– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th January 2016.
Good afternoon, everyone. The first item of business this afternoon is a debate on motion S4M-15221, in the name of Joe FitzPatrick, on the Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill.
I am pleased to open this afternoon’s debate on the general principles of the Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill. The bill is very short and straightforward, and I want to take this opportunity to set out to the chamber why it is necessary.
As things stand, there will be general elections to both the Scottish and United Kingdom Parliaments on 7 May 2020. Such a clash is undesirable for a number of reasons. For example, we know from our experience in Scotland in 2007 that holding different elections with different voting systems on the same date can lead to unusually high levels of spoiled and rejected ballot papers. The issue was rightly of great concern in 2007, and it was why Parliament concluded unanimously, in agreement with the Gould report, that different Scotland-wide elections should not be held on the same date. In fact, last May, the Presiding Officer wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland, setting out the position that she had agreed with all the main party leaders that it was imperative that an alternative date be set for the Scottish parliamentary elections, as happened in 2011 when our election was moved from 2015 to 2016.
Of course, the Presiding Officer had to write to the Scottish Secretary, because the power to amend the date for a Scottish Parliament election currently sits with Westminster; in 2011, it was Westminster, not this Parliament, that legislated to move our election from 2015 to 2016. However, members will no doubt be aware of the Smith commission’s recommendation that
“The Scottish Parliament will have all powers in relation to elections to the Scottish Parliament and local government elections in Scotland”.
When enacted, the Scotland Bill will give effect to that recommendation. The timing for when that will happen is still very much the subject of current debate, but we can be pretty sure that it will not happen in time for the Parliament to assume responsibility for elections in Scotland before May of this year.
The Scottish and UK Governments both agreed on the importance of voters knowing the length of the parliamentary session that they were voting on before they went to the polls in May. As a result, the Deputy First Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland agreed a section 30 order under the Scotland Act 1998 to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the power that enables us to bring forward this bill, and that order was approved by both the Scottish and UK Parliaments. I hope that everyone in the chamber will agree that it is absolutely right for this Parliament to legislate to change the date, which is the purpose of the bill.
As for the bill itself, it is, as I said at the start of my remarks, very short and straightforward. It proposes moving the Scottish Parliament election, which is currently scheduled for 7 May 2020, to 6 May 2021 to avoid coinciding with the Westminster election, which is also scheduled for 7 May 2020. That would mean a five-year term for the next parliamentary session, which would mirror the one-year extension to the current parliamentary session that was set by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
Members will be aware that the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales have already moved their elections to 2021 to avoid the clash of date in 2020. Indeed, legislation has been passed to permanently change the frequency of elections to both Assemblies and ensure that they happen at five-year intervals. I will return to that issue in relation to Scotland later.
However, moving the Scottish Parliament election to May 2021 will mean a clash with local government elections, which are scheduled for the same date. All the arguments that I have already set out against a Holyrood and Westminster clash of dates apply equally to a Scottish Parliament and local government clash; in fact, it was such a clash between elections in 2007 that brought about the Gould report, which, as I said, the Parliament unanimously agreed to. As a result, the bill proposes moving the local government elections scheduled for 6 May 2021 to 5 May 2022, which would mean a five-year term for councillors elected in May 2017 and would also replicate the one-year extension to the current local government term.
I take on board what is proposed in the bill, but would it not be simpler for the Government to introduce proposals to revert to elections every five years for both local government and the Scottish Parliament, rather than introducing piecemeal bills to the Parliament for discussion every four or five years?
That is an interesting point and I will come to it later in my speech.
I turn to the discussions that we had at stage 1 and the stage 1 report from the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I place on the record my thanks to the convener and the committee members for their scrutiny of the bill and I welcome the report’s recommendation that the Parliament agree to its general principles. The committee took a proportionate approach to its scrutiny of what is a very short bill.
