I thank everyone who has engaged with the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill throughout its parliamentary passage. Many constructive contributions from all parties have helped to improve the legislation, which I hope we will shortly pass.
I particularly recognise the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its scrutiny, and I thank the electoral professionals for sharing their expertise, and individual MSPs such as Adam Tomkins, Mark Ruskell and Jeremy Balfour for their very helpful input.
That is certainly the intention.
I am pleased that we have at last been able to return to this important legislation following a delay caused by the Covid-19 crisis. During that delay of nearly three months, a small number of Scottish local government by-elections have been postponed.
I appreciate that the pandemic has also raised questions, at least in some quarters, about the arrangements for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. It is too early to make any decisions about next year and, in the midst of the pandemic, the public would be less than impressed by politicians appearing to be overly concerned with their own re-election 11 months from now.
However, I can tell the chamber that we are carefully monitoring the situation and beginning to explore options for the delivery of the election with returning officers and electoral registration officers through the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. That will inform any decisions—
I understand that the priority of the Government and everyone else is tackling issues around the pandemic. However, bearing in mind that the Electoral Commission stated that any changes around the arrangements of a poll must be in place six months before the election, surely consideration of those matters needs to start to take place now.
The work that is going on now will inform any decisions that require to be made further down the line by the Parliament. However, to give some assurance on Mr Kelly’s point, we would expect the conduct order, which the Government is required to bring forward, to be laid in October. We are looking at the pros and cons around all of it now, but it is our intention to do that.
T urning to the specifics of the bill, I am pleased that a consensus has been reached that Scottish Parliament and local government elections should run on five-year cycles. The last two Scottish parliamentary sessions have lasted five years, so that has become the norm, and it brings us into line with a number of other countries.
We now have experience of five-year terms, and as an approach, I think that it strikes the right balance between giving time for an efficient programme for government and remaining accountable to the electorate. This agreement would also ensure that we avoid the possibility of two clashes with other elections between now and 2034.
Expanding the statutory role of the Electoral Management Board has been universally welcomed. The EMB is vital in promoting best practice in electoral administration and supporting the electoral community. The convener of the EMB, Malcolm Burr, already has the power to issue directions for local government elections. If the bill is passed, the convener will gain a further power to issue directions for Scottish Parliament elections. That new power will arrive at just the right time—future proofing our system to cope with the practical challenges that we might face in an election next year.
The bill also delivers improvements in boundary reviews. It renames the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland as boundaries Scotland, to reflect the body’s recently expanded remit for parliamentary constituencies. It provides for a rolling programme of local government boundary reviews, and increases the maximum period between reviews to 15 years, which will allow boundaries Scotland to prioritise the review of areas that have seen significant population changes.
As we have discussed at previous stages, the bill will also allow for two and five-member wards, to best meet the needs of local communities.
Scottish ministers will be required to lay before Parliament regulations that implement boundaries Scotland’s proposals; they will not have the discretion to decide whether to lay such regulations. It will be for the Parliament, under the affirmative procedure, to approve or reject the proposals, which I think is as it should be.
One of the most significant changes in the bill is making the Electoral Commission accountable to the Scottish Parliament, instead of to the Speaker’s Committee of the House of Commons at Westminster, for the work that it does in Scotland. The commission welcomes that change, having been closely involved in the development of the provisions. It is right and proper that oversight of and funding for the vital work that the Electoral Commission undertakes for Scottish elections should rest here.
The commission will also gain new powers, including the power to set codes of practice for candidate expenditure. Following an amendment that was unanimously agreed to at stage 2, the commission will lead the evaluation of all pilot schemes, formalising a role that it has previously played. The Electoral Commission plays a vital role in the delivery of fair elections, and I am delighted that its relationship with this Parliament will be a direct one.
The bill also extends the Presiding Officer’s existing power to rearrange the polling date for a Scottish parliamentary election by a month, so that he can do so even when Parliament has been dissolved.
Those are the key systemic reforms in the bill, but it addresses a number of other important issues. After dialogue with colleagues from across the Parliament, we have today included provisions that will require the Electoral Commission to report on the assistance that is provided to disabled persons at Scottish elections, including by those that are running pilot schemes. We need to meet the needs of all voters to ensure that everyone can exercise their fundamental democratic right to vote securely and in private.
This Parliament led the way by giving 16-year-olds the right to vote in the 2014 referendum and at subsequent elections. In the bill, we build on that progress, promoting engagement with Scotland’s young people by ensuring that they register as attainers at the age of 14. That will allow our partners in local government and education to have early conversations with young people about their voting rights. I was encouraged to see early progress in increasing the understanding of political processes in my own constituency, prior to the pandemic hitting.
We are also modernising our local government elections so that electors will vote in only one local authority area for polls held on the same day. That will bring local government rules into line with those for the Scottish Parliament, and will protect the principle of one person, one vote.
