Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament on 10th December 2020.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-23648, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Although the bill is on an accelerated timetable, it is a result of extensive consultation and has been developed with electoral professionals and representatives of all the parties in the Parliament. I am extremely grateful for the constructive approach of everyone involved. I also sincerely thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its scrutiny of the bill and stage 1 report. The staging of the committee’s evidence-taking sessions was impressive to say the least.

Clearly, the pandemic has impacted all aspects of life. We must assume that it might have significant implications for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. Although the progress on vaccines is encouraging, in truth, no one can be certain what the public health situation will be in May, and nor can we be sure of the attitude of the public to voting in a traditional manner. However, our electoral community has already successfully delivered eight local government by-elections this autumn, assisted by guidance that has been regularly updated by the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and informed by discussions with Public Health Scotland.

It is important that we now complement those practical steps with appropriate legislation, for two reasons: first, to ensure that voters can vote safely in person and have the option to vote by post or proxy if they wish; and, secondly, to take responsible action for a worst-case scenario in which it would not be possible to hold the election on 6 May.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I have a question before the minister gets into all the detail. Does he think that, in general in Scotland, we are good at engaging the electorate in the democratic process?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I am sure that we could do better, but, in general, I think that we are good at that.

The bill is a dedicated response to the pandemic and does not make any permanent changes to electoral law. Having heard evidence from a range of electoral professionals, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has welcomed the proposals in the bill, but has rightly sought to explore some aspects further. I welcome this debate as an opportunity to do that.

I will summarise the key components of the bill. We must ensure that Parliament is able to meet to postpone next May’s election if the risk to public health makes that course of action necessary. Dissolution is currently due on 25 March and, after that point, Parliament could not be recalled for any reason. The bill therefore seeks to modify the dissolution period for the Parliament so that it commences on 5 May, which is the day before the planned date of the election. That will permit Parliament to meet to legislate for a new polling date if that is required and it will ensure that Parliament can continue to meet if a postponement were to occur.

The change would mean that we would all retain our status as members of the Scottish Parliament until the day before the election. As a result, new guidance will be issued by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to cover conduct issues. I thank Scottish Parliament officials for that on-going work.

The change to the dissolution arrangements means that the Parliament can meet to postpone the election if that is required. However, as a further contingency measure, the bill gives the Presiding Officer a power to postpone the election by up to six months. I stress that that is intended only as a last resort. For the Presiding Officer to postpone the election for a reason related to coronavirus, he must be satisfied that Parliament could not meet safely to legislate to change the date of the poll. The power also covers things such as catastrophic information technology failure or a terror attack.

I turn to polling day itself. Physical distancing in polling stations means that in-person voting could take longer than normal. The bill empowers ministers to provide for polling to occur over more than one day and allows any additional polling days to be within the period of eight days following 6 May. If extra days were needed, electoral professionals advise that the best approach would be for voting to take place on Thursday and then Friday.

This week, Malcolm Burr, the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, has provided—at my request—advice on the merits of a second day of polling. The EMB has analysed projected voter numbers and the impact of physical distancing in the light of the experience of recent Government by-elections. Mr Burr has concluded that it would be preferable to proceed on the basis of one day of polling, albeit that some additional measures should be taken alongside that. My intention is to follow that advice and to continue to heed the EMB’s expertise as we proceed.

However, in the light of concerns that were raised at stage 1, I am minded to lodge an amendment so that provision for any additional days of polling would be dependent on the EMB making such a recommendation. I will also lodge an amendment that would require ministers to provide a statement of reasons for any such move.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Does the minister not think that it would be appropriate for Parliament to be consulted about that and that, therefore, an affirmative instrument should have to be laid if there was a need for a second day of polling?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As Mr Scott will appreciate, this is a fast-evolving situation. The advice was provided yesterday. At this stage, I am not minded to take the course of action that Mr Scott suggests, but as he knows, my door is always open, and I am happy to engage with him in today’s debate and beyond.

It is expected that there will be a substantial increase in applications for postal votes as a result of the pandemic. To understand voter intentions, the Scottish Government asked the Electoral Commission to conduct two opinion polls on attitudes to voting, in August and November. Interestingly, both surveys found that around 77 per cent of eligible electors would feel safe voting in person at a polling place, provided that appropriate hygiene measures and physical distancing were in place.

However, the surveys also found that 38 per cent of respondents would apply to vote by post if they were encouraged to do so. Currently, only 18 per cent of the electorate are registered for a postal vote. Increasing that figure to around 40 per cent will involve the processing of around 900,000 postal vote applications. Although the roll-out of vaccines may result in fewer applications, we must still prepare for a significant increase. That will place substantial pressure on electoral registration officers and their staff, so the bill will bring forward the deadline for postal vote applications to 6 April.

I accept that that is not ideal and appears to run counter to maximising the uptake of postal votes, but it is a pragmatic and necessary step that has been taken on the basis of clear advice from the electoral professionals, and I think that the committee recognised that in its report. Making that change will help to ensure that increased numbers of postal votes can be processed in time for the election. Of course, such a substantial increase needs to be properly resourced, and the Scottish Government will provide £3 million of additional resource to EROs to support that work. EROs have developed contingency plans to manage higher numbers, and further resource is also under consideration to enable them to cope with the anticipated surge in applications that are received close to the deadline.

An all-postal election could not be held until late 2021 at the earliest. The bill allows ministers to provide for a rearranged election to be held on an all-postal basis, but although postal voting is valuable, it has downsides. The Electoral Management Board considers it likely that a large number of people would simply not engage with an all-postal election and therefore would, in effect, be disenfranchised. That being the case, an all-postal vote is a contingency that is only to be deployed in the event that the public health situation is significantly worse than it is at the moment.

The committee recommended that the power for ministers to legislate on an all-postal vote should be subject to a higher degree of parliamentary scrutiny. I agree, and I intend to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to make the use of that power subject to the affirmative procedure.

Alongside all that, we intend to have a full public awareness-raising campaign on postal voting. We think that it is essential for people to have a better understanding of the process of applying for a postal vote and to have confidence in the nature of the process, because there is a lot of misunderstanding of how postal votes work.

The commission’s public awareness campaign will run across television, digital and radio, and it will also include the delivery of an information booklet to all households in Scotland. In addition, we must direct specific activity towards voters who might feel that they are at a higher risk of the effects of Covid-19. In doing that, we will engage with relevant public health expertise. As the committee heard, the Government will write directly to the 169,000 people of voting age who are in the shielding category to draw their attention to their options.

My hope, and indeed my expectation, is that much of the content of the bill will not be needed. The people of Scotland continue to make daily sacrifices to suppress the virus, and the news of vaccines has given us all cause for optimism. However, the bill provides important measures that we will be able to use if the virus poses significant risks in May next year. I thank the committee for its engagement and I look forward to this afternoon’s debate.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am going to change the normal order of speakers on this occasion.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The coronavirus public health emergency has impacted on every part of our lives; the democratic life of the nation is no exception. The ability to hold a safe Scottish Parliament election next year while social distancing restrictions might still be in place, and voters’ ability to participate safely and confidently, are extremely important.