I also welcome the fact that the committee recognised the broad consensus in favour of the bill and expressed its support for the approach that the bill takes in proposing what I believe is a pragmatic solution to the issue of a clash of dates. That broad consensus comes from the range of organisations that have a direct interest in the proposed date changes. We consulted the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, the Electoral Reform Society, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. All were supportive of the proposed changes and none raised any issues about the bill’s contents.
I was asked during my evidence to the committee why we had opted to move the Scottish Parliament election to 2021 in order to avoid the 2020 clash of dates and not, instead, opted to bring it forward to 2019. The latter would have meant a three-year term for the next session of Parliament. As I said to the committee, a three-year term would be particularly short in parliamentary terms and we would really have to question whether the Scottish public would wish to return to the polls so quickly. Furthermore, the proposed five-year term mirrors the length of the current parliamentary session. I therefore welcome the committee’s support in its report for a five-year term rather than a three-year one.
The committee also posed the question that John Wilson asked me, about why we are not taking the opportunity in the bill to permanently resolve future clashes of election dates. Richard Simpson suggested in his written submission to the committee that it would be sensible to do so, and I acknowledge John Wilson’s comments. However, the section 30 order that enabled us to introduce the bill at all is specific in giving us the power to change only the 2020 election. As I said, permanent powers over elections in Scotland are in the Scotland Bill, and it will be for members in the next session of Parliament to consider a permanent solution, once the power to do so has been fully devolved.
I was pleased to note that the committee expressed its view that it considers it appropriate that a decision on any permanent changes to the timings of Scottish Parliament elections should be taken in the next session of Parliament.
In his submission to the committee, Richard Simpson went further on the matter, suggesting that voting for the Scottish Parliament, local government and European elections should all take place on the same date. Again, however, I point out that the section 30 order that transferred the powers that allowed us to introduce the bill specifically prohibited us from setting an election on the same day as UK Parliament, European Parliament or any nationwide local government elections. That is in line with the Smith commission’s recommendations and it is how the Scotland Bill deals with the issue. I also reiterate the points that I made earlier about the consensus in support of the Gould report’s recommendation to avoid having different elections on the same date.
I hope that colleagues agree with the assessment that this short bill presents a straightforward and pragmatic solution to a clash of election dates.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill.
I call Stewart Stevenson to speak on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. You have six minutes or thereby, Mr Stevenson.
I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I hope that the Minister for Parliamentary Business did not create a hostage to fortune when he said that this is a “short and straightforward” bill. He should be absolutely aware that my committee and Parliament as a whole will subject the bill to exactly the high standards of scrutiny that he would expect. There being a mere 200 words in the bill, it would be rather difficult for any defects to hide in the detail. We will do the job that we are always required to do. In fact, if one thinks about it, those 200 words are approximately one quarter of the number of words that I would expect to speak in the six minutes that the Presiding Officer has allowed me, which focuses us precisely on how concise the bill is. Its main purpose is to move the elections to the Scottish Parliament to a date that does not clash with other elections.
The committee had a pretty tight schedule to consider the bill. However, given the high degree of consensus in favour of the bill, our being designated as the lead committee on 25 November and completing our report just 19 days later, on 14 December, was a proportionate response. Like the bill itself, our report is quite brief—24 paragraphs and just over 1,000 words. I am told by my clerks that Salvador Dali once told a press conference:
“I shall be so brief that I have already finished.”
Although I am not quite in that category, I will not say too much about the bill.
The committee considered carefully whether to take oral evidence on the bill but, given that the Government had consulted widely—including COSLA and the Electoral Commission, where it established that there was unanimity in favour of the bill—we concluded that there was no need to reconsult. We restricted our oral evidence taking to a light grilling for the minister, which we thought was a proportionate approach. As the minister said, we explored why a five-year term rather than a three-year term was appropriate. I think that we were broadly satisfied with the answers that we heard. Three years would be short and, for any Government of whatever political complexion, that is a relatively limited period in which to develop major policy initiatives and get moving on them. Of course, the other Administrations in these islands have already aligned themselves on a five-year cycle. There is a pretty universal consensus that the timetable is sensible.
