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Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill

Overview

The Bill aims to reform the law relating to:

  • Scottish parliamentary elections 
  • local government elections 

This includes the length of terms to be set at 5 years. This is to ensure both national elections won’t happen at the same time. 

The bill will also: 

  • make clear the role of the Electoral Commission around Scottish elections
  • give responsibilities to the Electoral Management Board for Scotland 
  • rename the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland as Boundaries Scotland

The Scottish Parliament will now fund the Electoral Commission’s role in Scottish elections. 

Younger voters can now register from the age of 14. They will be able to vote in Scottish elections from the age of 16. 

You can find out more in the Scottish Government's Explanatory Notes document that explains the Bill.

Why the Bill was created

The bill intends to improve the management of devolved elections in Scotland. These improvements will benefit voters.

A lot of the changes are based on recommendations from the Smith Commission. Following this, the Scottish Government held public consultations on electoral reform. 

You can find out more in the Scottish Government's Policy Memorandum document that explains the Bill.

Where do laws come from?

The Scottish Parliament can make decisions about many things like:

  • agriculture and fisheries
  • education and training
  • environment
  • health and social services
  • housing
  • justice and policing
  • local government
  • some aspects of tax and social security

These are 'devolved matters'.

Laws that are decided by the Scottish Parliament come from:

Introduced

The Scottish Government sends the Bill and related documents to the Parliament.

Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill as introduced

Related information from the Scottish Government on the Bill

Stage 1 - General principles

Committees examine the Bill. Then MSPs vote on whether it should continue to Stage 2.

Have your say

The deadline for sharing your views on this Bill has passed. Read the views that were given.

Committees involved in this Bill

Who examined the Bill

Each Bill is examined by a 'lead committee'. This is the committee that has the subject of the Bill in its remit.

It looks at everything to do with the Bill.

Other committees may look at certain parts of the Bill if it covers subjects they deal with.

Who spoke to the lead committee about the Bill

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

First meeting transcript

The Convener (Bill Kidd)

Welcome to the 20th meeting in 2019 of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

Item 1 is to take evidence on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. With us today are Willie Sullivan, from the Electoral Reform Society, Dr Alistair Clark, from Newcastle University, and Professor Toby James, from the University of East Anglia. I welcome all three of you and thank you for coming. We will not take opening statements; we will just move straight to questions. Our first questions are on term lengths, and they are from Maureen Watt.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

As you know, there has been quite a debate about term length, and the Scottish Parliament has already had different term lengths during its short life. What is your view on the proposal to move to fixed terms of five years for the Scottish Parliament and local government elections? What, if any, are the key advantages and disadvantages of the approach taken by the bill?

Dr Alistair Clark (Newcastle University)

Thank you for the invitation to speak and for the question.

There are benefits and drawbacks to five-year terms. One benefit is stability in policy making at the parliamentary and local government level. My research suggests that, when elections clash because they are held concurrently, there can be problems with election delivery, and the quality of those elections can be problematic. It is therefore sensible to keep elections separate, as Scottish practice has been from 2007 onwards.

A four-year term remains possible but, if that is deemed to be of interest, I suggest that the elections should be held at different points during the year. For instance, September has precedent, given the date of the independence referendum back in 2014.

I have no objection to a five-year term. The issue is for voters. It is about not being able to hold people to account and judge their performance within an appropriate time.

Maureen Watt

Why do you say that elections should be at different points? Other jurisdictions have presidential elections, parliamentary elections and council elections all at the same time.

Dr Clark

I base it on my research into the delivery of elections. I have Britain-wide evidence on the conduct of local and parliamentary elections at the same time. Local authorities that have run two elections together have shown that the delivery of those elections was a bit worse. If you talk to electoral administrators, they will explain the mechanics. It is about the pressure of delivering two polls at the same time. There are staffing pressures and organisational and logistical pressures and so on.

The reasons given for running the elections together are always to do with turnout and cost. Turnout often depends on other things, such as the political parties getting out to mobilise electors in the first place. Even if you run two sets of elections together, they still cost more than just running one, so the cost saving is not immediately obvious.

Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

Do you have any evidence of the undermining effect, which happens on two levels? The first is that two different systems are being combined in a single election. The second is whether anything happens to what the public might perceive as the less important local government election, although maybe it is the opposite way round; I do not know. Is there a differential in people’s attitudes to the elections and in the messaging attached to the local government elections compared to that for the national elections or Scottish elections, whatever it might be?

Dr Clark

That is a good question, and I have two things to say in answer to it. First, the obvious issue is the potential clash with a United Kingdom general election. If that was held at the same time as a Scottish local government election, voters would be asked to do two very different things. They would have to mark a cross on the UK ballot paper while ranking candidates from one to five or whatever on the local government ballot paper. There is scope for confusion there. The last time that that kind of thing was tried in Scotland was in 2007, when the local government elections were held at the same time as the parliamentary elections. That led to the difficulties that were experienced with lots of ballots being rejected in the parliamentary election that year.

On the question whether one campaign overshadows the other, local government elections are typically always overshadowed by the higher-level election. There are therefore good practical reasons why elections should be separated to enable people to make informed decisions.

Willie Sullivan (Electoral Reform Society)

We made the point in our written submission that we do lots of polling on the issue and we find that people are often confused about the difference between democracy and elections. It is perhaps useful to separate the two. Democracy is about sharing power, giving agency to people and protecting people from the alienation that happens when they have no power over their lives. Elections are just one mechanism for trying to do that. We should hold that thought.

Elections are obviously important to elected officials. When I was a councillor, it was important to me to have the legitimacy of a decent turnout in the election. That is where legitimacy comes from. I did quite a bit of research on the issue and wrote a book called “The Missing Scotland: Why Over a Million Scots Choose Not to Vote and what it Means for Our Democracy”. Lots of people choose not to give legitimacy to political institutions, including local government.

It is not enough to say that we will put elections together to increase turnout and give more legitimacy and then everything will be okay, because there are deeper questions about why people do not think that it is important to turn out at local government elections in Scotland. People turn out in many other European countries. There are also deeper questions about why people do not turn out in huge numbers to vote in Scottish Parliament elections.

To go back to the question, the difference between four and five-year terms is not that significant. Putting together elections only to increase the turnout at one or the other is not a good enough reason to have four-year terms. I do not think that the difference makes that much of an impact.

Maureen Watt

To be clear, are you saying that, so far, you cannot see any difference between the turnouts for four-year terms and five-year terms?

Willie Sullivan

I do not think that they make a difference to turnouts. Obviously, when elections are put together, that makes a difference to the turnout for the local government election. As Dr Clark said, there are lots of administration and resource reasons not to have elections running concurrently.

The Convener

I want to widen out the discussion. Professor James wants to say something.

Professor Toby James (University of East Anglia)

Thank you for the invitation to the meeting and the great questions.

I agree with much of what Alistair Clark said. It is worth pointing out that electoral officials have been under a perfect storm of pressures in recent years because of financial reasons to do with the availability of resources, the significant changes in the move to individual electoral registration and the increasing complexity of electoral law. Holding multiple events with multiple electoral systems introduces risks to the system.

The flipside is turnout. There is an advantage in holding a local government election at the same time as a general election. People are more likely to vote in a local government election while they are voting in a general election. However, as Gil Paterson rightly pointed out, the campaign effects can be very confusing for voters. Local candidates will try to campaign on an important issue in their local ward, but that might be drowned out by some of the media effects.

The legislation in part seems to be designed to avoid conflict with a general election, with a view to there being one in 2022. We know from what has happened in the United Kingdom Parliament recently that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 does not quite work in that way. Fixing Scottish electoral law by trying to second-guess exactly what will happen in Westminster does not seem to be very strong ground to be on.

Dr Clark

I have a brief observation. We should be careful about assuming that there is a major difficulty with turnout in Scottish local government elections. The turnout for them is among the highest in the UK—it was 47 per cent for the 2017 local government elections. By comparison, when the English local elections are held on their own, the turnout is typically around a third—33, 34 or 35 per cent—of valid voters. Scotland does well in that regard.