Although it is clear that the planned election in May is unlikely to be like any previous election, especially for campaigning purposes, it is important that we ensure that we can hold a safe election, that we can count the results and that Parliament can meet as soon as possible afterwards. That includes ensuring that voters have clear and comprehensive information in advance about the options that are available to help them, so that they can plan how to vote safely.

We welcome the news this week of the commencement of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign. It is a huge step forward that—as we heard at First Minister’s question time—5,330 of our fellow Scots have already received the vaccine. Let us hope that, come March, we will be in a much more positive place and can remove the social distancing measures that have been needed to date.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that, during the pandemic, elections have taken place in Canada, New Zealand and the US, and there have been eight council by-elections across the country. I believe that there is a considerable amount to be learned from countries that have held national elections on how Scotland can assure voters that we will conduct a safe election and count.

As we all know, the pandemic has placed significant pressures on our local authorities. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to and thank all those in local government who have worked incredibly hard to support our communities throughout the pandemic, especially in the councils that I represent across the Lothian region.

The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill is important, because it will help us to achieve a safe election and to plan for eventualities. We have engaged positively across the parties to ensure that we can do just that.

Sections 5 and 8 of the bill present us with a number of concerns relating to the powers that they will provide to ministers. My colleagues will say more about those later in the debate. However, I welcome the positive signal that the minister has given in his letter to the committee today that the Scottish Government accepts the committee’s reasoning and will prepare a stage 2 amendment to apply affirmative procedure to use of the powers that are outlined in section 5.

We believe that that should also be done in relation to section 8, on which, I note, the minister has responded, saying in his speech that the Government is considering the matter and that it is possible that an amendment will be lodged. I also note the advice today from the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, which is a positive contribution in the interests of ensuring that we all agree on how that should be taken forward. Scottish Conservatives believe that such an amendment is important to ensure that no order-making power may be exercised other than with Parliament’s assent under affirmative procedure.

As we progress to stage 2, we will seek assurances in order to strengthen the Parliament’s position and increase Government accountability. As the Electoral Commission says in its useful briefing for today’s debate, there are still a number of concerns about the bill. For example, the proposal to provide for an earlier deadline for applications to vote by post would reduce the time available for electors to make applications to vote by post. In particular, it would mean that anyone who applied to register to vote after 6 April but before the 19 April registration deadline would not be able to access that method of voting in the May election. I believe that that risks running contrary to what we are all trying to achieve, and that the objective of applying to vote by post should be simple and accessible for all voters.

We have a number of concerns about the postal vote administration process, as it is currently outlined. I believe that a public information campaign and application process for a postal vote should be independent of the Scottish Government, and should be administered by local authorities. I hope that we can get assurances on that, as we progress to stage 2.

If it is likely that the Scottish Parliament election that is scheduled for May 2021 will be delivered against the backdrop of evolving public health restrictions, we must work to guarantee that no one is disenfranchised. I note the change in voter behaviour that is outlined in the Electoral Management Board’s response. We know that many citizens, especially those who have been asked to shield during the pandemic, might be concerned about voting, which means that we must ensure that potential changes do not also cause confusion for them.

During recent council by-elections, we have also seen evidence of a change in voter behaviour. With more people working from home, the pinch points that we have previously seen at polling stations—queues in the morning and after work, for example—will potentially be replaced by a lunch-time peak in voting. Such potential changes in voter behaviour in the Scottish Parliament election are important. All such issues should be considered as we go forward.

We all hope that the provisions in the bill will not be needed and that, by the end of March, we will be able to say that the election can proceed on the expected date in May and as normally as possible.

Taking steps to ensure that democratic elections can take place safely, and that Parliament can be recalled if that is needed, is the responsible thing to do. Scottish Conservatives will support the bill at stage 1 this evening, and we look forward to stage 2, when we can find consensus on all the issues that I have outlined.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

Next year’s elections will take place in circumstances that nobody could have imagined and which, certainly, nobody would want. Our first and top priority must be to ensure that the election is safe for voters and poll workers.

However, we also have an opportunity to drive up turnout, which is something that we have seen elsewhere. I am not saying that there are perfect lessons to learn from the USA’s election process, but one of the positives that came out of the most recent presidential election was the extraordinary turnout, despite the election’s having been in the midst of a pandemic. We must aspire to that in Scotland.

On that basis, I think that it is important that the bill be passed by consensus. From my discussions in private with the minister, I know that that is his intention, so I am sure that we will see that in engagement during the parliamentary process.

At the outset, I would like to clarify two points. First, I hope that we can avoid the need for an all-postal ballot, and we all want to avoid the need to delay the election. As part of that, we should set out a clear framework for what would need to happen if such decisions were to be taken, so that there is some certainty for the electorate and the people who administer the election.

Secondly, on costs, I welcome what the minister said about the extra £3 million for EROs. However, within the financial framework that has been published today, there is a suggestion that the additional cost to EROs of a hybrid election could be £5 million. I would like some clarification about whether the full £5 million will be given to them.

As I said, there is, largely, consensus on the bill, but I would like to pick up with the minister four or five issues on which I hope we can get agreement in the next two stages of the bill. First, I welcome the public information campaign; I think that it is important. However, the need for it to start early is also important, because that, in itself, could negate some of the challenges that exist around bringing forward the postal vote deadline.

On that point, I think that it is counterintuitive for us to bring the postal vote application deadline forward if we are trying to encourage more people to apply. If we have a fully functional public information campaign—if we get the booklets out early enough—and if we make it easy for people to apply early enough, we could negate the risk of a massive flow of applications in the final two weeks. If we do that, we can keep the deadline as it is. I asked the minister to reconsider his position on that, because there are concerns about bringing forward the deadline. If what I suggest means that additional resources would be required for EROs, we should think about providing those resources.

On postal votes, there should be freepost applications. No one should have to pay to vote, so there should be universal freepost applications for a postal vote. I know that it has been suggested that political parties could offer freepost applications. We should resist that—they should be available for all. In closing, will the minister clarify whether his party is planning to do freepost applications for postal votes? They should be universal, because cost should never be a barrier to a person’s being able to apply to vote.

I am also concerned about the number of polling days. We hope that vaccination will be suitably spread across the population so that we do not need a socially distanced election. However, if we need a socially distanced election, we should have the option to have additional voter days. My preference would be for at least two days, rather than just one, but I accept that that decision could be made closer to the time. It should also be a decision for the Parliament, rather than the Government, to make. I do not think that the political parties that are represented here would want to do something that they thought was against advice, so it should be primarily for the Parliament to make that decision—not for the Government.

I welcome what the minister said about letters going out—in particular, to the shielded group. However, those letters should not come from the Scottish Government, which will be a participant and will not be neutral in the election.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I will offer a bit of clarity. I intend that that correspondence would come, subject to his agreement, from the chief medical officer, and not from Scottish Government officials or whoever. That is because the chief medical officer has been the point of contact for the shielding group throughout the process. By way of further clarification, I note that the wording of any such letter would be agreed in advance with the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I welcome that, but there is contention about the branding of the correspondence: an NHS Scotland letter is very different from a Scottish Government letter. We should be very clear that it will not be a Scottish Government letter and that it should include a freepost application. As I have said, the Scottish Government will be a participant in the election, not a neutral body.