The committee was content with the policy memorandum and costs. Moving the election back one year does not, in and of itself, create any new costs, and it postpones the costs that are associated with an election by a year. In financial terms, there is little to say.
We wrote to all MSPs to give them the opportunity to input. The minister has referred to Dr Richard Simpson’s interesting contribution. As politicians, we can get very tied up in the process of politics. It is not as if reform and change of parliamentary process is something new. The great reform act of 1832 perhaps started the reforming motion. As people sometimes forget, that was the act that deprived women of the vote, while purporting to be a great reform of parliamentary procedures. It was quite a long time before women got the vote back. In 1872, which was in the life of all my grandparents, it was the first time that there were secret ballots. In many ways, every few years we will continue to see a reform. This is part of a wide process that is probably not complete with this bill because, I imagine, we are likely to come back to making permanent changes when we have the power to do so. However, that is a matter for another day and not one on which we should dwell today.
The Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill is indeed a short bill. It has very specific objectives. I expect a flood of amendments at stage 2—perhaps not—or even at stage 3. Given the broad consensus that has emerged thus far, I suspect that the bill will make its way through the parliamentary system and that it will do so with proper scrutiny but appropriate rapidity. It is certainly desirable to avoid a clash between the 2020 Scottish Parliament elections currently scheduled and the next UK Parliament elections scheduled for the same year.
We support the approach in the bill that the next Scottish Parliament session should last five years rather than three. We also felt it to be appropriate that a decision on permanent changes should be taken in the next session, once powers on that are given to the Parliament. That will allow time for a fuller discussion about the length of future Scottish parliamentary sessions. In the meantime, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is happy to recommend that Parliament should agree to the general principles of this short but important bill.
In opening for Scottish Labour, I say at the outset that we support the principles of the Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill, which outlines the dates for the Scottish elections in 2021 and the local government elections in 2022. As a member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I was involved in producing the stage 1 report. I thank the clerks for their help and support with the work that the committee does.
Although the bill is short and contains only two small provisions, the committee sought evidence and received one piece of written evidence from Dr Richard Simpson. We also took oral evidence from the Minister for Parliamentary Business and consulted the relevant sectors.
The decision to have a five-year parliamentary term reflects the timings for other parliamentary and devolved Administration elections in the United Kingdom. With the return of a Tory Government, those are unlikely to change, given the establishment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. To avoid clashing with the scheduled UK general election in 2020, the Scottish Government has opted for a five-year term and rejected the idea of a three-year term. The options of a three-year and a five-year term both have their merits but, as I said, Scottish Labour fully supports the Scottish Government’s proposal for the next Scottish Parliament election to be held in 2021.
That would impact on the local government elections that are due to take place, so we welcome the move to postpone those elections for one year. Following the confusion that unfolded in 2007, when the Scottish and local government elections were held on the same day, we are keen to avoid any repeat. However, we need to bear in mind that situations can change. At a future time, we might consider revisiting the possibility of holding council and Scottish Parliament elections on the same day—who knows? Should that situation arise, we must work as a unified chamber.
Does the member accept that, in the previous session of Parliament, the Gould report recommended complete separation of local government and Scottish Parliament elections? In the initial stages, a two-year gap was programmed between the elections, so that there was a clear division.
I absolutely acknowledge what the member says. I am merely raising the point that, in future, a situation might arise in which we decide to revisit that—who knows? I am merely saying that we should perhaps be open to that.
As we have heard, Dr Richard Simpson called for the Scottish elections to be held on the same day as the European elections. Although there is merit in that suggestion, the committee heard that it is not possible as a result of a clause in the Scotland Bill following the Smith commission recommendations. To a degree, holding more than one election on the same day provides the opportunity to increase turnout in an election that usually receives lower participation. I can understand Dr Richard Simpson’s thinking, as only 33.5 per cent of the Scottish electorate took part in the European elections in 2014, despite the increased attention on those elections as a result of the referendum campaign. The referendum then attracted a record 85 per cent turnout. In last year’s general election, the turnout was 71 per cent and, at the election in a few months, we can expect a turnout of anything from 65 per cent upwards.
