Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 29 March 2022.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S6M-03818, in the name of George Adam, on the

Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I begin by thanking the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their scrutiny of the bill. The bill is progressing according to an expedited timetable, and I am grateful to both committees for their careful consideration of it.

In 2020, the Parliament agreed to a substantial extension of voting and candidacy rights in relation to Scottish Parliament and local government elections. All foreign nationals with any form of leave to remain were granted voting rights. That was an important signal, welcoming all those who choose to make Scotland their home.

Although the right to stand in Scottish Parliament and local government elections was also extended, that was limited to those foreign nationals with indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom. For European Union nationals, the new law ensured that all those with settled status or pre-settled status could stand in Scottish devolved elections. However, people with limited leave to remain—for example, those with the right to remain in the UK for a 30-month period—cannot stand in Scottish devolved elections. The bill responds to four treaties that the UK Government has agreed in relation to voting and candidacy rights in local government elections. Those treaties have been agreed with Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain and Poland. They seek to allow nationals of those countries to vote and stand in UK elections on the same basis as UK citizens. The treaties also provide that UK citizens can vote and stand for election in local government elections in the countries subject to the treaties.

The bill that is before Parliament is tightly focused on the treaties. Because our law on voting rights is already one of the most generous in the world, no change is needed in that area. The bill is therefore restricted to ensuring compliance with the treaties in relation to candidacy rights.

The bill will extend local government candidacy rights to any nationals of Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain and Poland who have a limited form of leave to remain in the United Kingdom. I should stress that EU nationals with settled and pre-settled status already have candidacy rights in our elections, so the extension is unlikely to affect a substantial number of people.

The bill will also ensure that the law can be updated if and when additional treaties are signed or if existing ones are cancelled. The Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee has suggested a change to the bill to make it clear that, if a treaty is cancelled, ministers will be obliged to remove those rights. I will further consider that point ahead of stage 2.

Because the bill is focused on compliance with treaties, it does not seek to make wider changes to electoral law on candidacy. It does not affect countries when a treaty has not been agreed and it does not apply to Scottish Parliament elections. However, the Government has ambitions to extend candidacy rights further. Last year, in the shared policy programme, we committed to developing legislation on electoral reform to enable more people to stand as candidates in Scottish Parliament and local government elections.

My intention is to consider the issues surrounding a wider expansion of candidacy rights—for example, to all foreign nationals with limited leave to remain or to 16 and 17-year-olds. I plan to consult later this year on that subject alongside a number of other electoral reform proposals. The proposal would be to introduce legislation at a later date. As I continue interactions with the committee, I have noted on a number of occasions that the proposal seems to get larger and larger as we discuss it further. Nevertheless, I am open to any ideas that members may have in relation to electoral reform in Scotland.

In conclusion, I thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their consideration of the bill, and I look forward to this afternoon’s debate.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

It is a pleasure to follow George Adam on this matter.

Prior to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, on 31 January 2020, all EU nationals who were resident in the United Kingdom could stand as candidates in United Kingdom local elections. Currently, British nationals, Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland can stand as candidates at local government elections in Scotland.

In addition, as mentioned, the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020 allowed “qualifying foreign nationals”— individuals who do not require leave under the Immigration Act 1971 to enter or remain in the UK, or who, if they do require such leave, have indefinite leave to remain or pre-settled status—to stand at Scottish Parliament and local government elections in Scotland. Thus, EU citizens who have settled or pre-settled status are already able to stand at local government and Scottish Parliament elections in Scotland.

The purpose of the bill is to allow a further category of individuals to stand for election, be elected and hold office as a member of a local authority in Scotland. Those are nationals of any country with which the UK has mutual candidacy rights at local elections because of a treaty. The provisions in the bill will ensure compliance with treaties that the UK Government has agreed to in relation to voting and candidacy rights in local government elections, notably in relation to treaties agreed with Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain and Poland, although some of those treaties have yet to come into force as they await, in part, the bill becoming law.

The bilateral agreements that the UK has entered into with Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain will, when in force, grant the nationals of those countries who are legally resident in the United Kingdom the right to stand as candidates at local elections, subject to the same conditions and disqualifications that apply to nationals of the United Kingdom.