The key point that I want to make in closing is that we need collective trust in the electoral process, so it is really important that the bill be passed with consensus and no contention. On the basis of that principle, I am happy to work with the minister and, indeed, with every other political party in the chamber to ensure that we can achieve that consensus.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Others have already said that, in these extraordinary circumstances, we should all be seized of the priority of ensuring that our election can be carried out in a safe manner and in a way in which people can have confidence in the process. None of us would welcome the idea of a delay, but we need to be conscious of the fact that there would have been a pretty clear scenario if our election had fallen to be due in May this year instead of May next year. We would have had to delay it in those circumstances. We all hope that, in May 2021, we will be in a much better position in respect of the Covid outbreak than we were in May this year or, indeed, than we have been since. However, we simply do not know what situation we will face in May. That is why we need legislation that is open to a range of different scenarios, and that is able to ensure that our election can take place safely and that we can have confidence in it.

That is one of the reasons why I am cautious about the projection on postal voting uptake of 40 per cent at the upper end. It might be that we all feel as a society that we are moving beyond the most dangerous period of the Covid outbreak and that postal voting uptake might not be significantly higher, but that is not guaranteed. We need to be willing to prepare for the possibility that postal voting demand might not only reach 40 per cent but exceed it.

I am still concerned about what will happen if the Government decides, even on the advice of independent electoral administrators, that it is necessary to bring the postal voting deadline even further forward. We could be in the position of turning people away from a postal vote simply because they did not register early enough. I am concerned about that possibility.

We should do everything that we can between now and then to ensure that we maximise the capacity for postal voting, so that we can meet whatever demand will be created. The public opinion polling that led to that 40 per cent estimate was done at a different time and we do not know what the circumstances will be between now and the election in May.

There has been some discussion about one and two-day elections. I do not think that my party has a formal policy, but I will say openly that my personal view is that I am open to the idea of holding elections on multiple days, regardless of the current circumstances with the pandemic. There is a good argument that we should be open to looking at a wide range of options for increasing voter turnout, and holding voting on multiple days is one option that should be tried. I am reluctant to see that being taken out of the bill, even if the bill is specifically designed for the current circumstances.

I appreciate the minister’s position in saying that a decision on multiple-day voting in the May election should be based on advice, and that we should not use the upcoming election as an opportunity to experiment. I think that the case for multiple-day elections should be revisited in the longer term. Generally, elections ought to be able to take place on multiple days.

Lastly, as both Miles Briggs and Anas Sarwar reflected, there are bad lessons to be learned from around the world: none of us should want changes to our election arrangements to lead to the kind of fearmongering and conspiracy theories that we saw in the United States. We all have a responsibility—not just in passing the legislation, but in the way in which we conduct our debates between now and the election—to demonstrate to the Scottish people that they can have confidence in their election system, and to never lean into the kind of fearmongering that we have seen being used for such unpleasant political ends by the Trump campaign.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I thank committee members for their efforts in getting witnesses before them and providing us with a report in such a short space of time, and the minister and his officials for the consensual way in which he appears to be approaching the task.

As previous speakers have said, the legislation addresses some of the important technical changes that will be needed to hold elections in the midst of a pandemic, although Patrick Harvie makes a valid point about broader lessons that we might learn about holding elections. The priority is to keep people safe, but to do so in ways that also safeguard our democracy. The Parliament has already extended its term by a year, so it is right that we commit to ensuring that elections go ahead in May, if at all possible.

I will focus on a couple of areas in the bill that have been picked up by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. The committee expressed concern about the enormous powers that the bill gives to ministers to make regulations and trigger changes to the elections. I have spoken before and in the context of another bill that is currently before us about how we should be concerned when ministers in a minority Government gain monopoly powers to change the rules. That is especially true when the rules relate to elections.

Many of us have watched aghast in recent weeks and months as people in the United States have been told that their election was being rigged. That is an astonishing state of affairs, which is designed to undermine public confidence in the election process and the acceptance of election results. We may be confident that that could never happen here, but the bill provides opportunities to make sure of that—and those opportunities should be seized.

The committee described the absence of parliamentary scrutiny envisaged by the bill as drafted as

“highly unusual and of particular importance”.

That is a concern that I share. I also agree with the committee’s request about the process for converting the election, as a last resort, to an all-postal election. That seems to be a sensible precaution and I note the minister’s comments on that in his opening speech.

Likewise, a safeguard should be introduced at stage 2 by including in the bill the limited list of possible additional polling days. On a practical level, if we had a two-polling-day election, it would make sense to ensure that candidates could get access to the list of those who had voted at the end of the first day, which would help to reduce unnecessary contact with voters who had already voted. There may even be scope to do that for postal votes that are received by returning officers prior to polling day. I believe that there is precedent for that in the all-postal-vote election trials in the north-east of England and Yorkshire for the regional assembly referendum that was held in the early 2000s.

The committee report and witnesses also drew attention to instances when ministers are given enormous power over their own re-election arrangements—that should have alarm bells ringing. Hopefully, steps can be taken at stage 2 to strengthen members’ scrutiny powers in that area. That must not be left to Government alone, particularly a minority Government, so the committee is right to ask that Parliament be included in those decisions.

We discovered last week that ministers get exclusive access to weekly polling numbers, which no doubt guide their decisions. In the interests of public confidence, we need to make sure that those decisions do not extend to arrangements around elections.

As others have said, this is a bill that none of us would have wished to see, but it is entirely right and appropriate that Parliament takes these precautionary steps.

I look forward to the work that will be done at stage 2 and again thank the committee, witnesses and the minister for their efforts to date.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

I apologise for hurtling in as late as I did—down in the garden lobby, there are still children, puppy dogs and television cameramen crammed against the walls from when I zoomed past them. However, it was very important that I got here.

As convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I am pleased to speak in the debate on behalf of the committee. The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill contains measures that might prove necessary to ensure that the election can go ahead as planned on 6 May next year in the context of restrictions that might be in place due to coronavirus. The bill also contains a backstop measure for delaying the election if circumstances emerge that mean it cannot go ahead.

I am grateful to committee members for working together to produce a unanimous report on the bill and I acknowledge the experts in the field of running elections who generously gave up their time to inform our scrutiny of the bill. I also welcome the rapid response from the Government to the committee’s report. The bill contains a number of provisions, but I will highlight some of the main conclusions that were reached by the committee. As we said in our report,

The Committee’s first priority is to ensure that no voter is unable to vote at the next election.”

We anticipate that postal voting will play an important role for people who are unable to vote in person due to illness or self-isolation, and postal voting will ensure that those who may not feel comfortable going out can still participate. Given the central importance of postal voting to the coming election, we are keen to ensure that registration for postal votes will not be overwhelmed and that no one misses out. The report makes a number of recommendations on that, including that sufficient contingency must be in place to respond to an unforeseen spike in demand for postal votes and that

“early and widespread promotion of the opportunity to register for a postal vote” must take place.

