improve the administration of elections. It follows the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2009, which decoupled local government and Scottish Parliament elections. As members are aware, the bill has two key purposes: first, to establish the electoral management board for Scotland on a statutory basis for its work in relation to Scottish local government elections; and secondly, to extend the Electoral Commission’s statutory remit to include local government elections in Scotland.

As I said during the stage 1 debate, the electoral management board will have the general function of co-ordinating the administration of local government elections in Scotland. For now, the board’s statutory remit relates only to local government elections. I hope that by the time of the next elections to the Scottish Parliament, which are likely to take place in 2016, the board’s remit will have been extended to cover Scottish Parliament elections.

It has been suggested that the board’s remit could be extended to include elections to other bodies, such as health boards or the Crofters Commission. Such bodies cover specific geographical areas or functions, and expertise and advice is available from local returning officers. As a consequence, I do not see the need for national co-ordination, although the matter can be kept under review as the board beds in.

The bill will establish the post of convener, who will have the power to give directions to returning officers, and a more limited power to give directions to electoral registration officers. There was debate during the earlier stages on whether the convener should be able to be named in court cases that arise as a result of such a direction. Section 128(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 provides that

“A person whose election is questioned by the petition, and any returning officer of whose conduct the petition complains, may be made a respondent to the petition.”

Given that the board’s convener must be a returning officer, we are of the opinion that section 128(2) would apply. We do not intend that the procedure would have to be used, given that directions are intended to provide administrative consistency and will be given only where other options for agreement have been considered and exhausted. Overall, the board will play a valuable role in the elections process and in ensuring the smooth administration of elections.

On the implications for the Electoral Commission, the extension of the commission’s remit to cover local government elections in Scotland will help to address Gould’s concern about fragmentation of responsibilities. The provisions will ensure that there is consistent oversight and reporting on the administration of all general elections in Scotland.

The commission has already exercised some of those functions on an ad hoc basis; the bill will formalise that activity. For example, the commission conducted public awareness campaigns to support previous local government elections. The function of awareness raising will become more important in the lead-up to the 2012 elections. As members of the Local Government and Communities Committee are aware, the Scottish Government recently conducted testing on the design of the ballot paper that will be used next year. The results of the testing will be published shortly and are likely to reinforce the need for an information and awareness campaign on the single transferable vote system.

During consideration of the bill, the Electoral Commission expressed concern that the bill would not allow it to provide advice to candidates in local government elections. I undertook that my officials would discuss the issue further with the commission. I am pleased that as a result of those discussions the commission confirmed that it is content with the bill, and that no amendment was required at stage 2.

The bill represents a further step towards improving electoral administration and ensuring that the electoral system that is in place has, at its core, the clear objective of meeting the needs of the electorate.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

When we debated the bill at stage 1, I waited until my closing speech before I thanked everyone who had taken part in the deliberations on the bill, because I was worried that there would be nothing left for me to say if at the outset I gave those people due recognition for their contributions. However worth while a bill is, there is little that can be said when everyone agrees on every aspect of it.

On this occasion, therefore, I have decided to thank the clerks, members of the Finance Committee and, in particular, Duncan McNeil and other members of the Local Government and Communities Committee in my opening speech, for fear that if I thanked them at the end of the debate everyone might be asleep and miss it.

In my closing speech at stage 1, I noted that during the debate committee members had raised some caveats that had been included in the committee’s report and I welcomed the fact that those issues would be considered during stage 2. I did not think that there would be much controversy, but I lived in hope that any discussion would give us new material to debate at stage 3.

How disappointed I was, therefore, to learn that the three amendments that the minister moved at stage 2 passed without discussion and that the entire process lasted less than three minutes. In the time that it takes to boil an egg, the committee agreed to two amendments to address the Electoral Commission’s education function in relation to local government systems, and one that enabled the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, rather than the United Kingdom ombudsman, to consider any issues that might arise as a result of the Electoral Commission’s work in relation to Scottish local government elections. Not even giving more powers to the ombudsman drew Alex Neil into the debate to liven it up. There was not a cheep from the ombudsman’s arch-enemy, let alone one of his dog-whistle rants.