For those with constitutional interest, the method for achieving that change is by making limited amendments to section 29 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which sets out the eligibility requirements for nomination, election and holding office as a member of a local authority in Scotland. Section 29 of the 1973 act currently allows qualifying foreign nationals to stand as candidates in Scottish local government elections. That category covers foreign nationals—other than Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland—who do not require leave under the Immigration Act 1971 to enter or remain in the United Kingdom or who, if they require such leave, have indefinite leave to remain or pre-settled status. It therefore includes any nationals of Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain who have settled or pre-settled status. The bill extends section 29 of the 1973 act to confer candidacy rights on all nationals of Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain who hold lawful immigration status in the United Kingdom.

As was explained in the committee and at the opening of the debate, at present, all foreign nationals with any form of leave to remain in the United Kingdom can vote in Scottish local government elections, but candidacy rights are limited to people with indefinite leave to remain or pre-settled status. There is an anticipation that most European Union nationals who are currently resident in Scotland already have candidacy rights. Voting rights have, of course, already been conferred by virtue of section 1 of the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020.

The committee notes the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee’s report on the bill and is satisfied with the explanation that the minister provided, that the Scottish Government still considers that it would be required to amend the list of countries to properly reflect international treaty obligations and ensure that there is no unfair advantage in relation to candidacy rights. However, the committee recognises the point that the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee made, that a future Government might not consider itself bound to remove a country and that the Scottish ministers might exercise discretion in relation to the timing of the removal of a country from schedule 6A. The committee therefore supports the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee’s call for the Scottish Government to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to address that issue. I welcome the comments that have been made today and, indeed, the assurances in correspondence that that issue will be looked at prior to stage 2, but I am slightly concerned about the caveat attached to the written response, that the Government feels that it and future Governments would be bound in the same way.

The committee recognises that it is unlikely that a scenario would arise whereby a by-election occurred as a result of a foreign national who had been elected as a councillor standing down because they were required to leave the country, but we believe that that remains a small but relevant possibility. The committee therefore calls on the Scottish Government to continue dialogue with local authorities so that it is aware of the potential for additional funding for elections in case there is a greater need for by-elections than is anticipated because of individuals being elected who have limited leave to remain.

The committee’s view supports the principal purpose of the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill, which is to give to certain foreign nationals the right to stand as candidates in local government elections in Scotland in accordance with internationally agreed treaties. The committee’s scrutiny of the bill did not highlight any significant concerns, save for those that we have referred to. On that basis, the committee is content to recommend that the general principles of the bill be agreed to.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I congratulate Martin Whitfield on speaking for 360 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation.

I could stand here and simply say that we will support the bill and then sit down. I know that that would please the Presiding Officer, but it would disappoint the minister.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Kerr, I clarify that as I am the chair, I have no view.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am disappointed that you have no view on my sitting down.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I pay tribute to all the people who put themselves forward for public office. That is an appropriate thing to say, especially in this week of all weeks, as nominations close for the elections to our local councils that will be held in May.

The Scottish Conservatives believe in local democracy—whether that means standing up for communities to enable them to decide on their future for themselves, or ensuring that local government has a fair share of funding from the Scottish Government. That belief is why we support the bill. People who have made a commitment to stay in Scotland, to be active and engaged in the community where they live, to raise families, to work in businesses and public services and to make friendships should absolutely be encouraged not only to have their say in the running of their community but to stand as candidates.

As has been mentioned a couple of times, the United Kingdom Government has agreed reciprocal candidacy arrangements with Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain. When the bill becomes law, the treaties will be ratified and people from those four countries who have moved to the UK since 1 January 2021 will have the right to stand in local elections. That is why the bill is needed.

By working together with the UK Government, we in Parliament should secure more such reciprocal arrangements. It is imperative that we be fully aware of the risks that are associated with allowing candidacy rights when no reciprocal agreements exist. It is fair to say that we could be in danger of letting down expatriate Scots in other countries who do not enjoy such democratic rights in their host countries.

Becoming a local councillor is much more worth while when councillors and councils have real power. They need to have power and the funding to effect change. All of us will have come across issues of communities wanting change but their councils being powerless to do anything because of lack of funding, which has been cut relentlessly by a Scottish National Party Government that shows no respect for local government.

Councils are powerless because of a centralising agenda that puts policy and power in the hands of the Scottish Government and its agencies, rather than in the hands of local people. That is a real power grab.

