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I thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its scrutiny of the bill and its stage 1 report. I also thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its valuable contribution to the consideration of the issues that we are about to debate.
Having heard evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, both committees have welcomed the proposals in the bill, although they have rightly sought to explore further some of its aspects. This afternoon’s debate—brief as it will be—affords us a chance to do just that.
With the Scotland Act 2016 having transferred responsibility for Scottish elections to this Parliament, we have an opportunity to make meaningful and appropriate improvements to how we conduct elections.
I will address some of the bill’s key components. On term lengths, we consulted extensively on whether the current four-year terms for Parliament and local government remain the most appropriate approach. We propose moving both to five-year terms, which will allow for greater stability in our electoral cycle. Last year, I wrote to all members, seeking their thoughts. I hope that today’s debate will help us to reach a settled view on the issue.
As a result of clashes with United Kingdom general elections, our previous two Parliaments have been five-year terms. We need to decide what works best in Scotland. Having weighed the options, my preference is for five-year terms, and I welcome the support for that from the two committees.
Changed term lengths is one of several reforms in the bill that will affect the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. As members will be aware, the commission’s remit now includes boundaries for Scottish Parliament elections as well as for local government areas and wards. That change is reflected in a new name: boundaries Scotland. Under the bill, boundaries Scotland will have powers to recommend two and five-member local government wards where that fits local circumstances and communities.
The bill also allows for rolling boundary reviews, which 71 per cent of respondents to our consultation supported. The bill’s current deadline for reviews—12 years—reflects a four-year term. In response to the stage 1 report, I have agreed that the local government review deadlines will be increased to 15 years if five-year terms are adopted.
The bill proposes that approval for local government boundary changes will no longer reside with ministers and will now require secondary legislation under the affirmative procedure in Parliament.
The role of Parliament is further expanded through provisions that make the Electoral Commission more directly accountable. The commission will be funded by, and accountable to, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body for the work that it carries out in relation to devolved elections. The commission will also be given powers to create codes of practice covering observers, third parties, candidate expenditure and donation controls. I am pleased that the Electoral Commission welcomes those reforms and the principles behind the bill, and I am grateful to it for its on-going engagement.
The bill recognises the importance of other key stakeholders in Scottish elections, and expanding the Electoral Management Board for Scotland’s remit to include Scottish Parliament elections reflects that. Since 2008, the Electoral Management Board has been an invaluable element of elections in Scotland, ensuring that they are delivered to a high standard. It is a vital resource that is regarded with envy by other nations of the UK. The board assists local authorities in co-ordinating elections and referendums, and it promotes best practice through training and information for electoral professionals. That vital work strengthens our system and reinforces voter confidence, so I am pleased that the board will now provide direction for parliamentary elections.
Turning to other provisions, the bill will simplify registration of 14-year-olds. Those approaching legal voting age can already apply to be added to the electoral register as attainers, but the current system is needlessly complex and unclear. Our proposals mean that anyone eligible in Scotland who is aged 14 will be able to register as an attainer. That is a small change, but it will make a big difference to young people’s participation, and it has been welcomed by both the SPPA Committee and our colleagues in the Scottish Youth Parliament.
The bill updates existing legislation to enable electronic voting solutions in the future. The initial aim is to use technology to support voters with sight loss to vote independently and in secret. After engagement with stakeholders, we are undertaking a limited field trial of electronic ballot delivery to assist those with sight loss. Like the committee, I do not think the time is right for internet voting, but it is important to allow Parliament to explore its options once technology is more established. To be clear, any pilots of electronic voting solutions that are proposed by the Scottish ministers will be considered by Parliament.
The bill creates an offence of voting more than once at local government elections, aligning their rules with the rules for Scottish Parliament and UK elections.
The bill also ensures that the Presiding Officer’s existing power to postpone Scottish Parliament elections operates if Parliament has already been dissolved. That is important in minimising risk to the public during emergencies or unexpected events, and it addresses a present gap in the powers of the postholder.
I appreciate that the committees have highlighted that there are opportunities for further reforms, and I agree. However, the bill is a significant step forward in many important areas, although, as I said, it is by no means the end of the journey.
There is an important point about proper consultation and care when considering reforms. Like the SPPA Committee, I am sympathetic to members wishing to tackle the alphabetical bias of the list order effect, but I agree that options must be carefully researched to avoid disadvantaging voters. We must, for example, respect the needs of those with disabilities and the neurodiversity of the electorate. As the committee’s report states,
“There is no point simply replacing one set of problems with another”.
That echoes my own comments at the committee’s evidence session, at which I said:
“we should not change it simply for change’s sake”.—[
Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee
, 5 December 2019; c 20.]
However, that is not a signal for inaction. We need to find a better way forward that does not have obvious drawbacks.
I appreciate that much of the bill’s content is highly technical. Boundary changes and powers of the Electoral Commission sound quite dry in isolation. However, we should value rigorous independent oversight of our system, and the bill enhances that. The reform bill brings in changes to support stakeholders and reassure the public, building on strong foundations of partnership working and our proposals to widen the franchise.
I will finish as I started, by thanking the committees for their engagement. I look forward to the debate.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill.
As the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I am pleased to speak on behalf of the committee in this debate.
As has been mentioned, the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill proposes a number of changes to electoral practice and administration in Scotland. It is a technical bill, but it is an important one because it is vital that any changes to our elections work effectively and enhance the democratic process. The electoral system must be accessible to everyone who has the right to vote.
I am grateful to committee members for working together to produce a unanimous report on the bill. I also acknowledge the experts in the field of running elections who generously gave up their time to inform our scrutiny of the bill.
The bill contains a number of provisions, and I will highlight the main conclusions that the committee reached. We heard different views on the relative merits of four and five-year terms for Scottish Parliament and local government elections. Ultimately, the committee was satisfied that the balance of evidence supports a move to five-year terms for both. That schedule will make clashes between elections less frequent, and there is an argument that a five-year term will allow more time for policy development.
