Last December, Parliament unanimously approved legislation that sought to ensure the safe holding of the Scottish Parliament election on 6 May 2021. I am pleased to have the opportunity to provide an update to members on developments since then.
I appreciate that some have expressed genuine concern about the safe holding of the election, and I do not wish to minimise or underestimate those concerns. I want to provide reassurance that all views are being heard and that positive action has been and continues to be taken to ensure the safe delivery of the election.
It is as a result of the hard work of electoral professionals over the winter that I am confident that the election can go ahead on 6 May. That is also the view of Malcolm Burr, convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. ?
One of the steps taken—the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Act 2021—was the result of close working between all parties in the Parliament and our electoral community. Among its provisions, the act ensures the ability to postpone the election if required. However, I am pleased to say that that does not seem necessary at present.
It is fundamental for a democracy to hold scheduled elections, provided that it is safe to do so. This Parliament has sat for five years—a year longer than originally intended—and many countries have already held elections successfully during the pandemic. It is also the case that eight local government by-elections were held in Scotland during October and November. Ahead of those elections, the Electoral Management Board issued guidance that was developed with the assistance of Public Health Scotland. Those elections went well, and the Electoral Commission has used the lessons that were learned in the guidance that it has published for the vote in May.
A critical part of our preparations is making sure that voters know how they can safely cast their votes. Returning officers are taking steps to ensure that polling places are safe environments, with physical distancing, face masks, one-way systems and enhanced cleaning arrangements.
In addition, electoral registration officers are working hard so that those who do not wish to vote in person are able to seek and obtain an absent vote. Our legislation last December moved the deadline for applying for a postal vote to 6 April, so that the expected increase in applications could be processed in time. The Government thereafter provided the resources that were needed for the electoral authorities to write to every household in Scotland to explain who was registered at the address, who held postal votes there and how anyone who was not covered could register or could access postal voting.?
Electoral Commission research suggests that we might see an increase in postal voting from 17 per cent of the electorate to around 40 per cent, and we have made resources available to allow electoral registration officers to deal with that level of increase and a little beyond it. ?It is not yet clear what the actual increase will be, but electoral registration officers are already reporting a significant rise in applications following a recent television advertising campaign and the notification letter from EROs. In addition, the chief medical officer has written to all shielding households to encourage those who are shielding and their families to consider obtaining a postal vote.
?As of 19 January, EROs across Scotland had received around 70,000 requests for postal vote application forms from electors. Completed application forms are now being returned and the initial data from EROs confirms a significant increase in postal vote applications in February. The full figures are not yet available, but indications are that at least 60,000 people were granted a postal vote during February. It is also clear that in at least 10 local authority areas at least 20 per cent of their electorate have been issued with a postal vote.
We have made it possible for anyone who is unable to vote in person, due to testing positive or having to self-isolate, to apply for a proxy vote. That option is available until 5 pm on the day of poll.? In addition, legislation that is before the Parliament at the moment will allow someone who has already appointed a proxy to change that appointed proxy if the original is no longer able to vote on their behalf.
Those changes to both postal and proxy voting are intended to help anyone who wishes to vote in May’s election to do so, no matter their personal circumstances. I will summarise: anyone can apply for a postal vote before the 6 April deadline, and those who find themselves unable to vote in person due to coronavirus advice can apply for a proxy to be appointed up until 5 pm on polling day.
?Of course, ?I emphasise that returning officers are carrying out risk assessments and that polling stations will be set up on the basis of advice provided by the Electoral Commission in conjunction with Public Health Scotland, so it will be safe to vote in person.
?In addition to the Electoral Commission’s detailed guidance on running a Covid-secure election, the convener of the EMB has been exercising his power to issue directions to returning officers—a power that the Parliament bestowed on him last June by means of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Act 2020.
The convener has directed that no more than 800 electors are to be allocated to a single polling station and that counts should occur in the daytime. He has also set out a risk assessment approach for returning officers to follow and confirmed that the power under the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Act 2021 to allow polling over multiple days is not required.
In relation to the count, it seems inevitable that the results of the election will take longer to arrive. Ensuring physical distancing while allowing the process to be scrutinised means that not all constituencies will be counted simultaneously. It is expected that most counting will occur over the Friday and Saturday following polling day.
Returning officers will be talking to candidates locally about arrangements, and those discussions are important to achieving a shared understanding of what will happen in practice.