Willie Sullivan

Do you know how that turnout compares with turnouts in other places in Europe?

Dr Clark

It is possibly low, but there are different systems and so on.

Willie Sullivan

I think that it is a mistake simply to compare with England. Places in Europe have turnouts of up to 60 to 70 per cent for local government elections. Let us aim high.

Maureen Watt

We will maybe come on to how to increase turnout later.

We are looking at the issue in terms of the voter. Have any of you done any research on the efficacy of legislation in four-year and five-year terms? From a Government perspective, if something in a manifesto has gone out to consultation and there are conflicting views on it, it might have to go back again. Getting legislation on the statute book is a difficult process, so have any of you looked at whether four-year or five-year terms result in better legislation? For example, there could be a tendency to rush things in four-year terms so that you get worse legislation when compared with five-year terms.

09:45  



Dr Clark

I have not done research on that, but I know that there is a strong argument for that being the case. It is about not just getting legislation on the statute book but delivering policies and showing a return on them. I am not against five-year terms. There is a strong enough case for them, and that is one of the reasons for that.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I would like somebody to help with a point of clarity. We have fixed terms in the Scottish Parliament, but they do not necessarily apply if the Parliament takes a decision to change them. It is the same as the UK Parliament. Is that correct?

Dr Clark

Yes.

Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

I want to raise two issues.

We have talked about four and five-year terms, but why not six-year terms? What is the logic and strategic argument for the term length?

What is the driver for other countries having higher turnouts?

Willie Sullivan

On term limit, Tony Benn said that we have to be able to kick people out. That is the basis of democracy: you have to go to the people fairly regularly to give them a say on whether legislators or councillors have been doing a reasonable job.

There has to be a balance. I agree that five years is probably a better term length for Parliament to be able to make legislation and deal with parliamentary business, because otherwise things will get rushed, fall off the agenda or be moved into the next parliamentary session. That has happened with quite a few issues in the Scottish Parliament—local government reform, for one.

Some societies just have better democratic political cultures, but they are not easy to achieve. We made the point in our submission that it is not just about the rules for elections. It is about the institutions at local levels and their involvement in people’s lives, and whether people are active and engaged citizens who look out for and work with one another. It is about the political culture that is created from the top down and the values of that society. It is not an easy thing to describe or create.

I think that our representative democracy is struggling a lot and that, if radical cultural interventions need to be made with our institutions, it might be worth doing that. It is not just a matter of saving our democracy; it has to change into something much more relevant for this time.

Professor James

We would not want elections to be held too regularly but, over time, mandates begin to fade. Six years is quite a long time and circumstances change; therefore, as Willie Sullivan says, regular elections are important. However, I do not see too much difference between four and five-year terms.

Why do people not vote? There are lots of complex reasons. In regard to what is under the control of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, one aspect is the level of civic education and how, for example, we teach students in schools. Perhaps we can touch on that in response to other questions.

Another aspect, which I set out in my written evidence, is encouraging young people to register to vote while they are still in active education, particularly in school but also in university. That could be embedded as part of a wider curriculum that explains how a democratic system works.

Dr Clark

The lowest turnout in Scottish local elections is typically found in wards with a fairly transient, lower socioeconomic status population. There is work to be done in engaging people in such wards.

It is not always obvious that campaigns are going on, particularly in local government elections. Where are the posters on lamp posts, for instance? There has been an on-going controversy about that in Scotland over the course of this decade, whereas in Ireland, for example, there can be an obvious sense that a campaign is going on.

It is incumbent on political parties to get out there and mobilise people, and there is a lot of evidence that suggests that that matters in raising turnout.

Willie Sullivan

I did some qualitative research for my book with focus groups in the east end of Glasgow and in bits of Dundee comprising poorer people who did not vote. Many of them had made a conscious decision not to vote. They felt that, over the years, different parties had been in power and nothing had really changed in their lives. They knew people who were struggling, and they cared about those people deeply, but they did not think that the political system had anything to offer them. People knew that they were being asked to give their approval, support and legitimacy to something that they thought was not really doing anything for them. One guy said, “Do you think my head is zipped up at the back? Do you think I’m going to give my approval to this if it hasn’t really done anything for me?”

