Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Stage 3

– in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd December 2020.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Our next item of business is stage 3 proceedings on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill. In dealing with the amendments—of which there are only four—members should have the bill as amended at stage 2, the marshalled list and the groupings of amendments. I remind members that the division bell will sound and there will be a five-minute suspension before the first division, should there be one this afternoon. Each division will last one minute.

The Presiding Officer:

Group 1 is on postal voting arrangements for the 2021 election. Amendment 2, in the name of Graeme Dey, is grouped with amendments 3 and 4.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Section 4 sets out the requirements for a report that Scottish ministers are obliged to publish after the new deadline for postal vote applications. As amended at stage 2, the bill provides that the report will set out the number of persons who are registered to vote at the 2021 election, the number of persons who have been granted a postal vote for the election, and the number of applications still pending.

Amendment 2 seeks to add a requirement to section 4 that the report must contain information on the funding provided by Scottish ministers to ensure that electoral registration officers have adequate resources to deal with any increase in applications for a postal vote for the 2021 election, which is any increase arising as a result of the coronavirus. That responds to Anas Sarwar’s stage 2 amendment 19, which was on a similar theme. I asked Anas Sarwar not to move that amendment on the understanding that I would prepare a similar amendment for stage 3, and amendment 2 delivers on that undertaking. It also permits the report to include such further information relating to postal voting as ministers consider to be appropriate.

Amendment 3 is consequential on amendment 2 and simply applies the usual definition of an electoral registration officer.

Amendment 4, lodged by Anas Sarwar, seeks to oblige the Electoral Commission to include postal vote application forms in its communications to voters. It seems that the intention is to include them in the information booklet that the Electoral Commission will issue to every household in March. The amendment also seeks to ensure that the application form can be returned at no cost to the voter.

I appreciate that the member wants to encourage people who would benefit from a postal vote to make an application. That is a laudable aim, and we are indeed preparing for a massive increase in the amount of postal voting, from around 18 per cent of the electorate to around 40 per cent or even 50 per cent. However, we are not seeking to promote postal ballots ahead of all other forms of voting.

Arrangements will be made in polling places to allow people to vote safely. Indeed, such measures have already been applied in by-elections this autumn. I know that this is not his intention, but there is a risk that the member’s approach would send a signal to electors that voting in person is perceived to be unsafe. It would also result in a large number of people who already have a postal vote receiving a new application form. That could cause confusion and result in duplicate applications, which registration officers cite as a significant problem in processing applications.

A further problem is that around 60 per cent of households in Scotland are comprised of two or more adults, so there would inevitably be problems if only one copy of the form arrived at the household. Because the Electoral Commission booklet is to go to all households, there will be cases in which the application form will be sent to households that have no registered occupants. Finally, applications will have to be returned to a centralised return address, then distributed to local registration officers, adding a further layer of bureaucracy and wasting valuable processing time.

I agree that people need to be made aware of their options, and we are doing that. That is why the chief medical officer will write to those who are shielding in January to highlight the postal vote process. It is also why the Government has agreed to cover the cost of registration officers writing to 2.5 million households in February to highlight their voting options. That correspondence will note who is registered to vote at an address, and who already has a postal vote or a proxy vote. It will provide details of how to register or apply for postal or proxy votes, and it will promote online and telephone options for doing that, so that there are no postage costs to the applicant.

Members have pointed out that there can be a cost in a relatively small number of cases when people apply for a postal vote. The measures will proactively direct voters to the local registration office for postal vote applications to ensure that they do not incur any such costs.

In conclusion, given what I have just said, I do not agree that it is necessary to indiscriminately distribute thousands of postal vote application forms to people who do not need them or who do not want them. Also, given the timing of the Electoral Commission’s booklet, there would be a risk of creating a surge at the very point in the process at which people would not want that. I therefore invite Mr Sarwar not to move his amendment and if he does, I urge members not to support it.

I move amendment 2.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I thank the minister for amendment 2, which we will support. It is a welcome intervention that will make sure that EROs and the process of the election will be fully resourced.

Given what the minister has set out today, and the briefing that we have had from the Electoral Commission, I will not push amendment 4 to a vote. However, I want to make what I think is an important point on the principle. To be frank, we have, as a collective, shown a lack of ambition in the bill. What I mean is that I fully accept that we need to make the electorate more aware of their rights and of how they can vote in the election, but we also need to make it easier for them to exercise those rights.

When the minister and I had discussions, including at stage 2, we both had a desire for the booklet to go out as early as possible. My preference was for it to be towards the end of January and his was for some point in February. I would have compromised on the beginning of February, but the booklet will not now go out until 22 March. There will be a very short timeframe from when the booklet goes out until the new deadline, because the deadline is being made two weeks earlier, as well.

Also, as opposed to making people aware of how they can vote and making it easier for them to do so, we have added layers of process for the electorate. We are hoping, first, that they will be aware of a public information campaign. It is claimed that a public information campaign started in October. I would like to think that I am slightly politically aware, and that the minister is too, but I have not seen any campaign about how people can vote by post in the election, so I am surprised to hear the claim that there has been such a campaign. I—we—need that campaign to start as soon as possible.