The bill contains a range of reforms that will support voter participation and the work of professionals in our electoral community. However, I acknowledge that many members feel that there is still work to be done. Indeed, I am one of them. As I have maintained throughout this process, the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill is a step in an on-going journey; it is by no means the end of the road. For example, members have raised questions about proportionality and accountability in electoral wards, and calls have been made for a wider review of our council multimember ward system.
Such a complex piece of work is clearly a question for the next parliamentary session, but I am pleased that the bill has encouraged that debate, which might well be expanded upon in the coming hour or so.
That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill be passed.
I start with the important points that Sarah Boyack and James Kelly made to the minister. It is important that we all understand that, today, the Electoral Commission said that it continues to recommend that all legislation relating to elections must be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with. That includes this bill and any future legislative change that might be needed to accommodate or manage the next election to the Scottish Parliament, whether it takes place on schedule in May 2021, or whether it has to be delayed.
It is welcome that the minister has confirmed on the record his Government’s commitment to ensuring that that six-month timetable is complied with, no matter what. We cannot have exceptions to that. We know that we live in extraordinary times. We know that we are confronting an emergency, but we cannot make in a hurry emergency rules that change the way in which representative democracy and our elections are run in this country, pandemic or no pandemic. The Electoral Commission is unambiguous and I welcome what I have taken to be the minister’s equal unambiguity.
We have some time, because six months before next May is not until the end of this year. We have some time during the summer and the early autumn to ensure that our rules are fully in place six months before the election is held. I welcome the fact that that has been said clearly this afternoon.
I also welcome the way in which the minister has conducted himself throughout the passage of the bill.
I spoke about three aspects of the bill during the stage 1 debate, which was in early February but feels like a lifetime, if not a generation, ago. I will speak about two of those aspects today. The first is two-member and five-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-member or two-member wards in the islands. Section 4 of the bill allows the creation of two-member, three-member, four-member or five-member wards in any council area in Scotland. That flexibility is welcome, but only to an extent. We all understand that that flexibility is not an unalloyed good and that, notwithstanding the fact that two-member wards, or indeed five-member wards, might be desirable in some areas that have strong community boundaries, they should not have them at the cost of undermining the proportionality between votes cast and seats won, on which the single transferable vote system that we use across Scotland for local government elections is based. Two-member wards make the achievement of that proportionality much more difficult, as Mark Ruskell said earlier.
In its valuable stage 1 report, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee said that two-member wards should be used only in “very exceptional circumstances”. I agree with that. I welcome the way in which the provisions on the possible creation of two-member or five-member wards under section 4 of the bill have been strengthened during the passage of the bill by the Government amendments moved at stage 2 and those that were passed unanimously earlier this afternoon to require the Boundary Commission for Scotland to report in full to the Scottish Parliament about any future recommendations that it makes that any ward should be created that has only two or as many as five members.
Those are important steps in the right direction but all those steps, if they are taken at all, must be taken while bearing in mind that parties across the chamber want to see two or five-member council wards only in what the standards committee called “very exceptional circumstances”.
The final element of the bill that I want to reflect on, which has not been talked about this afternoon but is nonetheless important, is the setting at five years of term lengths for elections to this Parliament and to local government. I have not changed my mind since stage I, when I said that I prefer four years to five years, but that boat has sailed—at least for the time being—because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The important thing here is not to have a largely futile argument about which—four or five years—is better but to ensure that there is clarity and certainty. Whenever we think about electoral law, the interests of the voters must be paramount. That is what the Electoral Commission is there for and why it says that all those rules, whatever they are, must be in place six months before the date of any election.
For as long as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 continues to fix the term of Westminster elections at five years, it makes sense for our term to be fixed at the same interval, so that there are not occasions when this Parliament and the United Kingdom Parliament are to be elected on the same day. However, as I said in the stage 1 debate, it is the policy of the party that won the most recent general election in the United Kingdom to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. I am not yet clear what it proposes to replace the act with, but that important clarity and certainty needs to carry forward, irrespective of the fate of the 2011 act. We should not be wedded to five years out of principle, because there is no principle that says that five years is better than four years or any other relevant period. The important thing is to make sure that the interests of the voter are paramount at all times. We—or the Parliament that is elected at the next election, whenever that takes place—might need to revisit that and keep that option open, if and when the 2011 act is repealed.
I too thank the clerks and all those who have given evidence to enable us to get a bill that, although it is not the longest, has important points that need to be discussed.
Any electoral reform should be meaningful, inclusive and aim to increase participation. Throughout the bill process, the checks that the Electoral Reform Society set out in its evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee all those months ago have been met to some degree. As we pass the bill, it is important to consider the debates that we had earlier, which reflected the discussions at stage 2 about how the bill might be strengthened—in particular, in relation to those with visual impairment or who are blind. Jeremy Balfour raised those issues at stage 2 and, today, we have debated amendments from Colin Smyth and the minister.
