Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Stage 3

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 3 June 2020.

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Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

The next item of business is stage 3 proceedings on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill.

Members should have the bill as amended at stage 2, the marshalled list and the groupings of amendments.

The division bell will sound and proceedings will be suspended for five minutes for the first division of the afternoon. The period of voting for the first division will be 30 seconds. Thereafter, I will allow a voting period of one minute for the first division after a debate.

Members who wish to speak in the debate on any group of amendments should press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible after I call the group. Members should now refer to the marshalled list.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Group 1 is on voting by disabled persons. Amendment 1, in the name of Graeme Dey, is grouped with amendments 2, 16 and 10.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The amendments in this group seek to place particular focus on the needs of voters with disabilities. It goes without saying that we all wish to ensure that our elections engage and include all voters. The Electoral Commission already issues guidance on accessibility and keeps it under review, and it is actively looking at how that material can be updated.

If passed, amendments 1, 2 and 10 will require the Electoral Commission to report on the assistance that is provided to disabled voters in devolved elections. That will effectively ensure that all those who are involved in the delivery of devolved elections or any pilots are held to account on engagement with disabled voters. The intention is to underline the importance of ensuring a level playing field for all voters—regardless of disability—so that they can exercise their democratic right to vote securely and in private.

I have discussed this matter in some detail with Jeremy Balfour, who at stage 2 agreed not to move his amendments and to work with me to formulate the amendments that are before us today. I am grateful to him for the constructive approach that he has taken. Mr Balfour, like me—and Colin Smyth, with his amendment—was spurred into action following the report by the Royal National Institute of Blind People on the 2017 general election, which found that only a quarter of blind and partially sighted people were able to vote independently and in secret. We must make progress on that matter.

In detail, amendments 1 and 2 apply where a pilot scheme is carried out in local government elections. Such pilots are proposed and administered by local authorities, and changes agreed at stage 2 mean that, in the future, the Electoral Commission, rather than the local authority, will formally report on the operation of those pilots.

Pilots can cover a range of issues, such as administration of the poll and moves to encourage voter participation. Amendment 2 will require the Electoral Commission to include a description of the extent to which the pilot has assisted voting by disabled persons in its reports. Amendment 1 is a technical drafting change to accommodate amendment 2.

Not all the pilot schemes will specifically involve provision for voting by persons with disabilities, but by their very nature, all pilots might have an impact on how people with disabilities are able to vote. It is therefore important that all reports on pilot schemes specifically address how disabled persons have been assisted by the scheme.

Amendment 10 applies to the reports that the Electoral Commission is required to produce on the running of Scottish Parliament and nationwide local government elections. The amendment will require the Electoral Commission to report on the steps that are taken by returning officers to assist disabled persons to vote. By promoting the need to consider the assistance that is given to disabled persons at elections as a factor in assessing elections and pilots, we hope to address and identify any deficiencies in the current system and to promote fair and secure voting in the future.

I have some sympathy for the spirit of Colin Smyth’s amendment 16 and I am grateful to the member for discussing it with me in advance. It seeks to set out a scheme in which ministers could commission a feasibility study on improving ballot paper design for blind and partially sighted voters. However, the amendment envisages a standalone feasibility study that is unconnected to an actual election. By contrast, the existing pilot provisions in section 5 of the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002 allow trials of such things as innovations for blind and partially sighted voters who have visual impairments to take place in an actual local government election and for their impact to be evaluated and reported on by the Electoral Commission. The Scottish Government thinks that it would be much better to trial such innovations in actual elections.

In addition, there are many innovations to be considered that can reform the way that people, particularly blind and partially sighted people, are able to vote. Therefore, I would not wish to commit to prioritising the type of study that is covered by amendment 16—one involving indents in the ballot paper, in other words—over others, especially without assessing the merits of that method against others, and the likely costs and the time that would be required.

On the technical aspects of amendment 16, it would introduce a new provision in the bill that would be the only provision not to amend existing electoral law; in other words, it would be the only standalone provision. The problem is that that would not hook into existing statutes. The legislation does not have the usual nuts and bolts to make it work. For example, there is no interpretation provision, which means that it is unclear what is meant by “a feasibility study”, “indents” and “other identification method”. The central matter that the amendment seeks to make a provision for is uncertain. Further, the amendment does not require local authorities to submit a proposal for a feasibility study to the Scottish ministers; rather, it is discretionary.