The Convener

Thank you for that.

I will just mention that Glasgow City Council banned using posters on lamp posts. One of my mates had nothing else to do during election campaigns, as that was his role: going up ladders and sticking things up. I personally think that that change lowered the whole tempo of elections, because people were not surrounded by the culture of the election. I know that there are still posters in other council areas, but I think that we have lost a wee bit of that culture in some places.

Neil Findlay

I would be interested to see whether there is any correlation between the prominence of posters and turnout. I suspect that there is not.

The point that Willie Sullivan makes is absolutely spot on. It should not come as a surprise to anybody that those in communities where people feel completely disenfranchised from the political system do not engage with it. That is as plain as the nose on your face. Indeed, why would people engage when they see that their community has been left behind? The recent evidence of the Brexit referendum and the Trump election campaign shows what people do when they have been left behind and they perceive that there is an opportunity for change. We are stating the obvious there, but it is perhaps a statement of the obvious that we do not get.

That was not a question—or I could ask: do you agree?

The Convener

The witnesses can answer, but they do not need to.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Is there a correlation between the number of elected representatives and faith in democracy? We might go into some communities and find that nobody living there is an elected representative. Are people actually meeting their elected representatives? We have a relatively low proportion of them compared with other European countries. Alternatively, is there a lack of faith because people are meeting their elected representatives but do not like what they are doing? Do people see that they are not genuinely representative of their communities and not present there?

Willie Sullivan

There is definitely a correlation between the numbers of representatives in European states and levels of turnout. I am not saying that it is necessarily a cause, but I am reflecting on my experience as a local councillor and my work as a policy person in local government over the years, taking into account the size of the wards. In one case, there were 23,000 people. Some of those who are here today are also councillors. I am sorry if I am just sharing my own experience, but I think that it does apply a little bit.

Let me take up the point. How can one person in a part-time job represent 23,000 people? How can they be part of that community? If we consider somebody who represents a few hundred people, say in Parkneuk in Dunfermline, who does a couple of hours a week but is really part of that community and does not have to turn into a semi-professional politician in order to do the job, we can understand that that level of representation and connection between the local authority and people’s representation is much better.

A representative is someone who is like us, as well as an advocate. We need people from communities to go and speak on behalf of them. Representatives should not be seen as separate from them. However, the impression that I get is that councillors and representatives are a separate group from the people they are representing.

Dr Clark

I will say something slightly different. Local government in Scotland and in the UK as a whole is at a larger scale than we find in continental Europe. If we compare Scotland with Denmark, for example, we see that councils in Denmark typically represent far smaller communities. In a city the size of Glasgow—I think that I am right in saying that Glasgow has the second largest local authority in the UK—there would probably be several councils and not just one. That larger scale is a difficulty, because research shows that the smaller councils are, the more engaged people feel with them and the more they feel that they have a degree of belonging. It is not necessarily about ward structures, although the things are related. It is about the scale at which we do local government in this country to begin with.

Willie Sullivan

I entirely agree with that. Maybe I was not particularly clear. However, within a larger number of smaller local authorities, we would want smaller ward sizes with more representatives per head of population.

The Convener

We have had a good kick at the ball on that subject, but I will let Tom Mason finish up on it.

Tom Mason

I have a question about the proposal to increase the number of councillors to five in some wards. I declare an interest as I am a local councillor at the moment. What do the panel members think about the suggestion of allowing two-member wards in some areas and five-member wards in others? My view is that the multimember ward does not work very well.

Willie Sullivan

The issue—again—is that we do not have enough local representatives. If we stick with the same number of councillors but our system also argues for better proportionality, we will come up with bigger ward sizes with more members because that gives us better proportionality. However, that is to come at this in the wrong way. We should be looking at having more local councillors and more local authorities. Having five members for what would be quite a big ward would not be such a problem, because we could have five members in quite a small ward, where they could know virtually everybody.