Councils are powerless because our councillors—many of whom feel strongly about the issue—are increasingly hidebound by the stringent rulings of the Standards Commission for Scotland.

We should all acknowledge that council elections attract—sadly—relatively low turnout. We need to encourage more people to vote and to stand for office. It is sad that councillors are not always held in the esteem that they should be in their communities. Why is that? I think that it is because people feel that their local democracy does not influence what happens in their area.

Candidates who stand for public office want to be champions for their areas, but when they get on to a council, they find that they cannot do anything. They find that everything that they stood for when they were elected is out of their reach, because SNP cuts mean that they do not have the resources to fund local services properly and because they cannot change policies that have been set at the centre by the SNP Government, which interferes far too much in local government. Councillors cannot represent their constituents properly: many feel that the overly powerful Standards Commission makes them more mute than they want to be, so they cannot speak up as freely as they would like to on the issues that impact on their constituents.

Councils should be hives of democracy, where councillors can directly influence the lived experience of their constituents. That is why anyone would stand for election in the first place, to be frank. Local elections should be a way to judge the results of the approach that a councillor took to issues that they could influence and change. However, under the SNP, local democracy is a shadow of its former self.

The right to stand for election is sacrosanct. Presiding Officer, I recognise that I am probably in the last few seconds of my allocated time. Is that correct?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You have about six minutes for your speech.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

There are many other things that I would like to have said, but time in the chamber is precious. As a Conservative, it is my instinct to empower people and to disempower central Government and its agencies. I believe that power should be exercised as close to the people as possible. Decisions that are made by local people for local people should be sacrosanct, and allowing all local people the opportunity to stand, as we will—which will be made more realisable with the passing of the bill—is something that we support. We will support the bill today.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

I commend the work of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee on the bill. Scottish Labour supports the proposal to extend candidacy rights to nationals of any country with which the UK signs a treaty for mutual candidacy rights at local elections.

The bill will ensure that all nationals of Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain can stand as candidates in Scottish local government elections. The UK has entered into treaties with those countries in order to allow their nationals to be candidates here. As the minister said, the bill will put it into law that having leave to remain in the UK is sufficient to allow them to stand for election. Therefore, the bill is an important step towards ensuring compliance with treaties that the UK Government has agreed in relation to candidacy in Scottish local government elections.

The bill also represents an opportunity for us all in the chamber to affirm the value of non-UK nationals in our political, social and cultural life. As the May local government elections approach, many of us will be acutely aware of the value and importance of good local candidates, whom we have heard about recently and who are embedded and involved in their local communities.

We should also be aware of how often, in modern Scotland, it is people who are born in other countries who represent the best examples of people who are embedded and invested in their local communities. Those who have come to stay, settle and build lives in communities that are far from their place of birth can be the greatest and most dedicated local champions. It is easy to see the bill as something that will benefit only a small number of people—namely, those who aspire to stand for election. That is important and valuable, but there are, potentially, many more beneficiaries—namely, the people who might vote for and be represented by those people.

The bill will affirm and extend the right of all people in Scotland to vote for candidates who were born beyond our shores but who have come here to live, work and enrich our communities. The bill should be commended and celebrated on that basis.

Scottish Labour believes that, as the bill progresses, the minister and the Government should consider a number of points. First, there is a concern that the committee discussed in its report—that nationals from the same country could have different candidacy rights based solely on their immigrations status.

Secondly, as we have already heard, the committee recognised the point that was made by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, that a future Government might not consider itself to be bound to remove a country from schedule 6A, and that Scottish ministers might exercise discretion in relation to such removal. Therefore, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee

“supports the DPLRC’s call for the Scottish Government to bring forward an amendment at Stage 2 to address this issue.”

Scottish Labour supports that call, so we hope that the bill can be amended with Scottish Government support.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Does Neil Bibby agree that it is not only the question of whether a country is removed; it is the question of the time that it could take to remove it from the schedule, which might well influence local government elections?

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

Yes, I absolutely agree with that.

The committee also recognised that it is unlikely, but possible, that a by-election could occur if a foreign national is required to leave the country

“due to a change in their immigration status.”

That would have obvious financial implications.