As others have said, the current system does not enable people who are blind or partially sighted to be completely independent in casting their vote, and that is not good enough. Even though voters with visual impairments are now allowed to use their phones in the polling booth—not to take a picture but to ensure that they know what is on the ballot—the guidance was not applied universally by returning officers. Colin Smyth’s amendments, which we debated earlier, called on the Scottish ministers to roll out a feasibility study of indented ballots or other methods that would support visually impaired voters. Although we have passed the Scottish Government’s amendments and not Colin Smyth’s, some progress can be made. The prize has to be a ballot that is secret for all voters and accessible to all. I hope that there is more work to come on the issue.
In addition to that, I welcome the transfer of oversight of voting trials, including electronic voting trials, to the Electoral Commission. That will ensure that independent expertise is utilised fully and it also frees up the resources of local authorities, which would otherwise be responsible for analysing the results. However, at this stage, I argue for extreme caution in using electronic voting, because, as I observed in the stage 1 debate, there have been major problems in other European countries that have trialled electronic voting; it has not always worked, and there are fraud issues.
As has also been discussed, another key concern at stage 2 was the possibility of the introduction of two-member council wards, which we need to reflect on. The Government relies on our councils, which are democratically accountable, to make tough financial decisions—whether to address the fact that there has been underfunding over the years or to look at how they resolve the additional burdens of Covid-19. We need to remind ourselves that, although there have been arguments for change for understandable reasons, the political leadership of our councils can change on the basis of incredibly small margins, so it is vital that we retain fairness in political representation and accountability. I therefore very much welcome the minister’s comments in response to Mark Ruskell. Two-member wards must be used only in unique and exceptional cases. A better approach would be to go for a larger number of councillors in wards, especially if the issue is a sense of underrepresentation, and particularly in remote and rural communities. I hope that that is looked at. Scotland is hugely diverse and we need those changes to be monitored carefully. I hope that the minister will commit to that.
I would also like the minister to comment on how the pandemic might affect people’s voting intentions in relation to whether they feel happy to go out and vote, and on whether there will be a need to do much more promotion of postal voting to enable people who have been shielding or who are still concerned by the pandemic in the months to come. I am thinking in particular about the council by-elections that are coming up—that is a topical issue on which I am keen to get the minister’s comments.
The bill has brought about some really important discussions on how our democracy should function in Scotland. It has enabled us, as a Parliament, to reaffirm a commitment to inclusivity and increased engagement. The challenge for us is to make sure that the bill marks the start of those conversations—not the end. I very much look forward to seeing how the changes that are in the bill come to fruition and enhance our electoral process.
I will finish on the importance of encouraging young people to vote. It is hugely important that we make our elections as representative as possible, and that we establish stronger lifelong voting habits. None of us can be happy with current levels of voting. Let us hope that we can use the bill—and the amendments that come afterwards in the form of orders that come through the Parliament—to encourage the maximum number of people to vote to get the Governments that they want, whether at local or Scottish level. I hope that, in passing the bill, we can reflect on that, and enable and encourage more people to vote.
I will keep my comments on the bill relatively brief. However, as others have done, I thank the clerks and all those who gave evidence throughout the passage of the bill. I also thank the minister for his constructive attitude throughout the bill in discussing a variety of amendments that came through committee, and that have been debated in the Scottish Parliament today.
This is, largely, a technical bill. Its purpose is not wholesale democratic renewal or increasing voter turnout. We still need to do a lot of work to renew our democracy and to encourage democratic participation at all levels. In fact, reform work still needs to be done in this session of the Scottish Parliament ahead of the next Scottish Parliament elections—whenever they might be.
The Electoral Commission’s briefing for this afternoon’s debate points out two areas of that reform work. One is the need to increase fines in relation to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000; a second is about the inclusion of imprints on digital campaigning, which is hugely important. We saw the role of digital campaigning in the recent European referendums, and we are in a situation in which a lot of the campaigning in the run-up to the Holyrood elections will be digitally based. It is really important that voters understand who is paying for the messages that flash across their social media screens during those elections.
As others have done, I highlight the very welcome simplified registration for 14-year-olds to join the electoral register as attainers. I was thinking about that the other night, because my son will turn 14 in just a couple of weeks’ time. He is already starting to show an interest in who makes decisions about things locally, has been in touch with his local councillors, and has actually got a few wins, which is great to see.
As he goes into secondary 3, he has gotten interested in national and international politics through his modern studies. There is a great opportunity in S3 to prepare young people to be active citizens. In many ways, the generation that is coming through now is the first to really understand what we are doing to the world and the last that can do anything about it. That places a huge responsibility on their shoulders as citizens and, quite frankly, the earlier that they can start democratic participation in life, the better.
I welcome a number of other things in the bill. We had a useful debate this afternoon, and at stage 2, about the importance of including people with sight loss and making the voting system easier for them, whether through a tactile system or an electronic device. We need to improve the voting experience for people, as well as its security.