However, we are also relying on the electorate to receive a booklet or mailing, to open that, read it and get to the relevant page—there will be 32 local authorities and local electoral registration officers listed—to identify their ERO. Then, we hope that they will phone the ERO, that the ERO answers the call—if not, we hope that the ERO will phone them back—that they will stay on the call for what may be a long time, given that everyone will be directed to those ERO offices, and that the ERO posts out an application form with a freepost return. They must then wait for the form to come and we hope that they will open that mailing and post it back. Otherwise, they have to email the ERO and hope to get a response or print out an application form and go out from their homes to buy a stamp for an envelope to post it back in. That does not sound like an easy process.

If we are going to give the resources to the EROs to write to every local household and they are going to say in that mailing whether the person has a postal vote, why not include the application form with that and a freepost return for the person to send it back in, if we are actively trying to encourage more people to use their vote? That is what I am hoping that the minister will see some sense on. He called me paranoid at stage 1 and he is probably going to call me cynical at stage 3, but what I would hate to see—if the EROs and Electoral Commission do not send out application forms with a freepost return—is political parties doing that instead, so that they are the people who are filtering the forms and sending them on to the EROs. That would be really unfortunate and go against the vital principle of what we want for the election, which is for it to be accessible and fair. I hoped that we could work together on that, and I hope that the minister will see sense on it in these final moments.

In saying that, we will support Graeme Dey’s amendments 2 and 3 and I will not move amendment 4.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am pleased that Anas Sarwar raised these issues, both at stage 2 and now at stage 3, even if, for reasons that we all discussed, the precise amendment that he lodged at stage 2 was not quite right. I think that the minister has brought the right solution, both in his amendment and in the commitments that he has given verbally in the chamber. We all want the same thing. We want people to be able to register for a postal vote and we want that to be easy and free of cost.

Anas Sarwar slightly overstates the complexity and difficulty involved in registering. The range of options that exist will make it easy and cost free for people to register for, and then exercise, a postal vote, and that is what we should all be seeking to do.

The bill is not simply the result of Government work—it has been shaped by cross-party discussion. I think that, on balance, it reflects all the issues that were brought to that discussion, including by Anas Sarwar’s colleagues in the Labour Party. I hope that we can unite around the fact that we have a bill that addresses the concerns that many of us have raised during the process.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I welcome Mr Sarwar’s announcement that he will not move his amendment, but I want to cover a few points.

I do not in any way accept that there is a lack of ambition in the bill. If anything, the actions that I have outlined today make it easier—and free—for voters to register for a postal vote if they wish. I share Mr Sarwar’s desire regarding the Electoral Commission’s post-out date for the booklet but, as he well knows, neither he nor I can instruct the commission.

However, the booklet from the Electoral Commission is not pivotal to the postal vote. We will have already, through the EROs, written to households at a local level, as I said, to make them aware of whether all household occupants are registered and whether they have a postal or proxy vote. It will contain clear instructions as to how to address any situation that requires to be addressed at a local level, not via a third party or by going through the Electoral Commission.

It is very simple. There will be a telephone number so that people can phone the local ERO and a form will be sent out free of charge. Alternatively, they can go online and request the form. I am not sure whether Mr Sarwar is sighted on this but, because of changes that we made earlier this year, people can take a photograph of their completed form and send it back to the ERO, and it will be accepted.

We have come a long way this year in making it easier for people to vote, which was our intention. For the reasons that I have outlined, I do not accept that freepost is necessary, so I welcome Mr Sarwar’s decision not to move amendment 4. I invite members to support the amendments in my name.

Amendment 2 agreed to.

Amendment 3 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

After section 4:

Amendment 4 not moved.

The Presiding Officer:

Group 2 is on the power to provide for polling on additional days. Amendment 1, in the name of the minister, is the only amendment in the group.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The question of whether and how additional days of polling should be arranged is a difficult one, and that is reflected in the amendments to which the committee agreed at stage 2. As I said then, we are not yet at the time when we have to take a decision. I hope that we do not need to use the power, but I am keeping the situation under review with the convener of the Electoral Management Board. The bill now provides that any additional days of polling will depend on the convener recommending that those days are needed. I remind members that the current advice from the convener is that one day will be sufficient.

On that and much else, it is important that we are guided by those who have the relevant expertise in running elections. The bill now provides for the use of the power to be subject to the affirmative procedure and to be accompanied by a statement of reasons. In the stage 2 discussion, I gave Adam Tomkins an undertaking that I would lodge a further amendment to restrict the use of section 8 to circumstances in which the Scottish ministers considered it necessary for reasons relating to the coronavirus. Amendment 1 delivers on that commitment, and I invite members to support it.

To avoid any doubt, I repeat that, at present, neither I nor the electoral administrators expect to need to use the power, but the bill provides for worst-case scenarios.

I move amendment 1.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

The Presiding Officer:

That ends consideration of amendments. As members will be aware, at this stage in proceedings, I am required under standing orders to decide whether, in my view, any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter—that is, whether it modifies the electoral system or the franchise for Scottish Parliament elections. The bill, despite the fact that it is called the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, does not relate to a protected subject matter, and therefore it does not require a supermajority to be passed at stage 3.