I am happy to accept the Government’s reassurance that, if necessary, funds will be made available further to the additional £3 million already allocated to electoral registration officers to increase the capacity to process applications for postal votes. A two-pronged approach of increasing capacity and promoting and encouraging take-up of postal voting will be needed to ensure success. I know that my colleagues will have more to say about postal voting in the debate, so I turn to other matters.

The committee was concerned that the power to run an all-postal vote in section 5 sits with Scottish ministers and that there are no arrangements in the bill for parliamentary scrutiny of such important decisions. We therefore welcome the Government’s indication in its response to our report that it will amend the bill at stage 2 to apply the affirmative procedure to the use of that significant power.

At section 8, the bill allows Scottish ministers to hold polling on multiple days, but our report notes that it is the preference of the electoral community to hold polling over a single day, and the committee shares that view. However, we recognise that preparations for the election are a moving picture and will be dependent on prevailing virus conditions at the time of the poll. Evaluation by the Electoral Management Board for Scotland on the merits of going down that route will feed into any final decision.

We will continue our consideration of that as more information and expert advice become available. We welcome the Government’s willingness to consider an amendment to the bill to provide certainty over arrangements for the poll. The committee had some concerns about the alteration of the date of dissolution to just one day before the election, because it will mean that MSPs who are running for re-election will have a dual role of candidate and MSP during the campaign. We have seen the initial guidance emerging from the SPCB to support MSPs during that period, and the final suite of guidance will be crucial in maintaining as far as possible a level playing field between all candidates, regardless of their status, and to ensure that public resources cannot be used to confer an advantage for some candidates over others.

However, we recognise that there is no perfect solution during such a campaign in exceptional circumstances. The committee is particularly concerned that the pre-election recess period should mirror a normal pre-election dissolution period, which means that, as far as possible, the Government would be subject to normal purdah restrictions. Within that context, we recognise that there will be a need for the Government to make announcements in relation to coronavirus and that scrutiny of those must continue. We note that the current arrangements for enhanced scrutiny of Covid regulations will continue as they are up to the Christmas recess, at which point they will be subject to further review by Parliament.

The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill proposes measures that should allow the election to go ahead on 6 May next year, while we are still living with the virus. The overwhelming concern that we heard from those who contributed to our inquiry was that providing certainty and clarity at the earliest possible point to the electoral community, electorate and political parties is essential to ensure the smooth running of the election and to ensure that those who wish to vote can do so. We welcome the Government’s commitment to keep us informed as we approach the campaign period, and we note the extensive and detailed work with the electoral community and political parties that took place during the bill’s preparation. The provisions in the bill had been broadly welcomed and, on that basis, the committee was content to recommend to Parliament that the general principles of the bill be agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the open debate. Speeches should be no more than four minutes long, because I have no time in hand.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I welcome the bill and the collective way in which it has been created.

As others have said, because of the circumstances, next year’s election will be like no other. If anyone thinks that postal voting is not that important, they just have to look at the recent events across the pond and how postal voting changed the result of that election. Every vote matters, as Bill Kidd MSP would tell you: his first majority was seven votes. The number of postal votes will undoubtedly increase next year, so being prepared for that is essential and the correct thing to do.

The fact that we are having this debate and introducing this bill seems normal and the right thing to do, and so it should. The Parliament did not always have responsibility for our elections, and the farce of the 2007 election—when Westminster still controlled it and the UK ministers refused to listen to the many voices that indicated that problems were going to happen because of the new system—spoke volumes. Therefore, I am glad that a different and more collegiate approach has been taken by the Government and, crucially, by this Parliament to dealing with some of the potential problems.

We had a wide-ranging discussion about the bill and its delegated powers in the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, and I welcome the stage 1 report, which is in front of us today, from the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

We all want every election to run as smoothly as possible. The organising of any election is a mammoth task, and certainty is just as important for the organisers as it is for the electorate.

In particular, I welcome these three points: first, the earlier deadline for postal vote applications of 6 April rather than 20 April, to give more time for those to be processed, given the expected increase in demand; secondly, the power for ministers to allow polling to take place over more than one day, if needed, in order to support physical distancing at polling stations—I also note the recommendation in the committee’s report; thirdly, the measures to defer the election if that is required. Moving the dissolution of Parliament to 5 May from 25 March ensures that MSPs can pass emergency legislation to delay the election.

The earlier deadline for postal ballot applications is crucial, in my opinion. The Electoral Commission’s evidence suggests that 20 per cent of people who usually vote on polling day are now more likely to vote by post. If that figure is correct and 350,000 additional applications are made, that earlier date will prove to be a wise decision. [Interruption.] I am sorry—I have only four minutes.

I would be grateful if the minister could confirm that, if the application is at the ERO before the closing time on the final date on which applications are accepted, it must be processed. There is a particular reason for my asking that, and I would be happy to talk to the minister about it after the debate.

Section 8 is important and deals with something quite different for elections in Scotland. Traditionally, as we know, elections take place on a Thursday. There are a variety of challenges in using particular days for elections. I welcome the provisions that increase the number of days on which the election can be held, but I strongly suggest that, if that happens, the elections should be run on consecutive days and not on days with three days in between. I would also ask, if the election is to take place on multiple days, whether polling stations really need to be open from 7 o’clock in the morning to 10 pm. I genuinely do not believe that that is necessary.

Measures to protect ballot boxes overnight will be even more crucial, bearing in mind the amount of fake news that, sadly, rages online on a wide variety of issues.

I welcome the minister’s announcement about his discussions with the EMB. However, they need to be clearly communicated to Parliament and the electorate, to prevent accusations of tampering with the election.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

As ever, I thank my colleagues on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, and our clerking team, for their work on the stage 1 report.

The pandemic has brought significant changes to how we, as elected politicians, carry out our duties. Members from across the chamber will have had to make difficult decisions about how best to represent their constituents while ensuring safety. There have been public meetings and constituency surgeries over video call, and a greater dependence on written communication. For those who are candidates in next year’s election, campaigning has clearly changed, too.

Although it is difficult to foresee where we will be in May, it is clear that the election will be impacted. In many ways, it already has been—after all, an election is far more than a single-day event. The regulated period begins on 6 January, just as this Parliament returns from the Christmas recess.

When we consider safety, it is not only about a limited number of people who are involved in campaigns or electoral administration; it is about the millions of activists, count staff, poll staff and electors themselves.

The Parliament finds itself in an unenviable position. A pandemic is unpredictable, but for the election to function effectively, we need as much certainty as possible in advance. The Electoral Commission has been clear about the problems that can be caused by last-minute changes, and we must be mindful of those.

The bill creates wide powers to make alterations to the electoral process. Many of them, used sensibly, will find agreement across the chamber. We all recognise the gravity of the situation that we face. That said, it is not for Parliament to pass wide-ranging powers to the Executive on the basis of trust and the hope that good sense will always prevail.

I approve of the broad principles of the bill, and it is essential that a bill of this nature is passed. However, I share the concern of other members of my party that significant powers, such as powers to implement an all-postal ballot or a two-day voting period, are too broad to be reasonably handed to ministers. Those steps would be unprecedented, and it is important that we get the legislative underpinning right. I welcome the minister’s comments on that issue today and the tone that the ministers have taken so far.