Dr Clark

I agree. When the Kerley commission set out the single transferable vote, one of its original aims was to achieve proportionality. To do that, having six or seven members per ward probably allows the closest fit between votes and seats.

The three and four-member wards in the Scottish system restrict proportionality quite a lot. I expect the five-member proposal to be used fairly sparingly, but it is probably welcome because, as Willie Sullivan pointed out, wards are bigger than they used to be and, of course, there are differences in public opinion within those wards, so I think that it is right for there to be a number of representatives who voters can go to.

Willie Sullivan

In Scottish local government and in Scotland as a whole, we have a multiparty democracy, and it works quite well because we have adopted electoral systems that allow that to flourish. In the general election, we are seeing a multiparty democracy trying to break through, but it is being constrained by the first-past-the-post system, which means all sorts of party pacts and tactical voting as electorates have become more educated, aware and able to get information. That is really distorting the system.

In the general election, voters in many constituencies will not get a chance to vote for the party that they want to vote for, despite that party existing. Scotland has moved way beyond that and it should continue to do so because, with proportionality, the seats reflect the votes, and people connect to that. We should continue to keep that as a strong principle of our electoral system and develop it as much as possible.

10:00  



Tom Mason

However, there is no accountability in the multiward council system, because four or five members are accountable to up to 19,000 people. There is no identification with the area and no identification with a representative.

Willie Sullivan

That is to do with the size of wards rather than the number of councils. Even when we had single-member wards, the wards were too big. Some people knew who their local councillor was and some did not. However, that issue can be addressed. If we want to hold on to proportionality for the reason that I gave—it is a good principle to have in a modern democracy—the way to address unaccountability in multimember wards would be to reduce their size by creating more of them.

Tom Mason

Do you not think that a system of representation based on Scotland’s additional member system, in which there would be identification with a constituency, would work better for proportionality?

Willie Sullivan

That system, having bedded down, works well for the Scottish Parliament. The single transferable vote definitely works best for local government.

Tom Mason

Yes, but nobody understands it.

Willie Sullivan

People understand that they cast their vote and they get a representative on the basis of the preference that they put on the ballot paper. They do not understand the count but, if we look at the vagaries and imbalances across the first-past-the-post system—

Tom Mason

I am not suggesting the first-past-the-post system. I am suggesting a system in which there is identification with an area and there is somebody who is accountable to that area.

Willie Sullivan

If there is a four, five or six-member ward that is a small village, for example, and all those members come from that village, it would be fine. It is about the size of the wards.

I think that we make a strong argument in our submission, where we say that the balance between the number of electors and the identifiable community should be reworked. At present, we think of a representative as someone who represents so many thousand electors, but why is that not balanced by the need for representatives for individual communities? The European Union has qualified majority voting and each country has an equal weight. Why should a village or a community not have a more equal weight, rather than it just being to do with the number of electors? Is that clearer?

The Convener

Do you want to add to that, Alistair?

Dr Clark

I will say two things. First, we are getting hung up on ward sizes, which is the wrong thing to get hung up on. We have mentioned the figure of about 19,000, but that is very much the extreme. The average ward size is about 12,000, which is a much smaller number. We should be thinking about the fact that voters now have three or four representatives, whereas before they had only one, and that one representative may have been from a party that they did not vote for. Proportionality tends to mean that people can go to a party representative that they are more closely aligned to. The ward size issue is, to be frank, a red herring; the issue is representation.

Secondly, I return to voter confusion. I have done research into how voters use the single transferable vote system. Between 2007 and 2012, voters tended to use STV in a similar way to Irish voters, who have much longer experience of using it. The average number of preferences was three. Some people—although, I grant, not many—filled in the whole ballot paper. People have used the preference transfers to do two things. One is to transfer between party candidates where the party has a team of candidates. Sometimes, people have done something different and chosen candidates that they may want.

STV weakens the hold of parties to a degree, and that may be something that voters want in this anti-politics and anti-party age. I am not so sure about the idea that voters are confused by having to put 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the ballot paper. The statistics suggest that they use the system in a not dissimilar way to people in countries with much more experience of the system.