Here we are at stage 3 with consensus not so much achieved as maintained throughout. All political parties recognise the need for the bill and agree with it. We will see whether managing local government elections in the way that the bill envisages maintains that consensus, but I hope that the good will that surrounds the bill will enable that to happen.

I am happy to reiterate my belief that greater and more effective management of local elections will provide for their smoother running. The proposed greater powers for the EMB should be reviewed at some time in the future to see how they are working. I am sure that that will happen and I am glad that the minister has indicated that he has a similar view. That approach should not only benefit all political parties but reassure the electorate that the system is run for their benefit, first and foremost.

By passing the bill, we will show that the Parliament can learn from past mistakes. It is with some regret that I express a wish that the current Westminster Tory coalition had not ignored the lessons that we have learned and decided to press ahead with its ill-advised referendum on the same day as the forthcoming Scottish Parliament election. Let us hope that the arrogance of our UK Government does not cause us to have to address the aftermath of another electoral shambles in May. The lack of interest in the referendum may be the main reason why that will not happen.

However, today is about the bill, which is to be welcomed.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

The bill is worthy legislation but will not take up much time in the chamber, I suspect. I hope that, at this moment, the clerks are vigorously phoning offices in other parts of the Parliament to ensure that those who are responsible for the next item of business are aware that it may arrive early.

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to find myself speaking at a conference along with Mr Willie Rennie. I travelled back to Edinburgh on the train last night in his company, during which time we took the opportunity to discuss and compare parliamentary procedure. He told me that, if such a piece of business as this debate were scheduled at Westminster and if a specific time were allocated, each member would ensure that they filled every second of the available time—I see Stewart Stevenson’s chest sticking out and rising to that opportunity.

It is one of the virtues of this Parliament that, when we have the opportunity to do things that are consensual and hold common interest across the parties, we can do so efficiently. The way that business has been truncated today and extra stage 3 debates have been timetabled because of the limited number of amendments is an indication of one of the things that we do better.

The bill covers part of the problems that we experienced in 2007. The electoral shambles that happened then crept up on many of us. Although there were concerns about there being three ballot papers and three different electoral systems in use on the same day, many people applied a great deal of thought in advance of that and believed that the system would work. The fact that it did not work demonstrated that we cannot cover every eventuality. That is why the bill may not achieve the objectives that we have set out for it. However, we have gone into the matter with open minds and with our eyes open and we have been determined to achieve the objectives that we set out at the start.

The bill has the function of implementing a significant part of the recommendations of the Gould report. For that reason, I welcome it and will be happy to vote for it later in the day.

There is a concern, which the previous speaker expressed, that we are about to do something similar again; that the alternative vote referendum, in conjunction with a Scottish Parliament election, might cause as yet unforeseen complications. I do not believe that that will be a problem. I believe that having three ballot papers on which electors are asked to mark a single X is not the same as the problem that we had whereby the differing electoral systems required an X on one paper and numbering of candidates on the other. I have faith in the Scottish electorate and I believe that they will not experience difficulties in the election that is about to happen.

However, having put that on the parliamentary record, it is now a hostage to fortune. I look forward to being hoist by my own petard at some time in the future. I support the bill.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

I welcome the opportunity to open the debate 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 a former councillor of 15 years’ experience, I have experienced quite a few elections myself.

This bill forms part of a response to the events of 2007, to which other members have alluded this morning. I share the sentiments of Alex Johnstone: the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local Government elections were, at the end of the day, quite shambolic. With such significant problems to overcome between the previous election and the next, I pay tribute to the significant work that has been done by committee clerks, fellow members of the committee—including David McLetchie, who is no longer on the committee, but sat through many of the deliberations—as well as the minister and his team. With only one minor amendment in today’s stage 3 proceedings, we must be doing something right. Who would have believed that political consensus would break out just a week before Parliament is dissolved?

Prior to the previous local government elections in 2007, I took the opportunity to attend a trial of the new counting and 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. That caused some unease to the officials of the company giving the demonstration but, as they were determined to show how robust the system was, I was determined to test it. Despite their passing my test, we all know that the operation of their equipment and software was nothing short of shambolic on the night.