As I said, the options of a three-year and five-year term both have merits. The most obvious advantage of a five-year term is that of avoiding a clash with the UK general election in 2020. A five-year term also provides stability for Government and for long-term strategic planning, and allows for parties to fully develop policy ideas. One academic to whom I spoke warned that the present system of elections almost every year means that parties are constantly either preparing for or running election campaigns, which leaves them with little time to spend on policy development, the real work of government or, indeed, the work of opposition.
The disadvantages of a five-year term include issues around accountability and there being fewer opportunities for the electorate to engage in holding the Government to account. If the same party was in government for two consecutive terms, that would result in 10 years instead of eight in government, as is the norm around the world.
With the bill containing two small provisions and no issues surrounding the timing of the next Scottish election following the election in May, I repeat that Scottish Labour fully supports the principles behind the bill and will support it throughout its parliamentary process.
I, too, offer my thanks to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its work in bringing forward the stage 1 report.
Mr Stevenson offered a quotation on brevity, and I will use the adage from “Hamlet”:
“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief”.
The bill contains a short and sensible pair of proposals, and it will receive the support of the Conservatives at decision time. Before I approach its substance, it is worth reflecting that the powers that we are exercising are yet another example of further devolution in practice. The powers have been devolved initially by order in council and will be made permanent by the Scotland Bill, which is currently before the UK Parliament.
The devolution of electoral administration for the Scottish Parliament is yet another example of my party’s commitment to the Smith commission process, as reflected in the Smith agreement, and further fulfilment of the pledge to create a United Kingdom in which more decisions are made closer to the individuals and communities that they affect.
We have developed cross-party agreement in the Parliament on elections to the Parliament not falling on the same day as general elections to the House of Commons or, potentially, other significant elections. Following the Gould report in 2007, that has worked its way into almost something of a constitutional convention. I think that it is a sound one.
I know that there have been one or two dissenting voices. I believe that Mr Stevenson expressed reservations in committee, and Dr Richard Simpson’s submission has already been referred to. However, the Smith commission expressly rejected that option. I was a member of that commission, and I support the findings of its reports, which were approved by representatives of all parties in the Parliament.
The agreement confirms that, although control over Scottish Parliament elections should be almost entirely devolved, UK legislation should prohibit the holding of a Scottish Parliament election on the same day as a UK general election, local government elections or elections to the European Parliament. That is incorporated into clause 5 of the Scotland Bill. However, I sympathise with the wish to see a more established convention that regulates the length of parliamentary sessions for the Scottish Parliament. Mary Fee made some interesting and thoughtful observations.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is now a reasonably well-established part of the British constitution in relation to Westminster and, as such, there will have to be a real debate on the timescale for Scottish Parliament elections. As the minister indicated, the powers over elections beyond 2021 are unlikely to be devolved before this session ends. As he has made clear, that makes the future position a question for the next session, when I and many others will no longer be members of the Scottish Parliament. I am offering purely personal reflections; my party will, of course, have to confirm its position during the next session.
The minister has said that he agrees with the parliamentary session being set at five years, which mirrors the length of this session, and the 2021 election date has been agreed by our colleagues in the devolved Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that there is some advantage in consistency there. However, having a five-year session has been more of a default position that has been adopted out of necessity than a positive conclusion that was reached because five years is necessarily the best length of session for a devolved Parliament.
It is worth remembering that the four-year model has a long history. It dates back to the recommendations of the 1973 Royal Commission on the Constitution, or Kilbrandon, report, and it is a thread that runs through the pre-history of the Scottish Parliament, from the Scotland Act 1978 through the conclusions of the Scottish Constitutional Convention to the Westminster debates in the late 1990s, which led to the Scottish Parliament being created.