I now turn to the important topic of campaigning. I know that parties have not been leafleting or campaigning door to door during lockdown. Alternatives to face-to-face campaigning can be employed, but, clearly, we would all like to know when it will be possible to undertake usual—or as close to usual as possible—campaign activity.
The Electoral Commission is preparing guidance for candidates and campaigners, and its guidance will align with what is permitted under the necessary public health restrictions.
I can confirm that, under the stay-at-home regulations, candidates and agents are permitted to travel to the constituency as necessary, as that is work or volunteering that cannot be done from home. It has been suggested that the leadership of each party should also be able to travel to any constituency. We are looking at that, although we should bear it in mind that the regulations currently prevent all of us from leaving home and travelling between local authorities for work that can be done from home.
The update to the strategic framework that was published last week sets out a plan for the gradual easing of the current measures when the epidemiological conditions allow that to be done safely. The update includes a likely phasing of the easing of restrictions, at intervals of least three weeks, to allow assessment of data and progress in suppression of the virus.
In line with that, I advise Parliament that leafleting can commence from 15 March, subject to the restrictions on social gatherings in level 4 areas easing to allow up to four people from two different households to meet outdoors.
Guidance will be issued to keep everyone safe. I am sure that candidates and campaigners will accept the need to strictly observe the need for mitigation measures such as physical distancing, the wearing of face masks, ensuring hand hygiene and not car sharing. Guidance will also be issued on safe arrangements for liaising with volunteers and minimising the handling of materials.
Face-to-face campaigning on the doorstep cannot commence at the same time as leafleting. Careful consideration has been given to the role of, and risks associated with, canvassing during an on-going pandemic; where allowing doorstep campaigning would sit with other non-election restrictions; and how the public might react to having political campaigners at their door.
However, I recognise that there is an appetite for doorstep campaigning to be permitted in due course. In the light of discussion with clinical advisers, and providing that the stay-at-home restrictions are able to be lifted, face-to-face doorstep campaigning can be permitted from 5 April, subject to the virus being sufficiently suppressed.
That decision will be based on whether the infection rate as an average across Scotland has fallen to 50 per 100,000 or fewer—the number that the World Health Organization considers as evidence that the pandemic is sufficiently under control. Alongside that, the test positivity rate must sit below 5 per cent. If the infection rate in a specific council area were to exceed 100 per 100,000, canvassing would have to be suspended for safety reasons in that local authority area until the rate fell below that lower number. For members’ information, I note that the cumulative seven-day incidence per 100,000 of the population by specimen date to 27 February is 79.6; and the latest seven-day average test positivity rate to 27 February is 3.9 per cent.
Once the restrictions permit it, it will be a judgment call for parties as to whether they should pursue such activity, whether it will be welcomed by the public and in what type of locality. They also need to be conscious of striking the right balance between ensuring that only one person approaches a doorstep and providing reassurance for canvassers in having a colleague close by for safety. The numbers of people who can be together at any one point must be in line with the broader restrictions on social interaction that are in place at the time.
I hope that that approach balances political engagement with protecting public health.
I am afraid that activities such as street stalls, physical hustings and giving voters a lift to polling stations cannot proceed, given the circumstances that we find ourselves in. Those limitations have been discussed in recent weeks with the business managers of all parties, and I believe that all parties are supportive of them.
I hope that this statement has provided reassurance to members on the enormous amount of work that is under way across our electoral community to ensure that the election in May can be conducted safely in an adjusted form.
I conclude by offering sincere thanks to all those involved in the preparations for polling and the counting of votes, and to the representatives of the parties that sit in the Parliament who have engaged entirely constructively, both on the shaping of the guidance and on more general planning throughout the process that we have gone through over recent months.
The approach to those discussions has demonstrated a collective willingness to be responsible in our approach to campaigning, and I look forward to seeing that maintained in the heat of the campaign.
I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement, and I welcome the clarity with which he outlined the situation. This year’s Scottish Parliament election will be an event unlike any other, but I am sure that we will all welcome the opportunity to get back out speaking to voters as soon as it is safe to do so.
While it is important that campaigns are able to operate as much as possible, we need to ensure that we do not compromise any of the public health achievements of recent weeks and months.
I have a couple of specific questions for the minister. When will the guidance that he mentioned be published, so that political parties have the time to safely put in place advice to all campaigners? If we are going to have a fair election, it is vital that strict purdah rules also cover ministers. Does the minister agree with that, in which case will he confirm that Government statements and briefings will be led by public officials when the Parliament rises on 24 March?