The stage 1 report highlights some of the practical issues that we face. There are serious concerns about the assumptions around postal voting, expected uptake, capacity and relevant deadlines. We all, rightly, start from the position that no one who is legally entitled to vote should be denied the opportunity to have their vote recorded.

One issue that we have raised is the need for proper resourcing of the election. As the minister has recognised, it will cost more than usual. At all levels, the resource needs to be available to allow for flexibility.

The committee has requested that ministers provide it with regular updates of their work, and I hope that that takes place.

We should need no reminding that confidence in our electoral system is as important as its effective functioning. We have seen—sadly, too often—that a lack of confidence or confusion has caused significant problems for the recognition and legitimacy of elections and referendums.

More than ever, we need a well-considered approach and as much consensus as possible. There will be questions at later stages of the bill, and I am confident that the existing issues can be addressed. As the committee acknowledged, opportunities for scrutiny of the bill have been limited by time. Similarly, the choices that the bill provides might be pressured by the circumstances that we face. I therefore urge ministers to be flexible and to ensure that, by stage 3, we have a watertight bill and are best placed to address any problems that the pandemic might throw at us along the road.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Democracy is precious, and elections at regular intervals underpin democracy. Democracy does not just happen or endure; it has to be active and protected. Holding regular, open and free elections—in our case, every five years—is one way in which that is done.

I wish that we did not need the bill, but the present worldwide pandemic requires the Government and the Parliament to take precautionary measures. I hope that the advent of a vaccine will negate the need to use the power to postpone the election, for example. However, the roll-out of the vaccine will probably not have covered everyone by the beginning of May, so extra measures must be in place to cover every eventuality prior to the election.

I have the privilege of sitting on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, which took evidence on the bill and published the stage 1 report, and I hope that the Parliament will support the bill at decision time.

For many politicians and party activists, the issue of postal votes and all-postal voting must now be pretty high on the agenda. Some months ago, we heard from electoral registration officers that their offices would not be able to deal with an all-postal voting election. I understand that. However, like Patrick Harvie, I think that they are somewhat unambitious in saying that they can cope with only 40 per cent of votes being postal votes.

That said, the evidence from recent by-elections is interesting. In my constituency, there was a by-election in the Kincorth, Nigg and Cove ward a few weeks ago. The turnout was 27 per cent, which is not unusual for recent council by-elections, but it is interesting that, as far as I can gather, the majority of ballots cast were postal votes. It is also interesting that there was not a great surge in the number of postal vote applications; people who had already registered for a postal vote must have just been more likely to vote.

It is incumbent on all politicians and their parties to always work for the maximum possible turnout and, therefore, to give the opportunity to vote by post to all those who want it. I hope that the Government will promote, through media campaigns, the opportunity that people have to vote by post.

I completely understand why EROs want postal vote applications to be with them three weeks out from the election. They will have to check the validity of the postal vote, send out the ballots and then conduct rigorous checks on them—particularly the signatures—when they are returned. The confidence of the electorate in that process is vital. As others have mentioned, the potential to make mischief and mayhem that we have seen across the pond has not been lost on us on this side of the pond.

I hope that sufficient guidelines will be given on emergency postal and proxy votes due to illness, work commitments abroad or other events. Perhaps the minister could say more about that subject in his closing remarks.

I hope that as many electors as possible opt to apply for a postal vote and that there is no need for in-person polling to take place over two days. I understand that election managers are prepared to introduce more polling stations in polling places, but I hope that that is thought through in each polling place so that there are no queues in corridors or outside, given the vagaries of the Scottish weather.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill is a vitally important piece of legislation in these difficult and unpredictable times. It will ensure that, in all circumstances, our democratic processes are protected and next year’s elections are fair and seen to be fair. In my view, the bill is quite comprehensive, addresses most eventualities and makes sensible provision for unexpected events and issues that will be raised by the pandemic as we—hopefully—progress through the disease’s final stages.

I am particularly pleased by how responsive the Scottish Government has been to issues that have been raised by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, and by how everyone has been galvanised to ensure that the legislation is in place on time. The minister has been responsive to calls from the committee.

As a result of our experiences of the coronavirus pandemic so far, many aspects of our lives will have changed dramatically and the way things were done in the past may not be appropriate any more.

I have no doubt that the rate of postal voting will increase markedly during next year’s Scottish general election, and it is gratifying that issues surrounding uptake, funding, voter registration, adequate timeframes, service voters and the advertisement of postal voting procedures have been investigated with those who are responsible for conducting the election. With expert opinion suggesting that 38 per cent of the electorate might choose to use a postal vote in next year’s election, the bill’s provision of 50 per cent seems to adequately provide contingency should the surge be greater than anticipated. We should keep a watching brief on that as matters progress.

Although it is unlikely to be used, section 5, which provides ministers with the power to call an all-postal ballot, will be amended to allow parliamentary scrutiny at stage 2; that is the proper thing to do.

As pre-election period timeframes will be different next year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, in that dissolution of Parliament will not now take place until 5 May 2021, it is hugely important that sitting MSPs who are also candidates—I will not be—do not get an unfair advantage over other candidates in the run-up to the election. It is gratifying that the Government supports the committee’s recommendations on that democratic issue, as it does those on observing normal purdah restrictions during the pre-election period.

The committee raised the question of polling being held over more than one day should the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic dictate that it would be safer to do that, and the Scottish Government is considering the logistical issues and amendments concerning parliamentary scrutiny. The committee is grateful for that.

Concerns have also been raised about scrutiny time for the passage of the bill. However, the necessity to have the legislation in place on time prevails over my concerns, and I accept the Scottish Government’s response as reasonable where it acknowledges the limited amount of time that is available to scrutinise the bill and says that it will work with members on any proposals. The minister has already proved that to be the case.

I am pleased that the committee is satisfied that the policy memorandum accurately describes the policy objectives of the bill and that the Scottish Government acknowledges concerns expressed by Sight Scotland and Age Scotland about the memorandum’s section on equal opportunities and human rights.

All in all, I support the passage of the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill to stage 2 in these extremely challenging times.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I have serious concerns about our democracy. If we look at the past 20 years of Scottish politics, it is easy to swallow some of the mythology that surrounds our democracy and the elections to this Parliament. There is a myth that the creation of the Parliament brought about democratic renewal and a political reawakening in the Scottish electorate and that people became more engaged with politics, Parliament and our political system. We often hear references to the Scottish Parliament being more relevant and in touch with the people than the Westminster one. We are told that we are somehow better and that we are morally and democratically superior and more relevant to the daily lives of the people we claim to represent.

We should ask whether that is true. If we look at turnout in elections to the Parliament we see that, in 2016, only 55 per cent of voters turned out to vote. Almost half of our citizens felt so ambivalent that they could not bring themselves to vote for anyone. Turnout at Scottish elections has never been higher than 58 per cent. The local government elections had turnouts of 39 per cent in 2012 and 46 per cent in 2017, far behind the 68 per cent who voted in the 2019 UK general election. The irony is that the closer politics comes to the people, the less engagement there seems to be. Many of my constituents who sleep out there on the streets and in the doorways of the Royal Mile feel just as remote from democracy in this Parliament as someone in the Shetlands does from the Westminster Parliament.