The minster will be aware that Renfrewshire residents are still fuming about the waste of £16,000 of their money on a council by-election in Paisley, which had to be aborted because Renfrewshire Council had not done its homework. That was an exceptional case, but the fact remains that council by-elections cost money, and at a time of on-going cuts to local government budgets, that is money that councils and residents can ill afford to lose. Therefore, we call on the Scottish Government to ensure that local authorities are aware of the potential need for additional funding for elections if individuals who have limited leave to remain are elected.

I welcome the minister’s commitment to reviewing the situation as necessary, and I hope that he can give assurances that local authorities and their residents will not suffer financially. I also hope that ministers will liaise with local authorities over the potential need for additional funding.

I hope that the Scottish Government can consider those matters as the bill progresses. Scottish Labour will support the bill at decision time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the open debate. Bob Doris joins as remotely.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

As the deputy convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I thank the committee convener and my committee colleagues for their work. We were ably guided by the clerking team, and we had open and constructive engagement with George Adam, the Minister for Parliamentary Business.

The committee is more or less unanimous in its views on the bill. The UK Government has signed treaties with Portugal and Luxembourg that have already come into force, and similar treaties with Spain and Poland will come into force shortly. Those treaties offer reciprocal candidacy rights to nationals who are resident in each other’s countries. The bill will ensure that those rights can be exercised in Scotland at council elections, as they should be. We all support that. Given that those from EU countries with indefinite leave to remain or pre-settled status will already have such rights, the numbers impacted are likely to be small, as we have already heard. However, this is absolutely the right thing to do.

We are starting from a strong position in Scotland. The Parliament has already passed the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020, section 1 of which extended the franchise of Scottish elections to include all those with the legal right to live in Scotland by creating the new category of voter that the convener alluded to: qualifying foreign national. Consequently, any period of leave to remain at all entitles a person to register to vote and cast their vote. That means that people who, for example, have been granted refugee status or asylum will be able to vote, as long as they satisfy the conditions of living in Scotland, as well as the other conditions that apply to all electors in Scottish elections, including being over 16 years of age. Unfortunately, however, individuals who are seeking asylum but whose claim is still undetermined cannot vote.

There is also a gap between voting and candidacy rights in Scotland more generally. Anyone with any form of leave to remain could vote but only those with indefinite leave to remain can be a candidate. That said, the bill still places Scotland at the forefront of democratic engagement and the advancement of rights for all those resident in our country.

One aspect of the bill that the committee looked at was whether the rights that are being extended to foreign nationals of the four EU nations on a reciprocal basis based on UK treaty obligations could be rescinded should those treaties no longer be in force, to ensure that candidacy rights would be removed accordingly. The committee wanted to ensure that rights conferred in section 6A to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which are essentially based on those treaty obligations, could not be used on a discretionary basis in such circumstances. Our committee was broadly satisfied but acknowledged the concerns of the DPLR Committee in that area, as we have heard. I agree that it would be welcome to have reassurances by way of an amendment at stage 2. On balance, I think that that would be helpful.

However, it is with some irony that I highlight that aspect. By and large, I would wish all EU nationals resident in Scotland to have such candidacy rights, not just those who have them extended by dint of a UK treaty or because they have pre-settled status. In that respect, I do not concur with Stephen Kerr’s comments. It is a shame that Parliament’s hybrid proceedings do not allow for interventions, Presiding Officer.

I can reconcile my contradictions, as the Scottish Government will be consulting on legislation on electoral reform that enables more people to stand as candidates in Scottish Parliament and local elections. That will look at potentially extending candidacy rights to all EU nationals resident in Scotland and, indeed, to other groups, not simply those from Spain, Portugal, Poland and Luxembourg. I commend the Scottish Government on its approach and I look forward to such legislation superseding any UK treaty. I have to admit that I rather like the idea of some UK treaties being consigned to history, particularly those stretching back over 300 years.

Presiding Officer, I added in that final bit to ensure that my colleagues in the chamber are still paying attention. I close by commending the general principles of the bill to Parliament.

Photo of Gillian Mackay Gillian Mackay Green

In 2020, the Scottish Parliament passed the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, which expanded the franchise and candidacy eligibility for local and Holyrood elections. The 2020 act expanded voting rights to everyone lawfully resident in Scotland, regardless of nationality and candidacy rights, and candidacy rights to everyone with indefinite leave to remain.