Although I reserve judgment on the merit of doing so, to my understanding it would still be possible to maintain a four-year electoral cycle by moving Holyrood elections to a different time of year. Again, I do not seek to state that there would not be too great a political clash in those sessions when devolved and UK elections fell less than a year apart; I merely observe that the option is there. I also observe that elections falling in May is a relatively recent innovation. There are plenty of examples in recent decades of elections falling in October, November or even December. I simply want to demonstrate that there is scope for debate. That is where I disagree with John Wilson—I think that the debate is important and needs to take place.
An enduring settlement on parliamentary terms is essential to fulfil the very reasonable decision that the Scottish Parliament should have consistent, fixed terms. It will not fall to me to play a role in the process; it will be the responsibility of members of the next Parliament, but I urge members to keep an open mind about it. In the meantime, I support the bill.
I welcome the chance to take part in this short debate and I express my thanks to committee members for such a succinct report. Members often highlight the fact that we ought to produce shorter reports. We do not always achieve that, but in this instance we have. Given that the bill has just four sections, I am sure that questions would have been asked of the convener and committee members if the report had been longer.
The report highlights, in clear terms, the bill’s limited scope and the reason for the proposed change. It also highlights the lack of a campaign against the bill, which is helpful in this case.
The convener’s questions, during the oral evidence taking, seeking clarity about a three-year term were worth while. I agree with the report’s suggestion, however, that a five-year term is a more consistent approach to the next parliamentary session. As we know, this session has been a five-year term and continuing that approach for a further session is common sense to me.
Elections clashing with each other dilutes one of them, so I disagree with Dr Richard Simpson’s suggestion to hold Scottish Parliament, local authority and European Parliament elections on the same day. Similarly, Dr Simpson’s suggestion to hold the election on a weekend day is fraught with difficulties. Evidence that the former Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee received on the matter indicated that holding an election on a weekend day would have implications, in particular for those from religious backgrounds.
This bill will provide clarity for the forthcoming session and will aid the electoral cycle now that Westminster has finally moved into the 21st century and introduced fixed-term Parliaments. Holding elections at the whim of whoever is in charge at the time has never made any sense to me. Ultimately parliamentarians are elected to serve the population, not to pick and choose election dates to suit party leaders.
The committee convener has laid out in clear terms the limitations placed on this Parliament with regard to organising Scottish Parliament elections. The fact that this Parliament has obtained the power to determine the length of the upcoming session is welcome. With powers to determine future Scottish Parliament elections in the current Scotland Bill, this process need not be repeated. However, the Scotland Bill does need to secure the support of this chamber and, as we know, discussions about the financial framework continue in an attempt to find a suitable outcome.
A few moments ago, I touched on the clash of elections and I will progress that point a little further. In 1999, 2003 and 2007, Scotland elected parliamentarians and councillors on the same day. Prior to 1999, doing that was considered to be a more cost-effective and efficient way of electing representatives. However, it soon became apparent that issues surrounding local authorities were not being fully aired during campaigning. The separation of elections was a positive step and has allowed local authority issues to be fully discussed, as we saw during the 2012 council elections. Postponing the next local authority elections by one year will guarantee that local authority matters can quite rightly take centre stage in 2022.
The bill appears to have universal support across the chamber, and that is to be welcomed. It is a common-sense approach to the upcoming election and subsequent council election. I look forward to the day, however, when this Parliament does not need to take a sticking-plaster approach via the section 30 process to introduce a short-term fix. Until such a time, I welcome the approach that has been taken thus far.
I am delighted to contribute to the debate, as I believe that this is an important issue for everyone in the chamber.
The Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill will change the date of the Scottish Parliament election from 7 May 2020 to 6 May 2021, so that it does not clash with the UK general election. That means that there will be a five-year term for the Scottish Parliament again, as has been the case between 2011 and 2016. That also means that the bill must allow for a change to the date of the Scottish local government elections that are due to be held on 6 May 2021, to 5 May 2022, so that they do not clash with the new date for the Scottish Parliament election. The local government elections will then revert to being held every four years after 2022.
