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Local Government Elections

– in the Scottish Parliament on 11th June 2014.

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Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-10262, in the name of Derek Mackay, on local government elections—delivering improvements in participation and administration.

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion in my name on the subject of Scotland’s electoral future.

Although the business of voting in elections is a subject of keen interest to everyone in the chamber, unfortunately, too many of our citizens do not share our enthusiasm. Only last month, turnout in Scotland for the elections to the European Parliament was just 33.5 per cent. That disappointing level of participation will not have surprised anyone—rather depressingly, it might even have exceeded some people’s expectations. In recent decades, the general trend has been towards a decline in voting at all elections across the United Kingdom. Turnout at the 2012 Scottish local government elections was just 39 per cent, although that was significantly better than the figure of 31 per cent south of the border. In the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, turnout was around 50 per cent. Although that figure appears encouraging by comparison, it still means that half of those who were registered to vote did not feel inclined to do so. That has to be a matter of concern to every one of us.

Voter apathy might be seen as embarrassing for professional politicians such as us but, in fact, it is more serious than that. Last month, we had the elections to the European Parliament. A great deal has been said about the results of that election and, in particular, the fact that Scotland now has a UK Independence Party MEP. Although there has been some party-political debate about who is responsible for allowing UKIP to gain a foothold in Scotland, however temporarily, one issue that might well have been a factor and which has even wider significance is that far too many of our citizens did not feel sufficiently engaged to vote for any party. The 67 per cent of Scotland’s registered voters who were not inclined to vote in the European elections missed the opportunity to influence who will represent them and make decisions that will affect them and their families over the next five years.

The turnout figures seem at odds with the fact that, as we know, the public are keenly interested in how the nation’s affairs are run. From our regular engagement with constituents, we all know that the people of Scotland care passionately about issues that affect their daily lives. They feel strongly about issues such as the standard of healthcare that they receive in our hospitals and the quality of education that their children receive at school, as well as every other aspect of Government policy that affects their health and wellbeing and that of their families and communities.

There is no doubt in my mind that low turnout is not a reflection of the apathy of voters and that, rather, the figures are an indication of the alienation that is felt by a large proportion of the electorate towards current political and electoral processes. The decline in voting is not restricted to Scotland or the rest of the UK—it is a trend that is recognised across all mature democracies. However, the Scottish Government is not prepared to accept the current democratic gap and we are taking positive steps to address the underlying causes.

On 9 April 2014, we published the consultation document “Scotland’s Electoral Future—delivering improvements in participation and administration”. The consultation concerns how we can improve the quality of democracy in Scotland by encouraging wider engagement and participation in elections. The document considers participation and electoral processes and procedures. Believe it or not, some parts of the document are undeniably technical and are on ways of improving the electoral process. If we can improve the process and even make it easier for people to vote, that might be one way of increasing the number of people who bother to vote.

Vote counting in local government elections in Scotland is now done electronically. We readily accept that new technology, and the Parliament has recognised that the process in the previous set of local elections worked fairly well. I do not think that anyone would want the single transferable vote process to be carried out with a manual count, given the likely delays. Our consultation document asks people to consider whether we should go further. If electronic vote counting is acceptable, might we consider whether electronic voting would also be a desirable step? If it is not, might we explore the potential for other innovations, such as universal postal voting, through which all voters would be issued with a ballot paper by post, which they could return by post or deliver to the polling place by hand in the traditional way?

The Scottish Government is seeking the views of as wide a cross-section of the nation as possible. Following the consultation closing date on 11 July, we will publish an analysis of responses in the autumn, with proposals for action following on from that.

In addition to the written consultation, we are also undertaking some direct stakeholder engagement. We have established a group that comprises representatives from key sectors, including electoral professionals, the third sector, youth organisations and political parties. The group met for the first time on 28 May and I intend to convene another meeting in the near future to consider the follow up to the consultation. My aim is to get the perspective of a wide range of communities of interest from across Scotland and to get cross-party consensus. We will explore the issues that deter people from voting and consider how they can best be tackled. Ultimately, we will look to build a pathway towards greater and more meaningful democratic engagement.

Although the views of political groups represented in the Parliament may differ on many things, I am confident that we are united in our desire for Scotland to have a more vibrant and actively engaged electorate. In seeking to encourage debate, I ask members to consider that young people have lower-than-average turnout rates, people from ethnic minorities are less likely to be registered to vote than their counterparts, and research has shown a definite correlation between areas of multiple deprivation and low voter turnout. How can we engage more effectively with those groups?

Part of the answer may lie in focusing on why so many people are disinclined to vote. Apathy derives from people’s sense that their vote will not make a difference. How can we convince them otherwise? Part of the problem appears to lie in a certain lack of faith in political parties. Although we in this chamber may find it hard to believe, it is clear that some of our citizens are not entirely impressed by their political representatives. Some voters think that politicians and parties are all the same, and are unconvinced by our ability to bring about real change.

Who is responsible? Is low voter participation the fault of our electoral systems and those who administer them? Do we need to introduce new, more up-to-date methods of voting that are more in tune with the 21st century? Is low voter participation the fault of our political parties? Are we not communicating directly with voters to help people understand what they are voting for and how their vote will make a difference? Is there a role for schools in helping to ensure that young people fully understand the democratic process?

I have asked a number of questions in the consultation, on the cross-party panel and in my speech. I look forward to hearing members’ thoughts and ideas as we take this work forward. I feel that this is one issue on which the Parliament can work together to focus on the way forward. In any event, I reiterate that the Scottish Government is fully committed to examining all the policy and process issues.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I note what the minister said about introducing new methods of voting. I also note that the consultation paper refers to “multiple voting methods”. However, some people like the traditional way of voting, which involves going to the polling station and filling in a ballot paper. Does he take that on board and accept that that is how some people desire to vote?

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

Yes. John Mason poses a very good question. Many people enjoy the custom of going to the polling station and casting their vote in the traditional way. Although we are exploring the potential of a pilot for all-postal voting, we have proposed that, even in that scenario, in which people can vote by post, they could go to the polling station as they usually would to cast their ballot in the traditional way. I am very mindful of not losing the people who have voted consistently in the traditional way. I am mindful that when a previous study asked people why they were motivated to vote, the top answer was that it was their duty to vote. That must remain a consideration in the work that we do.

The motion is not intended to spark a party-political debate over who is at fault; it is intended to find a way of encouraging more people to vote and to engage in the democratic process—not just in elections but between elections. I am sure that our debate will stimulate that dynamic discussion and will help me to take forward the necessary proposals to address participation in the nation’s elections.

I move,

That the Parliament notes with concern the trend toward low turnout in elections across Europe, and welcomes the Scottish Government’s recent consultation, Scotland’s Electoral Future: Delivering Improvements in Participation and Administration, and its commitment to engage with stakeholders following the consultation, build on examples of best practice and develop a strategy to increase democratic engagement and public participation in future local government elections.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I very much agree with much of what Derek Mackay said in his opening speech, especially his point that it is up to all of us, across the chamber, to talk not only to one another but to key stakeholders and, as important, to people who do not normally vote, because we need to ensure that, in some way, their voices are part of our discussion. I agree that it is shocking that, at the most recent local government elections, fewer than four in 10 people turned out to vote. That is simply not good enough. If the issue was just with the local government elections, we could say that we could fix only them, but we know that, only a few weeks ago, we had an equally low turnout for the European elections.

The reason why I wanted to put in my amendment something about not only the technicalities but the politics is that it was very obvious from looking at the different boxes at the Lothian count on the night of the elections—we were not able to look too closely at them—that some areas had incredibly an low turnout of below 20 per cent but others had a turnout of up to 50 per cent. Social class was not the whole explanation, but it was part of it. I wanted to put that on the agenda. My amendment is an add amendment because it adds to the minister’s motion.

We are in the middle of the Scottish Government’s consultation period, so I will focus on the technical side—the mechanics—the changes that we could make now and the point on which the minister spent much of his time: how we connect and reconnect people to the political process, which is the bigger challenge and one in which we all have to be involved.