At the moment, only foreign nationals with indefinite leave to remain in Scotland have the right to stand as candidates in Scottish elections, whether for local government or for Holyrood. That includes EU nationals with settled or pre-settled status. However, the 2020 act did not confer candidacy rights on people with temporary forms of leave to remain. The Senedd made similar changes to the local government and Senedd franchise in 2020.

As things stand, EU nationals who are lawfully resident in England have retained their right to vote and to stand in local elections. Through the UK Elections Bill, which aims to remove voting and candidacy rights from EU citizens who arrived in the UK after 31 December 2020, the UK Government is hell-bent on restricting the franchise further. That leaves us where we are, with stage 1 of the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill.

Following Brexit, the UK Government has already entered into treaties with Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain that confer reciprocal voting and candidacy rights for their nationals in the UK and UK nationals in those respective countries. That includes anyone with lawful residence, not just people with settled status, pre-settled status or indefinite leave to remain. In some cases, those treaties cannot be fully ratified until they are enshrined in law in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Scottish bill will ratify existing treaties to ensure that legislation across the four nations is consistent. It will result in an expansion of candidacy rights for local government elections to some EU nationals who are living in Scotland with limited leave to remain.

The Scottish Parliament does not currently have the right to confer legal residence or citizenship on people who live here, but we do have the power to make our electoral franchise as inclusive as possible. Therefore, the Scottish Greens would like to see us go further and ensure that candidacy rights mirror voting rights. If we want a residence-based franchise, that must extend to candidacy rights.

Ensuring that everyone who lives in Scotland has the ability to vote and to stand for election should be an aspiration that we all share. The bill is a step in the right direction, but it risks creating an unequal patchwork of candidacy rights that gives people from a select few countries enhanced rights compared with others. That is something that we should seek to fix.

Let us take refugees as an example. They are initially granted five years’ leave to remain and can then apply for indefinite leave to remain. People in that position cannot stand as a candidate purely because of the type of leave to remain that the Home Office has decided to grant them. We know that we need more diverse representation in elected positions. Our elected bodies at all levels should reflect the people whom they serve, and creating a truly residence-based franchise and candidacy eligibility is an important part of fixing the problem. Otherwise, we will be left in a situation in which people are potentially not able to represent their communities for two or more electoral cycles. We need more young people to stand for election, but the situation could deny young refugees such as those coming from Ukraine that ability for a long time.

The big question is whether it is fair and proportionate to exclude someone from standing for election just because the Home Office has given them a temporary visa. The Scottish Greens remain committed to pursuing electoral reform that enables more people to stand as candidates at Scottish Parliament and local government elections and we look forward to working with the minister and the Scottish Government to achieve that. However, although we would like to see future legislation go further, we will be supporting the bill at stage 1.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

I intend to speak to the motion, unlike the unfortunate rants that we heard earlier from the first Tory speaker, which were a shame.

Although the bill must be one of the shortest ever seen in Parliament, it is certainly significant because of what it does. All our speeches in the debate will probably be longer than the bill, but it is important to bring it to the attention of the Scottish people through the debate.

A treaty arrangement entered into by the UK Government will enable certain people from Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain to put themselves forward to be local councillors in Scotland. I support the bill because it continues in a direction of travel that I think it is right for Scotland to take. It builds on what we have already done in Scotland with respect to candidacy rights and it continues that goal of widening our democratic engagement.

Normally, the right to be a candidate depends on whether a person has indefinite leave to remain in the UK or whether they have pre-settled status. The bill, if passed, will enable people from the countries that have been mentioned who do not have settled or pre-settled status to become candidates, if they wish to do so. That is in line with the agreements that are proposed by the treaty arrangements.

Extending and conferring the right on people who live in Scotland to become local councillors representing their communities is to be welcomed, and I am sure that people from those countries that we have mentioned who live in Scotland and wish to become councillors will greatly appreciate this move by the Scottish Parliament. We know that only a small number of people might be affected by the bill and might take advantage of it, but it sends a clear signal that Scotland intends to continue with progressive and inclusive democratic reforms.

As ever, Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee members have done a good job of scrutinising the bill, and their stage 1 report provides us with the detail that we need to help us to understand what has been proposed and why.

However, the report raises one or two questions that require answers. In examining the proposals and their possible consequences, the committee rightly asked what might happen if a person became a councillor and their immigration status subsequently changed, causing a by-election to occur. Although that is unlikely, it presents a possible risk, and the committee welcomed the minister’s commitment to keep that aspect under review.