In relation to people with sight loss, the use of an electronic device is a responsible use of the technology. A wider roll-out of e-voting would not be responsible, particularly given the major concerns raised by a number of European countries that have attempted to roll out electronic voting in recent years. Any voting system that we put in place has to be secure, anonymous and verifiable: paper and pencil is the most secure, anonymous and verifiable system that we can put in place, as long as people are able to use it. The exception that proves that rule is the plight of people who have sight loss, who often need another person with them to be able to vote.
I am pleased to hear from the minister that voting pilots will be brought back to Holyrood; I am sure that they will come under a good degree of scrutiny. I am also pleased to hear that a review of local government electoral systems and boundaries might be coming, perhaps not in this Parliament but in the next one. I agree that the issue is complex, but, after 13 years, there is the appetite to review whether we have the system right and how we can improve it.
There is a lot of work to do with regard to our democratic renewal. I hope that the Government does not wait too long to put in place the final pieces of the electoral reform that it needs to make in this session to enable the Holyrood elections to take place, and that whatever Government takes the reins at Holyrood next time, that there will be a more radical view of democratic reform and voter turnout, so that we can start to incentivise active citizens in our society.
I thank the clerks, the committee, the officials and witnesses as well as the advisers for their work on the bill. The minister is right in what he has said about the 2021 elections: we need to be cautious and we should not be too self-obsessed about the matter.
The minister has indicated that the time for making a decision would be October. To try to project what will happen in a month’s time is difficult enough and to do that for six months ahead will be even more problematic. We might need to be even more flexible in the current circumstances, because it would be wrong to be cavalier in the event of a second peak, should it come at the time of the 2021 elections. We need to be mindful that these are unpredictable times and that we might need to be agile in those circumstances.
I am pleased that we have returned to the subject of council ward sizes. The issue was debated when the bill was originally introduced and we were in favour of greater proportionality for some wards, in urban areas particularly, to reflect the size and coherence of communities. We also wanted to reflect that, in some rural areas, particularly those such as Caithness, the Highlands and other parts of Scotland, the distances are huge and the number of parent and community councils that all need serviced is even bigger. Having that bit of flexibility needs, of course, to be fully justified, but it is a wise thing to have and we support it
With regard to voting pilots, we need to be careful with our democracy. People have confidence in the processes, even though we rely on people’s good faith and honesty to maintain that integrity. We support a cautious approach to electronic voting pilots, particularly for people with sight loss, as that would aid access to democracy, but we need to be careful.
It is also sensible to have declarations on internet adverts. We have seen greater transparency on that front with Facebook. On the Facebook ad website, it can be fascinating to see exactly who is paying for what, and which communities. Greater transparency of adverts on the wider internet would be a great thing.
It is right to transfer the responsibility and accountability for the Electoral Commission from the Scottish Government to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. That transfer emphasises the need for the corporate body’s independence, which we should not jeopardise in the future with political stunts.
I think that Adam Tomkins is right—there is no clear answer on the issue of having four-year or five-year terms. We need some stability, and it is not a futile debate. For years, we survived with four-year terms, which allowed a renewal of our democracy on a frequent basis. Sometimes, five years seems a very long time, especially in the rapidly changing world that we have just now due to a global pandemic, the trauma of Brexit, the EU referendum, and having several Prime Ministers come and go. We have had a lot of change, so it would be sensible to have a fixed term of four years in the future. I see the possible revision of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 as an opportunity to consider whether we can change back to having four-year terms in this Parliament, which would give us the frequency of democracy that would help us all.
I am pleased to speak in the stage 3 debate as the passage of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill nears its end. I, too, thank the bill team and the clerks to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I also thank the witnesses who helped me and the other members of the committee understand the bill’s many provisions.
Before the Scottish Parliament was set up, I was a member of the McIntosh commission, which looked into the relationship between the new Parliament, the new Government and local government. I was also a member of the subsequent Kerley commission, which looked into the voting system for local government and payment of councillors, among other things. I think that the bill contributes to the evolution of the process of devolution that Donald Dewar talked about.
Along with the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, which the committee also recently considered, the bill is a building block towards enhancing our democracy. That will always be a process, because the Parliament evolves as it acquires more powers, and we have to continue to monitor the efficacy of new procedures and systems. That also applies to electronic voting, which should not be confused with electronic counting. Some of us will have experienced electronic counting—it did not go very well and has not been used again since. However, the time will come when we will both vote and count electronically.
I am sure that most members in the chamber are sympathetic to and can get behind the moves to make voting as accessible to those with sight loss and impairment as it is to the rest of the population. I was grateful for the minister’s letter of 28 May, which detailed that work is being done to develop a prototype solution. Given its interactive nature, the trial had to be paused due to Covid-19, but I hope that it can go ahead at the earliest possible opportunity.