Recently, with other members of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I had the opportunity to see a demonstration of the new counting equipment and software. Although I am glad that a new system and software will be used for next year’s election, it could hardly be worse than the last. The demonstration that we recently attended did not give me any real confidence that the system is robust enough. We are being asked now to back a company that has not yet done any significant volume testing of its software and hardware. We are being asked to accept that all will be okay when volume testing is conducted in the autumn and we are being asked to accept that it will be alright on the night. I for one remain very sceptical.

One of the recommendations of the Gould report was to establish a chief returning officer for Scotland. However, the responses to the consultation in 2008 indicated that there was little support for that role. As a result, the Scottish Government is setting up an electoral management board for Scotland. I am grateful to the minister for the answer that he gave me on this matter when we last discussed the bill on 2 February. 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 administration of elections.

In summary, the bill is a welcome step in making the electoral arrangements for Scottish local authorities more robust. It presents a much improved system for us. For that reason, the Liberal Democrats will be happy to give it our support at decision time.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The debate is perhaps an opportunity to look at the changing nature of how we run elections. If we go back to the UK election that took place in 1832, which is the earliest one for which I have been able to find records, 658 members of the House of Commons were elected and 827,776 people cast votes, so the number of votes per member of Parliament was just a wee bit over 1,000. That was a very different environment from the one in which we live now. Indeed, fewer votes were cast for each MP than we would now expect to be cast for each member of a local authority.

If we fast-forward to the Westminster election of 1945, we had multimember seats and seats for which the alternative vote or the STV system was used. We are looking at changing the electoral system for Westminster elections, but the Conservatives, in particular, will not be in favour of the multimember first-past-the-post system that Brian Donohoe proposed yesterday in a House of Commons debate as a replacement for the list system for Scottish Parliament elections because, of course, in 1922, when Churchill stood for re-election in Dundee, he came third in a two-member seat. He was defeated by a Scottish prohibitionist, Edwin Scrymgeour and by the Labour candidate. The results are not always what we expect.

In 1945, when three members were elected to the Combined Scottish Universities seat by STV, a form of alternative voting, the third person who was elected on the second ballot obtained only 4.15 per cent of the first preference votes and was elected despite losing their deposit. Therefore, the systems that we have had over the years can lead to various differences.

Moving forward to the general election of October 1974, the turnout in Scotland was 74.81 per cent. That was a highly memorable election. After it, Westminster had more nationalist members than it had Liberal members.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

There were 13 Liberal members and 14 nationalist members, including three Plaid Cymru members and others. It is clear that, over the piece, there were changes in the way things were done. In 1945, it was a fortnight after the election before the results were known because, in days before the advent of the internet, the service vote took some logistical organisation.

I add to the commendation that there will be for Duncan McNeil’s contribution on the subject in October 2008, when he reported to Parliament on his committee’s deliberations. The committee’s work was vital in underpinning what we are discussing. Its report highlighted a general point that I and my colleagues and, I think, some others would make, which is that having different bodies and different parliamentarians responsible for the rules for different elections is a potential source of difficulty. It is certainly the case that in 2007 the Scotland Office did not cover itself in glory.

Even though a vote on the use of AV for Westminster elections is coming up shortly, it has not led to a single question from an elector to me so far. The Scottish National Party has just completed two days in Glasgow at our party conference. In my hearing, the subject never arose, although it may have arisen in other people’s hearing.

We have heard about some of the difficulties in 2007. It is certainly important that the Electoral Commission should report on how elections have gone. An illustration of when a report by the Electoral Commission might have been useful is the referendum that was held on 1 March 1979. I was at the count in Lothian. Members who are old enough to remember the campaign may remember that the “no” campaign bought lots of poster space. The posters had a picture of the ballot paper with the words “yes” and “no” on it. Opposite the word “no”, instead of an X, the word “no” was written. More than 2,000 electors in Lothian chose to write the word “no” opposite the “no” option.

We might think that that was fair enough. Most of us here might think that the electors’ intentions were relatively clear, and that is the normal test. However, on that occasion, the returning officer decided that, because the electors had written “no” opposite the word “no”, those votes should count as a “yes”. Being a campaigner for the “yes” campaign, I was not greatly upset by that decision, although I was astonished by it. On appeal, the returning officer of that count agreed that those votes would be counted as spoilt papers. That is an example to show that it was not just in 2007 that we have had difficulties; there have been previous occasions on which it would have been right and proper to examine what went on.