Guidance will be issued as soon as possible. Purdah rules will be followed, as they always are. The First Minister touched on the point that Miles Briggs has raised at First Minister’s questions last week, I think, and further detail on that will be forthcoming. I point out to Miles Briggs that the most important thing about the briefings is the assurance that the First Minister provides to the public, as we are still in the midst of a pandemic.
I thank the minister for advance notice of his statement. I agree that our top priority must be public health and safety for everyone involved in the election, including staff and voters. Can the minister say what modelling is being done on the impact of the election campaign on the prevalence of Covid and on the likelihood of people to vote? Will he be giving us more clarity on postal votes?
You referenced 10 local authorities across the country. Councillors have raised concerns with me about safety at polling stations. For example, what happens if someone cannot or will not wear a mask? Can you clarify that the guidance will address issues such as canvassing tenements and flats from 5 April? Do we not need clarity on those issues, rather than leaving it up to different political parties to make that judgment?
Presiding Officer, I thought that you were going to remind the member about asking multiple questions within a single question. I have lost track, and I apologise. I will come back to Sarah Boyack if required.
We will update the postal vote numbers on a weekly basis from 15 March.
On people not wearing masks at polling stations, I take it that the member means those entering polling stations. Additional members of staff will be on duty at polling places to encourage people to do that. Sarah Boyack makes a valid point on that, however, and the police will have a role to play in the election in that regard.
As for what buildings can and cannot be canvassed, that is for the parties to determine. I do not think that it is for us to be proscriptive in saying that it is not possible to canvass residents of such-and-such a building or whatever. I am confident that the parties will exercise common sense in their approach to that.
I apologise: if there are any other questions that I have not picked up, I will come back to Sarah Boyack on them.
As well as objective safety, the perception of safety is important. That will apply to political parties as they make judgments on the point that was just made about canvassing in enclosed spaces such as tenement closes, and it is also relevant to voters who turn up to vote in person. What action will be taken to build public confidence, so that people have a high degree of confidence in the safety of the voting process? The perception is as important as the reality.
Patrick Harvie made a good point about the perception of safety. Let me first deal with the issue in the context of political parties. Self-evidently, it would be a bad idea for parties to descend on an area en masse, having car shared—that kind of approach is completely unacceptable in the current climate.
As I said, I am confident that the parties will adhere to the rules.
Patrick Harvie made a good point about public confidence. The larger the number of postal votes that are issued and taken up, the fewer individuals will go to polling stations. If polling stations are seen to be not particularly busy, that will give people confidence.
There is clearly a job to be done, between now and election day, to boost public confidence in going out to vote on the day. Eleven council by-elections will take place in the next few weeks, which will give clear evidence of the safety that surrounds voting. It is incumbent on political parties and on politicians to encourage the public to be confident that it is possible to go and cast their vote in person if that is what they require to do.
I am grateful for the minister’s approach to the issue; we have worked together constructively throughout and we are content with what he has set out today. It is important to have safe voting and a safe campaign if we are to have a valid election.
May I press the minister on the Covid briefings? If the First Minister felt compelled, last week, to answer a question about Alex Salmond during a Covid briefing, how will she avoid answering questions about the election campaign if she continues to front those briefings?
I am a little surprised by the obsession with public health briefings that have proved essential throughout the past year. I have great respect for Willie Rennie, but if he is implying that the First Minister would somehow take advantage of the situation, that is beneath him.
I thank the minister for his statement. Local authorities will need to make a range of changes to polling places to ensure that they are Covid safe. Can the minister provide further information about the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to support local authorities with the costs of introducing safety measures?
That has been done. A total sum of, I think, £10 million has been set aside for the delivery of the election.
All reasonable asks have been met and there is a contingency to meet further reasonable requests that relate to delivering the election.
These are difficult decisions, which require a careful balance between protecting public health and enabling the democratic process to take place. I know that the minister appreciates that. Does he accept that giving the green light to any form of campaigning will cause concern to some people, who—understandably—remain anxious?
Will he reassure the Parliament that any further relaxation of campaign rules will be mindful of the need for public confidence in the on-going restrictions? Will he reassure us that he will seek to avoid creating any perception that different rules apply to politicians?
I agree entirely with Oliver Mundell’s point. It is important that the public see what we are agreeing today in the right light. There will be people who are concerned about the issue. As I said, it is incumbent on the parties to behave in a way that does not disquiet the public, and
I have every confidence that they can do so. Mr Mundell made a valid point, which serves to remind us all of the public’s concerns. We should be mindful of those concerns as we enter the campaign.