Part of strengthening democracy is the change in the bill that, as other members have said, will allow greater flexibility in the number of councillors per ward, to reflect Scotland’s diverse nature, rurality and remoteness and the fact that one size does not fit all. I believe that the change is important, but I agree with Mark Ruskell that we need to keep an eye on the situation to ensure that democratic representation is maintained.
Some people are unhappy with the move from a fixed term of four years to one of five years. However, as the minister said, five years is the norm in most countries. Having served as a minister in each of the past three Governments, I know and understand the pressures on the civil service, especially on those in the legal directorate, to deliver what is required to put the governing party’s manifesto commitments into competent legislation.
I had a wry smile on my face when Adam Tomkins spoke about fixed terms today, as I did during his speech at stage 1, given that there have been three elections in five years in the other place. The idea that we should be taking our lead from there is, frankly, ludicrous.
There are many other important aspects of the bill to discuss, such as those on the Electoral Commission’s code of practice and the commission’s oversight of expenses and donations. However, I finish by mentioning the great part of the bill that strengthens voting at 16 by allowing young people to register from the age of 14. I hope that we will all support the bill at decision time.
I am delig hted to participate in the stage 3 debate on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. The proposals in the bill make some sensible changes to the Scottish democratic process. Of course, the primary change is to amend the periods between Scottish Parliament and local government elections from four to five years. The new timescale will ensure that Holyrood and local council elections will not take place on the same day.
However, that is no guarantee, as it does not prevent Westminster elections from occurring on the same day as either Scottish Parliament or local government elections, and we have already heard that the United Kingdom Government’s intention is to repeal the
Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. We are not yet sure what it will replace that act with, but it wishes to remove it.
Regardless of that, UK general elections can take place and have taken place outwith fixed terms, even with the act in place. Therefore, although the proposed changes make clashes less likely, they cannot prevent them entirely. However, in such circumstances, the Parliament would be able to take further steps to avoid future clashes.
Having served in years gone by as a councillor for a single-member ward, I recognise the benefits of that system, in which a small electorate could have one dedicated councillor. That meant that, in some rural wards, things were managed much more sensibly. However, I also acknowledge the benefits that multimember wards have brought to Scottish local government by ensuring more flexibility with representation across the piece.
We have discussed the introduction of the two-member ward system, which I think combines the benefits of both systems. As has already been indicated, however, we must ensure that we have such wards only in exceptional circumstances and where a three-member ward would be totally impractical. We have also discussed five-member wards, which will be brought in for our most densely populated areas and which will help to ensure a more proportional result for local government across the area concerned.
Those proposals should be seen as sensible in relation to the review of local government. Certain areas can experience significant development and an increase in population over short periods, which must be reflected in an examination of the electoral system. Allowing the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to determine when electoral wards are to be reviewed—as long as that is done within a set period—gives us much more flexibility, which I think is vital.
The proposed change to allow the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer to postpone elections is also sensible. We can see the implications of the public health crisis that we are experiencing and suffering. The current situation could create the opportunity for an election to be managed in a way that would allow a postponement to take place. The fact that the Presiding Officer will have to consult the Electoral Commission before setting any new date is welcome, as that gives us some safeguards.
Members have made some very strong contributions in the debate and throughout the three stages of our scrutiny of the bill. Adam Tomkins spoke about the commitment to the six-month timetable. We have discussed that issue, and I can tell the minister that am delighted that it is being considered as we move towards the next Scottish Parliament elections.
Sarah Boyack talked about ensuring that we have younger voters. It is vital that we engage with young people and ensure that they understand democracy at the local level and at the parliamentary level, and how it is brought together.
Willie Rennie was quite correct when he spoke about ensuring that we are flexible and said that there is still a lot of work to be done.
The bill helps to ensure that our democratic processes in Scotland are updated, refreshed and flexible. For that and many other reasons, I support the bill.
I rise to speak in favour of the bill, which Scottish Labour will support at decision time.
As Mark Ruskell said, the bill is largely technical, but there are some good parts in it. It is important to avoid clashes between elections for local government and for the Scottish Parliament. Those of us who were candidates in the 2007 elections will remember the confusion that was created when two sets of elections were run at the same time. The primary point is that that did not help the public, which should be the most important consideration.
I do not think that that was a helpful intervention, to be honest.
I will mention some of the other aspects of the bill. It is important that the provisions on donations for local government elections bring the legislation into line with that in the rest of the UK. The provisions that allow younger voters to be able to register at 14 are very welcome, because we should be doing all that we can to get younger people interested in politics at an earlier age. The new arrangements that will improve access at poll stations for disabled voters are also very welcome.
I want to touch on the earlier discussion on the next Scottish Parliament election. When it comes, that will be a very important election. It will deal with how the pandemic has been handled and how we emerge from it, it will be the first election post-Brexit, and people will legitimately raise the issue of Scottish independence. Therefore, it is important that the democratic process is not constrained in any way.