When we have complex elections, it is important that the electors know what is going on. One of the rules in the forthcoming election, as in all previous elections, prohibits election communications from referring to other elections, which might help people to understand the nature of other, simultaneous elections. That prohibition might be thought to be unhelpful and the Electoral Commission might have to look at that.

As someone who spent 30 years in computers, I will make a wee reference to the nature of some of the difficulties that might arise with computer systems. We computery people always used to apply a rule of thumb when we were given numbers relating to the throughput of a computer system. The rule of thumb was that marketing people always get estimates wrong by a factor of 10. It was the computer people’s job to work out whether to divide or multiply. In some ways, that is exactly what part of the problem was in 2007. We did not anticipate that more than 20 people would be standing on some of the lists, and there was a limitation in the software. In Lothian, the number standing on the list exceeded that limit so there was a last-minute ad hoc redesign of the ballot form that caused the computer systems great difficulties. I hope that the stress testing that will take place in the autumn will focus on some of the more unlikely boundary conditions that might occur, because that is where computer systems almost invariably fail.

I am pleased to see the legislation coming through Parliament. I sniff not a whiff of dissent and I hope that the motion will be carried unanimously at decision time.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

I am pleased to be taking part in the stage 3 debate on the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill. This is the latest piece of legislation and action by the Parliament and others in response to the difficulties and failures in the 2007 local government and Scottish Parliament elections.

Today’s debate is in complete contrast to the type of debate that we had after the 2007 election. In my constituency, 1,100 people were denied the vote and, in some polling stations, the proportion of spoilt papers was in excess of 10 per cent.

It might be useful to remind ourselves about some of that debate and the recommendations and actions that flowed from that time. The Gould report has been mentioned, and the Local Government and Communities Committee’s report of 2008 made recommendations and comments about a range of areas around the Scottish Parliament and local government elections. Many of the issues that gave us concern at that time have been mentioned this morning, such as e-counting, adjudication of ballot papers, the administration and co-ordination of elections in Scotland, and the absence of a parliamentary committee with clear responsibility or a scrutiny role. Many of those issues have been addressed and committees of Parliament will have a scrutiny role in the future. I hope that that role will be used to the full in the evaluation of the 2011 elections and the referendum that we face in a few weeks.

We addressed the issue of wider engagement in elections. In a good example of the Government of the day working with a committee of the Parliament, we held a major seminar in the chamber to address the challenges of voter turnout and registration.

Of course, we passed legislation to decouple the local government and Scottish Parliament elections. Also, deadlines for nominations for all elections were brought forward and are now set out in election law. Further changes—I hope that they are for the good—are expected in the Scotland Bill.

Like other members, I believe that the bill is another step in the right direction. It seeks to put in statute much of the good work that the electoral management board has under way on a non-statutory basis. In a recent evidence session, the Local Government and Communities Committee was given a flavour of that. We heard about the introduction of an annual publication of standards for returning officers, which is now in place. That will ensure good standards across Scotland. One consequence of the bill that will be passed today is that that will be extended to local government.

In its regular planning meetings, the electoral management board has agreed specific preparations and planning arrangements for the May elections. Counting officers and returning officers have submitted risk registers to the chief counting officer. Members will be pleased to know that none of that work indicates a level of risk that should worry us. Working together, parties such as the Electoral Commission and the Government have overseen the serious addressing and testing of the design guidance for voter material and the production of verification and count protocols for people to follow. All that should give help and advice irrespective of where it is needed in Scotland. We also have adjudication booklets and codes of practice on postal voting. Overall, the detailed level of planning and action in the bill gives hope for the future. It should address any lack of confidence in the general population about the election process in Scotland.

Before we get carried away with all that, I should mention the significant planning challenges that still remain. The UK referendum and the Scottish Parliament elections have different franchises and different rules on what should be counted, and how. That will impact on where the ballot can be counted. There is also the issue of postal voters receiving not one ballot paper on which to mark yes or no or to tick a box, but various coloured ballot papers and a whole range of information. We can only do our best to try to reassure people that they will be guided and supported through the process. I hope that we will be able to achieve that.