This is not the first time since the Scottish Parliament was created that we have needed to change the dates of elections to avoid clashes with other elections. However, with new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament next year, Holyrood will be able to set a date that avoids holding the poll on the same day as the UK Parliament, European Parliament or local government elections.
The Scottish Parliament will also have the power to set permanent term lengths. That move is consistent with the Smith commission’s recommendation that power over Scottish elections should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
Since May 2014, we have had in Scotland a referendum, the European Parliament election and a general election, and we are going into Scottish Parliament elections in May and local elections next year. We get a year off—big sigh—in 2018 and then we have the European Parliament elections again in 2019, the general election in 2020 and so on. Although holding two elections on the same day might eliminate any potential confusion for the electorate, the practice of holding other electoral competitions such as the local elections and referendums at the same time as the European elections should be considered in the next term of the Scottish Parliament.
Many countries in Europe, such as England, Ireland and Sweden, hold joint elections because of different factors, including low voter participation and frequent elections. I share the view of Dr Richard Simpson MSP, who in his written submission to the committee supports that practice and states that the measure would allow for and encourage more democracy and would reduce overall costs.
Although this is a short bill with clear objectives, it is vital for the people of Scotland, as it will eliminate any potential confusion if elections did clash. However, Scottish election dates should be reassessed for greater efficiency when the new powers come to Holyrood.
It is clear that the bill will gain broad support today. It is also important that it has COSLA’s approval, as the minister suggested to the committee that it has. That buy-in is important because local authorities will have to deal with electoral administration and their election dates will have to be changed. Our deliberations have to take full account of their view, not to mention the further ramifications for electoral registration officers, returning officers and the general electoral administrative process.
In my opening speech, I touched on some of our long-term options and I am pleased that other members have clearly given thought to such an important question. The Government has indicated that it intends to put those choices for future parliamentary elections out to public consultation and I welcome that commitment. I hope that the consultation is truly wide ranging and that the evidence that is received is useful in informing the next Parliament’s approach.
We should avoid thinking of any particular choice as the default position. As I highlighted in my earlier speech, each has its advantages and disadvantages. Those points have already been made by others. For example, we had the choice of having a three-year session of Parliament following the coming election. That would probably be too short. As a stopgap, the bill will receive the chamber’s approval, but we must be clear that that does not tie any member or party to supporting a five-year model in perpetuity.
To many, this topic may seem dry. However, it is important that we consider the fundamentals of how the Parliament operates. This is a choice of constitutional importance. The Chartists famously fought for elections every year—one aspiration that I am sure that we are all somewhat pleased never became a reality. The Triennial Act 1694 limited the length of sessions of Parliament in England to three years, and the Septennial Act 1716 set a limit of seven years. The modern five-year limit was set in 1911, although it was breached by emergency legislation during the wars.
This Parliament will soon be faced with a choice of equal importance about the period between elections and how long sessions should last. The bill is the forerunner of that debate, but we should make sure that it does not usurp it. We must also lay the groundwork for giving that choice the serious consideration that it merits.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to close, on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, this afternoon’s stage 1 debate on the Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill. As my colleague Mary Fee said, Scottish Labour will support the bill at decision time, as will all the parties in the Parliament. That broad support is important, because we are changing the previously defined date of the Scottish parliamentary election after the coming one. It is important that all political parties agree to that new date. If there was not consensus, that could cause difficulties and friction in getting the bill through.
The bill has been driven by practicalities. It repeats the decision that was taken ahead of the 2011 Scottish Parliament election and has been driven by the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which introduced five-year terms at a UK level.
It is correct that the Scottish Government has put forward the proposal, which is the logical thing to do. We cannot run UK Parliament and Scottish Parliament elections on the same day. Apart from the fact that those elections deal with different issues, as some are devolved and some are reserved, the different campaigns have a completely different dynamic to them.
The possibility of having a three-year session has been discussed. On balance, I have concluded that that is too short and I believe that the practicalities are such that we are right to move to a five-year session.