The Convener

I want to link that to electronic voting, which might be relevant. The bill does not provide for electronic voting pilots, but it contains enabling provisions for electronic voting to be introduced. What range of international practices could fall under the banner of electronic voting? Do you have examples of countries where electronic voting has been trialled or is used?

Professor James

As set out in the bill, electronic voting is a broad term. There are advantages to that, because the idea is that we look ahead to systems that might be envisaged or invented in the future.

Of the mechanisms that exist, one is remote internet voting. The most obvious example of the use of that is Estonia, where citizens can use their national identity card—to make the system work, it is important that people have such a card—to vote remotely, even on the day of an election. That was piloted in the UK in the early 2000s—as I say in my written submission, many other mechanisms were piloted simultaneously.

Internet voting is one option for electronic voting. Another is to allow people to vote using electronic machines in polling stations. They still have to physically turn up, but they can press a button on a screen to cast their vote. There are lots of variations of that, but international best practice points to the use of machines that produce voter-verified, auditable paper ballot papers. The voter presses a button to vote and a clearly marked ballot paper comes out, which goes into a box. The voter can see that, so they are not left with uncertainty about whether their count was correctly recorded. That is seen as the main option for the electronic machine mechanism.

As it stands, those are the two variations. However, as I said, electronic voting is set out broadly in the bill, which allows flexibility for the evaluation of different systems in the future.

The Convener

Does the Electoral Reform Society have a view on that?

Willie Sullivan

We are interested in pilots. That is the way to develop systems such as the one that Toby James described, which produces a paper receipt. That is important because the voter can see it and it is checkable.

Neil Findlay

I was an observer at the presidential election in Venezuela in 2012. Please do not believe all that you read in the newspapers about the voting system in Venezuela, because the Carter Center democracy programme said that it is the most sophisticated voting system in the world. It is an electronic system that has 12 internal audits.

The system was interesting. When people went into polling stations, they gave their thumbprint and indelible ink was put on their pinkie to say that they had voted and could not vote again. There were terminals where they voted electronically and received a ballot paper, which they put in a box. They then signed to say that they had voted. The interesting part was that, at 52 per cent of polling stations, as soon as polling closed, all the party observers stood round a table, the boxes were opened in front of them and every vote was shown to them and ticked off on a list. That was tallied with the buttons that had been pressed on the electronic voting system, and if they matched, the vote went to the central polling station.

If we compare that with two sheets of plywood, a piece of string and a pencil, it puts our system into perspective. We can learn a lot from other countries, and particularly those that have developed their own electronic systems that have been internationally verified and accredited. Have you looked at such systems?

Professor James

I have not looked at Venezuela’s in particular.

Neil Findlay

What about any others?

Professor James

We talked earlier about low voter turnout and the groups that are less likely to vote, including—above all others—young people. The use of new technology to explore and address that problem would be welcome. Given that there are security threats with internet voting, it should not be used for high-level votes such as general elections and independence referendums, but it is worth considering at a local level, where turnout is still low.

Many of the procedures that have been developed in the UK have Victorian origins, but democracy has spread since then and international best practice has moved on. We do not have the opportunity to audit elections in Scotland, for example, which is possible in other jurisdictions, even where paper systems are used. There is scope to look at that.

Neil Findlay

What about all-postal ballots?

Professor James

In the early 2000s, we had some UK-wide pilots with a view to increasing voter turnout. They included the use of new mechanisms such as internet voting and mobile phone voting, but the one that produced a major increase in turnout was postal voting. Automatically sending out postal votes to constituents resulted in an enormous boost in turnout. Since then, concerns have been raised about fraud, although some security provisions have subsequently been put in place. If you are looking for a single measure that could lead to a major increase in turnout, all-postal elections is it.

Neil Findlay

Would you recommend that?

Professor James

It is worth considering it in more detail.