Similarly, the committee was right to ask what would happen if a treaty came to an end. That aspect is still a little unclear, especially if a person was already elected at that time, so I would welcome clarification from committee members or the minister as to what would happen in those circumstances. Presumably, another by-election might be needed.

This short bill is focused on supporting the treaties as they come into force. Ideally, this Parliament will agree its own arrangements in future, which will not come via treaties that are entered into by others. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has diligently considered the bill and asked a number of questions about concerns that could arise in certain circumstances. The intention behind the bill is sound, and it opens up greater access to participating in a parliamentary democracy in Scotland.

As we look ahead, the bill can be amended, if necessary, to go a step further to extend candidacy rights to all foreign nationals. The Scottish Government intends to consult on those issues this year. For the moment, we should thank the committee for the work that it has done on our behalf and welcome the bill at stage 1. I hope that it will receive the support that it deserves as it progresses through the parliamentary stages to become law in Scotland.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests.

As a new member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I have had the opportunity to attend a couple of meetings as part of the committee’s scrutiny of the proposed Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill.

The bill increases the opportunities for democratic engagement and ensures that we comply with international treaties. In the past, all EU citizens who were resident in the UK could stand in local elections. However, following Brexit, the Scottish Government introduced legislation to ensure that those EU nationals with settled or pre-settled status who had made Scotland their home could stand for elected office and vote in Scottish Parliament and local government elections.

The bill extends that right to nationals of a country with which the UK Government has signed a treaty on mutual voting and candidacy rights. Currently, the UK has agreed such treaties with Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain. By enabling people from those countries who do not have settled or pre-settled status to stand in local elections, the bill will support the ratification of those treaties.

In its stage 1 report, the SPPA Committee concluded that the bill provides an effective approach to complying with international treaties signed by the UK Government and other states.

Although the reforms in the bill will affect only a small proportion of the population, they will ensure that more people can represent their local community as a councillor. The SNP stands for progressive and inclusive democratic reform and has already delivered in government.

Scotland already goes further than most other countries in allowing all resident foreign nationals with any form of leave to remain to vote in Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections, so it is important to recognise that the bill builds on the Scottish Government’s work to expand democratic engagement and participation.

The bill is not the end of that journey. As the minister has said, the Scottish Government will consult on further electoral reforms later this year. At a recent committee meeting, I questioned the minister about the potential implications of someone with limited leave to remain being elected as a councillor and then having to leave the country part way through their term, leading to a by-election. The committee’s report mentions that possibility, and we welcomed the minister’s commitment to review the situation as necessary. Following the publication of the report, the minister also confirmed that the Scottish Government supports the committee’s conclusion and that the issue will be highlighted to the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. I welcome that.

Although Scotland already goes to greater lengths than many countries in allowing resident foreign nationals to vote and stand in elections, the bill will further expand the opportunities for people to serve as a councillor. The Scottish Government has agreed with the majority of the SPPA Committee’s conclusions and will reflect on possible stage 2 amendments. Given that, and the positive outcomes that the bill will support, I hope that all members will agree that the bill’s general principles are worthy of support.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to closing speeches. Mark Griffin joins us remotely.

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

As my colleague Neil Bibby confirmed, we will support the bill. We are keen to extend candidacy rights to nationals of any country with which the UK signs a treaty on mutual candidacy rights at local elections when they have any type of leave to remain.

The bill will ensure compliance with treaties that have been agreed with Portugal, Poland, Spain and Luxembourg. In the case of Spain and Poland, the bill is required as part of the ratification process on their side.

There has been some discussion about such legislation being a consequence of the United Kingdom leaving the EU. That matter was raised by the convener of the SPPA Committee and by other speakers. It is right to say that, prior to the UK’s exit, all EU nationals who were resident in the UK could stand as candidates in UK local government elections. That right currently extends to Irish citizens and people from the Commonwealth under the 1973 act.

As the SPPA Committee discussed, the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020 allows someone with no immigration restrictions, indefinite leave to remain or pre-settled status to vote in Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections. The bill goes further by allowing someone with any type of leave to remain to vote and stand in such elections, as long as they are from a listed country in schedule 6A. Given that the arrangements are reciprocal, British citizens will be able to vote and stand in local elections in Spain, Portugal, Poland and Luxembourg.