As I mentioned, the nature of the count will be affected. In recent evidence, the Local Government and Communities Committee was told that some declarations could be made between five and six o’clock in the morning. That made me wonder what the chamber wants by way of an overnight count. When declarations may not be made until five or six o’clock in the morning, is an overnight count still worth it? We may not be able to do anything about that now, having got to this stage. The various ballot papers have to be sorted out before the count on the Scottish Parliament elections can start. That is a significant challenge.

We may have an increased number of postal votes. That is not necessarily a bad thing. However, as the Local Government and Communities Committee heard in evidence, personal identifiers are an issue that impacts on the elderly in particular. At the last UK elections, more than 8,000 mainly elderly people in Scotland did not even have their ballot papers opened, perhaps because they got the day that they signed the form mixed up with their date of birth and put their date of birth in the wrong box.

There are other significant challenges, such as the impact of the Easter holidays and the royal wedding. However, I look forward to voting for the bill as yet another step in ensuring that we address the mistakes of the past, restore confidence in our elections and give voters, candidates and agents as good an election as possible.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

Members will be aware that there are two key themes to this important bill, the first of which is the creation of the electoral management board. In deliberations in committee and in the chamber, we have heard that that is absolutely necessary to provide a much more cohesive and well-rounded view on how the election should be conducted to ensure that it is freer, fairer and more open in the future. The statutory function of the electoral management board is essential in ensuring that a free, fair and open election takes place and that it has, as the minister said, a smooth administration.

The smooth passage of the bill seems to concern Michael McMahon, but I do not share his concerns. Although it might not be the most exciting debate that we will ever have in the Scottish Parliament, it is necessary that we work together with co-operation across the parties. Alex Johnstone had a good discussion yesterday with my good friend Willie Rennie, who said that MPs would seek to fill every second of the debate. I have had a number of discussions with Willie Rennie about the differences between how Westminster operates and how the Scottish Parliament operates, and I have always told him how debates here are much better because they are much more concise and focused than those of our colleagues at Westminster.

As we all know, the election in 2007 did not go smoothly. It is to the great credit of many that the work that has been done in putting together the bill gives not just me but many others greater confidence that the forthcoming elections—especially the Scottish local authority elections next year, which we are focusing on in this debate—will be much more efficient than has hitherto been the case.

The second key theme of the bill is changes to the Electoral Commission. Although those changes are not as significant as the creation of the electoral management board, they are an important part of ensuring that the whole system works more efficiently. Having gone through the issues that were raised in the Gould report—the need to decouple the elections and many others—I feel that we have clearer information to give to the electorate on all the forthcoming elections. Sometimes, cluttering the picture with too many elections can lead to confusion and concern among voters—indeed, among many members—that we will end up with more spoilt ballot papers even than the number of votes that certain members have in their majorities. I welcome the testing of the ballot paper design that is to be undertaken by the Electoral Commission—that is good to see.

It was also good to see Stewart Stevenson giving us a history lesson. He told us that he was going back to 1892—what a memory that man has. However, very quickly—through his digital processes, no doubt—he fast-forwarded to 1945 and talked about multimember seats. The world did not fall apart in 1945 following the introduction of multimember seats, nor did it do so in 2007 following our local authority elections. In giving us the new history lesson that we seem to be getting from the SNP, Stewart Stevenson has a big task in trying to fill the boots of Christopher Harvie, who often gives us very good history lessons in the chamber. I do not know whether he will manage to do that—time will tell. I cannot conjure up the thought of Stewart Stevenson in plus fours, but let us leave that aside.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

I agree with my colleague that that is too much information.

The autumn stress testing of the new system will be absolutely crucial. I hope that I am proved wrong in thinking that the system will not be as robust as before, as it must be more robust than the system that we had before. I am grateful to Duncan McNeil for highlighting many of the issues that we went through at the committee stages of the bill.

I am certain that the bill will take us forward by many great steps, and I am pleased to support it on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

In my opening speech, I mentioned procedure, and I welcome the fact that the procedures that we use in the chamber have allowed me to upstage Michael McMahon by taking the opportunity before he can do so to thank the clerks and all who have been involved in the bill process. Legislation can sometimes be exciting. Sometimes, of course, it can be less exciting, but equally purposeful. This bill is an example of the latter category. I welcome all the hard work that has been done by the committee, the clerks and the bill team during the process.