On the mechanics, I am grateful to Anne McTaggart and John Wilson for the work that they did as part of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s effort on the matter, because they examined many of the clear options that are available. We must consider how we ensure that people are eligible to vote, make it easier for them to vote and address the fact that far too many people are not even registered to vote.

Would it be possible for the minister to pull together some of the analysis of the matter? The Institute for Public Policy Research, the Electoral Reform Society and academics have done work on it. Having dipped a toe into that for today’s debate, it is clear to me that a lot of work is available—some relates the United Kingdom and some relates to other countries, particularly other western democracies, where researchers have considered the matter—but we could do a bit more work on the insights and best practice that have been suggested.

As a starting point, we should make it easier to register because far fewer people are on the register than should be on it. What more can we do to support alternatives? One suggestion to which Anne McTaggart and John Wilson refer in their report is continuous registration, which has been experienced in Northern Ireland. Others have suggested using people’s day-to-day contact with local government or other state institutions, having forms available more widely, for example at post offices, Government offices, schools and universities—it would not break the bureaucratic back to have a range of organisations where there was a set of forms that people could fill out and hand in—or using the opportunity of people registering for council tax. There is a set of ways that we could get people on to the register.

Voting is a fundamental democratic right, but we need to do more to enable people to exercise that right, so we must address eligibility to vote and consider registration on the day for people who have missed out. Much of my local work is with people who are homeless and who move house a lot. They are most likely to miss out on the registration forms that regularly come through the door. Research in the US showed that registration on the day significantly increased turnout. Would that be practical for us? What would be the downside? There are certainly benefits, in that it would at least give the most dispossessed the chance to vote.

Secondly, we must also make it easier for people to cast their vote. An electronic voting machine would have massive advantages on the night, because we would be able to press a button and suddenly know what the count was. However, that would remove a huge amount of transparency and the capacity to double-check. We would have to rely entirely on machines. I have a natural reservation about that. I do not know whether it is because I am more a 20th century person than I am a 21st century person, but I think that we should all be interested in probity, accountability and security—as well as sheer mistakes in the program.

Although I have reservations about that approach, I am attracted to considering some of the 21st century solutions that the Electoral Reform Society suggested. We should at least consider the practicalities of suggestions such as voting online and voting by phone or smartphone. Again, there are potential cyber issues—such issues have been mentioned in the news over the past 24 hours in relation to finance. Although we need to consider such measures, there could be some big challenges.

When I read Anne McTaggart and John Wilson’s report, I was struck by the issue of universal postal voting. A few elections ago, I was instructed by my team to get a postal vote, because they were worried that I would not get round to voting on the day. When we talk to people, we hear that having to vote on the day is a real issue. The research and the pilots that have been done in England, Wales and Scotland show a significant uplift in voting of around 20 per cent if people have a postal vote that is automatically sent to their door.

As John Mason said, postal votes would not necessarily prevent people from handing in their vote, which can make them feel as if they really have voted, but for a lot of people they could be quite a game changer, as receiving a postal vote would make them aware that the election was taking place. There is always a need for checks and balances, but I wonder whether we should look at that seriously.

In the police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales, turnout was four times higher turnout among those who were involved in a universal postal voting scheme, and Scottish local authorities that have tried it have seen significantly higher turnouts.

In the spirit of cross-party consensus, we would be prepared to look at the issues and what the choices might be. I do not think that there are technical fixes, but we have to look at what could be improved and what practical measures would help. We owe that to people who have not voted thus far, and we owe it to democracy, to try to improve it.

In the Scottish Parliament elections in 2003, voter turnout dropped below 50 per cent. We need to make voting easier and make people more aware of the system, but we also need to make them want to vote—that is crucial. In a way, my amendment focuses on what makes people want to vote. It highlights underrepresentation, particularly of young people, people from low-income backgrounds and people from areas of multiple deprivation, although those are not the only groups that do not vote. The low registration rate among ethnic minority communities needs to be addressed, as does significant undervoting by students in local elections.

One level, we can understand why people do not vote—the disconnect—but the services that local authorities provide affect absolutely everybody, and we need to get that message across. What more can we do to raise awareness among young people? I would be interested to look back over the Scottish Parliament’s outreach work over the past 15 years. There is a whole cohort that we could study. Has it made a difference? I will not be alone in having done endless school meetings and endless meetings in the Parliament. Have we made a difference?

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I will come back to social disadvantage in my closing speech. I am very grateful that I got eight minutes, and I look forward to the debate.

I move amendment S4M-10262.2, to insert at end:

“; notes the urgent need to reconnect politics and voters, particularly young people and those from less affluent areas, who are the least likely to vote, and believes that increased citizen participation on local issues is ultimately best achieved by re-empowering local government and local communities”.

Photo of Cameron Buchanan Cameron Buchanan Conservative

Given the latest turnout and participation figures for elections to local government, it is clear that action is needed. However, I was interested in the Electoral Reform Society’s comments on the Government’s consultation. Indeed, I agree with its central argument that, in a sense, the consultation conflates two separate issues. The first issue is the broad, on-going discussion about the future shape of local democracy, at the centre of which is increasing community participation and shifting decision making to a local level. How we improve engagement with communities and how we bring them into the decision-making process are fundamental questions that we are all trying to answer. Accordingly, one would hope that if we are successful in that regard and are able to rejuvenate local governance and democracy, a mark of our success would surely be increased voter turnout and participation. Put more succinctly, the consultation should not be seen in isolation, but should be part of a larger process of reform.

In that regard I have some sympathy for Sarah Boyack’s amendment, although I must say that the process of centralisation did not magically appear in 2007. When one considers local government ring fencing, it is clear that the tendency to wrestle power away from local authorities was as much in evidence before, under the old regime, as it is now.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Does Cameron Buchanan accept that the issue is also one of power going down beyond local government and that sometimes local communities are at a lower level than local government?

Photo of Cameron Buchanan Cameron Buchanan Conservative

I accept that. We have to go down to the bottom. We have had a top-down approach, rather than a bottom-up approach.

Although there is a need for discussion and debate on the broad issues, the pace of the consultation has meant that there has been a focus on the administration of the voting process. However, I happen to think that there is an elephant in the room. It is surely worth considering whether the very system that we use to elect our councillors has any effect, positive or negative, on turnout, and, more broadly, on wider participation and community engagement with councils.

I accept that this specific consultation is not the mechanism for addressing the issue, but it is time to look at the impact of the single transferable vote system on local government and on local government elections. Indeed, as matters stand with STV, we are considering what we are voting for and why we vote but not how we vote. It makes no sense for us to exclude the issue from the general discussion on the future of local governance in Scotland. In fact, in some respects, this is an ideal time to consider the issue, given that we have now had two elections under STV, with one of those being a stand-alone election—we should assess the impact that it has on participation.

When the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 was debated, its proponents told us that it would strengthen democracy, increase choice and reinvigorate local government. I have to ask, has the act delivered all that it was meant to deliver or, rather, have we been left with a system that was complicated as a result of being a compromise between two systems?

I do not think that the way forward is to have compulsory voting. In Belgium and Australia, where they have compulsory voting, there is a very high percentage of spoilt ballots. I suppose that that is one way of protesting but it serves absolutely no purpose—there or here. Talking of a duty to vote, there is always a very high turnout in countries that are voting for the first time. That is because it is their duty to vote. I wonder whether we have too many elections. How many times have members been told on the doorstep by many people all over the country—I will put it politely—to go and see a taxidermist? I have been told that, even in deepest Renfrewshire. I think that that is really because people are not focused on the whole process.

To come back to the consultation, my feeling is that it serves to remove barriers to participation from the mechanics of the voting process. As I discussed earlier, there is the bigger task of getting people interested and involved. However, as John Mason said, we probably have to work on that from the bottom up. We have to get people engaged and make it as straightforward as possible for them to vote and also to register to vote, as Sarah Boyack said.

I am grateful to my colleagues on the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, Anne McTaggart and John Wilson, who undertook to investigate this area last year on the committee’s behalf. It is not an easy task. While making the process easier, we must ensure that the integrity of the process is maintained; although we do not, by and large, have any great problem with electoral fraud, we should always be vigilant.