As the SPPA Committee and the DPLR Committee discussed, it is sensible that the bill grants ministers powers to add other countries to the list by regulation if the UK enters into similar treaties with them. I am grateful to the minister for confirming, as he did when he spoke to the committee, that a Government amendment at stage 2 will require that ministers remove a schedule 6A country should a treaty be terminated.

With the local elections just five weeks away, candidates across the country will be canvassing voters for their support. Obviously, we want people from all over Scotland, including those who have made Scotland their home, to stand for election to local councils. People do so to have the opportunity to make real changes in the communities that they live in and wish to represent and to make decisions on services that affect people’s daily lives, such as social care, children’s education, housing and economic development, as well as the core issues of local roads, cleanliness and refuse collections.

It is a great privilege to be elected to the role, but it is not without its challenges, such as online abuse and harassment and a demoralised workforce. Those who are elected will take on a full-time job with long hours. As we have repeatedly discussed in the chamber, millions of pounds have been ring fenced and taken out of local control and, since 2013, £918 million has been slashed in real terms from budgets. Therefore, regardless of who stands, we know that candidates who go on to be elected this year are likely to have to make more cuts while they struggle to keep up with demand for local services.

For today’s purposes, however, I am pleased that we can widen the candidacy rights to the people of Poland, Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg. We support the bill at stage 1.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its work. I am glad to speak in the debate, and I welcome the positive progress that is being made in extending candidacy rights to eligible citizens from Poland, Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg. Although the bill might not be generating headlines, it is an important piece of legislation.

The United Kingdom Elections Bill as drafted is designed to clarify the voting and candidacy rights of key groups of citizens in this country. It is important to note that European Union nationals who were resident in the United Kingdom before 31 December fall into the category of having retained rights and are fully eligible to stand as candidates and vote in elections. The bill that we are considering today simply aims to expand candidacy rights to include people from named countries with any type of leave to remain in the United Kingdom as well as those with settled or pre-settled status.

It is reassuring to note, as others have done, that neither the Electoral Commission nor the Electoral Management Board for Scotland has expressed any particular concern about the bill. I note from Mr Adam’s response on the bill to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee that the Scottish Government will reflect on an amendment to the bill that would give greater clarity to the Scottish Government’s obligation to remove a country from the schedule. I think that Mr Adam suggested in his opening speech that he will lodge an amendment on that at stage 2.

As others have outlined, the council elections are an important opportunity to refresh our democracy. I hope that they will also be an opportunity to elect more diverse councils that better reflect their local communities. For example, a record number of female and black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates will stand for my party at the election. Across the chamber, all parties have taken positive steps to try to improve candidate diversity at the election. The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee, of which I am a member, will undertake additional work in that area after the council elections to review the impact of the election results.

For the millions or hundreds of thousands of people who, I am sure, will be watching this debate, there are now just under 24 hours until 4 pm tomorrow to submit their nomination papers. I genuinely hope that people who want change in their local community will do just that and stand for election, as all of us have done, to make the positive change that they want.

The minister suggested that a wider election bill is likely to be forthcoming, which will be consulted on. I hope that we will see a number of reforms in that. I think that councillor remuneration is an issue. The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee has heard that a number of councillors have decided to stand down at the forthcoming elections for career reasons.

We also need measures on the support that is available to councillors to serve their local constituents. We MSPs are lucky to have the support that we have for staff and communications, but councillors have very different support available to them. I hope that that can be reformed, too, and that support will not just be based on whether a council decides to provide it.

I have previously raised with the minister the idea that we need to consider the provision to councillors of a free mail election address, which MPs and MSPs are entitled to, especially given the current size of single transferable vote wards and, potentially, larger wards after Boundaries Scotland undertakes its review after the council elections. I hope that all parties will reflect on bringing that forward.

Overall, however, the bill is a measured and uncontroversial step. The extension of the franchise is limited to nationals of the handful of countries with which the UK has signed reciprocal agreements. We will therefore support the bill at decision time, and will welcome future such agreements that the UK Government may reach with other countries. The bill seeks to bring Scottish legislation into line with the nationwide UK law. That is a welcome step forward.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

Miles Briggs cut me to the quick when he said that nobody will write headlines about the debate—he has absolutely damaged my ego.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

That will depend on what you say.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

Anything can happen in the next five minutes, right enough. [

Laughter

.]