That is not a good state of affairs or evidence of a healthy democracy. However, we are in unprecedented times and we will go through an election during a national crisis. It is therefore more essential than ever that systems are in place to ensure not only that the election is run in a fair and transparent way but that we engage the maximum number of voters to take part, using systems and procedures that can engage public confidence.

Other members of the committee have raised many of the issues that we discussed in our evidence sessions. The assumption that the election planners made that there would be a 40 per cent postal vote was evidence of a conservatism in their ambitions. I see that the minister has increased the budget so that we can try to take that figure up to 50 per cent. That is welcome, but it should not be the end of our ambition.

One way to increase the capacity for postal voting would be to have a national freepost address, so that anyone could write “Postal vote. Freepost” on an envelope and it would get there. That would make applications free, simple, easy and without barriers, especially for the groups that we know are hard to engage or are disenfranchised. That should be promoted through multiple platforms in a concerted effort to reach those groups and constituencies that we know have very low levels of participation. That would be a way to get those very poor voting figures to go up.

We should consider running the election over more than one day, but that should be a choice made by Parliament, not ministers. There should also be no limitations on the postal voting period that might restrict people’s ability to vote.

Any communications about elections must come from a neutral body. I suggest that they should come from electoral registration offices or from the chief returning officer. If they cannot come from those people, perhaps the minister can explain that. I may be ignorant of that, and I apologise if I am. I would consider such communications coming from the NHS, but we must recognise that the chief medical officer is a political appointment. I am not saying that as a criticism, but that is the reality. We should not, in even the smallest way, bring such people into the electoral process.

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights that we have as citizens. As we prepare for an election in the context of the pandemic, it is imperative that we ensure the safety of everyone who exercises their right to vote next May. At the start of 2020, most of us would not have predicted that, by the end of March, we would be under a national lockdown. The Covid-19 outbreak has impacted almost all areas of public life and it is now obvious that we must take innovative measures to safeguard our electoral processes.

The Scottish Government has been clear about its expectation that the election will be held on 6 May 2021 as scheduled, but I am pleased that the Government has also been clear about why the election might be postponed. If we find ourselves facing a lockdown whereby voting at polling places would be unsafe, that would require the Scottish Government to postpone the election.

Although it is highly unlikely that the election would need to be postponed, it is critical that the necessary legislation is in place so that we can be prepared. That is why the bill will move the dissolution of Parliament to 5 May 2021, which will allow MSPs to pass emergency legislation to defer the election, if necessary. That is a logical change, as there is the potential for a spike in coronavirus cases that could make it unsafe for us to cast our ballots on 6 May. By shortening the dissolution period to just one day, we will avoid a potential situation in which the Parliament would be unable to make the vital decision to protect voters and minimise transmission of the virus.

The bill will also give ministers the power to make regulations to allow polling to take place over several days to support social distancing and additional hygiene measures at polling stations, as in-person voting might ultimately take longer. Under that provision, voting must commence on election day, but it could be extended in the eight days immediately following.

The bill sets out to bring the deadline for postal vote applications forward by two weeks. In my view, that is another logical step that we should be taking. According to research that was conducted by the Electoral Commission in August 2020, an additional 350,000 people could opt to vote by post in the election. Postal voting applications require thorough checking and verification, which takes time, so it makes sense to bring the deadline forward to ensure that there is enough time for the applications to be processed.

Next year’s election will be of monumental importance to Scotland’s political history. At its heart, it will be an election about democracy and self-determination. The administrative challenge of running any election is significant, but the pandemic has made it all the more challenging, which is why we must do everything that we can to ensure that our parliamentary election next year is as safe and fair as possible.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I welcome the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme that started on Tuesday, which represents a paradigm shift in the need for the bill. We still need to plan for the worst-case scenarios and not drop our guard until the vaccination programme is complete, but we can approach the bill in a slightly more relaxed way than when the need for it was first recognised.

We welcome the Government’s offer to increase the capacity to deal with postal vote applications to 50 per cent, although it now seems less likely that that will be required. We agree with the Scottish Government’s approach, outlined by the minister in his opening remarks and his letter about how the cost of postal votes should be covered by political parties. That more people will use postal votes than before is certain, but I would expect the total to be between 30 and 40 per cent, or less, in light of the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

Turning to section 5 of the bill, I again welcome the Government agreeing that an affirmative instrument would be required in the now unlikely event that an all-postal ballot will be required. I welcome the fact that, in the minister’s response to the stage 1 report, he proposes that Parliament, through an affirmative instrument, would have a vote on such a dramatic change to a voting system—which an all-postal ballot would be—and I welcome the recognition that using the significant power to move to an all-postal ballot should not be a decision that rests entirely with the Scottish Government.

Turning now to the role of candidates who are still MSPs, given the new dissolution date of 4 May, I welcome the SPCB’s detailed guidance that was published on 1 December, and look forward to seeing it being further developed and updated in the run-up to the election.

We do not believe that section 8 on polling and additional days is necessary, and note that the Electoral Management Board for Scotland does not believe so either. The helpful note that it issued today states:

“On the basis of this analysis, it is the view of the EMB that polling over a single day should be sufficient provided that returning officers review and limit the numbers of voters allocated to each polling station, communicate that voters should be prepared to plan their visit and be prepared for a short wait, and put in place measures within polling stations such as the employment of additional staff to advise and reassure voters and to maintain the flow of voters through the polling station.”

The EMB also reports that polling over multiple days introduces additional risk, cost and potential confusion for the voter. The likely effect of vaccination against Covid-19 and the expected uptake of postal votes will be to significantly reduce the number of voters attending polling stations. Given those aspects, our view remains that polling should be over one day. Furthermore, we do not believe that that power should be vested in the Scottish ministers alone. We consider that, as provided for in section 5, such a power should be taken only through an affirmative instrument, thereby giving the Parliament a vote on that decision.

Section 11 gives the Presiding Officer the power to postpone an election. I note that there is no obligation on him to consult the Parliament on the decision. Again, I consider that such an obligation should exist in law, always accepting that the power given to the PO as proposed would be used only as a position of last resort.

We will support the bill at stage 1, subject to amendments being introduced to sections 5 and 8 as discussed. I look forward to hearing the minister’s comments in that regard.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

As others have said, the right to vote is a key part of our democracy, and it is important that we safeguard it, despite the obvious challenges of the pandemic that have been mentioned.

I welcome the minister’s comments and announcements, not least that there will be a public awareness campaign on postal votes. That is welcome, indeed.

As other members have said, one of the key issues is the potential significant increase in the proportion of registered voters who choose to apply to vote by post as they are unable or do not wish to vote in person.

Research that the Electoral Commission carried out in August found that 20 per cent of those who generally vote at a polling place would prefer to vote by post if an election were to take place, which is understandable, given concerns about the pandemic. That indicates the potential for about 350,000 people who would normally have voted at a polling station to opt instead to vote by post. That is a lot of people, and it clearly presents a logistical challenge.