As things stand, the reality is that, if the election were to be held next year, it could take place against a background of social distancing, which would present big challenges to the parties and to voters. A lot of the traditional ways of campaigning, such as knocking on people’s doors and asking them to vote, and standing at street stalls, will not be able to take place if social distancing measures are in place. There could also be an impact on the arrangements for the poll itself. If there is still social distancing, how do we get people in and out of polling stations safely? How do we ensure that the poll is conducted properly and that public safety is paramount?
I note what the minister said about an order being introduced in October, but the options need to be looked at seriously now. There are real challenges and, to be honest, a question mark remains over whether the poll can take place in May 2021. The Government will need to start discussions on the matter imminently.
We all agree that democracy and transparency around elections are important, and the bill helps in that regard. We will support the bill at 5 o’clock, but I reiterate that there needs to be discussion and consideration in relation to the next Scottish Parliament election.
As the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I have worked with colleagues over months on the shared goal of strengthening aspects of the democratic process through the bill. For that, I thank all committee members and our highly professional clerking team.
Although the electoral changes that the bill presents are seemingly relatively small, the updates have been made significant by thoughtful consideration and precision.
The bill proposes five principal changes, which range from enacting the principle of one person, one vote and attempting to eradicate weaknesses in our system that could give rise to electoral fraud to increasing parliamentary scrutiny of election finances.
The committee discussed how best to balance the social and economic needs of more geographically remote regions of Scotland with the need for political demographic parity.
An obvious change is that the bill officially increases the length of a parliamentary session to five years, which is beneficial in a number of regards. Five-year election periods are optimal in reducing clashes between Scottish Parliament, local government and Westminster elections. Consistency and clarity in that regard has been found to minimise the number of rejected and incorrectly completed ballot papers. Another widely accepted benefit of longer election terms is that they allow for the policy process to be completed and for policies to take better effect on the ground.
We have agreed that new technology makes electronic voting a real possibility. That is important; if the technology is used correctly, it will be able to improve voting for people who have disabilities, particularly people with visual impairment. The Royal National Institute of Blind People found that 75 per cent of voters with visual impairment were unable to vote independently or in secret in the 2017 general election. Electronic voting has the potential to ensure that such people can exercise their right to a secret ballot. For some people, that might seem like a small legislative change, but it will have a big impact on people who live with a disability and it will enable people who have been at a democratic disadvantage to exercise their right to vote freely and thereby fully participate in a key component of our democratic system.
The electoral changes in the bill have been carefully considered, with the intention of promoting fairness and accessibility and increasing equality in Scottish democratic processes. Through the changes, we can build on the significant democratic progress that has been achieved over the past 100 years. Our making it possible for everyone to exercise their right to vote in secret is poignant when considered from a historical perspective. Although there is wide consensus in the Parliament and the nation that all should have the franchise, irrespective of disability, sex or race, we must recognise that that has been hard-fought ground for good and courageous people.
In that context, it is impossible for us to talk in Scotland about democratic rights and the need to reduce all forms of discrimination without recognising what is going on right now in the United States, as people respond to the atrocity that led to the death of George Floyd, a good man who was committed to seeing an end to the cycle of violence. What has happened reinforces that we cannot take democratic rights for granted. It is our responsibility not only to recognise our privilege in the democratic process but to speak up and make a stand when we see discrimination.
That is why I want to end my speech by taking the opportunity to make a related but slightly different democratic statement: black lives matter.
I echo the words of the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and express my solidarity with all those who are protesting against the violence in the US—indeed with people who are joining in across the world. I think that many people are standing in solidarity with the protesters today.
I thank the convener, committee members and clerks and all the witnesses, who assisted us greatly in our deliberations on the bill. We had some interesting meetings.
By its nature, the bill is pretty dry, bureaucratic and technical. However, it is important to our democracy. In a participative, representative democracy, elections must be free and fair, and must be seen to be so. Confidence in the system’s integrity is fundamental to its success. The bill clarifies the role of the Electoral Commission and will rebrand the Boundary Commission for Scotland as boundaries Scotland. I am sure that that will be expensive, as all these things are, and I am sure that it will be money very well spent.
Our democracy has to be constantly under review to reflect changes in society and culture, and some of the provisions in the bill do that. It seeks to increase participation in our democracy, and I think that we all look forward to seeing the positive results of the initiatives to assist disabled citizens in accessing their ballot and visually impaired voters in voting independently and in secret. It is extremely important that people can exercise their right to vote, and that all barriers to that are removed. That should be an on-going task; I hope that it will be a rolling programme of work, and that the minister will ensure that officials engage with the RNIB and others, as they put forward very practical suggestions. It is disappointing that Colin Smyth’s amendment was not agreed to.
We support the provision of five-year parliamentary session lengths. Adam Tomkins mentioned that support for that is by no means unanimous—indeed, it was not unanimous in my party either. People have views on it one way or the other, and that is no bad thing. However, the majority supported the five-year session lengths.