It is worth bearing in mind what we are aiming to achieve and what can be achieved. We are aiming to achieve a higher turnout, with greater participation of people in the electoral process. There are countries such as North Korea in which there is 100 per cent turnout, although we know why that is. Regardless of recent comparisons, I am sure that it is not the Scottish Government’s aim to replicate North Korea’s efforts, even if it is granted independence.

There is a proportion of people on the electoral register who, for one reason or another, should not be there. Indeed, the Electoral Commission told me that it was previously suggested that only 85.5 per cent of the records on the electoral register are accurate. There are many reasons for that, most of which are genuine.

I welcome the consultation, although I think that it is part of a wider effort. Many other factors must be considered if we are to breathe life back into our local democracy.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Mr Buchanan mentioned the work that John Wilson and Anne McTaggart have done on behalf of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee. I will not go over that work in any depth, because they will have a fair amount to say on the subject.

I am pleased that the committee chose to look at voting. Beyond that, in respect of the committee’s current workload, I hope that the community empowerment bill will result in increased participation. The bill will be extremely important in getting people to participate locally.

Mark McDonald, Anne McTaggart and I recently took part in a whistle-stop tour to Germany, Denmark and Sweden. I can never get over the fact that when we talked to local politicians in those countries about participation and community engagement, they found it difficult to comprehend what we meant by community engagement because it seems that it just happens in those countries. That is the kind of attitude that we need.

That is not to say that everything in the garden is rosy in those countries, because turnout is reducing there, too. However, their turnout rates are still much higher than they are here, particularly for local government elections. There was a lot of concern in Germany about putting the local government and European elections together. There was a bit of fear that the local government turnout would reduce. It is interesting, but I have to say that I have not checked the turnout and results; I should probably do that.

It is vital to leave no stone unturned in trying to make the voting process easier. I have believed for a long time that 16 and 17-year-olds should be given the right to vote; I am glad that that is happening in the referendum and I believe that it should happen in every election. Sometimes there is a disconnect for young people. Ms Boyack talked about going into schools and talking to kids; most of the time, younger kids are particularly enthusiastic about the process, particularly if a member holds a wee vote while they are in the school. Something happens at a certain point and I think that if we allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote at every election, we could keep people engaged that much longer.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I do not have time. I am sorry.

A universal postal voting pilot is an immensely good idea. We should also be looking at online, telephone and app voting. Mr Buchanan talked about integrity and we have to ensure that folk trust the system. Folk can sometimes be a bit suspicious about new voting methods.

We must ensure that every single thing that we put in place is robust. We do not want to see a situation like that in the Robin Williams film “Man of the Year”, in which comedian Tom Dobbs is elected as President of the United States because of faulty Delacroy voting machines. We have to test and ensure that the system is absolutely robust, but we have to do it because we have to increase participation.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

A modest amount of time is available for interventions, but it is very small.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

I think that it was Billy Connolly who said:

“Don’t vote; it just encourages them.”

At the Local Government and Regeneration Committee this morning, I mentioned to the Minister for Local Government and Planning how in Orkney and Shetland, for example, voting in local government elections is a bit higher than it is on the mainland. They do not have political parties.

For me, that is the starting point. All political parties and groups need to take some responsibility for how people feel. I accept that Tavish Scott was elected in Shetland, but generally in local government, the candidates are independents. Political parties need to take some responsibility for the way in which we campaign and organise, the way that we tend to avoid answering questions directly and the way in which we campaign against each other.

The council tax is a classic example of that. In my by-election, I was forever being accused of saying things that I had not said about the council tax. All that we do is turn the public off. A fundamental issue is the political parties themselves. The public have had enough of us and we really need to reform how we do our business.

In evidence to the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, Professor James Mitchell said:

“When we look at turnout and participation in elections for different levels of government across liberal democracies, we find that turnout is far higher in elections for levels of government that have more power.”—[Official Report, Local Government and Regeneration Committee, 14 May 2014; c 3490.]

We need to look at that area. In local government, social work and education will take up something like 76 or 80 per cent of the budget. When we talk about devolving those services and the other statutory services around them to communities, we are talking about the margins of local government budgets.

We need to have an honest discussion about how local government is funded. At the Local Government and Regeneration Committee meeting this morning, I asked the Minister for Local Government and Planning whether he would accept that, once we get past the referendum, regardless of its outcome, we could perhaps get everyone in the chamber to start to come together and have a serious debate and discussion about what local government looks like and, more crucially, how it is funded.

There are major pressures. Without getting into a debate on local government finance and its funds, we know from demographics and the number of young people who are coming into care in local authorities that the demands on local government services are growing. Regardless of the political colour of the Government in the Scottish Parliament, or in any other place for that matter, we need to have a serious and grown-up discussion with local government and local communities about how local government is funded. I hope that we can start to have that discussion once we get past the referendum—I accept that it would be difficult to have it before then.

I agree that we need to look at all the other technical issues to do with improving voting, but there is something more fundamental at the heart of why people are not voting.

I support Sarah Boyack’s amendment. I am sure that many people in the Parliament who have campaigned will have seen for themselves, when they have gone out with an electoral register and started to knock on doors, that in many streets in areas in which there is higher deprivation household after household is not on the electoral register. It is right to flag up that point. I hope that the minister will take that on board and that we will have consensus at the end of the debate.

In conclusion, we should look at all the other things that have been talked about, but much more fundamentally, let us look at ourselves, political parties and how we finance local government.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Although the consultation looks at different methods of voting, I want to underline the point that is made in paragraph 2.12. It says:

“the Electoral Commission has previously recommended that a new model of multiple voting methods should be developed”.

That should certainly include the traditional method of physically voting on a piece of paper in a polling place. I am happy for there to be additions and alternatives to that—we already have some—but improvements could be made, especially in the location of polling places. I would like to focus on polling places in the short time that is available to me.

We have a number of issues in my constituency, some of which I have raised with Glasgow City Council. I have seen some movement, but on the whole, the council has been unresponsive.

One of my wards is Calton, which is a very mixed area. There is a lot of new housing—mainly flats—around the High Street, Glasgow Cross and St Andrews in the Square, which some members may be familiar with, but there is no polling place in that area. The residents who live there tend to look to the merchant city and the city centre for work and leisure opportunities; they do not look further east into traditional Calton. However, they are expected to vote in a polling place in a building that is located outside their area; more than 4,000 electors are meant to vote there.

Over time, attitudes may change. I like to think that they will change and that people will be more relaxed about going to different parts of the city, but the current reality is that we expect voters there to vote in an area that they are not familiar with and in which they may not feel comfortable. I accept that the distances in miles in the city are not as great as those in rural areas, but there is an issue in Glasgow and, I suspect, in other cities. People may be reluctant to travel to certain areas because they are unfamiliar with them or whatever. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to get to the ballot box.

The issue is not just staffing and resources. An additional polling place could not be found where I consider it is needed. There is a contrast with Barlanark, where I stay. There are two primary schools there that are across the road from each other; one of them has a community centre attached to it. Logically, I would have thought that the community centre would be the place for everybody to vote in, but the two schools are completely closed on polling days and each of them is a polling place. There were fewer than 3,000 electors—in fact, there were 2,819—at the last count there. With a 17 per cent turnout, they had 476 people between them in the European elections. The community centre is not being used, although it seems to me the obvious place to consider.

On the wider issue of polling places, clearly there is resistance from parents to schools and nurseries being closed. Related to that is the fact that we expect people to go into a building that is often quite large and maybe not very welcoming, and which is completely quiet on polling day apart from the few people who go in to vote. Frankly, I do not find that a very attractive setting and nor do a lot of people. I would draw a comparison with people visiting libraries, which has also been a problem over the years. To be fair to Glasgow Life, it has made inroads into that by changing the locations of libraries, which now often share a building with a swimming pool or a cafe where information technology is available. That means that there are lots of things to draw people into the building where the library is.