Subsection 6 of amendment 16 provides that the Scottish ministers must lay before the Scottish Parliament a report on the results of such a study within three years of the regulations coming into force. In the context of that provision, it would be very difficult to prepare regulations that would stand up to the proper scrutiny of the Parliament.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I understand the Scottish Government’s commitment to running pilots in elections that are actually happening. Could the minister confirm whether tactile voting, in particular the type that uses indented ballot paper, or other forms of tactile voting paper, will be considered for those pilots, or are those pilots just about electronic forms of communication and voting?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The easiest way to answer that is to say that nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out. We have done some work on that type of thing and it has thrown up a number of issues.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, we had been developing a prototype solution to enable people with sight loss to cast their votes digitally. That prototype has been developed to a point where it is ready to undergo initial field trials with potential users. I have extended an invitation to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to come and see that in action. Although we had intended that that work would occur over the coming months, it has, of course, been paused in the light of Covid-19. However, it will resume as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.

Therefore, I cannot support amendment 16 on either a substantive or a technical level, but I hope that I have managed to reassure Mr Smyth to some degree of the work that we are doing and are committed to progressing in this important area for voters who are blind or partially sighted.

I move amendment 1.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

Amendment 16, in my name, sets out a clear proposal to enable a feasibility study into a measure that would help visually impaired voters enact their right to a private ballot. As the minister said, research by RNIB following the 2017 general election found that three quarters of blind and partially sighted people were not able to vote independently and in secret. I am sure that everyone agrees that that is just not good enough. It is an unacceptable intrusion on blind and partially sighted people’s voting rights, and it is an issue that we must address.

One of the key barriers that has been highlighted to me is the fact that, without sight, it is impossible to identify which way to hold the current ballot paper, and a possible solution is to have a physical indent in one corner of it. That, in conjunction with the use of tactile voting devices, which involve tactile markings being placed beside a list of candidates on the ballot paper, would allow someone with a visual impairment to identify their preferred candidate or candidates, which would help significantly more blind and partially sighted voters to exercise their right to a secret ballot.

Although I appreciate that there are existing possible pathways for accessible voting pilots, and I welcome the minister’s comments and his recognition of the need to address the issue, the reality is that progress on the issue has been lacking. Put simply, the current pathways are not delivering. My amendment would create a clear process for trialling that particular mechanism, and, possibly more importantly, a clear expectation that it would be trialled, along with others that could help to address the barriers faced by blind and partially sighted voters.

I recognise that the immediate challenge that we face is simply to enable elections to happen, and that is why, on the issue of timeframes, I have been flexible in amendment 16. The three-year timeframe that is set out in it applies from when the regulations are laid, not from when the primary legislation is passed, which means that the timescales will still be within the control of the Scottish ministers. For that reason, I do not agree that there is any technical reason to oppose the amendment.

However, if the minister’s concerns are primarily technical, he could deal with that quite easily. In his closing comments, he could give a clear commitment to enacting a pilot on this particular proposal, along with the other pilots that he talked about. My big concern is that, so far, the minister’s emphasis has been almost entirely along the lines of electronic voting and that propositions such as tactical voting devices and indents in ballot papers are simply going to be excluded.

Although I welcome the minister’s general remarks about the need to consider how to make voting more accessible, that does not in itself reassure me that amendment 16 is not necessary. Put simply, there is no guarantee that we would have a pilot scheme on indents in ballot papers. That is a move that is supported by a number of organisations such as the RNIB, whose research has shown the failure of the current processes and pathways. I have difficulty in understanding why the Government has found itself on the wrong side of the charity and its members on this issue.

I appeal once again to the minister to use his closing remarks to give a more unequivocal guarantee that, as part of its on-going work on the issue, the Government will ensure that there is a pilot and a trial of the particular proposal that I am talking about, which has been suggested by a number of groups. It is not a solution that has been invented by me; it has been suggested by blind voters who, frankly, know better than all of us what barriers they face.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I want to make a short intervention in support of amendment 10. I also want to ask about the progress that has been made with regard to people with disabilities having a vote. It is fair to say that, over the years, large steps have been taken to allow more disabled people to take part and to use their democratic rights. However, people with visual impairment have perhaps been left behind in that journey. Of all the people with obvious disabilities, they are the ones who still struggle to be able to do that in a way that most of us take for granted.

I thank the RNIB for the work that it has done on the issue, and I thank the minister for working with me on the amendments that we are discussing today.

Clearly, when elections are called, all of us expect go along to a polling station to vote without anyone else being involved in the process and with it being done completely privately and without interference by others. That is not the case for those who have a visual impairment or who are blind.

The steps that we are taking today will be significant. They will allow trials in different areas, which I hope will allow us to come up with a scheme to use technology so that people with such a disability will be able to vote independently. It is a step forward and I look forward to see what comes out of the trials. I hope that the amendments will have all-party support.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Labour members will support all the amendments in the group. I think that we all want to see as much progress as possible to allow citizens to vote independently and in secret, as all of us here do—we are not asking for anything more, just equality in the process.

Amendment 16, in Colin Smyth’s name, is a commonsense, practical and pragmatic approach. It has a clear process and there is no reason why it cannot stand alongside other actions that are being taken by the Government. The support of the foremost national body supporting blind and visually impaired people is very significant, and I hope that the minister will reconsider and support this amendment.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

The minister spoke about the offer that has been made to provide information to the committee. Would he accept an invitation for officials to come to the cross-party group on visual impairment so that they can have further dialogue about the amendments?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I would be happy to come to the cross-party group myself to hear views at first hand, if that would be useful.

There is no disputing the need to address the barriers that are faced by blind and partially sighted people in exercising this most fundamental democratic right. Mr Smyth has highlighted the design of ballot papers, which I recognise as being worthy of consideration—that is why we have already considered it. Engagement with the sight loss community last year highlighted a number of challenges in designing separate ballot papers, including the risk of a customised ballot paper making an individual’s vote more readily identifiable; the fact that electronic counting systems that are used in local government elections might not be able to process specially customised ballot papers; the fact that braille-type ballot papers would not be a complete solution, as we have received consistent advice from the sight loss community that only a small and decreasing number of people can read braille; and the likely high cost of producing indented ballot papers, not least because they would have to be supplied to every polling station.

I do not rule anything out or in, but I wanted to make those points. We have taken and do take the issue seriously. Any change to the ballot paper needs to be thoroughly tested prior to introduction. We need to be careful when planning such work, to ensure the most effective and productive use of resources. That factor motivated the Government amendments in this group, which seek to encourage the Electoral Commission to identify what changes are most needed to assist disabled voters. Rather than being narrowly prescriptive in primary legislation, identifying need based on practical advice and recommendations from key stakeholders seems to be the best way to prioritise pilots and studies.

We had a trial ready to go—it would have been under way but for Covid-19—which demonstrates the Government’s commitment in this area. I reiterate that we are committed to going further to assist our disabled voters to fully participate in elections. I invite members to support amendments 1, 2 and 10 and I invite Mr Smyth not to move amendment 16.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendment 2 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Group 2 consists of minor and technical amendments. Amendment 3, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 14 and 15.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As the Presiding Officer indicated, the amendments in this group are minor and technical; they contain no policy changes. Amendment 3 is consequential on amendments to section 6 that were made at stage 2. It splits section 6 into two sections to reflect the fact that section 6 now amends two separate acts—namely, the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 and the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002.

Amendments 14 and 15 are consequential on the insertion in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 of a new section 17, which concerns boundaries Scotland’s reports and their implementation. As it refers to “regulations” being made rather than “an order”, the two references to “order” in section 1 of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 are replaced by references to “regulations”.

I move amendment 3.

Amendment 3 agreed to.

After section 6:

Amendment 16 moved—[Colin Smyth].

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The question is, that amendment 16 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

There will be a division.

I suspend the meeting for five minutes to permit the division to take place.

15:26 Meeting suspended.

15:31 On resuming—

We will proceed with the division on amendment 16.

Division number 1 Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Stage 3

Aye: 19 MSPs

No: 54 MSPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The result of the division is: For 19, Against 54, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 16 disagreed to.

The Presiding Officer:

Group 3 is on Electoral Commission: five-year plan. Amendment 4, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 5 to 7 and 9.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Amendments 4 to 7 and 9 make a number of further refinements to the bill’s provisions, granting the Scottish Parliament an oversight role in relation to the Electoral Commission’s activities concerning Scottish devolved elections. The proposals have been developed in close consultation with Scottish Parliament and Electoral Commission officials.

Amendment 4 removes two requirements that the bill places on the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. The first is a requirement to have regard to certain reports and recommendations by the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is no longer relevant as a result of the removal of section 17 at stage 2 following representations by the Auditor General and Audit Scotland.

The second is a requirement on the SPCB to consult Scottish ministers in deciding whether it is satisfied that the Electoral Commission’s five-year plan is consistent with the economical, efficient and effective discharge of its functions, and in making any recommendation for modification of the plan. The SPCB can, if it wishes, consult Scottish ministers, but it is not necessary for it to do so.

That provision was based on the UK arrangements, which are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. On reflection, and in consultation with parliamentary officials, it is considered that it would be excessive for that to be a specific requirement in relation to the SPCB. The obligations on the Westminster Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission are relevant primarily to financial matters that are not involved in the SPCB’s oversight of the commission’s devolved activities. Amendment 4 therefore seeks to remove the strict requirement on the SPCB to consult ministers—although, as I said, it will be free to do so if that is considered appropriate.

Amendment 6 requires the SPCB, where it recommends any modification to the Electoral Commission’s five-year plan, to lay before Parliament a document that explains its reasons. That new duty is imposed as a result of the proposed removal of the reporting duty on the SPCB under section 20.

Amendment 9, which I will address shortly, removes section 20 from the bill. Amendment 5 makes a technical change as a result of amendment 6. Amendment 7 is consequential on the proposed removal of section 20 and removes some of the requirements to be included in any report made under section 20.

As I mentioned, amendment 9 removes from the bill section 20, which would place on the SPCB an obligation to report to Parliament on its activities in relation to the Electoral Commission in a similar manner to the way in which the House of Commons Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission currently reports to the UK Parliament. However, parliamentary officials highlighted the differences in nature between the SPCB and the Speaker’s Committee, and we have instead agreed on a simpler approach, as set out in amendment 6.

I invite members to support amendments 4 to 7 and amendment 9.

I move amendment 4.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The Labour group will support amendments 4, 5 and 6, but we will oppose amendments 7 and 9 as we want to ensure that the bill provides for the maximum amount of reporting to, and oversight and scrutiny by, the Parliament.

Amendment 4 agreed to.

Amendments 5 and 6 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Amendment 7 moved—[Graeme Dey].

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The question is, that amendment 7 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 2 Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Stage 3

Aye: 58 MSPs

No: 12 MSPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The result of the division is: For 58, Against 12, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 7 agreed to.

Group 4 is on Electoral Commission: accounts. Amendment 8, in the name of the minister, is the only amendment in the group.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Amendment 8 places on the Electoral Commission a requirement to submit its accounts, as certified by the Comptroller and Auditor General, to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, and to lay a copy of those accounts before the Scottish Parliament. The bill previously sought to place an obligation on the Comptroller and Auditor General to lay a copy of the accounts, but that provision was removed at stage 2 following representations from the Auditor General and Audit Scotland. Amendment 8 will ensure that the accounts will indeed be laid before Parliament, but it places that duty on the Electoral Commission.

I move amendment 8.

Amendment 8 agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The question is, that amendment 9 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 3 Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Stage 3

Aye: 59 MSPs

No: 12 MSPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The result of the division is: For 59, Against 12, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 9 agreed to.

After section 22:

Amendment 10 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 31—Changes to local government areas or electoral arrangements: procedure:

Amendment 14 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

G roup 5 is on local electoral wards. Amendment 11, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendment 12.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The bill would allow two and five-member wards in local government areas in addition to the existing three and four-member wards. That is intended to permit greater flexibility and to reflect local circumstances. For example, a two-member ward could be used to avoid a distinct community being lumped in with others in a larger ward without account being taken of natural barriers such as a mountain range or a body of water.

There was consensus at stages 1 and 2 that two-member wards should be used sparingly.

At stage 2, Mark Ruskell suggested that boundaries Scotland could be required to specially explain the use of two-member wards in making its recommendations, and that is what amendments 11 and 12 would achieve. They would require a statement to be made in the report to justify the use of two-member wards. That requirement would not apply in relation to island areas, where one and two-member wards are already possible as a result of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. Amendment 11 applies the requirement to review recommendations, and amendment 12 applies that to any further review that is required as a result of parliamentary scrutiny.

I have considered whether further steps, such as a presumption against the use of two-member wards, would be appropriate. However, I think that it is important to give boundaries Scotland the flexibility to prepare its recommendations—subject, of course, to the existing rules on ensuring parity and respecting geographical distinctiveness.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the bill will substantially strengthen parliamentary oversight of boundaries Scotland. In the future, its proposals to abolish or alter the boundaries of any local government area or electoral ward or to increase or decrease the number of councillors to be returned in an electoral ward will have to be approved by Parliament under the affirmative procedure.

I urge members to support amendments 11 and 12, which seek to underline the clear will of Parliament that the use of two-member wards should be carefully considered and expressly justified while still respecting the independence and judgment of boundaries Scotland.

I move amendment 11.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I thank the minister for the constructive engagement on the matter.

The two amendments definitely move the conversation on from stage 2. There were widespread concerns that the adoption of two-member wards would, in effect, lower proportionality in electoral wards in Scotland. I agree that any adoption of two-member wards outside the context of island communities should be a unique and exceptional case.

I ask the minister for clarity on whether boundaries Scotland will be able to comment in the reports on that proportionality aspect in making a recommendation to Parliament. That is clearly not its primary consideration in a proposal for a changed ward boundary and the number of members who represent that ward, but considering proportionality and how the adoption of a two-member ward might impact on that for voters would certainly be useful.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No other member has requested to speak, so I call the minister to wind up.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I will respond to Mark Ruskell’s point. That is not specified in what is being asked of boundaries Scotland, but it is a reasonable ask and it is a conversation that we can have in relation to the make-up of the explanation that it provides.

Amendment 11 agreed to.

Amendments 12 and 15 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That ends consideration of amendments.

Members will be aware that, at this point in proceedings, the Presiding Officer is required under the standing orders to decide whether, in his view, any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter—that is, whether it modifies the electoral system and franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. In the Presiding Officer’s view, the provisions of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill do not relate to a protected subject matter, and it therefore does not require a supermajority to be passed at stage 3.