Such a significant increase in the volume of applications would need to be managed by electoral registration officers at an already busy time in the electoral timetable. In order to mitigate that, one of the main provisions of the bill is for an earlier deadline for applications to vote by post, which would help the officers by giving them more time to process any surge in applications, thereby ensuring that voters who apply by the deadline have their application processed in time to be issued with a postal ballot pack. Returning officers would also have more time to prepare for the issuing of postal ballot packs as soon as practicable after the close of nominations, maximising the time available for voters to complete and return them before the close of poll.

Given the anticipated increase in postal votes, that is one aspect of the legislation that we need to get right. The bill proposes to bring forward the postal vote application date to 6 April 2021, which is 21 working days prior to the election.

An important point is that voting options must be the same for everyone, and the discrepancy in dates between registration and application for postal voting is obviously an issue. I hope that that will be clarified, because it could have an impact on young and first-time voters. We want to encourage those people to become involved in the democratic process and avoid any possibility of turning them off it—as the mum of a 17-year-old who has a very passing interest in politics, I think that it is important that that does not happen.

One suggestion that the Government and the committee might wish to consider is providing an exemption from or extension to the proposed 6 April deadline for postal votes for voters who are registering for the first time.

I understand that electors who miss the earlier deadline for applications for postal votes would have the option of applying to appoint a proxy up to the deadline of 27 April. Although that has the potential to shift the stress on administration to a different point in the timetable, and closer to the poll, it still raises the issues of creating different criteria for voting and of not providing equal choice for all.

The main objective, however, must be to ensure that voters have early and clear information about the postal vote application deadline, to ensure that they can make informed choices about their voting methods and to help them to plan how to vote safely.

I welcome the consensus that has been expressed in the debate, and I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to closing speeches.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I will start on the note on which Shona Robison finished her contribution, which is about the importance of consensus in the debate. If we are to gain public trust in elections, the process cannot be contentious—it must be consensual, as I am sure all members would want to commit to achieving. As John Scott, Miles Briggs, Liam McArthur and several others said, the decision must ultimately be one for the Parliament rather than the Government to take. I hope that all the parties represented in the Parliament will share in that spirit of partnership with the Government.

I will summarise a few points that have emerged from the debate, on which it would be good if the minister could provide clarification. In his opening remarks he mentioned a budget gap of £3 million and a gap of £5 million in the financial framework. I would be pleased if he could confirm that no such gap exists. I see that he is nodding, but it would be good if he could confirm that in his closing remarks.

On the deadline for postal votes, Patrick Harvie, Miles Briggs and others made the point—but it bears repeating—that it feels counterintuitive for us to change the postal vote deadline to make it earlier if we also want to increase and expand people’s access to voting. I therefore ask the minister to think again about the relevant part of the bill, to see whether we could mitigate the fears about a late flow of applications associated with the booklet process and the public information campaign, and try to get early applications into that process.

Alongside that, the suggestion of providing free postage is important. I note that the minister said that a booklet would go to every household to let people know about their right to apply for postal votes. There is no reason why, as part of that process, we could not include an application form for every household and, indeed, a freepost response mechanism. It would be good to hear the minister’s response to that suggestion.

As Bill Kidd touched on, it is important that we have an effective public information campaign. It would be good to know when such a campaign could begin and in whose name it would run. [Interruption.] I am sorry to see that the minister is rolling his eyes at that suggestion. It is important that any communication on the administration of the election or any application process for it—

If I could finish my point, I will then be happy to take an intervention from the minister.

It is important that any such communication—whether it be an advert, a booklet or a letter—should come from a neutral source and not a participant in the election.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

If I can offer some alleviation of Mr Sarwar’s paranoia, I point out that we are working extremely closely with the Electoral Commission, which will be the source of the information campaign on accessing postal votes. That should also calm people’s concerns about the process of voting in that way and address some of the nonsense that is out there about the security of the system.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I agree that we do not want anyone to be paranoid, which is why it is important to have clarification from the Government that any such publication would come from a neutral source. If any paranoia exists, perhaps it is on the part of the minister. I do not think that it should be difficult for him to confirm that any public information campaign, booklet or letter would come from such a source.

I recall that the minister suggested that the CMO would write to people in the shielding category. I am open to that suggestion, but again urge that such a communication should come from NHS Scotland if we are to achieve the same aim of it not coming directly from, or carrying the branding of, the Scottish Government.

The final issue around that is in relation to having one election day. Patrick Harvie made the good point that there is an argument fort extending the number of days regardless of whether we have a pandemic, if we want to maximise turnout and participation. In many ways, that could be a good trial.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Like Anas Sarwar, I was very interested in Patrick Harvie’s suggestion. That is an area in which we can probably learn from what happens in other countries that already have elections that span at least a couple of days.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

We should explore that. I am fine with where we end up on the final wording of the bill in relation to there being one election day, but we should keep open the option of additional days. The fundamental principle that we want to go on is that it should be for the Parliament rather than the Government to decide.

Stuart McMillan’s point about hours is also an interesting point that is worthy of exploration. I hope that we can find some consensus on all those issues in the coming week or two, and get a bill that has unanimous support in Parliament.

Photo of Adam Tomkins Adam Tomkins Conservative

The bill is fine, sensible and pragmatic, with two exceptions. I shall focus on those exceptions, leaving the remainder of the bill to one side.

Two provisions of the bill are unacceptable in their present form—sections 5 and 8—each for the same reason: both give ministers far too much power. Under section 5, ministers could provide for the next election to this Parliament to be an all-postal ballot. Under section 8, ministers could provide for polling at the next election to take place on a variety of different days within a specified eight-day period.

Let me say straight away that, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, it is sensible to build into our electoral law flexibility about postal ballots and about the day or days of polling. However, on no account is it fair, reasonable, proportionate or necessary to place all that flexibility, unchecked, into the hands of ministers. Ministers are participants in the election; they cannot at the same time be its referees. Substantive and procedural checks need to be added to both section 5 and section 8 during the bill’s amending stages in order to make the provisions acceptable. I will set out exactly what I have in mind.

As regards section 5, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee notes in its stage 1 report that the power to provide for an all-postal ballot is a contingent measure in the event that an in-person vote proves impossible because of Covid. The minister said the same in his opening speech. That is fine—but, if that is the case, why does the bill not so provide? As it stands, the power to provide for an all-postal ballot can be exercised for any reason—or indeed for no reason at all—and at any time. There is no requirement that the power be exercised only because otherwise no election to the Scottish Parliament could safely be held. If it is a contingent power to be used only as a last resort, the bill needs to say so, in terms.

The SPPA Committee also notes that an all-postal ballot cannot be organised in time for an election in May; the committee refers to the statement in the bill’s policy memorandum that such a move would necessitate at least a six-month delay to the election. It is, for those reasons, highly unlikely to happen, but lots of highly unlikely things have happened this year, and the argument that the exercise of the power is unlikely is, I am afraid, simply not good enough. The bill must be amended to set out clearly the extremely limited circumstances in which it would be lawful for ministers, by order, to require the election to become an all-postal ballot.