We also support the possibility of having two or five-member electoral wards in exceptional circumstances, as Adam Tomkins said.
As the bill has come through each stage, it has not addressed the effect of list order, which the committee took evidence on. Many people feel that certain candidates are disadvantaged because of the in-built advantage for candidates who are higher on the ballot paper. During this process, a commitment was made that some serious work would be done on that, and I hope that, in summing up, the minister will confirm that the Government will undertake in-depth research, because the previous research was pretty thin. My personal view is that full randomisation would be the best option.
Willie Rennie mentioned issues to do with paid advertising in elections, which is not covered in the bill. However, he made a very valid point. We have seen the impact of paid advertising in other countries and our own, and it is always good to know who is behind an advert.
We had a number of discussions on electronic voting, and people were open minded about it. However, security was the key issue.
We all have a vested interest in the Scottish election in 2021, some of us for some reasons, and some for others—I am looking at Richard Lyle, because he and I have a reason to be interested the 2021 election.
Exactly. It is very important for Mr Lyle and me that that election happens on time. Some people might not want it to, but I hope that, in summing up, the minister will confirm that there is no prospect at this point that the election will delayed, or tell us whether there has been any planning in the Government for it to be delayed.
Finally, I think that the bill missed an opportunity to develop more on postal ballots, because all-postal ballots have a place in our election process.
We have missed out on the opportunity to have a Findlay-Lyle pact, but maybe that is still to come.
It is welcome to pick up the bill again for stage 3. I thank the clerks, committee members and everyone else who has been involved in putting it together. As we have heard, it is a significant set of proposals that make changes to our electoral system for the Scottish Parliament and local government.
The bill has been improved by parliamentary scrutiny. I thank the minister for his cross-party engagement during previous stages. I appreciate very much his efforts to build consensus across the chamber and to recognise just how important that is in dealing with quasi-constitutional issues.
However, we can all acknowledge that some of the policy questions that the bill throws up have no perfect solutions. Many, such as on term limits, are trade-offs between a number of considerations. As was highlighted by my colleague Adam Tomkins, expressions of regret about the move to five-year sessions for the Scottish Parliament have come from members across the chamber. However, the bill acknowledges what has become standard practice over two sessions of the Parliament’s relatively short life.
There will also be other difficulties. We have heard that repeal of the United Kingdom’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has found its way into the Queen’s speech and—by default rather than by design—the predictability that the legislation initially sought has not been found in recent years, with there having been two extraordinary general elections since 2015. Perhaps that will be a question for a future Scottish Parliament to look at, and perhaps the balance will shift in time. For now though, the bill reflects the reality that we live in.
Also at stage 2, attempts to remove the bill’s reference to two-member wards fell. I would like to make it clear that I understand the feelings of members who have concerns about that. They are, of course, entirely correct to say that two-member wards water down proportionality in the electoral system, but it is also relevant that the point was already conceded in the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, and it is difficult to defend one without the other.
As Willie Rennie highlighted, and as I know very well as a member of Parliament for the Highlands and Islands, there are distinctive communities outside Scotland’s islands for which we have, unfortunately, devised few ways to represent them. Boundary changes are relatively frequent events. Local authorities can still seem to be distant, and it has been almost 50 years since many natural communities had their own forms of local democratic expression. However, I emphasise that the two-member ward power should be used sparingly, and be reserved for occasions where there is a genuine distinction that makes larger wards impractical.
I do not, however, want to dwell on areas of disagreement, because there was a significant level of unanimity at stage 2. Audit and financial provisions found favour across party lines, as did the important roles of the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Commission for Scotland in reviewing wards. That has been valuable and there have been many positive observations and contributions from members across the chamber.
As I highlighted, my colleague Adam Tomkins welcomed the minister’s constructive approach. He also raised concerns about two-member wards, but recognised the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s concerns on the same issue. He noted that the committee’s report suggested that two-member wards should be used only in exceptional circumstances.
Convener Bill Kidd highlighted the potential role of electronic voting, particularly for people who have visual impairments, and the impact that that could have on their ability to vote.
Alexander Stewart brought his expertise as a former councillor from the fair city of Perth to discuss the detail on and experience of multimember wards. He also spoke about the role of the Presiding Officer in addressing moving of election dates when, for example, a major crisis occurs. The circumstances in which we find ourselves are a reminder that there is much that is beyond Parliament’s control and our ability to predict what will happen.
This is an important bill and it is necessary that the questions be answered at the current time. It is right to take a cautious and consensual approach when we are dealing with such significant questions, so that we can agree solutions. The bill raises a number of questions that do not have simple answers. However, it is a welcome step forward and will find support from Conservative members.
I thank members for their contributions to the debate. Before I turn to some of the points that have been raised, I record my appreciation for the efforts of the officials who drafted the bill and have done such a fine job in progressing it since it was introduced many months ago.
As I noted earlier, the bill’s process has been drawn out, thanks to the pandemic. I do not mind admitting that I needed a quick, or maybe not so quick, refresher course before we picked it up again, such was the length of the period that had elapsed between stage 2 and stage 3. I am extremely grateful to the bill team for their endeavours, as I am to members for their constructive input to the scrutiny process throughout. I will pick up on some points that have been made.
A number of members, most notably Adam Tomkins and James Kelly, majored on having the rules for an election in place six months prior to the planned poll. That is what the Government is working towards; as I said earlier, the conduct order is planned for October. I offer James Kelly the reassurance that the discussions that are under way concern that and not any possible delay to the elections, which Neil Findlay touched on. That is not what is being considered. The discussions are about the challenges that would be faced in an election campaign, which Mr Kelly eloquently discussed.
I attach a couple of caveats to what I have just said. First, given the nature of the pandemic, we might, as Willie Rennie said, have to be agile, fleet of foot and prepared for changes as we go along. It could be that a subsequent amendment will need to be made to the conduct order because of the pandemic and how it pans out.
We might also need accompanying primary legislation if, for example, there is a need for people to vote over two days. That would address James Kelly’s point about the challenges of conducting an election in the current circumstances. I say those things not to roll back from my earlier statement or to set hares running, but simply because they are possibilities. I also say to Neil Findlay that there is, as I said earlier, no discussion being had at this stage about delaying the poll, so he can look forward to his retirement from the Scottish Parliament.
Sarah Boyack made a number of good points. She is right to say that the current system does not work for people with visual impairments. There is no doubt about that; it treats them with a lack of respect. The prize is parity of treatment for them. We should aspire to get there by working with them on the best way forward. I agree, however, that electronic voting should be proceeded with cautiously, for the reasons that Sarah Boyack and Mark Ruskell identified.
Sarah Boyack also made a point about the pandemic having impacted on people’s confidence to go out and vote. There is another thing to consider in that regard. Earlier, there was talk about the value of postal voting, but many people lack confidence in postal voting. That view is perhaps misguided, but that is where they are, so we need to be alive to that.
A couple of points were made by Mark Ruskell about digital imprints. We are considering action on digital imprints. It is important that voters and the Electoral Commission can identify the source of online election material. However, I am sure that Mark Ruskell will appreciate that I cannot, in the current circumstances, stand here today and give a timescale for that.
As he did during the passage of the bill, Neil Findlay picked up on the list-order effect. We had a good discussion in committee about that. The committee took the view that there is no point in simply replacing one set of problems with another, and my take on the matter is that we should not change simply for the sake of change. To be clear, neither I nor the committee were looking to excuse inaction: change is needed. However, it must be change for the better and it must not have unwelcome unintended consequences. Again, it would be unrealistic to expect such a change to happen in the current parliamentary session, but it is work that must inevitably be done, and at the level of detail that Mr Findlay talked about.
In opening the debate, I made the point that today is simply one step—albeit a significant one—on the electoral reform journey. Therefore, I want to highlight a number of areas that will become the focus of attention. Richard Lyle mentioned candidates’ addresses.
I welcome the fact that—as I hope is the case—the minister is about to announce that the situation with regard to candidates’ addresses is about to be reviewed. To my mind, a candidate’s address should not be published on a council website or displayed on any council notice boards. I made a request that that practice be ceased in order to safeguard candidates who might previously have faced domestic abuse, and who fear the consequences of their address being publicly displayed. If the minister is going to announce that that will no longer happen, I will welcome it and sincerely thank him for it.
I indicated to the committee that I plan to make changes by secondary legislation to address those legitimate points. We will not face a council by-election until October, but the matter is on the to-do list, and changes will be made in time for that by-election.
Other issues that arose during the committee’s work were further powers for the Electoral Commission; review of the system of multimember wards, which was highlighted again today; women in elected office and tackling gender imbalance, which has to be looked at in the future; and consolidation of electoral law, which will be a substantial piece of work that Parliament in the next session might need to address, because it needs to be dealt with.
I will take a moment to reflect on the significance of our discussions today in the chamber. Parliament has had powers over its elections and the wider electoral landscape for only a short time, but we have already made real changes. This bill and the recent Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020 are part of a process of reform and modernisation that is key to the health of our democracy. Scotland has demonstrated creativity, adaptability and a commitment to inclusive elections with those on-going reforms. Although we must move carefully, we can be proud of the progress that we are making as a Parliament and as a nation.
Electoral processes, like those of Parliaments, do not stand still. Four months ago, no one would have considered the possibility of the Scottish Parliament’s holding virtual question times and having ministers and members contributing to hybrid chamber sessions via a screen surrounding the Presiding Officer’s platform. However, courtesy of the pandemic and our having had to find ways of working, that is where we are.
We might not have such an imperative driving wider electoral-process changes, but we must nevertheless remain open to further improvement—not least when it is designed to encourage voter participation. The bill should be seen as evidence of our ambitions in that area and of impetus in the journey that we are on.