I am making this intervention in a personal capacity and not as the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. The member might recall that, in 1979, we had a referendum at the beginning of March, a general election at the beginning of May and European elections at the beginning of June. Although I recognise the merit of the proposal from my colleague on my right, Annabel Goldie, that we could have two elections in one year as long as they were far enough apart, the events of 1979 are not an encouraging precedent for anything other than having elections at least a year apart.
I take that point. The discussion is actually quite interesting. There were two general elections in 1974, so we have been here before.
Annabel Goldie made an interesting contribution. The crux of the issue is that we will have to decide whether we want to have four-year or five-year terms. I have been used to four-year terms in local government and in the Scottish Parliament. The advantage of having four-year terms is that, in a sense, that is more democratic, because the political administrations are up for election more frequently. There is merit in that, and there is merit in Annabel Goldie’s suggestion.
Is Mr Kelly implying that the European Parliament elections and Westminster elections are less democratic because they involve five-year terms?
No—I am certainly not saying that. I am saying that there is a case for four-year terms, just as there is a case for five-year terms. Five-year terms provide more stability, which is better for planning—particularly budgetary, financial and policy planning. I recognise that there are advantages to having five-year terms. I would not say that I am stuck to any particular solution at this time. However, Annabel Goldie made some pertinent points.
In the next parliamentary session, it will be essential to come up with a solution for the electoral cycles of both the Scottish Parliament and local councils. It is right that the Government is taking widespread evidence on the matter, which I will study closely to see which cycle is the best. In recent times, because of the change at the UK level, we have been driven towards five-year terms. What we have done has been practical, but a five-year session is not necessarily the right thing. We need proper consideration of the issues and to look at the electoral cycles for all administrations.
I thank all members who took part in the debate for their contributions. The bill is incredibly short and there is clear consensus about what we should do now, although there is a debate to be had about what we will do going forward. It is important that there is unanimity across the chamber about what the bill will do in changing the date of the Scottish Parliament election and the date of the local government election.
There has been discussion today—as there was at the committee—of the need for a permanent solution to the clash of Holyrood and Westminster elections. I think that all members touched on that, and John Wilson raised it in his intervention. If we assume that the bill will be passed and that the clash of elections will be avoided in 2020, the frequency of both parliamentary elections will mean that another clash will occur in 2025 and again every 20 years. We need to look for a permanent solution; otherwise, as Stuart McMillan said, we will have to take a sticking-plaster approach every time there is a clash.
When the powers come to this Parliament, it will be appropriate for us to look at all the issues, and I listened carefully to all the remarks that were made today. I am on record as saying at the committee that there is a strong argument for a five-year cycle. However, arguments for other cycles have been made today. I listened to Annabel Goldie’s suggestion of a different solution whereby, every 20 or so years, we would have two elections in the same year but at different times of the year, so that there was no direct clash. That suggestion is interesting.
It is important that the matter is decided by the next Parliament and that the issues are carefully considered. As Annabel Goldie said, the Government must consult carefully on the issues and take the widest possible view of the implications. Although elections are very pertinent to us as politicians, they are also important to the electorate and other organisations. If there were Holyrood and Westminster elections in the same year, that would be a significant drain on the resources of organisations that want to influence policy making and take part in that process.
It is important that, when the Parliament comes to discuss a permanent solution to the polling date clashes, there is the widest possible consultation. That is correct and it is great that we kicked that off today by saying not just that the choice is between four-year and five-year terms but that there is potential to shift the date of elections. However, there is a fair degree of history, as every Scottish Parliament election has been in May, so holding the election at another time would be a significant change.
Let us get back to the consensus and to the bill, which is about finding a solution for the 2020 clash and dealing with a subsequent clash for local government elections in 2021. The bill offers that solution. I welcome the tenor of the debate, which suggests that members across the chamber agree that the Government has got it right. I do not expect the Government to lodge any amendments at stage 2, but I take on board the convener’s point that there is a parliamentary process to go through. We expect the committee to give the bill the same consideration as all other bills get.
The bill is relatively short, but it is significant. I thank members for their contributions and invite them to support me in agreeing to the general principles of the bill.