I did not expect the debate to provide many revelations, but we heard one or two. Jim Tolson confessed that, in practice sessions at least, he has been interfering with the ballot. I accept that his objective was to find out whether it would be detected, but I hope that the practice does not become more widespread—another function that the Electoral Commission will have to keep an eye on, I suspect.

As Jim Tolson mentioned, Stewart Stevenson gave us a history lesson. The part that impressed me the most was the fact that, in 1945, a candidate standing for the Combined Scottish Universities seat—which had the responsibility of electing three members—got less than 5 per cent of the vote and lost his deposit but was elected in any case. I asked myself whether that person could have been a prototypical Liberal Democrat.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

For the record, in those days, candidates required to get 12.5 per cent of the vote to keep their deposit. However, because the constituency elected three members, only a third of that figure was required, which is 4.17 per cent. The candidate who received 4.15 per cent of the vote failed that test but he—a Conservative—was elected anyway.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

You asked for it, Mr Johnstone.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I stand corrected. However, I would say that, given the intervening time and what has happened in the past 12 months, it probably does not make a great deal of difference.

I thank Duncan McNeil for his contribution. In his role as convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee, he has had his finger on the pulse of this issue to a greater extent than many others. During this debate, he brought us back down to earth and explained how vital the objectives of the bill are. He rehearsed the situation that led to the bill being brought forward and pointed out how hundreds of thousands of Scottish people’s votes were probably not included in the electoral process, probably without their knowledge. Although the result is acceptable, because no pattern connected to political support was involved in the failure to register votes, the problem of the lack of inclusion remains. That, in itself, undermines the efforts that are going on to increase engagement in the electoral process. We have to thank Duncan McNeil for bringing us back down to earth and reminding us why it is important that we make progress on the issues that the bill deals with.

I welcome the bill and look forward to voting for it at 5 o’clock.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

I am quite pleased that the debate took the course that it did and was not as uninteresting as some might have feared. The opening speakers stuck to what was essentially a dry subject. Following that, Stewart Stevenson gave us a six-minute analysis of obscure election results from British history and then spent a couple of minutes telling us how his computer knowledge would fix the technicalities of any future election process.

I agreed with one thing in Stewart Stevenson’s speech, which was that the establishment of an electoral management board on a statutory basis to supervise Scottish local government elections should assist local authorities to perform their functions by promoting best practice. We should all welcome that. Along with the extension of the Electoral Commission’s remit to cover local government elections in Scotland, that is a welcome step.

I join Alex Johnstone and other members in noting the great degree of consensus on the bill’s provisions, although—as was evident from Duncan McNeil’s speech—many contentious issues were involved. Duncan McNeil is entitled to be given credit, given the range of concerns that existed, for establishing cross-party agreement and helping to sustain it throughout the deliberations on the bill.

The EMB will greatly benefit many people by promoting best practice and providing information, advice and training for local government elections. The Gould report made a series of recommendations to improve electoral administration, and rightly recognised as an omission the fact that local government elections are the only elections in Scotland for which the Electoral Commission has no formal remit to provide support. The extension of the commission’s remit to include local government elections in Scotland is the correct move.

The Electoral Commission indicated that the extension to its statutory remit would provide greater accountability and transparency in its role, and would cover performance standards for returning officers in local elections. The implementation of a system of international and other observers for local government elections would be another potential step.

The bill is a progressive move, which I whole-heartedly endorse. There will always be issues on which one or more of the parties cannot find common ground with the rest, but we have fortunately reached a consensus on this one, and it is good that the Parliament can come together on it. The next few weeks will bring few other opportunities for agreement, so we should make the most of this opportunity while we can and unite around the provisions in the bill at decision time, just as we have throughout its passage.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

We have less than a week left of the current parliamentary session. We have debated many issues, and there has been some agreement and some disagreement, but all with the intention of improving the lives of people in Scotland.

Although the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill may not be the most newsworthy piece of legislation that we have considered, it will make changes to give the people of Scotland the electoral system that they deserve: a system that is properly administrated to ensure that votes can be properly cast and accurately counted. There is consensus on the bill’s content, and I am grateful to stakeholders and members for their support before and during the bill proceedings. I am sure that members in the next session of Parliament will want to continue those good relationships and continue the process of improving electoral administration in Scotland.