Even then, concerns remain. No provision is made in section 5 for any parliamentary input into the matter. Ministers are given a blank cheque. I am sorry, but no self-respecting Parliament should ever sign such an instrument. Section 5 provides that the Presiding Officer, the Electoral Commission, the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and the chief medical officer are consulted, but that is it—it does not state that their consent is required, still less that the Parliament’s consent is required. That will not do. The power in section 5 must be amended so that it may be exercised only after the Presiding Officer, the Electoral Commission and the convener of the EMB have consented to its being exercised.

In addition, that order-making power must be further amended to ensure that no such power can be exercised other than with the assent of the Parliament—that is, it must be subject to the affirmative procedure.

What goes for section 5 must go also for section 8. As with the power to provide for an all-postal ballot, so too must the power to provide for polling on multiple days be constrained, both substantively and procedurally. The power should be exercisable only where it is shown to be necessary because polling cannot safely take place on a single day. Further, the power should be exercisable only with the Presiding Officer’s consent, and with the consent of the Electoral Commission and the convener of the Electoral Management Board. Finally, the power must be subject to the affirmative procedure.

Those checks on ministerial rule making are essential. They are fair, reasonable, proportionate and necessary checks that we require to see in place to satisfy not only ourselves but, which is much more important, the voting public that the next election to the Parliament meets the highest standards of fairness and voting integrity. Nothing should allow us to compromise those standards—not even Covid.

We will support the general principles of the bill at decision time tonight, but our support is conditional. Sections 5 and 8 will need to be amended, as I have set out. The integrity of the voting system is too precious to risk. I know that Graeme Dey agrees with that, and I look forward to working with him, and with all the parties in the Parliament, to fix the bill’s defects at stage 2.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The debate has been a thoughtful one, and I thank members for their contributions. I have a lot of ground to cover, so I will move straight on to responding to as many of the points as possible.

I will start with Adam Tomkins. I am happy to consider his ask for clarity around the circumstances in which the power in section 5 would be used, but I am disappointed that he seemed to miss my earlier comments that I am prepared to lodge an amendment that goes beyond the ask of the DPLR Committee and which takes account of the affirmative procedure.

Mr Tomkins talked about taking a similar approach to section 8. Earlier, I indicated to John Scott that I am happy to discuss that with him. However, I caution that the circumstances under which the power in section 8 might have to be used might be more pressing and the measures might be more immediately needed, so, if we did that, we would have to be careful about the nature of the procedure that was to be followed.

A number of members talked about the need to communicate change to the electors. I agree with them on that, so I will outline what we are doing on that in a bit of detail. We are currently working with partners—the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Management Board and, within that, electoral registration officers—to provide consistent and co-ordinated communications to electors. That will include informing vulnerable or higher-risk groups about how to apply for alternative voting methods. The Electoral Commission has partnered with the Care Inspectorate to send out communications to all registered care providers in Scotland about supporting residents to register and to apply for a postal vote.

The commission is also working with Age Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland and other voluntary sector organisations to reach out to groups such as older people’s forums and to get the information to them. However, I do not accept the premise, which I think Anas Sarwar advanced, that if we do all that work early enough, we might be able to restore the existing deadline for postal votes. I want to be clear that the action that we are proposing is based on firm advice from the electoral professionals. We can talk about their being unambitious or conservative, but we need to be guided by them. The measures are all about smoothing a peak and avoiding a situation in which we get too close—[Interruption.] I will not take an intervention. I would rather press on, if I may, because I have a lot to cover.

The measures are about avoiding a situation where there is a surge so close to the election that it becomes difficult or impossible for the electoral authorities to process the ballot packs and get them out. We want to ensure that people do not miss out on their vote if they have applied for a postal vote. The answer is not about simply throwing more resource at the issue—we have had conversations about that with the electoral authorities. [Interruption.] If the member does not mind, I need to press on.

As I said, we cannot risk a situation in which postal votes become problematic. As Neil Findlay acknowledged, we have talked a lot about doubling the number of postal votes, but he is right that the resourcing will be for between 40 and 50 per cent of votes being postal ones. If, as we progress, we get to a situation in which it becomes apparent that those numbers will be exceeded, as some people have indicated might happen, of course we will consider providing additional resource earlier on, where that is appropriate.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I want to be fair to everybody in the points that I cover.

On the subject of postal vote costs, a substantial degree of assistance is already provided to people who vote by post. Each postal vote is already cast at no cost to the voter, through the use of a first-class addressed envelope that is supplied by the returning officer. In relation to electoral registration, EROs currently enclose a prepaid envelope with any invitation to register and with subsequent reminders. In addition, EROs issue prepaid envelopes with all postal vote application forms that they send out. Therefore, every voter who engages with a local ERO is covered. The only time that a voter would face such costs would be if they downloaded a form from the Electoral Commission’s website, completed it and sent it in, or if a political party issued a postal vote form to them.

The interaction between the local ERO and the local voter is key. That is where we come to the suggestion—which I know is well intended—about a national freepost address. I have some questions about that. Who would handle the applications? Who would get the postal vote forms out to the relevant ERO? The last thing that we can afford is to have a centralised system in which it would be possible—I say “possible”—for someone who has sought a postal vote to miss out, because the request does not get passed on in time or to the right place. As we know, such things can happen.

With regard to Anas Sarwar’s point about £3 million for EROs, I am pleased to say that there is no budget gap. The £3 million is the sum that the EROs originally asked for up front. The remaining money is there to match any actual spend. Beyond that, we have committed that if further evidenced costs arise, we will engage on those.

Patrick Harvie made a plea about not bringing forward the postal vote deadline any further. In fact, the provision in the bill would allow it only to be moved closer to polling day. As I said earlier, we have the ambition to raise the postal vote element of the election up to around 50 per cent. As others have pointed out, in 2016 the actual turnout was 55 per cent. We are showing ambition by catering for the hope that there will be a bigger-than-usual turnout in May’s election.

Stuart McMillan touched on the issue of the plea for the election, if it needs to be held on more than one day, to be held on successive days. That is the ask of the EMB—it has been very clear on that—and I am very sympathetic to it.

Bill Kidd talked about the purdah period. The Scottish Government will be subject to the usual purdah restrictions; in the same way, MSPs will operate in the way that they would normally have done. Just because the period is termed an “election recess”, it is, in effect, a dissolution period, save for the ability to come back and vote, if necessary. However, I make it clear to members that the Parliamentary Bureau has been considering how, if the pandemic heightens and the Scottish Government still has to make significant decisions about levels, the Parliament will scrutinise those. That conversation is continuing, but that is the only dispensation—Miles Briggs is aware of this—from the approach that we are talking about.

I sincerely apologise to members whose points I have not responded to.

I am pleased that, even though the bill has had to be introduced and dealt with at an accelerated pace, it has attracted wide-ranging support from stakeholders and, generally, from the chamber today. I hope that members will join me in supporting the principles of this important and necessary bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill. I ask anyone who is moving about or leaving the chamber to take care to maintain social distancing.