At one point, when Mr Briggs was talking about the millions of people who are watching at home, I thought that he was going to give the boxing announcer Michael Buffer’s famous line:

“Let’s get ready to rumble!”

I hope that he was not implying that this is a rumble. He brought up some key points, and I encourage him to engage with the consultation process when it comes up later this year, and we can have on-going discussions.

This has been a meaningful debate and I thank all the members who contributed to it. Although the bill is short and narrowly focused—Willie Coffey mentioned how narrow and how focused it was, saying that his speech would be longer than some parts of the bill—we will meet all our international obligations, should it go through.

As many colleagues said, who can stand in our elections is a fundamental part of our democracy. I look forward to further debate on that over the coming year.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

Yes; I was just going to mention Mr Whitfield.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

I anticipate that debate eagerly.

Is the minister able confirm to Willie Coffey that, should a treaty fall, the right to be a councillor would similarly fall, and that, if there is a danger that the immigration status of an individual who is covered by a treaty should change, their right to be a councillor should stand? Perhaps for the millions who are watching, will the minister confirm that, of course, the bill will not apply to what happens on 5 May this year?

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

On the member’s last question, the answer is yes.

On Mr Coffey’s question, if a treaty comes to an end while an election is under way, transitional steps will ensure that there is no prejudice to that on-going election. However, the odds of such a thing happening at such a time—although it is possible—would be incredible.

Mr Whitfield, who convenes the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, brought up the idea that this Scottish Government and future Governments may not stand by future treaties. That was brought up at committee as well. I said that we will look at that as we move into stage 2, because it is one of the issues that the committee made very obvious to me.

One of the other things that Mr Whitfield brought up in committee—he did so again today—was the potential for there to be by-elections if someone should put their name forward who is not eligible. At the committee meeting, I said that the funding of local government elections is for local government. That is correct, but such a small number of individuals would be involved that it would not add to the number of by-elections over a period. However, as I have said, we continue to engage with local government on that issue.

Stephen Kerr took to his feet and spoke about absolutely everything bar the bill itself. He said that he could say that he was going to agree with me and could therefore sit down. I wish that he had, because he went on to talk about other things that we can debate at other times. For me, it is important that we focus on the bill and on what it does for the individuals and communities that it affects.

Mr Kerr spoke about local government, but he seems not to be aware that the UK Government has cut core funds for local government by 63 per cent over the past decade. Perhaps I will cut and paste a bit of Mr Kerr’s speech from the

Official Report and send it down to a Westminster equivalent of his to see what they think of it.

To answer Mr Bibby’s question, I say that the bill is what it is and does what it sets out to do. As I said, I—like Mr Bibby—have aspirations for electoral reform, and I am committed to future consultation and to looking at different ways of working. Again, that will be part of the consultation process that we will go through.

I move on to Mr Doris, who I have known for more years than both of us care to remember. As always, I was listening to him, and I agree with him. Perhaps not everyone picked up his point, but he will not be surprised to hear that I agree with him on the issue that he was talking about.

Gillian Mackay was passionate about her desire to ensure that more people get the right to vote and that that actually happens. Again, the consultation will give us the opportunity to engage on that point. Collette Stevenson said that she has not taken part in many committee meetings, but she gets what the bill is about, and she summarised eloquently what we are trying to do with it. I look forward to engaging with Ms Stevenson on the bill in the future at committee.

This has been a very good debate. As I said, the bill does what it says on the tin. Effectively, it aims to ensure that the small percentage of individuals in question have the opportunity to get involved in local government. Sometimes, in ensuring that we get to a particular place, we need to be careful that we do not tie ourselves in knots by thinking that there might be problems where there are not.

I often say to members when we discuss this very issue that only a small percentage of us get involved and put our names forward for elected office. Of that small percentage, those of us who are elected end up spending the rest of the time knocking each other on the head with a big stick and falling out with each other. Members have talked about the potential for by-elections. Having looked at that, I think that there might not be as many by-elections as some individuals might be concerned about.

As I said, I will take on board just about everything that all members have said today. Although the bill had to be brought forward at an accelerated pace, I am pleased that it has attracted wide-ranging support in the chamber today. I hope that members will join me in supporting the principles of the bill, and I look forward to further debates.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the stage 1 debate on the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill.