Voting System

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17th September 2020.

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Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

3. To ask the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body whether it has confidence in the hybrid system of voting. (S5O-04607)

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

In short, yes. The corporate body has confidence in the voting system. I should clarify that we do not have a hybrid voting system; we have one voting system that has been put in place to enable members to take part in hybrid meetings and to do so at home, remotely or in the chamber.

The voting application, which was developed during the summer recess—I thank staff for their work on that—allows all members participating in proceedings, whether remotely or in the chamber, to cast their votes accurately and securely from any device with an internet connection and a suitable browser.

We are aware that some issues have arisen with that system. The Presiding Officer wrote to members on 9 September and a written question on that matter from Daniel Johnson was answered on 10 September. Issues have arisen with the system and with the communications that it relies upon, and also with members and users themselves. The system has been constantly tested and refined to ensure that votes continue to be recorded accurately and I assure the member that analysis of the logs and the voting results confirms that we can and should have confidence in their accuracy.

The SPCB recognises that this is a new system and a new way of working for Parliament. It is a vital way of working that enables members—for example those who are shielding and for whom it is impossible to come to the chamber—to contribute remotely.

As I have said, the SPCB recognises that, during the introduction of the new system, several issues have arisen, and it would like to reassure Neil Findlay and all other members that Parliament staff are working hard to address the issues that have been identified and to make improvements to the system and the procedures that are involved.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I think everyone wants a system that works and that we can all have confidence in. Unfortunately, depending where in the country members are, connection to the current system can be unstable, voting is subject to problems and delays, problems are slow to be remedied, and results are subject to the Presiding Officer’s interpretation.

Parliament staff are doing everything that they can to help, but I am not sure that things are getting an awful lot better. When the big decisions that are made here—sometimes by a single vote—can have such a big impact on people’s health, jobs, businesses, life chances and wellbeing, a voting system in which too many factors can go wrong does not instil confidence. What action is being taken to resolve the problems and how much has been spent on the system so far?

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

We will get back to Neil Findlay on the question of costs, as I do not have them to hand.

Any system that is developed, and which is designed to be able to be used remotely, will rely on communications. The communications for members who are in Aberdeenshire or in Dumfries and Galloway, or in their home or constituency office, will all vary. It is important to recall the advice and guidance that was given to members in relation to using the voting system. It is now well established that, if any member is not confident that their vote has been recorded, they can either raise that via the BlueJeans platform if they are taking part in proceedings in that way or they can raise a point of order in the chamber.

I understand that voting takes time, and that there is still a delay for testing, but the point of that is to ensure that every member who is participating in proceedings is able to cast their vote. We ask for continuing patience from members.

On the question of the Presiding Officer’s interpretation of results, we are not responsible for that. The Presiding Officer has ultimate discretion and authority to make decisions on the votes in the chamber. If it is of any assurance to Neil Findlay, we have a detailed log of every member who has logged on to the BlueJeans platform, when they did so and when they logged off, when they logged on to and off the voting system, the votes that have been recorded and whether they have been changed. If the Presiding Officer has any doubt as to the validity of a vote, including votes that are tight, he will, in the normal course of events, and as happened last week, seek to delay declaring the results, in order to satisfy himself from an analysis of the voting system and the logs that all votes were recorded correctly.

I can say little more than to assure Neil Findlay that the system is under constant review, and that any member who has ideas or feedback has been encouraged from the beginning to feed them in. I stress that we need a system of voting to enable parliamentary business to continue. We are doing all we can to make sure that the voting system continues to command confidence.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have a lot of requests for supplementary questions, and we have had quite a comprehensive answer from Mr Wightman. I wish to take all the supplementary questions because the issue is important, but could we be aware of the time, please?

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Under the system that we had in the Parliament, if we missed a vote for any reason, such as speaking to a pal, being in the toilet, or daydreaming, the vote was rightly not recorded. At the moment, that can happen, but someone just needs to say, “On a point of order, Presiding Officer: my vote was not recorded.” Is that correct?

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

As I understand the standing orders, under the previous system, if a member was daydreaming, in the toilet or delayed by a train, their vote was not recorded—there was no means by which they could have the vote recorded because they were not present in proceedings. If a member is present in proceedings—that is to say, they are on the BlueJeans platform or in the chamber—and has any doubt as to whether their vote was recorded in the way in which they intended, they should raise a point of order. [


.] Mr Findlay is asking about missing a vote. If a member has missed a vote, they have missed the vote.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I want to raise the issue of the extreme length of time that it is taking to vote. Last week, it took us 40 minutes to get through four votes. We are all busy people with more important things to do than to sit in here waiting for the voting system to work. This is supposed to be a family-friendly Parliament; there are many members with childcare commitments in the evening, and an extra half hour suddenly being added to the day wreaks havoc with that. If we cannot get the system to work more quickly, can we ditch it for one that does?

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I understand Murdo Fraser’s point about delay, which is a significant issue for some members with caring responsibilities who have plans to get home from Parliament

. It is probably a timetabling issue to be raised in the first instance with the Parliamentary Bureau.

We need to allow a period of time to ensure that all members who are present during proceedings are capable of voting. I am sure that if Murdo Fraser was sitting remotely and having connection problems, he would want that time to be allocated—perhaps in particular for a tight vote or a vote on his own amendment—and that is what the Presiding Officer is doing.

I know that it is frustrating, particularly at the end of a busy and long day, but these are some of the compromises that we have to make to ensure that we have a Parliament that can continue to function when many members are not able to be present.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I congratulate the SPCB on what is an excellent technical solution, which supports my health and that of other older members who wish to be remote from Parliament, if possible.

In the light of the difficulties, which seem to be mostly human rather than technology based, will the SPCB look at standardising the technology platforms that we use more generally? Sometimes, we use Microsoft Teams and BlueJeans. Not everyone is comfortable using multiple platforms and there are opportunities for simplification of the interface. Will that be looked at?

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I do not know what evidence Stewart Stevenson has for saying that most of the problems have been human; certainly, a lot of the problems are down to users’ continuing unfamiliarity and user error, but there have also been issues with communication. We have a log and we know exactly what all the problems have been.

Stewart Stevenson makes a point about standardising and having one platform, but among the reasons for developing the app in its current specification are that it is secure, which is important for a legislature taking votes, and it can be deployed across a range of platforms. Members use a range of platforms, so it accommodates their needs and wishes. It would be inappropriate and might add far greater complexity if we were to insist on standardising platforms that members might perhaps have been using for years.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

In the letter from the Presiding Officer to members on 9 September, which Andy Wightman referred to, there was a reference to external partners being asked to validate and make any necessary improvements to the app. Has any independent specialist been appointed to undertake that work?

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I do not know; that is an operational detail. We will ensure that the SPCB gets back to Miles Briggs to let him know.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

Everyone appreciates the hard work that staff are putting in to ensure the integrity of the voting system, but there is no doubt that it is causing anxiety.

When somebody’s vote has not been recorded and they raise a point of order, the Presiding Officer deems that he can add on the vote accordingly. Is that consistent with the Parliament’s standing orders for the recording of votes?

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

Questions on the interpretation of standing orders are not really for us in the SPCB to address, although I note the fact that the Presiding Officer has substantial discretion in ensuring that he is comfortable with the votes and that they have been recorded. I have no doubt that the Presiding Officer is applying the standing orders correctly, but I am not in a position to interpret the standing orders myself.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Kelly, I will ensure that the Presiding Officer’s office sends out an answer to your question.