I was struck by Michael McMahon’s opening remarks regarding consensus, and the risk that it may reduce the content of speeches and limit what can be said. Perhaps that shows that we are reaching the new politics, where discussion, conversation and the involvement of stakeholders and real people can reduce the disagreement when we get to stage 3 debates such as this one. That is exactly what we tried to do with the Arbitration (Scotland) Bill, and we took the Census (Scotland) Order 2010 through by getting people involved at an earlier stage.

There is scope for maintaining that approach and for the EMB to keep it going. I anticipate that the board will have an annual meeting that will be open to all returning officers and electoral registration officers and will enable issues to be discussed more widely with stakeholders. That will ensure that we have a crucial feedback loop, which will also allow feedback to flow from the EMB when it reports to Parliament.

As members know, the board will report to Parliament on the performance of its statutory functions, and it will then be for Parliament to decide whether it wishes to have a detailed discussion on the report’s content, which would provide the opportunity to raise particular issues with the convener. However, it is important to stress that the board is independent and must be seen to be separate from political influence.

It seems that we have made considerable strides forward. I was interested to hear about the chance conversation between Alex Johnstone and Willie Rennie; it appears that we have perhaps evolved to handle consensus a bit more effectively here than they have in Westminster. That might be because we are fewer in number, we represent a small country and we can get everyone in the room to debate the issues, or because we increasingly have open minds and a willingness to address unintended consequences by taking a more structured and thoughtful approach to the process.

I was taken by Jim Tolson’s one-man stress testing of the new system. He is building a bit of a track record there and maintaining his scepticism. To be fair, that scepticism is a useful catalyst. It is a prompt for further motivation to all concerned to ensure that the system is as resilient as we want it to be and that it passes the test of fewer spoiled ballot papers.

I was taken by Stewart Stevenson, who will ably pick up the baton that is about to be passed to him by Chris Harvie, and who gave us a thoughtful speech. The numbers were a wee bit dodgy, mind you. He said that in the 1832 election, 658 members garnered 827,000 votes, which was about 1,000 a head. However, that calculates as closer to 1,200 a head. Nevertheless, the bill would pass the Thomas Muir of Huntershill test. It will make the system much more representative and much more able, so he would approve of what we are doing.

I was also taken by Stewart Stevenson’s comment about marketing people who sell computer systems to the public and private sectors sometimes being wrong by a factor of 10. I thought long and hard about that, because having been a marketing man who was involved with IBM and ComputerLand in selling to Mr Stevenson in his persona at the Bank of Scotland, I would have to be the exception to that. I will talk to him about that later.

I am grateful for Duncan McNeil’s contribution, as I have been throughout the process. He gave a thoughtful and useful overview of what the bill is all about. I welcome the enhancement and development of the committee’s scrutiny role and the part that it has played with Government in the wider engagement, such as the seminar in the Parliament to discuss highly relevant issues such as voter turnout and voter registration. He recorded the fact that the bill is another step in the right direction and will consolidate and put on a statutory basis much of the good ad hoc work that has been done. He highlighted the issues of risk management, which is being addressed, design guides and adjudication booklets. He set out the essential overall purpose of addressing any residual lack of confidence out there while being prepared to face the planning and logistical challenges. He pointed out the need for feedback to ensure that we improve all the aspects and at least leave a clean pass to our successors to do exactly that when they re-engage with the issue in future.

We are in an interesting place. We still have the AV referendum, which is a reminder of the benefit of increased electoral autonomy and other levels of autonomy. I noted Stewart Stevenson’s comment that he has heard not a single question raised by the public on the matter, which has been my experience, too.

We have put together a very tidy piece of work. It might not be the most exciting bill, but it is significant, as Duncan McNeil set out. It is a function of excellent work by the committee. We are grateful for the way in which the committee worked together on the issue and to the witnesses, who gave us the inputs that allowed us to refine the bill and keep it on track. We are grateful to the committee clerks. I am particularly grateful to the bill team, who were absolutely impeccable in guiding me through the process and helping me make my contribution.

With that, I commend the motion: that the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Bill be passed by the Parliament.