For legal reasons it might not be possible at the moment to do this, but we should think about moving polling places in such a way. Instead of bringing the people to where the ballot boxes are, let us take the ballot boxes to where the people are. Could we do that in shopping centres, supermarkets or coffee shops? What about giving people a voucher to have a decent coffee if they have voted rather than fining them if they have not, which is maybe the negative way of doing it?

With regard to Labour’s amendment, I say again that empowering local government and empowering local communities are not the same thing. We need to move power down to the local communities.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

If it is any help to John Mason, we did not use any schools at all for the recent European elections. I take Mr Mason’s point about parents being darned annoyed when their kids are not at school. For some elections, we now use community halls, sports facilities and other places. However, I was not quite sure about Mr Mason’s point about buying everyone a cup of coffee before they vote. There used to be a law about treating, but I do not know whether it is still on the statute books. However, I am sure that Mr Mason was not suggesting doing something like that, and I take his point.

I hate to tell Alex Rowley this, but I was actually a Liberal Democrat when I was elected to Shetland Islands Council. However, he is absolutely right, because there are no political councillors in my part of the world at the moment, nor are there any in Orkney. However, it is a judgment call, is it not? Alex Rowley and, indeed, the minister represented their parties with great distinction at local government level, but they probably knew what they were going to achieve when they went to take policies through their councils. I have to say that, at times, my own council does not necessarily know at the start of a full council meeting what is going to happen, whether the meeting is on the school estate, funding for elderly people or whatever. I guess those are the choices that we have.

When Alex Rowley was making his observations, it struck me that another aspect is encouraging younger people to stand for election rather than just encouraging them to vote. We have the youthful Mr Mackay here, and he was a young man when he was first elected to a council. I was 27 when I was first elected to Shetland Islands Council and I was 20 years younger than anyone else in the council chamber, which I think was a shocking indictment—certainly in Shetland—of our ability to attract a younger generation to stand for election and have a role in that sense as well.

I absolutely take the point that the minister made in his introduction about the result of the European elections and what that meant. However, were we not very different in terms of how the European elections worked out? At least we kept our debate to the rights and wrongs of some of the big issues, whereas some of the parties that were elected across Europe have some pretty unpleasant sides to them. Indeed, when I look at Greece, I think that there is some trouble in store.

I observe to all my political colleagues across the parties that the only party here that really made Europe the big issue was the party that got hammered in the elections. It therefore does not automatically follow that it will do a party any good to take on the issue that is being debated in the election. However, I think that what happened to that party was because of other and different reasons rather than because it felt that the issue was about Europe.

I agree that what is important in this debate is to concentrate on what we can do to engage and encourage more people to vote at a local level. There have been many good ideas on that in the debate so far. I will give the minister three brief examples that I think are worth considering.

The first example is on John Mason’s point that the issue is not just local elections but local communities. The land reform review group published its report just the other week, and it set out a path for how local communities can have more control over their areas. That is a very different approach to the one that we have seen in recent times, to which Cameron Buchanan referred. As a member of a party that favours radical land reform and that took the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 through in the first session of the Scottish Parliament after 1999, I think that the review group’s work is important. We in this Parliament have the opportunity to help create strong and engaged local communities.

One of the other two examples for the minister is local income tax. He and I probably share the same views on that, although he is probably not allowed to say so at the moment. However, as Alex Rowley rightly said, when we get past the referendum, whatever the result, we might get back into the real, proper debate about how we fund our local councils, because they do not have financial accountability.

In truth, councils did not have a lot of financial accountability in 1999. I am not for a minute arguing that the situation was perfect then. Sarah Boyack and I shared a lot of ministerial time and she will remember a lot of the debates. To be frank, we did not make much progress in that time, but the situation has got worse since then.

Of course I do not expect Derek Mackay to agree with me on this, but I am not making a political point; I am just observing that, in a practical sense, the councillors whom I elect at home, in my part of the world, now have less financial accountability than they have ever had before. I think that all of us who come from a local government background want to see that reversed and changed. Maybe we can genuinely have that debate in the future.

My final point is on centralisation. It is important to try to make some progress on rebalancing where the powers sit. That is a live agenda for all of us. I would like our councils to have more responsibility, but that goes hand in hand with the financial accountability that I suspect we all crave.

Photo of John Wilson John Wilson Scottish National Party

I welcome this debate as it deals with many of the issues that the Local Government and Regeneration Committee examined as part of a short inquiry into the 2012 Scottish local government elections, with Anne McTaggart and me acting as reporters. I take this opportunity to thank the organisations and individuals who provided evidence during that investigation, which allowed us to draw up our report.

We made a number of recommendations for the Scottish Government on change and, more important, improvement to the election process. The committee supported advances in voting methods—the minister outlined some of those today—while recognising the need for thorough security to be in place in any voting system that is introduced.

As has been mentioned, a voter turnout figure of 39.8 per cent was recorded in the 2012 local government elections. That was the lowest voter turnout since unitary authorities were created, but the elections were the first decoupled elections since 1995. The committee endorsed the Electoral Commission’s position that discussions should take place between local authorities, political parties and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland regarding local restrictions on the display of election posters. We heard in evidence that there may be issues about the lack of publicity around election day, particularly in relation to the banning of electoral material on lamp posts and billboards.

Furthermore, the Electoral Commission has commissioned research on an alternative voting day, which it has been suggested could be on a Saturday. Research conducted by ICM on behalf of the Electoral Commission highlights the many reasons for people not voting, with 24 per cent identifying a lack of time and/or being too busy to vote. Those reasons were found to be top of that poll.

At the 2012 Scottish local government elections, 16,742 postal votes were rejected. As they accounted for 4 per cent of the total return, the high level of rejection of postal votes is clearly a matter of concern. Furthermore, voters were not notified that their ballot paper had been rejected. That matter needs to be addressed as a priority, especially in respect of ensuring best practice in the verification process.

Good examples of engagement with the wider public are being applied. In written evidence to the committee’s inquiry, Dr James Gilmour from the Electoral Reform Society mentioned the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland visiting secondary schools to get pupils to register on the electoral roll. That has already been mentioned in this debate, and perhaps it should be taken forward to ensure that we get young people on the electoral register.

There are also significant aspects when it comes to voting itself. In particular, the ordering of ballot papers is an issue. There is considerable evidence of alphabetical voting, with about 60 per cent of voters in the 2007 local government elections giving their first preference to a candidate who was higher up the paper, as identified by Curtice and Marsh in their report in 2008. The committee’s report recommended that some form of ordering should be looked at in time for the 2017 Scottish local government elections. I cite Ron Gould’s suggestion that ordering for each ward should be determined by a ballot of all candidates. I always find that the publication “Scottish Council Elections 2012: Results and Statistics” by Bochel, Denver and Steven, published by the University of Lincoln in 2012, offers useful context and analysis of the turnout.

When we discuss local government elections, we should be aware of a number of other issues that need to be taken forward. I welcome the work that the Scottish Government is doing in relation to its consultation. We must get the right message to the electorate. We must ensure that all the systems that can be put in place are used to maximise the vote, whether that is in local government elections, Scottish Parliament elections or any other elections in Scotland. We must look to the future and find systems that will actively engage with voters and ensure that they turn out.

Photo of Anne McTaggart Anne McTaggart Labour

I am keen to contribute to this debate on delivering improvements in the participation in and the administration of local government elections, given that I am a member of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, that I was previously a Glasgow city councillor and that I have a huge interest in encouraging people to vote.

From my experience, I, too, recognise the pattern of chronic disengagement of communities from their local representatives. I am deeply concerned by the 20 per cent fall in turnout at local government elections since 1999. I fear that that trend could continue if we do not take action to address the problems that we face.

It is well documented that a low turnout such as we have experienced in recent years could lead to a democratic deficit in local government. The result would be an absence of democratic accountability and a weak mandate for local councillors to assume any control over the decision-making process.

The only way around the depressing lack of engagement with local government is to hand over real power and influence to authorities across the country. If people understand that their local council has the ability and—crucially—the resources to bring about change in their community, they will understand the value of their vote.

What is needed is a radical approach that provides for local government in Scotland and affords opportunities for community development and the empowerment of ordinary people in the decision-making process. Local government should be outward looking and should seek to engage communities at every stage of its processes.

I firmly believe that a system that establishes a clearer distinction between the roles of central and local government in determining council budgets should be put in place. That would allow local authorities a fairer budget settlement and make far clearer to ordinary electors the role of local government. Only when people know who and what they are voting for and why they are voting can they communicate the value of local government elections and their impact on communities.

Another issue that requires urgent attention is the participation of women as candidate councillors. Fewer than one in four councillors are women; that is lower than the rate for women among MSPs and MPs. It is for all political parties and local government to reverse the trend. We must have a system of local government that truly reflects the diversity of the people whom it claims to represent.

In local government, we have seen a decline in voter turnout and participation, a growing gender gap in elections and an unassessed inequality in relation to voting by younger and economically disadvantaged citizens, which my colleague Sarah Boyack mentioned. We must work together to address each of those points in order to improve participation in elections and the administration of local government.

We should increase voter turnout by enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds and providing better public access and information. We should seriously consider introducing alternative voting methods, including proxy voting, postal voting, electronic machine voting, online voting and telephone voting, to facilitate the accessibility of elections. Through those proposals, we may achieve greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in Scottish local government.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

I take on board the point about ensuring that we get people registered to vote. That is critical, but we also need to ensure that electoral registers are kept up to date. When I was knocking on doors during the recent Dunfermline by-election, I found that there are people who are listed against an address who have not lived there for between five and eight years. It is good to get people on the register, but we must ensure that the names of people who are no longer resident are taken off the register, because the issue has an impact on, for example, turnout and participation.

The discussion about voting methods is important. A good example that can be used to highlight the impact that alternative voting methods can have is the citywide referendum in Aberdeen on 1 March 2012 on the proposals for regeneration of Union Terrace Gardens. I do not want to reopen the debate about the merits of that proposal, because it is in the past, but it is worth looking at how the vote was conducted. There was an all-postal ballot, which was augmented by phone and online voting. More than 86,000 votes were cast, which represents a turnout of some 52 per cent.

If we fast forward a couple of months to the local government elections, turnout was 33.7 per cent—just a short space of time later. That tells me that the provision of an all-postal ballot, augmented with phone and online voting, boosted voter turnout. I know that the referendum in March 2012 was on a single issue, but I think that there would be merit in considering whether the approach could be replicated, given the difference between turnout in the referendum and turnout in the local elections.

In a survey, the Electoral Commission found that 52 per cent of respondents who had not voted said that that was due to

“circumstances preventing them from doing so”.

In the constituency that I represent, the proportion of offshore workers is high, as I suspect that it is in the constituencies that Kevin Stewart, Tavish Scott and other members represent. Offshore workers often find themselves rotated on to the rigs during an election. For them, postal voting and proxy voting are important, but the requirement to arrange such a vote can be an issue for many people—I have had to chase people to get them to sign up to a postal or proxy vote, so that their vote can be counted. A move to something along the lines of universal postal voting or online voting, which would enable people to cast their vote from the rig, would enable more people to participate in elections.

It would benefit the minister to seek advice from Crawford Langley, who was the returning officer in the referendum on Union Terrace Gardens. On the potential for voter fraud or multiple casting of votes, Crawford Langley identified in his report that out of 86,000 votes there were 74 cases in which a person voted both electronically and by post. A tiny minority of individuals had done that, and in many of those cases the person had written on their ballot paper that they were posting it after voting online simply because they wanted to be sure that their vote would be counted.

Let us not forget that in the current system anyone can walk into a polling station, claim to be Betty Smith from number 5 and cast a vote, without having to produce identification. There is already the opportunity for voter fraud.

I agree entirely with what Tavish Scott said about encouraging more young people to stand for election. I was elected to Aberdeen City Council at the tender age of 26. I was by no means the youngest councillor at the time; we had a councillor who was elected at the age of 18 and who became the depute provost of the city. The reaction to those elections caused me great concern that young people might be put off politics. We were castigated as kids who were not mature enough to make decisions on behalf of the people. If we want young people to get involved in politics and stand for election, we must make them feel that they will be valued when they participate. We must look carefully at how young people’s participation is reacted to by not just the media but political parties.

There is much to think about, and there has been a lot of constructive input in the debate.

Photo of Cara Hilton Cara Hilton Labour

The outcomes of local elections shape our lives in many ways, from how our local schools are organised to when our bins are collected, yet an increasing number of people are opting not to take part in our local democracy. The 20 per cent drop in the turnout for local elections since 1999, which colleagues have talked about, is a huge concern, and it is vital that measures are taken both to halt and to reverse that decline.

Derek Mackay and Sarah Boyack have highlighted the fact that the level of participation is falling fast among the young and the poorest voters. That is of huge concern. It is an issue not just for local elections but for all elections, and we will address it only with radical solutions. We have all knocked on doors and been told, “I never vote because politics doesn’t affect me” or, “I don’t know anything about politics.”

The issue is not just voter apathy. Many people have such busy lives that they are not able to get to the polling stations on election day. As John Mason said, many polling stations are in the wrong place. We must do a lot more to make voting as easy and accessible as possible. Moving to universal postal voting and same-day registration may help, but there are lots of other avenues that we can go down.

It is sometimes hard for voters to tell that there is an election going on. During the European Parliament elections, I knocked on quite a few doors on election day and people told me that they had no idea that an election was being held on that day. The fact that election posters on lamp posts are banned in many areas may be a bonus for party workers, but it is certainly not a bonus when it comes to raising awareness of elections. With many of us targeting core voters and swing voters, less time is now spent on persuading the reluctant or cynical to get out and vote. I therefore welcome the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that discussions should take place on how we can better publicise the 2017 council elections, and I hope that those discussions can be progressed.

If we are to engage young voters, it is absolutely vital that politics and elections play a much bigger part in the school curriculum. That has been proposed by the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, and I hope that the Scottish Government will do more work to make it a reality. The IPPR report “Divided Democracy: Political inequality in the UK and why it matters” suggests that voting be made compulsory for voters—an idea that my colleague Cameron Buchanan mentioned. The report argues that if young people vote in their first election they are more likely to vote throughout their lives, and if more young people vote, their voices will be more difficult for politicians to ignore. That is also an issue that we need to explore.

Like all members, I spend a lot of time visiting schools and speaking to school children about democracy and the work of our Parliament. I hope that, when it is their turn to vote, we will see a change, as the young people that I speak to are informed and interested in politics. Most of the young people that I speak to on their doorstep about the referendum are also really excited about being able to cast their vote for the first time on 18 September.

However, it is a lot easier to enthuse people to vote in an election that has the power to change their lives radically, for better or worse. It is harder to get people to the local government polls when many people see councils as being just about bins and street lights rather than as having the power to shape and change our local communities. It also does not help that many councillors simply do not look anything like the communities that they represent, as Anne McTaggart said. Although progress has been made, the fact is that women and young people, in particular, remain seriously underrepresented on local councils across Scotland. All political parties need to take action to address the issue, which is unhealthy for democracy. Three out of four of our local councillors are men. The image of councillors being pale, male and stale may be a generalisation—I mean no offence to Richard Lyle—but it is often the reality. A recent report by the Asda mums index found that only 2 per cent of mums feel politically represented. That is not good for democracy. Whether they are on the councils, here at Holyrood or at Westminster, our elected representatives need to better reflect the communities that they serve.

We often hear SNP members say that one of the bonuses of independence will be that we will get the Government that we vote for. The reality is that, in many elections, the majority of people do not vote at all. We spend a huge amount of time in the chamber debating whether we should be part of the UK and we do not spend enough time looking at where the power should lie here in Scotland. Therefore, although I welcome the report, I hope that it can lead to change. We need to renew our local democracy and be more ambitious about putting power back into our local communities and into the hands of local people.

Photo of Colin Beattie Colin Beattie Scottish National Party

Up until the uncoupling of the 2011 and 2012 Scottish Parliament and council elections, the turnout for local government elections was relatively high. Although the decoupling of those elections was necessary in the wake of the many serious failings that haunted the 2007 elections, only 39.1 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote in the 2012 council elections—a drop of 13.7 per cent on the turnout in 2007. Indeed, in the previous three elections, voter turnout was slightly lower for the council elections than it was for the Holyrood elections. I am not entirely sure why there is such a difference between parliamentary elections and local authority elections. Perhaps it shows a mistaken lack of belief in the relevance of local government.

We must work towards a solution to ensure legitimate authority. There is a famous saying that goes, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about what you get,” although people will complain anyway. The problem is that a lack of turnout results in a certain lack of legitimacy for any council or Government.

One very important part of the consultation is the proposal to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. I firmly believe that if someone is old enough to work, to pay tax, to get married and to join the army, surely they are old enough to make a reasoned decision on their country’s future. At that age, young people will have a vested interest in the outcome and what it will mean for their education or their employment prospects. I understand the argument that there are some immature teenagers who would not take that responsibility seriously, but I think that they would, most likely, form part of the electorate that do not turn out.

I still think that that is a real shame, and I believe that the solution is to have more interaction with students in and out of school. By being more proactive, we can reach them with more information. I hope that that would increase the level of interest in local and national politics, which might provide a sustainable boost to turnout at elections. Perhaps we can enthuse and inspire future generations to participate in politics. However, a key barrier to that idea is the fact that schools have—quite correctly—strict guidelines on access and impartiality. How we manage that reasonably is a challenge.

The consultation also looks at alternative voting methods for local council elections and provides four very interesting proposals, including universal postal voting, telephone voting, online voting and electronic machine voting, all of which have their good and bad points. The suggestion on universal postal voting is particularly interesting, because it removes the argument that people did not vote because they did not know that there was an election, and it enables people to vote from the comfort of their own homes.

However, there are two significant problems with universal postal voting. First, there is an issue with security and how confident people could be that each vote was cast by the registered voter for whom it was intended. Secondly, would voters mistakenly bin the forms or put off the task and just forget about it? That said, I acknowledge that postal voters are more likely to vote. That was shown at the 2010 general election, when 83 per cent of postal votes were returned, whereas only 63 per cent of those who could vote only at the polling station did so. It could be argued that those who registered for a postal vote were more likely to vote because they had gone to the trouble of arranging it.

Electronic machine voting does not do much for turnout, but it provides faster results. Arguably, it could reduce the number of spoiled ballots, but given the failed use of electronic counting machines in 2007, I would be cautious about the use of machines, which could suffer from unforeseen system errors and might lead to an election being invalidated.

I believe that the future may lie in online and telephone voting, although there are concerns about the security of those methods, especially online voting. The increasing threat of cyberterrorism and malware is becoming ever more present, and it represents a massive problem.

Overall, social media has re-energised politics and has brought politicians to the people. Perhaps we need to bring elections to them, too—perhaps we should hold the world’s first ever pilot of hashtag voting.

In conclusion, I am in favour of extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds, but we need to engage with them more to ensure that they are adequately informed when they come to vote. The key idea that we should be focusing on is making registration and voting more accessible by taking polling day to the people.

Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

Local government elections are vital, and this Parliament must do everything that it can not only to improve the way in which those elections are run, but to increase participation in them.

The 2007 elections were marked by scandal. Both the Scottish Parliament election and the local government elections had a much higher rejected ballot paper count than was expected. For example, in 2003 only 0.77 per cent of local government ballot papers were rejected, but in 2007 that increased to 1.83 per cent. The 2007 local government elections were also the first local government elections at which the single transferable vote was used.

Further issues with electronic counting led to Scottish Parliament and local government elections being decoupled, but in the 2012 local government elections, the rejected ballot paper count was still 1.71 per cent, which shows that there are still issues with voters’ understanding of the STV system.

The decoupling of the elections has also led to a dramatic fall in participation. In 2007, the turnout was 52.8 per cent, but in 2012 it fell to 39.8 per cent. In other words, 60.2 per cent of those who were registered to vote did not feel that it was important enough to turn up. That should concern us all.

In the Labour Party, we strongly believe in initiatives to increase citizen participation in local issues and, ultimately, the best way of achieving that is by re-empowering local government. Throughout the SNP’s time in Government, there has been massive centralisation of local government. Instead of citizens being empowered, their power is being taken away, local democracy is decreasing and local people feel disconnected from the process.

Through our devolution commission, we have argued for a radical agenda for local government and community re-empowerment, including but not limited to an adjustment of powers and responsibilities to suit local circumstances, fixing the broken system of local government finance and allowing authorities more scope to influence economic development. By moving power further down the chain and empowering local people and local government, we can better target the disconnect that is felt at local levels.

However, we must also work to ensure that voting systems move with the times and make citizenship education part of the school curriculum through personal and social education. Although I hear that that can happen, it is not currently required in curriculum for excellence.

As for modernising the voting system, we have a range of options including online voting, telephone voting, universal postal votes and even mandatory voting. I am not suggesting that we move wholesale to one system or another, but that we look at whether more systems can be utilised in conjunction with traditional polling places to make voting more flexible and accessible. Although some of those methods raise security issues, I note that people are happy to use online banking systems, and I imagine that they would find online voting acceptable.

There is no quick fix to the issues that have been presented this afternoon, but I would like this Government to start increasing participation by re-empowering local government and local communities, by making citizenship education a requirement in curriculum for excellence and by setting up a programme to trial new voting systems to ensure that results in future elections are truly representative.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Thank you very much. Mr Paterson, I would be grateful if you would refrain from turning your back on the chair and chatting while other members are speaking.

Photo of Richard Lyle Richard Lyle Scottish National Party

I first stood in a local government election in 1974. It was in Orbiston Bellshill; I was eventually elected in 1976, and then won 10 local council elections in a row, mostly under the old system. In 1976, when I was first elected, more than 3,000 people—two thirds of the electorate—voted in my local Orbiston ward, but that number has been falling steadily ever since. Indeed, in the most recent local elections in 2012, the poll in the Bellshill ward was only 36.36 per cent. In other words, 36 years on, voting has fallen by nearly half. Turnout in North Lanarkshire was only 37.7 per cent, while turnout across the whole of Scotland was over 39 per cent. There might well have been extenuating circumstances—it was, for example, the first time that council elections had been decoupled from the Scottish Parliament elections—but that does not change the fact that something must be done to improve the figures and re-engage the public.

We must remember that elections are for the people, not for politicians. They are the cornerstone of our democracy. It is clear from both the low turnout for the recent European elections and the projected 80 per cent turnout for the upcoming referendum that the people of Scotland are happy to vote for something that they see as important. We must therefore ensure that the interest, engagement and enthusiasm that the current referendum debate has produced are capitalised on and not lost after 18 September.

I am not the most technologically savvy person, but it is clear to me that electoral processes have not kept up with recent technological developments. It is my belief that technology must be embraced in elections and that people must be allowed to vote via text, email or the internet by means of an election app or a mobile phone election app—or even while shopping.

We already allow postal votes, and postal voting applications in North Lanarkshire have risen from just over 2,000 to more than 10,000 in the past few years. The procedure for applying for a postal vote has changed over the years—people no longer need a doctor’s line or signature to confirm that they are too unwell to vote at a polling station. They can now fill in a simple application form, date and sign it, and put down the elections for which they want a postal vote. I therefore see few difficulties in implementing safeguards to allow an electronic type of voting, which will help to encourage many people to vote from their armchairs.

Many young people vote for their favourite hit tune in the top 100 every Sunday by downloading it online. Why should we not allow them to download their favourite political party at election time? Are political parties scared of losing control of the way in which people vote? Political parties like to control voting intentions by various means such as polls, canvassing, targeted leaflets and doorstep canvassing to get their vote out.

Wherever possible, young people should be encouraged to engage in the political process. That is already being done to a great extent by allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the independence referendum on 18 September, and I am encouraged to hear that the Scottish Government is seeking views on a general extension of the vote to that age group.

However, technology alone will not solve the problem. As studies have shown, internet voting simply means that those who would have voted anyway vote by a different method. I find it hard to believe that, in this day and age, it is not possible for a member of the public to turn up at a polling station, legally register and vote all at the same time. That system is being implemented in some areas of America, and the evidence suggests that same-day registration increases voting turnout significantly.

Ordinary people have many things going on in their lives. They are not politicians, and they are not committed to the political process as we are. We must bring back the old saying, “Power to the people”. I welcome—as members of all parties should—the Scottish Government’s consultation document, “Scotland’s Electoral Future: Delivering Improvement in Participation and Administration”, and its commitment to improving the quality of democracy. As with all consultations, it is important that everyone supports what is being done.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That brings us to the closing speeches. As I am sure members will know, all members who have participated in the debate should be back in the chamber for closing speeches. I call Cameron Buchanan, who has five minutes.

Photo of Cameron Buchanan Cameron Buchanan Conservative

Is my friend Dick Lyle suggesting that we sing while we vote?

On the whole, the debate has been quite constructive. We all agree that we must make it easier for people to participate in our local government elections, and many members have focused on specific areas such as European elections, polling places, the electoral register and online voting.

John Wilson raised the issue of postal voting. A number of pilots have been rather successful, but the forms are too complicated, and the evidence has shown that there is a disturbing number of spoiled postal ballot papers, which should not happen. We should simplify the postal voting forms. We must also bear in mind that there is a marked difference between a pilot and a full-scale roll-out, and we should be aware of the potential difficulties in carrying out a poll on such a large scale.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, we must ensure that robust procedures are in place to protect the integrity of the vote, including security measures. We must be confident that people are able to exercise their right to vote free from coercion.

A lot of people like going to the polls to vote, and I agree with my colleagues that it is important that we find voting places that are voter friendly—without, of course, necessarily giving voters a cup of coffee to bribe them for their vote. In Edinburgh, many schools that are used are cold and miserable in winter, which puts people off voting, but the libraries next door are not used. I spoke to someone about that, and they said that it is because there are no janitors and they cannot get people to man them. We need friendlier places to vote, and we should be prepared to think about which current voting places might be unfriendly. However, if we make any changes, they cannot compromise the way in which we conduct our vote.

Another aspect that many members mentioned is the need to ensure that voters understand the voting system. They need to know what they are voting for and understand the responsibilities of local government, which is not always the case. We all know that, when we go round the doorsteps, whatever the election, people talk about things that are not necessarily relevant. If it is a local election, they talk about Europe; if it is a European election, they talk about local stuff. We have to try and engage with them on those aspects.

This is my opinion, but I am very much in favour of 16 and 17-year-olds being allowed to vote. We should encourage that. After all, as colleagues have said, they can do everything else, so they should be allowed to vote in all elections. I really think that we should get that done. [Applause.] I am not sure that my party necessarily agrees with that, however. [Laughter.] I can say it here and I cannot be corrected. It is right to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote because, after all, it has been proved that most of the enthusiasm is among the young people. When I get out there, I find that they are keen. Some people in council estates and so on are just not engaged, but the younger people seem to think that voting is relevant. To be fair, it is novel for them, too. I am all in favour of that.

One key aspect of the new curriculum for excellence is developing responsible citizens. Encouraging democratic participation should surely play a large part in our children’s education. As Sarah Boyack said, it is children in school who really engage. When schools visit the Parliament, it is the 10, 11 and 12-year olds who really like it and who are keen to know what is happening, even in a non-political way. That is important. I noticed with interest the comment of Dumfries and Galloway Council that the education system could help to embed the importance of voting from an early age. That is key.

In considering the curriculum for excellence, we have to move beyond the perfunctory voter information campaign drives and dry leaflets. Schools must consider the role that they play in the process with children from a young age. We make the stuff too dry and complicated.

As I said in my opening remarks, the consultation is part of a wider process. Sarah Boyack’s amendment, which I will definitely vote for, is correct that, if we are to genuinely re-engage the public with local government, we must make it relevant. However, the consultation is about what we can do to improve the process of voting and make it easier for those who already want to take part.

An important message from the debate is that there are no quick fixes. It is interesting to note that, in Belgium, where voting is compulsory, turnout had been at 89 per cent but the figure dropped for the European elections because people did not think that it was relevant and just spoiled their ballot papers. They went into the polling station and either tore up the paper or wrote rubbish on it, as sometimes happens here. I try to persuade people that spoiling their ballot paper is a waste, because nobody pays attention to it. People think that they are making a protest vote, but we do not put those protests aside—they just go straight into a bucket. We have to persuade people that there is no point in going to vote and spoiling their ballot paper.

A good deal of work needs to be done to engage the public. It might take quite a bit of time for that work to bear fruit, but it is important that we do all that we can to make the system easier while preserving the integrity of local government voting. Fraud is an important issue. We all know that people go round houses and say, “I’ll fill in the ballot paper for you.” There might be about six ballot papers, and they are all filled in. That is part of the problem that we might never get round.

I do not know whether online voting will work. It should work, but I must say that I cannot really see it working. People want the traditional method and the postal vote—they do not want too many complicated types of voting. When we had three types of voting in 2007, or whenever it was, that was a failure. There were masses of spoiled papers. In Edinburgh, it was a total disaster.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that you must come to a close, please.

Photo of Cameron Buchanan Cameron Buchanan Conservative

I am just about to close now, thank you very much—that is enough.

We have to preserve the integrity of the vote.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

The debate has been really good, because we have been able to draw on members’ experience as former councillors, political activists and probably members of local community groups. There are lots of practical ways in which we could improve the voting process and the mechanics of voting. I hope that, by the end of the minister’s consultation, we will have a raft of suggestions on which there will probably be a degree of cross-party agreement. The only caveat is that it is the members who are most enthusiastic on the issue who are engaged in the debate and whether all our parties will sign up as enthusiastically is another matter. We must try to persuade our parties that we need to change.

That has to be part of the backdrop to the debate. There are all sorts of issues to do with making voting easier and having more publicity. Some members of my party were overjoyed when posters were banned, but others thought that it would draw attention away from the day and that people would not know that it is voting day. I think that publicity is crucial. It might be done through posters, through the media or by local government or the political parties, but we need to lift awareness of voting.

Some very sensible suggestions have been made, particularly in relation to young people. When we think about it, the role of local government is fundamental to young people’s lives. Lots of the nuts and bolts of what local authorities do in service provision—schools and good-quality education; local buses; support for young carers; libraries; sports facilities; housing; licensing policy; and community safety—have a massive effect on young people’s lives. Maybe we need to do more to draw that out.

I think that we need a cultural shift, which is partly what I am alluding to in my amendment. It is partly about re-empowering local government; it is also about making the connection with communities.

There have been a lot of initiatives at council level. I have been to quite a few meetings of youth councils, but they seem to wax and wane over the years. If there is a champion for youth councils at council level, they will promote the youth council. What lessons can we learn from the work of the Scottish Youth Parliament in involving young people and having us shadowed? I have met my youth parliamentarians over the years and they bring an energy, a new perspective and a freshness to youth politics. We need to tap into that. We also need to tap into the youth organisations in our political parties.

We need to do everything we can to encourage our young people to stand for election, whether it is to fight a winnable seat or to fight for the cause. It is important to give young people that experience, give them the responsibility, give them the profile and trust them to get involved. That goes for both our youth and our student movements. There are particular challenges in getting our student movements involved, but we need to do more to make such involvement work.

This has to be about making local government more accessible and more empowered to take decisions closer to people and to make the connections. We could say that the establishment of the Scottish Parliament with a more proportional voting system was designed to do the same thing, yet in our elections we struggle to get turnout much above 50 per cent. There is therefore a major challenge. Empowerment is part of the issue and we might have a wider debate about that, but we could do more. We need to focus on what we can all do politically in our different parties.

A strong message came from the Electoral Reform Society’s research, which focused on the large number of people who actively choose not to vote, a point that was made particularly well by Cara Hilton. The issue is not just that they are not aware of it but that they actively choose not to vote. They do not trust politicians of whatever level of elected representation and they do not trust our parties. We, as political parties, have to re-engage with them. At the local level, that is something that we all need to do. We need to ensure that we get more effective engagement. We need to consider best practice to make politics more relevant.

We need to focus on involving people not only at election times, although that is crucial, but between elections. That was one of the things that I was keen to promote in the review of the Labour Party that we conducted after 2011. We had lots of ideas because we had to go back to first principles and ask how we did things. It certainly focused our interest on representational politics, in terms of having more women—Anne McTaggart mentioned that—more young people and more people from ethnic minority communities. There is a lot more that all political parties could do to make those connections. If we do not do that, people will not be connected and they will not see the relevance of voting.

The points that were made by Tavish Scott and Alex Rowley need to be addressed by all of us. That will probably have to be done in the aftermath of whatever happens in the referendum, but we need to start talking seriously about how we make local government finance work more effectively. It is unfinished business for all of us. It is essential if we are to see local government empowered to be more than a service provider. That is where some of the tension has arisen with regard to centralisation. When we pass laws here because we do not want postcode lotteries, that leads to tension. We need to be up front about that and debate the consequences of that while still trying to push power to local authorities and communities—it has to be both.

There must be a culture shift, and we all have to be involved in that at Parliament, council and community level. There will be tensions, of course, and we need to own up to them when they arise. However, local government finance, powers for our local communities, land reform changes and the community empowerment changes that are needed are part of that process. It might be about co-operatives and community ownership. It is about making those connections in local groups and then pushing them through into mainstream politics.

I want to end on a quote that highlights the social justice perils of us not being engaged and deals with the disconnection of people from low-income backgrounds in particular. The IPPR analysed the 2010 general election and the cuts that followed it. Its examination of the 2010 spending review showed that

“those who did not vote in the 2010 general election faced cuts worth 20 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 12 per cent for those who did vote.”

In that way, it argues,

“unequal turnout unleashes a vicious cycle of disaffection and under-representation among those groups for which participation is falling” and to whom politics seems to have less and less to say. We all need to take that to heart. We have debated local government expenditure and the long-term impact of the council tax freeze in other debates, but we should also consider the social justice aspect of the fact that the people who vote are most likely to be represented best. We must address that democratic deficit. We need to ensure that we are open and more committed to making local elections and local politics meaningful. That is also relevant to the Scottish elections. It is an issue across western democracies.

I hope that the minister will accept our amendment. It is promoted in good faith. There are some key issues that need to be addressed in addition to the technical ones.

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

This has been a very constructive, well-informed and helpful debate for developing our work.

The Government intends to accept and support the Labour amendment. I also like Sarah Boyack’s description of those who have contributed to the debate and are present. I was going to describe us as political anoraks, but I far prefer the description “most enthusiastic members”, who can contribute to the debate and contribute ideas.

The tone of the debate and the speeches that have been made in it will help to fuel the continuing work. Some people would ask why we are embarking on work so early for council elections that are some way away, but the Gould report taught us that we have to make preparations in advance. To have confidence in the electoral system, we should first and foremost engage—in a cross-party style—with wider stakeholders, and then make preparations for an election that can inspire confidence because of its transparency and the preparations that have been made. We have learned the lessons of previous elections, and I am mindful of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s work that has helped to bring us to that point.

I will respond to some specific questions. There will be a new online registration process that will be quicker, convenient and more secure. I think that that will be welcomed. Another technical point was made on rejected postal votes. For the first time, the electoral authorities will write to people whose postal votes were rejected to explain why that was the case. It is welcome that people will be made aware of that, and it will also be the case for future elections.

Sarah Boyack and other members covered pertinent issues about geographic areas. Social class may well be an issue. I am mindful of the fact that, when we moved from door-to-door registration to a different process, many thousands of people were taken off the register. That has had an impact, and there is no doubt that the extent to which areas and individuals are seen to be well off seems to be a factor. We need to make it easier for people to register and, as Mark McDonald said, to stay on the register. Much work is being done on that.

It is important that we continue with probity and security, but we also need to remove the mystique from the polling place. I remember the time when there was a police officer outside every polling place and there might not have been disabled access. Even at the European elections a few weeks ago, someone asked me whether they needed their passport to vote, so there is an issue with awareness of how easy it is to vote. We should not necessarily highlight—as Mark McDonald perhaps did—how easy it is to commit impersonation by walking in and pretending to be someone else, but we need to do something to raise awareness of how easy it is to cast a vote.

On young people, we will engage further with Young Scot and others at an event in the Scottish exhibition and conference centre, which might not be as popular as the major attractions that normally attend the centre, but it will be important to engage with young people and to take forward that strand of work, as well as others on gender. We have agreed that councils and other places of decision making should more accurately represent and reflect the communities that they have to govern, thereby bringing the governors closer to the governed.

Parties also have a duty to recruit more women to stand, and they have a duty to put them up as candidates in elections.

The issue is much wider than administration of voting. John Mason helpfully covered issues of convenience and I am sure that Cameron Buchanan, who raised a number of issues, will welcome the fact that the Electoral Reform Society is on the stakeholder group and is contributing to the on-going debate. We believe that proportional representation through STV has stimulated better representation in local government, but it comes with challenges, and we do not support compulsory voting, for the same reasons as Cameron Buchanan. The issue is bigger than the administrative and bureaucratic issues, although they must be addressed. We will consider good practice and we will continue to consult.

Tavish Scott helpfully covered empowering local communities, financial accountability and rebalancing power. The work that we are undertaking with the island areas ministerial working group is trailblazing and will help the rebalancing power agenda. I think that it will be warmly welcomed, because it will focus on what we can do. Incidentally, I appreciated Tavish Scott’s comment about my being a relatively youthful minister, because I get that less frequently as the years go on.

Richard Lyle covered his election in 1976. I was not yet born then—

Members: Oh!

I know. That was a low blow.

I appreciated Richard Lyle’s commentary on how systems have improved over the years. [Interruption.]

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

Excuse me, minister.

Far too many conversations are going on, particularly at the back of the room. Could members resume their seats?

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

There is in Parliament far too much consensus on how we conduct elections—but that is to be welcomed.

John Wilson helpfully pointed out a number of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s recommendations that the Government has been able to take forward, some of which I identified. I am sure that it was not out of personal interest that Mr Wilson mentioned the ordering of ballot papers.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Along with many colleagues, I am sure, I welcome the announcements that the minister has made today. Will it be possible for him to put them together in one package, so that we can disseminate the information across our connections and networks?

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

I will be happy to do that. I will update the Local Government and Regeneration Committee as we continue the process of engagement and consultation on what we have committed to do, which includes looking at the ordering of ballot papers and randomisation.

Anne McTaggart’s contribution was helpful. I would not agree with many of her points on finance and budget settlement, but she was absolutely correct on turnout and encouraging more women to participate and become candidates.

Mark McDonald made a helpful point about Aberdeen City Council’s referendum. He put aside the issue on which the referendum was held and pointed out that it was conducted through an all-postal ballot and turnout was 52 per cent. The turnout for the local government elections—for those who would actually make the decision—was not 52 per cent but 33.7 per cent. That made the point about alternative voting methods, on which we have found so much welcome consensus today.

Kevin Stewart covered votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. To our surprise across the chamber, there was consensus: all parties support votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in not just the referendum but in every election. That will be welcomed by 16 and 17-year-olds across Scotland. That is where the parties’ spokespeople now are. Cameron Buchanan might have some explaining to do to the Conservative Party, but we welcome that conversion of the Opposition spokesperson.

Photo of Derek Mackay Derek Mackay Scottish National Party

I think that Mr Buchanan will need to explain it to the whips later—I have only 40 seconds left.

There is increased confidence in new and different methods of voting, which we have to consider closely and carefully as we seek to improve participation in our democracy and elections. We need to look beyond the issue of turnout and we must inspire people to vote, so that they have confidence in the electoral systems and so that we can ensure that we have a healthy and thriving democracy that builds on the momentum that we have right now—on whichever side of the referendum one stands—and which engages the people of Scotland in Scotland’s electoral future.