The committee also supported the proposal in the bill to allow two-member and five-member wards for local government elections. We anticipate that that will be particularly useful in more remote and rural areas. We heard some concerns about the impact of two-member wards on the proportionality between votes cast and wards won. The committee believes that two-member wards should be recommended only in exceptional circumstances, such as in remoter rural areas, including islands.
The committee supports the proposal in the bill to make it an offence to vote more than once at Scottish local government elections that are held on the same day. That will bring local government elections into line with UK and Scottish Parliament elections. However, we were not clear about how that provision will be enforced, as there are challenges in cross-referring between electoral registers.
The committee welcomes the Scottish Government’s proposed approach to electronic voting. There is a need to proceed with caution in relation to what is relatively untested technology. The proposal to undertake pilots is welcome, as is the focus on smaller-scale improvements to enhance the accessibility of the voting process, particularly for people with disabilities, which has been mentioned. We suggest that the Scottish Government accelerate its engagement with groups that represent disabled people.
A number of other provisions in the bill were welcomed by the committee, including the proposed simplification of the rules to allow anyone over 14 to register as an attainer before they are officially old enough to vote.
The committee took evidence on some topics that are not included in the bill. For example, we heard evidence about the list order effect, whereby candidates whose names are nearer the top of the ballot paper are more likely to be selected. That is potentially unfair to candidates whose surnames come later in the alphabet. There was no consensus on how the list order effect should be addressed, but we recommend that the Scottish Government ask the Electoral Commission to take a wider look at different approaches to ballot design.
Another issue that the committee has highlighted is the requirement for candidates’ addresses to appear on ballot papers for local government elections.
I note that the consultation included a proposal to remove the current legal requirement for candidates’ addresses to appear on ballot papers for local government elections. I have written to the ministers, asking whether they also intend to allow candidates to have their addresses withheld from publication on council websites and noticeboards on council premises, so as to protect applicants who may previously have been abused.
I thank the member for raising that subject, which was discussed in committee. A number of people raised concerns with us about security and safety, which have been long-term issues. The committee is pleased that the minister has agreed to address the matter as soon as possible. He is in the chamber, and I am sure that he listened to what Mr Lyle said about the wider aspect.
The committee also noted that there will continue to be scope to reform the electoral system in the future. For example, there is a need to address the important issue of under-registration. The committee was supportive of the idea of reviewing the multi-member ward system for local government elections, too.
The Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill proposes a range of changes to electoral law covering Scottish Parliament and local government elections, and those proposals have been broadly welcomed. On that basis, the committee was content to recommend to Parliament that the general principles of the bill be agreed to.
Broadly, we welcome the bill, and we will be supporting it at stage 1. It contains mainly technical, but nonetheless important, changes to aspects of electoral law.
I will confine my remarks to three areas, in each of which there are a number of questions for the minister to reflect on as the bill progresses—namely, parliamentary terms, two-member council wards, and electronic voting and voter participation. My hope is that the minister will want to engage constructively with us, and indeed with members across the chamber, on our concerns about those aspects of the bill as it progresses through the legislative process.
I will talk first about parliamentary terms. This session, the Parliament will sit for a maximum of five years, as was the case in the previous session. That reflects the change of the norm at UK level, from four-year sessions to five-year sessions—a change that moved from convention to law in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Speaking personally, I regret that change. I prefer four-year terms to five-year terms, but that ship would appear to have sailed, although—who knows—it may yet sail back.
What is important—here, as in all matters of electoral law—is that the interests of the voter are paramount. I suspect that what the voter wants is clarity. In that sense, it matters less whether terms are four years or five years; it matters more that the issue is clear and beyond unnecessary doubt.
It also matters that this session of Parliament should not set its own limits. The length of this session was set before the 2016 election; the length of the next session should be set now, and not after the 2021 election. There is no controversy on those matters. Therefore, in principle, I support the move made in sections 1 and 2 of the bill to fix the terms at five years for both the Scottish Parliament and local government in Scotland.
However, there is one fly in the ointment—and this is the matter on which I would like the minister to reflect. If the reform in sections 1 and 2 of the bill is happening because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, what will the Scottish ministers do when, or if, that act is repealed? I suspect that its days are numbered. Most commentators think that it has not worked—after all, we have had not one but two early general elections since the act came into force. The fixed terms of the UK Parliament do not seem to be particularly fixed, and, of course, the current Conservative Government has a manifesto commitment to repeal the act. How does the minister think that we should reflect that rather fluid picture as we debate and deliberate on section 1 of the bill?
I turn to two-member council wards. As the law stands, all council wards in Scotland have either three or four councillors. The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 allows the creation of one or two-member wards in the islands. That makes good sense. However, section 4 of the bill would allow the creation of two, three, four or five-member wards in any council area in Scotland.
As we have heard from its convener and read in its stage 1 report, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee supported that proposal, but it voiced concerns, reflected in the evidence that it received, that the degree of flexibility envisaged in section 4 is not an unalloyed good and that it comes with some potentially negative consequences, which need to be carefully thought about. I urge the minister to take those concerns seriously.
In particular, the worry is this. Two-member wards may be desirable in some sparsely populated areas that have strong community boundaries, but—and it is a big but—proportionality between votes cast and seats won is the explicit objective of the single transferable vote system that we now use in Scotland for local government elections, and two-member wards make the achievement of that proportionality much more difficult than is the case with larger, multimember wards.
Let me finish my point and then I will let Mr Findlay in—if I have time, Presiding Officer.
Surely, we do not want the new flexibility, which section 4 of the bill heralds, to undermine that all-important principle of proportionality.
I very much agree with what Adam Tomkins is saying, but the committee took evidence from one academic who argued for very large wards in order to ensure proportionality and choice. What is Mr Tomkins’s view on that? I would not like to see wards of eight or 10, or anything like that.
It is a very odd day in the Scottish Parliament, because not only does Mr Findlay agree with me, but I agree with Mr Findlay—on this matter. We must, therefore, both be wrong. I would like the norm to be four or five-member wards, as it is three or four-member wards at the moment; only exceptionally should wards be smaller or larger than that.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee noted what it called its disappointment that the Scottish Government did not commission more research into the matter of the proportionality of two-member wards and recommended that two-member wards should be used only in “very exceptional circumstances”. I agree with that recommendation and ask the minister whether he and his officials will commit to working with me and, indeed, other members who are interested in the matter to craft a stage 2 amendment to the bill that will ensure that overuse of two-member wards is not permitted or allowed to undercut the principle of proportionality on which our local government elections in Scotland are based.
Finally, on electronic voting and voter participation, I am sure that we all want to do what we can to encourage voting. High voter turnouts in elections are better than low voter turnouts, for everyone who believes in the democratic process. That said, however, some of the more frequent suggestions as to how voter turnout may be encouraged need to be treated with caution. Moving from Thursday elections to Friday or weekend elections would have grave implications for a number of religious groups, for example, and should, in my view, be resisted for that reason.
Likewise, moving to electronic voting should be resisted. It may have considerable benefits, not least for those who find access to polling stations a physical challenge, whether that is for reasons of poor sight or other physical disabilities, but other European countries with experience of electronic voting report serious concerns about security. Researchers have found the Swiss system to be flawed, the Estonian system is said to be outdated and open to attack, and in Finland the view has been taken that the security of online voting is not yet advanced enough to ensure either the confidentiality or the integrity of the voting system.
The bill does not enable electronic voting, but in section 6 it enables pilot projects, as the minister explained, which may include some form of electronic voting. The committee describes that
“light-touch approach” as
“probably the most appropriate approach” and I cautiously agree. There is a need to proceed with great caution, given the very real concerns about security that have been voiced across Europe. At the same time, consideration must be given to the accessibility of polling stations, as I have already said. Therefore, while cautiously welcoming section 6 of the bill, I ask the minister to specify how he proposes to ensure that any pilots exploring the use of electronic voting in Scotland will make sure that the integrity of our voting system is not compromised by untested technology.
Overall, we are supportive of the bill at stage 1, but we look forward to working with the Government and, indeed, with members from across the chamber on amendments that address the concerns that I have outlined.
I thank the committee’s members and convener and the clerks who have been helping us through the bill. We have had some very interesting evidence sessions. It is not the most exciting bill to come before Parliament—it is certainly not the most exciting thing that has happened today, which has been a very lively day in Parliament—but the bill is very important to our democracy. The way in which we organise elections is vital in order to ensure that the widest number of people can participate and that the elections are fair, people have confidence in them and they are seen to be fair.
If we look at how different electoral systems work and how different methods of voting deliver results—or sometimes do not—and all the nuts and bolts of elections, we see that it is an area of huge importance, with significant consequences for our country and our people. When elections go wrong, they can go badly wrong.
To see that, we need only look at the shambles of the Iowa primary or the chaos that the country that is supposed to be the leader of the free world and a beacon of democracy ended up in as a result of the hanging chads in Florida—an aged, creaking system was at the heart of the problem, although there was also a liberal sprinkling of corruption. Closer to home, we had the Scottish local government election shambles in 2007. Such situations can be painful to watch, but we should not just point the finger at others when they get it wrong.
We must keep our democracy match fit, and some of the provisions in the bill seek to do that. The bill also seeks to increase participation in our democracy, which is a key aim. All of us, regardless of our political views, want the maximum number of people to participate in our democracy.
There were mixed views on term lengths. Mr Tomkins made it clear that his view is different from that of others in his party. People in my party have different views, and I am sure that the same is true of the minister’s party. That situation reflects the research that was put before the committee, which showed that there is no firm view on the matter. However, on balance, the Labour Party supports five-year terms.
We also accept that, in some circumstances, two or five-member wards might be required for local government elections to enable local circumstances to be met. All members of the committee were clear that two or five-member wards should be used only in exceptional circumstances and should not be the norm.
As I said earlier, we do not accept the arguments for huge wards that some witnesses put forward. The pitch was made that there would be some sort of arrangement between the eight or 10 or however many members there were and that they would all get on well and would all produce the goods, but if we are honest, we know that it is more likely that they would fight like ferrets in a sack. I do not think that having such big wards simply to produce proportionality would work. We must ensure that local connections, geography and communities are respected and not dispensed with solely on the basis of an arithmetical formula.
Mr Tomkins said that he was aghast that he agreed with me, but I am sure that someone who was once a disciple of a Mr T Sheridan can find space in his heart to have some common linkage with a woolly liberal like me. It was good to hear Mr Tomkins agreeing with me.
The committee had a great deal of debate about, and showed great interest in, the list order effect, whereby those candidates who are higher up the ballot paper because their name is nearer the start of the alphabet gain an advantage. We all know of people who have gone to great lengths—by changing their name to Andy Aardvark or whatever—to gain such an advantage. I recall the use of the phrase “Alex Salmond for First Minister” being mentioned during the committee’s deliberations. Who remembers that? That is an example of the exploitation of the list order effect. I have to say that the SNP was quite right to do that, because it recognised that it would gain an advantage from it.
The list order effect disadvantages people—there is an in-built advantage for candidates who are higher up the ballot paper. Therefore, I ask the minister whether he will commit to commissioning proper, decent-quality, in-depth research into how we can address that. I think that full randomisation must be the answer, but that is only my personal view.
On electronic voting, I am open minded. The committee was very cautious about it, and I am cautious about it, too. The only electronic voting system that I have looked at up close—Mr Tomkins will enjoy this—was the Venezuelan electronic voting system. I was in Venezuela as an election observer—in 2012, I think. It was a hotly disputed election in which there was less than 1 per cent between the candidates. The electoral system that we saw operating there was highly sophisticated—within it, there were 17 audits.
The Jimmy Carter foundation examined that system and said that it was the best voting system in the world, which is very interesting. A full manual recount of the vote was done because the result was so close, and it replicated almost exactly the electronic ballot. There are therefore countries across the world that we might want to learn from that we might not initially think would be the countries that we would want to learn from.
Finally, we should look much more closely at postal ballots for all elections because it is the most successful way of engaging as many people as possible.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I join other members in thanking the clerks, all those who gave evidence, and the other members of the committee for their consideration of the bill.
The bill represents a baby step towards democratic reform, so I welcome its general principles. To be honest, however, it is hardly groundbreaking stuff. Even when taken together with the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill , we have miles to go if we are to reinvigorate democracy, improve registration and turnout, and make Holyrood and council chambers truly representative of the people they serve.
Last year, I went with the Presiding Officer to visit the Swedish Parliament, where there was genuine concern that turnout in elections had fallen a few percentage points from the high 90s. We can only dream of those levels of voter participation in elections in Scotland.
We still live in one of the most democratically underrepresented countries in Europe in terms of the levels of government that operate and the numbers of elected representatives who serve. In Sweden, one out of every 145 citizens has stood for election, whereas in Scotland, it is one in every 2,000. In Sweden, political work is normalised in communities and it really shows in Sweden’s political culture.
Does the bill address that democratic deficit? I do not think that it does. It takes a small step towards doing so, but does not really address it.
I welcome the five-member council wards as an option for the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to consider. That would deliver more proportionality, but to represent what the public actually votes for in an election, we would need wards of around six to seven members. In answer to Mr Findlay’s point, we took some evidence on that, and there were some more expansive suggestions that we could have city-wide lists or council-wide lists. Even sticking with the system that we have at the moment and expanding it to true proportionality would require six to seven members per ward.
Worryingly—and I share Mr Tomkins’s views on this—the option of two-member wards is also on the table in the bill. Beyond the islands, where the flexibility to have one and two-member wards already exists, I can see no circumstances in which two-member wards would be appropriate. The fact that the Government did no work to consider the bill’s impact on proportionality is disappointing. I do hope that, 13 years after its introduction, a wider review of the multimember ward system will now take place. It would be good if the minister could reflect on when that could happen. Committee members all had different perceptions of how well the multimember system has worked, so now is a good time to review it.
I felt that the committee disappeared down a few rabbit holes when hearing evidence. One was the list order effect. I do not deny that it might be real, especially for candidates of the same party whose surnames start with the same letter. It is, however, clear that a wide range of other factors, especially incumbency, are more important, particularly in local government elections.
Another red herring was around registration. The bill makes it illegal to vote more than once and I suspect that most people would think that that was already the law; they might be surprised to learn that it is not. Registration on multiple registers is not a problem. Groups such as students move around, and it is far more important that they are enfranchised to vote wherever they are resident at the time of the election rather than having no vote whatsoever. Underregistration is a much bigger issue that should concern us.
The shift in the length of the parliamentary term from four to five years is to be welcomed. There is no point in trying to second-guess the chaos of Westminster timetabling anymore, and five years allows Parliaments to get more into their stride.
We received very little evidence on electronic voting, to be honest, which I am a bit disappointed about, but I am aware of major concerns from organisations, including the Open Rights Group, about whether e-voting can ever be genuinely secure, anonymous and verifiable. The Government appears to be quite agnostic on electronic voting, but I ask the minister to focus work with disability groups on other methods of increasing participation, including postal voting. I also ask that the Government work with the Open Rights Group and others in fully assessing the implications of any pilot well before they are even considered.
The provisions in the bill to allow attainers of age 14 to be entered onto the electoral register could be a real springboard in helping young people play a full role in democratic life. I urge the Government to help equip our young people with the knowledge that they need about our democracy while they wait for their full rights to vote to come to fruition. It is an unusually exciting provision in a bill that has perhaps been more about tidying up than igniting a renewed democratic vision.
I do not know what Neil Findlay is talking about; this is the stuff that Liberal Democrats love to talk about. I was formerly an election agent and I would spend hours and hours discussing the detail of the size of wards and how many members we would have—two, five, six or seven. I could last forever on that kind of stuff. We could spend all our time at conferences talking about it, probably along with Neil Findlay.
During the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition of 1999 to 2007, we brought in the proportional representation system for local councils. As Sarah Boyack might remember, there was a debate then as to the size of the wards. In the end, we came up with a compromise. We wanted bigger-sized wards to reflect that in rural areas some of the distances are utterly huge. Up in Caithness, the wards are enormous—they are much bigger than many of our constituencies. There was a debate at that time and we compromised on three and four-member wards. Having two and five-member wards would help to keep communities together in more urban areas, increase the amount of proportionality in urban areas, but also reflect the real distances that are involved in rural areas and the sheer number of community councils and school parent councils that are in those communities. It is sensible to have two and five-member wards, although I would probably change it further and include bigger-sized wards. We know that on islands, there is potential to go to one-member wards, which I think is equally sensible.
We also support the cautious approach on electronic voting pilots, particularly for people with sight loss. That is a sensible way to proceed. We need to be careful with our democracy. There are measures that some people are proposing that we should not try out, as they may jeopardise the whole electoral system. I would be cautious with electronic voting pilots.
It is sensible to have declarations on internet adverts. We have seen that Facebook has changed in order to give greater transparency; however, for other adverts, there needs to be an ability to find out who its original source is, so that we can track back and hold it to account for anything that is said.
There are provisions relating to the Electoral Commission being accountable to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. Considering the debate that we had quite recently on the independence of the SPCB, we need to be careful regarding that institution. The Electoral Commission reporting to the SPCB means that it is even more important to make sure that the SPCB is considered as an independent body. I agree with all that.
I even agree with Neil Findlay on doing further research on the randomisation of ballots. I recall that when Steven Purcell was the leader of Glasgow City Council, he almost lost his seat because he happened to be a bit further down the ballot paper. I am not sure that the constituents in his ward really intended for that to happen, but it did almost happen. We need to be mindful of that issue and there should be further research on it. There is a bias towards those whose names are at the beginning of the alphabet, and somebody who is near the end of the alphabet, like me, has a great interest in changing that.
However, we do not support the five-year term lengths. For a long time, the norm has been four years. In my view, there is no reason why we should change from four years; that term gives a regular renewal of our democracy and sufficiently long terms in Government but also enough democracy within our system. As we have seen, in our country, politics changes a lot, and the electors should have the right to change their Governments more frequently than every five years. It feels like we have had elections and referendums every five minutes for the past decade, but I hope that that will not always be the case. A four-year cycle would be sensible. As Adam Tomkins said, we might not continue with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. We might be back in the same position of having to make sure that we separate election years by another means. We should do what is right for our democracy in Scotland and have four-year terms instead of five-year terms. We want to avoid a repeat of the chaos around 2007. We can do that by making sure that we have a system in this Parliament that accommodates any change at Westminster.
In order that I can make another speech on the subject, I hope that there will be another elections reform bill and that it will be more radical. We could have a reform to the voting system in this Parliament. We could align it with the local government voting system, so that we can avoid confusion by having the single transferable vote across the country. That would allow us to educate people fully on the ballot paper. Even with randomised ballot papers, we would have a connection with the communities as well as greater proportionality and simplicity. I urge the minister to consider that for the next elections bill.
As Neil Findlay and other members from across the chamber have said, on the face of it the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill might seem to be dry and technical. However, the changes that are proposed to our election arrangements are sensible and will enhance democracy.
Increasing the term between Scottish parliamentary and local government elections to five years will ensure that there will be no election clashes in the future, so we can avoid the confusion of 2007, when we had two different elections on the same day.
E very election should have its own focus and uniqueness: we should provide the best circumstances for voters to concentrate on the specific issues that are raised in that election. The situation in 2007 was detrimental to the message from local government about the work that it had been undertaking, as well as to folk who were trying to get re-elected. It muddied the water.
The provisions to change council ward membership by introducing one-member, two-member and five-member wards to the current system of three-member and four-member wards is a significant adjustment that has, as we have seen, its detractors.
We have heard that there are differences of opinions on the matter. However, the key is to allow for local circumstances and local people to make the decision.
Of those who responded to the consultation, 72 per cent agreed that, when deciding ward sizes, local circumstances and geography should be given more weight. That confirms my view that that is the right way to go.
The idea “Vote early, vote often” is not mine, but the principle in the bill of one person having one vote, in respect of local government voters who are registered in two council areas, will be an improvement on the current situation, and was supported by 93 per cent of consultation responders.
The provisions on electronic voting will give us the opportunity to investigate the practicalities of providing better voting access for people who find it hard to participate in the process.
For me, that is where it might end, because of the worries about folk hacking into the system. That said, I am pleased that because of other countries’ negative experiences with electronic voting and potential cyberattacks from outwith Scotland, we will require further legislation before a pilot or trial scheme can be implemented.
Registering attainers who are aged 14 and over without the complication of assessing a year-end notional age is a step forward and will make the registration process simpler for everyone. More important is that it will encourage young attainers to register early and to participate in the democratic process, and not just for the here and now. Introducing people early will, in itself, be good for democracy and voting intentions in the long run.
Currently, there is no requirement for candidates in council elections to disclose where financial donations to their campaign have come from. In the name of transparency and fairness, I—like most of the consultation respondents—agree that that should change. The bill makes provision for that.
The candidate list system discriminates against people who have names that begin with a letter that is late in the alphabet. Some of the evidence that we received—in fact, all of it—suggested that the mere fact of one’s name being further down the list is detrimental. I am therefore really pleased that the Government is prepared to look at the matter and, let us hope—I think that we can—sort it out.
All in all, the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill will make sensible adjustments to our electoral process and will, I believe, improve democracy in Scotland. That is what it should be all about.
Because elements of the bill relate to local government, I declare an interest as a councillor in Aberdeen City Council.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has been pleased to scrutinise the bill, and I am grateful to the minister for his response to our recommendations in the stage 1 report.
Broadly, the bill seeks to make changes to electoral law—mostly to reform aspects of practice for local government elections, although it also touches on term lengths for Parliament and makes facilitating arrangements for trials of electronic voting, among other things.
I welcome making permanent the change to five-year terms for Parliament. That will provide certainty and sufficient time for the Government of the day to progress its policy objectives.
I support the move to enable the Local Government Boundary Commission to introduce two-member and five-member wards where appropriate, although I hope that more is done on assessing the effect that that would have on the proportionality of votes that are cast at elections and on wards won.
I am generally supportive of examining whether electronic voting would boost political engagement. However, we should be very careful, because any action that we take should have the validity of election results as its first priority. Nonetheless, I advocate that we work towards electronic counting; it has always struck me as being rather absurd that we sit there counting by hand when we have electronic machines that could do it for us.
I will focus the remainder of my remarks on a few areas in which there appears to be a difference between the approach that is set out in the report and the thinking of the Scottish Government. I note that the Government has supported the majority of the recommendations, and I am glad that ministers will lodge appropriate amendments at stage 2. However, it appears to be the case that there are alternative viewpoints on a couple of issues. They are not areas of huge disagreement—they are simply matters on which further reflection will be required.
One committee recommendation was that further consideration be given to the effect of postal ballots on turnout. However, it appears from the minister’s letter that the Government is hesitant to commit to such work. I hope that the minister will reconsider that, because postal votes are a valuable aspect of our electoral system. If they would boost engagement, we should reconsider them.
In addition, I am glad that the minister has agreed to consider again increasing the maximum fine for breaching election expenditure rules, which would ensure welcome consistency with the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020.
One element that was discussed in the committee but is not included in the bill is a review of multimember wards in order to improve electoral practice and administration. The Scottish Government has stated that there is not sufficient time in the current parliamentary session to consider the issue in depth. That is a fair assessment, but given my first-hand experience in the matter, I implore those who are in Parliament after the next election to make the issue a priority, so that Parliament does all that it can to ensure that local government works as efficiently and effectively as possible.
In particular, proportionality should be examined. We know that it improves with higher councillor numbers per ward, but following that through to its natural conclusion could mean wards being replaced with area-wide proportional representation lists, which would not help the public to interact with their representatives. Perhaps a solution can be found that is based on the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament, in order to give ward and authority-wide mandates that more accurately reflect the electorate’s views.
The bill includes a couple of things that might require amendment at later stages, but I endorse the conclusion of the stage 1 report that the changes are broadly acceptable. With that in mind, I am happy for the bill to proceed and will vote accordingly on the motion, later today.
Like colleagues in the chamber, I think that the bill represents a welcome opportunity to consider how we can improve our electoral process. As the Electoral Reform Society stated in its evidence to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee,
“Meaningful, and more inclusive, participation should absolutely be the cornerstone of electoral reform”.
The society also highlighted that the reforms that are before us are not
“in any way enough to achieve a democracy fit for 21st Century Scotland” and pressed for us to ensure that any amendments that are made to the electoral system through the bill are reviewed when the outcome of the local governance review comes before Parliament. That is not to speak against the bill; it is to say that we should view it in a wider context.
The bill makes modest changes, and the Labour Party will support its general principles. We welcome the cap on spending in local government elections and the action on online advertising, which will bring Scotland into line with the rest of the UK on that issue. We also welcome the change to allow those who are aged 14 and over to join the electoral register, which several members have mentioned. That must be backed up with increased work in our schools to ensure that young people are aware of local government and how it interacts with their lives.
When the Parliament was set up, there was a huge effort in that regard, and that has continued. Those of us who have hosted school visits to the Parliament know that there is interaction, that teachers are interested in what we do and that young people are engaged. The challenge is to achieve real engagement in school so that young people want to get active, to vote and potentially to stand as candidates. I hope that the changes will be important and will be followed through with education in order to improve voter turnout among young people. The changes could serve as an example for UK elections.
We have some reservations about the bill. Quite a few members have mentioned electronic voting. We have heard about problems across Europe and in the US and the fact that electronic voting does not increase participation. Electronic voting can be problematic, and it can cause staffing issues in polling stations. As we have heard, in one or two parts of Europe, electronic voting has not worked. For example, after the introduction of electronic voting in Belgium, where voting is compulsory, voting numbers dropped. We need to look at the issue in a bit more depth, and stage 2 could be a good opportunity to do so.
We want to modernise the process of voting, but there is an issue with the integrity of the process, which is paramount. Electronic voting will potentially make the process more streamlined but, if big organisations such as banks and other financial institutions are not safe from cyberattack with all the budgets that they have, we really have to flag up a concern that there could be issues. Neil Findlay’s and Mark Ruskell’s suggestions about postal ballots are worth looking at in considering how to encourage people to get involved.
Another area that was discussed is the numbers of councillors in council wards and the concern about underrepresentation. It has not been mentioned so far that we are one of the most underrepresented countries in the world. We have only one elected representative for every 4,270 people. On one level, moving to two and five-member wards gives flexibility, and it has been welcomed by some, but the comments today—
We do not have the same level of local representation that there is in the rest of the EU.
Everybody has focused on proportionality, which I totally agree with. Another issue is the capacity of councillors to represent people in what can be incredibly large wards—that is clearly an issue in island and remote and rural communities. There is also the issue of whether we could have more councillors in our communities, rather than just focusing on the number of wards in terms of proportionality. Bringing those two issues together might be another way to look at them. It was interesting to hear reservations from Bill Kidd and colleagues in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, because they paralleled the reservations that came up in the Local Government and Communities Committee when we looked at the issue.
Finally, I will talk about representation. Alongside the bill, we have talked about encouraging young people to vote. There is a broader issue to do with encouraging everybody to vote. The numbers participating in local government elections are very low in comparison with the numbers participating in either Scottish Parliament or UK elections. There is a need to encourage people to get involved in local elections and local government. When we look at the sizes of wards and the numbers of people standing in wards, we should be thinking about participation and encouraging people to get involved. When we look at the parity of representation between women and men in Scotland, we see that only 30.5 per cent of local government representatives are women. We should be looking to improve that—it is not good enough.
Let us get the details of the bill right and use the opportunity of having the debate on the bill to encourage greater numbers of young people to vote and to think about how we encourage young people and people from underrepresented groups to become candidates and, potentially, elected representatives. The bill is an opportunity. Although it cannot do everything, I ask the minister to think about—
I am pleased to speak in the stage 1 debate on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. As we know, the bill is part of a package of measures that are intended to update our electoral processes, alongside the related but distinct bill, the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill. It is probably fair to say that the latter bill, which deals with issues of franchise and so forth, has perhaps attracted a wee bit more attention than the drier—as they have been described—provisions of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. However, the reforms that are proposed are nonetheless important.
As we have heard, the bill covers a number of key technical issues that underpin our electoral processes. First, it is proposed in the bill—I understand that the Government’s position is still unclear, but the minister can clarify—that we move to a five-year electoral cycle for the Scottish Parliament and local government. That would be moving away from the present statutory position of four years. I have heard what members have said on that, and not everybody is in agreement. I think that it is entirely reasonable to move to five years and that it would help to facilitate longer-term policy planning and, I hope, greater consultation, which is important.
The bill will provide the new boundary commission with the necessary discretion to establish two or five-member local government wards where special local circumstances pertain. I have heard in the debate that that discretion should be exercised carefully to ensure that we do not unduly risk proportionality issues. The view has also been expressed that a two-member ward has resilience risks, for example if one of the two members becomes ill or otherwise incapacitated. In broad-brush terms, the possibility of a two-member ward is important to reflect the diversity of Scotland and underline the important fact that one size does not fit all.
The bill also sets forth a series of proposals that will amend the way in which the Electoral Commission carries out its work. There are provisions that will extend the role of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland to cover Scottish parliamentary elections. There are provisions on rules on election expenses returns and the important issue of donations for local government elections.
There are also provisions that will provide enabling powers to carry out exploratory trials or pilots for electronic voting in local government elections. There is to be a further debate on electronic voting. There are many potential positives but also an awful lot of issues that require to be addressed in detail to provide voters with the assurance that their vote is secure and will be fairly counted. We are not there yet, by any stretch of the imagination, but I welcome exploratory trials to consider improving the accessibility of voting for people with disabilities.