The minister mentioned in his statement that it will be possible for anyone who is unable to vote in person due to testing positive for Covid-19 or having to self-isolate to apply for a proxy vote, and that that will be possible up until 5 pm on the day of the poll. That is an important measure, but will the minister advise me what the Scottish Government will do to ensure that people are aware of the facility and explain the mechanics of how to make such an application?
Information to that end will be provided on every polling card. The Electoral Commission is making voters aware of the matter through its public awareness campaign and its booklet on the Scottish Parliament elections, which will be delivered to every household in the week commencing 22 March. Returning officers and electoral registration officers will publicise the availability of emergency proxies through social media and other press nearer the time. All round, we will be able to address the matter that the member rightly raises.
Deciding to hold the election in May rather than wait a few weeks until the end of July, when everyone will be vaccinated, means that cross-local authority travel restrictions will still be in place. How does the minister justify telling the public that, for health reasons, they cannot visit their loved ones, even in the garden, if they happen to live in another council area, but that election candidates will be able to travel—in some cases, for regional candidates, it will be from one side of the country to the other—to knock on anyone’s door and ask for their vote? That is one rule for politicians and another for the public. For parties simply to forgo democratic engagement on the doorstep is not the solution.
I am a little disappointed to hear Colin Smyth’s question, given that his party has engaged constructively in getting us to this point. I point out to him that we are talking about facilitating an election agent and candidate travelling to a constituency where they might be standing or working and where they do not happen to live; we are not talking about mass transference of activists across Scotland. We are talking about individuals travelling to take part in a major democratic event.
During the pandemic, 83 national elections or referenda have been held around the globe, and a number of the measures that we will deploy have been deployed in them. Perhaps more relevant, however, have been the lessons that we have learned from our domestic by-elections that have taken place. Quite a lot has been derived from those. Measures such as having an additional member of staff at the polling station to direct voters and limiting the number of votes in each box are examples of things that we have learned from those by-elections.
I welcome the arrangements that have been made for polling day under which only 800 people will be allowed at each polling station. Some polling stations would usually expect more people and some would expect less. Will local authorities make an effort to direct voters to different polling stations and to draw voters’ attention to different polling stations, where voters will be required to vote at a polling station that is not the one that they would usually vote at?
We need to draw a distinction between polling places and polling stations. We are looking at extending the number of rooms in the school or other building that people will be directed to. John Scott is right that some changes to venues will take place across the country but, in essence, the approach is about limiting the number of people who enter a particular part of a building to cast their votes. That is what we are predominantly talking about.
Can the minister provide any further information on steps that the Government is taking to raise awareness of postal voting, particularly among the elderly, vulnerable and less mobile, given that it will not be possible for anyone other than, possibly, family to give them a lift to the polling station?
Extensive work has already been done to raise awareness of the option of postal voting, and the proxy voting aspect has been developed as well. The CMO has written to everyone on the shielding list. I think that we have covered the bases as far as possible. However, the opportunity is there for the parties to take their share of the responsibility and increase awareness of postal voting. We have done a reasonable job thus far, but I am happy to hear from members of all parties if they have further ideas that they think that we should take on board.
For the election to proceed, the public will need to be confident about the safety of the polling places and the protection that will be afforded across constituencies. Will there be an open and transparent assessment of any issues that have arisen in by-elections? Will the minister update Parliament on any problems that are found to have cropped up?
It is a fair point to make. Lessons from by-elections are always assessed on an on-going basis. I will be happy to arrange a briefing with the Electoral Management Board, further to the one that we had a few weeks ago, to provide members with answers to such questions and to let them know whether any further issues have been identified through the by-election process and what measures we can take in response.
Safety is of paramount importance. What measures are being taken to ensure the protection of members of the local authority workforce who will be involved in the operation of the election on polling day and at the counts?
Ruth Maguire makes a very good point. The safety of election workers is paramount and extensive planning has been done on social distancing and other measures.
Another thing that we have been looking at, which I will share with members, is the possibility of providing further reassurance by carrying out asymptomatic testing of everyone who might be present at a count. That has been welcomed in principle by the EMB, but there are a number of issues to be considered, not least that of returning officers wanting that to take place the evening before the count so that—rightly—they can replace any workers who test positive.
Countering that is the fact that it is believed that lateral flow testing is of less case-finding value if it is conducted the evening before someone goes to their workplace than if it is done a short time before they attend. The other point is that such testing must be nationwide. The EMB is taking soundings from all 32 returning officers at the moment, and we will consider the matter further when we have received the relevant responses.