In addition to the work of the lead committee, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, the committee on which I sit, the Local Government and Communities Committee, looked at the bill and held an evidence session with Ronnie Hinds of the Local Government Boundary Commission, as it is currently called, and Jonathon Shafi of the Electoral Reform Society. We had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion with them on matters relating to the bill and on wider issues relating to the subject matter. As far as the bill itself is concerned, I am pleased to note that the minister has responded positively to the recommendation that was made, including by our committee following the evidence from Ronnie Hinds, that we move to 15-year cycles for local government boundary reviews.
We also held an interesting discussion on the important issue of council by-elections. In effect, those take place at present using the alternative vote method, given that there is normally only one vacancy to be filled. That is far from ideal. The Local Government and Communities Committee has suggested that the issue merits further consideration. I note that the minister in his reply to the convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee indicated a willingness to engage in further discussions on possible reforms here. I look forward to those discussions.
Another wider issue that has been referred to this afternoon and on which the Local Government and Communities Committee would welcome further engagement is the system of multimember wards. It has been 15 years or so since the passing of the relevant legislation introducing the system. It may be that we review that system at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Aside from those comments, I am very pleased to support the principles of the bill at stage 1.
At the beginning of the debate, Gil Paterson made an important point about the desire to see every election have its own focus. That is right. When elections are coupled together, the local government elections—as is always the case with local government—gets shoved down the agenda. It should not be like that.
Some issues that were raised in the debate are very interesting. Adam Tomkins was right about voters needing clarity and certainty. That is absolutely the case in any election. Where there is uncertainty, it undermines the whole democratic process. The point about no Parliament setting its own term is equally important—that should never happen.
There is a question about what would happen to the bill—any future bill would have to take this into account—if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was repealed. Who knows what the situation would be then? I would be interested to hear the minister’s response to that point.
We have heard quite a lot of comment on four and five-year terms, which reflects the differences of opinion between members. Perhaps a four-and-a-half-year term would be the answer. Who knows?
A number of views were expressed on two and five-member wards. I can picture Willie Rennie on “Mastermind”, with ward size as his specialist subject. Indeed, I can see him at the Liberal Democrat conference—him and Alex Cole-Hamilton, up all night with their peppermint teas and in their Lib Dem onesies—discussing the intricacies of ward sizes. Meanwhile, Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott would be holding up the bar. I am not quite sure where Mike Rumbles would be—he would probably be locked outside so that he could not influence anybody.
Richard Lyle was right to raise the issue of candidate addresses. There is a balance to be struck between openness and transparency and personal security. I do not know where the line should fall, but it is a legitimate question.
That is an unintended consequence. We might not think about such things happening, so it was a legitimate point to raise.
Tom Mason raised the point about our being represented by 19 people when we had all the MEPs. My only response to that is that I can never get my head around the fact that, at one point, one of them was David Coburn.
Prior to our starting work on the bill, I did not know that someone could register to vote more than once—every day is a school day on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. There are practical issues about how we address that situation and ensure that it is not abused.
Sarah Boyack raised some excellent points about voter education and engagement, which is key. When I was on West Lothian Council, we had an excellent voter education team that did a lot of work out in the community—in shopping centres, schools and so on—to sign people up to vote. However, all those services have gone. That team worked around the electoral cycle, not just at election time. They did that work throughout the year and were skilled at it. In the culls caused by local government cuts, many such services have been dismantled and we are the poorer for it. Local government should be the building block of our democracy, but it is often undervalued and underrated, and councillors are underpaid.
Graeme Dey said that the Parliament should have its say on electronic voting, which is right, although there are issues around its costs and practicalities. I can picture in my mind another public sector information technology project, which sends a shiver down my back. If we are going to move towards electronic voting, we will need to move with caution, but I am open-minded about it.
The bill is about widening access to voting and democracy. Hopefully, we can develop that as the bill goes through the parliamentary process.
I give my regular thanks to our committee clerking team for their support in the preparation of the stage 1 report that we are debating. I also thank the members and clerks of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their contribution to the process.
The bill that is before us is wide ranging, and our committee has contributed a considerable body of detailed work on each of the topics that are covered. Our convener, Bill Kidd, has already provided an overview of the committee’s position and our support for the principles of the bill, so I will address a few of the issues that continue to arise.
On term lengths, it is apparent to me that we have gone too long without answering the questions that have arisen from, initially, the 2011 act and the broader trend towards five-year legislative sessions. The Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies have already broadly accepted that principle. It is rendered slightly problematic by the fact that, as other members have said, we have lived through three general elections at UK level in the past five years. The reality is simply that, to avoid election clashes, a level of flexibility will be required.
The bill also contains provisions that relate to postponing elections for the Parliament. The committee weighed the benefits of being able to respond to unforeseen consequences against the breadth of the power that is being given to the Presiding Officer. Again, a degree of flexibility is required, but we should be wary of pulling the Presiding Officer into areas of potential controversy, particularly when there could be heightened tensions during an election campaign and when a Presiding Officer might be seeking re-election in their own constituency.
As I am a Highlands and Islands MSP, an issue of more local relevance to me is the provisions around council wards. I come from the islands, where special rules are already in place, and it is clear to me that what the bill proposes has some merit for our remote and rural communities. Local government should reflect local needs rather than there being a one-size-fits-all approach. Deviation should be possible where there are strong and considered arguments in its favour.
When multimember wards were introduced—often spanning several communities—the link between place and representation became weaker. A reformed approach at the community council level could have gone some way towards addressing the issue, but that has not happened. However, the committee concluded that there was a lack of evidence from the Scottish Government on the effect of two-member wards on proportionality.
The committee also considered the provisions that relate to voting in more than one local authority election on the same day. As we set out, it remains difficult to see how such a law would be enforced effectively without changes to registration arrangements. The committee has not taken a position on the way forward in that regard, but it has at least set out its thinking, and the Scottish Government has ruled out a single-register approach.
We have had several discussions in the chamber on the question of electronic voting. For regions such as mine, there are clear benefits but also clear disadvantages to the potential approaches that have been suggested. The Scottish Government has recognised that work in the area is at an early stage, which is welcome, and I would encourage the Government to have a fuller debate in the Parliament before any significant change in policy is set in motion.
I will touch briefly on the powers of the Electoral Commission. The committee has looked at consistency with regard to referendums and the different levels of penalty that are available to the Electoral Commission when election or referendum laws are breached. The Scottish Government outlined in its response sympathy for the committee’s arguments and that it intends to clarify potential ways forward, which is a positive approach.
Another area of consistency between elections and referendums is the Electoral Commission’s investigatory powers. It is my view that they should be the same for both of those electoral events. The Scottish Government has, quite reasonably, set out the reservations that apply in those areas. However, if parity of approach is broadly accepted, there is surely scope for raising the issue with the UK Government and exploring matters in a co-operative spirit.
My colleague Adam Tomkins highlighted our support in principle for the bill and the need to provide clarity for voters, particularly around the issue of term lengths. He also raised the issue, as I have, of concerns about the impact on proportionality of the proposal for smaller, two-member wards, which the committee also had concerns about. Tom Mason highlighted concerns about the effect of two-member wards on proportionality and referred to his experiences as a councillor and how the proposed changes might impact on local communities.
There were other positive contributions to the debate from various members. Neil Findlay and Adam Tomkins surprised each other by finding areas of agreement. Willie Rennie surprised no one by highlighting just how excited the Lib Dems can get about this sort of thing. Adam Tomkins also spoke about the security of electronic voting. I still have concerns about the security of that voting process. I had hoped to introduce amendments in that regard to the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, but I was not able to. I intend to have similar amendments considered for this bill, but I will be happy to work with the minister on those. Sarah Boyack talked about voter education, which is very important, as we must have the resource in place to ensure that voters are aware of their rights, have information about who they are voting for and understand the issue of responsibility.
Alongside the multitude of provisions in the bill, we should also consider the bill’s broader importance, as it would alter the rules about how our democracy functions. The bill would set the foundations for a number of relatively significant changes to the functioning of our elections at both Holyrood and local authority levels. As ever, that will place a burden on us to ensure that the structures that we put in place are not only fair and credible but stable and resilient.
This has been a considered and thoughtful debate, which, despite its short nature, has been very useful. It has certainly been a memorable debate for me, not only because of the spectacle of Neil Findlay and Adam Tomkins agreeing on a number of matters but because I concur with them, which is deeply concerning.
Members have highlighted the competing views on a number of topics linked to the bill. I will focus on those aspects, and I apologise to those members whose contributions I do not have time to cover.
I am very happy to engage in the same constructive approach that Adam Tomkins took today. He talked about the five-year term issue and the interaction with UK elections, given the possibility of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 being revoked. There is no easy answer to the question that he posed. I simply take the view that we should proceed by planning for what we know. At the moment, if we were to take a five-year term approach, the likelihood is that we would avoid two clashes over the next 20 years. That would be the same approach that is taken in Wales and Northern Ireland. Instinctively, I think that that is what we should do.
On Adam Tomkins’s valid point about two-member wards and his seeking assurance that the use of that provision would be by exception, I absolutely agree with him. I am not sure how an amendment along the lines that he was talking about would be framed, but I am happy to engage with him on that. However, I make it absolutely clear that that approach would be used only in exceptional circumstances and, of course, any proposal would come back to the Parliament for ratification under the affirmative procedure.
A number of members rightly highlighted some of the concerns to do with e-voting. I reassure them that we are at an early stage, and I entirely recognise the concerns that were expressed, particularly about the integrity of the process. Again, we would consider pilot projects, all of which would be subject to scrutiny by the Parliament before they were taken forward. I hope that that provides reassurance to colleagues.
Neil Findlay’s speech was very constructive. I absolutely recognise the issue around the list order effect and how some participants in elections are disadvantaged. I am happy to acknowledge the need for further research, and I am willing to undertake to explore the issue further with the Electoral Commission, because the issue is not going away and we really need to find a way forward. However, in doing so, we must not simply find ourselves in another situation in which someone is disadvantaged in some way.
Willie Rennie, like Neil Findlay, explored the issue of full randomisation. I get that argument, but I want to highlight some of the downsides to that, without in any way dismissing it as an option. There would be issues for people with certain disabilities who seek to memorise the ballot paper before they go to vote. Members need to bear in mind that a number of individuals going to vote depend on having an enlarged ballot paper in the polling station, and we could not provide that option if the process was fully randomised. This may seem a bit spurious, but there is also the matter of dealing with households that have multiple ballot papers posted to them, because the ballot papers would be completely different.
As I said, I make those points not to dismiss in any way the idea of randomisation; I do so to highlight that very few alternatives are 100 per cent straightforward.
Mark Ruskell and Sarah Boyack mentioned encouraging young people’s full participation in the process. I agree. Obviously, political literacy is embedded in curriculum for excellence, but I offer a bit of reassurance on the matter. Over the past few months, two high schools in my Angus South constituency have either reintroduced or introduced modern studies into the curriculum. In fact, one school is expanding that into secondary 2 in order to get young people engaged in that subject. I think that the direction of travel is already positive, but it is an important topic.
Mark Ruskell, Tom Mason and others mentioned the need to review the whole local government electoral system. As I said at committee, I have sympathy with that view. It has been quite a number of years since that system was introduced, and I think that it might be time to look at it. However, given the parliamentary timetable, I think that we will be into the next session of Parliament before that is possible.
A number of members suggested postal ballots as a way forward. I recognise again that perhaps there would be benefits in trying pilots, but I have reservations about postal ballots, which I explained at committee. I say again that, as we move forward to stage 2, I am happy to talk to members about how we might address the points that they have made.
Richard Lyle sought clarity on the order that I intend to bring forward in a matter of months to address the publication of local authority candidates’ addresses. I assure him that that will cover the publicly displayed list of nominated candidates. I commend his work on the issue, because it is something that has mattered to a number of people, particularly in the circumstances that he noted.
Although the bill addresses many facets of electoral law, the central theme is that of putting the interests of the voter first. I am pleased that it has attracted wide-ranging support from stakeholders and members in the chamber today. I hope that members will join me in supporting the principles of the bill. Once again, I commit to working constructively with colleagues to make the bill even better.