Dr Clark

I will address electronic voting rather than all-postal voting. What is proposed in the bill is unacceptably wide. It seems to me to be a bit of a blank cheque. As Toby James mentioned, all sorts of things fall under the banner of electronic voting: it can include internet voting, voting machines and so on. The committee would be wise to talk to the Scottish Government about what it intends. Pilots are fine, but there are a range of cost, commercial and, in particular, security implications, even for the use of voting machines in polling stations.

Countries have adopted electronic voting and then gone back from that. For example, in 2002, I think, Ireland trialled the use of voting machines in three or four constituencies, but it mothballed its machines immediately afterwards and it has never resurrected them. The Federal Constitutional Court in Germany has, in effect, banned electronic voting on the ground that, without specialist knowledge—in other words, specialist computer science or computer programming knowledge—it is difficult for the ordinary person to understand how votes have been converted into seats. That important ruling is sometimes forgotten.

There are potential applications, but there are issues that should give us pause for thought. I am thinking in particular of the security and cost considerations.

Professor James

One way of increasing transparency is to use software that has open source availability so that other programmers can check, for example, how the machines tally the votes. There was a discussion about that very issue in New South Wales in Australia.

The Convener

That is good to know.

I want us to move on to the list order effect. I have mentioned the hopefully mythical constituent called Aaron Aardvark. It is important that we talk the issue through, and Gil Paterson has some questions on it.

Gil Paterson

I will begin with a straightforward question. In the list system, is there an advantage to having a name that is higher up the alphabet?

Dr Clark

There are alphabetical advantages on all ballot papers, whether we are talking about first past the post, the single transferable vote or whatever. That has been shown by research. The difficulty that has been raised in Scotland is not one that has affected all parties; it has been raised in relation, in particular, to parties that offer more than one candidate. Specifically, that means that the Scottish National Party and the Labour Party have arguably been affected by the issue. There are effects; what you do about them is less obvious. Robson rotation was talked about at one point, but it is remarkably complex, and we have rowed back from that to far less complex ideas such as drawing straws in wards. That might well be possible.

To reiterate, one of the big difficulties with the 2007 problem, when lots of ballot papers were rejected, lay in the change to the Scottish Parliament ballot papers. Any ballot paper where there has been a reordering or something of that sort needs rigorous testing to ensure that something of that sort does not happen again. I know that the Electoral Commission has been doing some work on that. There is certainly an effect, but my advice would be to proceed with caution. The last thing that we want to do is increase any voter confusion when the issue really only affects a couple of parties.

10:15  



Professor James

I agree that the research shows that alphabetical order has an effect. I agree with the points that Alistair Clark has made about the Scottish context. The Australian workaround is to have a draw—a bit like the FA cup draw—in which we can see exactly who will be located in each position. That is an option. I would add that it would also have an effect on the electoral administrators. Any draw would have to be done quite early, so that they could get ballot papers printed—assuming that we are using a paper system—and the electoral timetable could become very narrow as a result. You have to be mindful of that. The order has an effect, and it is an unfair advantage for, say—I forget the name of the candidate you referred to.

The Convener

Aaron Aardvark.

Gil Paterson

I should have declared an interest, as a person called Paterson who has always been at the back of the queue. I always thought that the order should be determined by the candidate’s first name—but that is another story.

Neil Findlay

Mark Ruskell was kind enough to remind me of the election a few years ago when one party was branded as “Alex Salmond for First Minister” to get priority on the ballot paper. We very much need to address the issue, and it is a serious one, which affects our democracy. We would be neglecting our duty as a committee if we did not at least raise it in our report as a very serious issue that people, including our witnesses, have raised. We should consider how to address it, rather than just skimming over it.

Willie Sullivan

There is an effect, although I would not overplay it and say that it is as much as a threat to our democracy. There is a small effect in local government. I would amplify everything that the other two witnesses have said, in that we have to be careful that the cure is not worse than the problem. There are issues of accessibility and audit, and there is the question of how difficult it will be if there is randomisation of papers to recheck them after the election. Piloting is a good approach.

In Ireland, the parties seem to be much better at vote management, and the order does not seem to be much of an issue. If parties can get their vote management better in some areas, the alphabetisation or list order effect would probably be reduced substantially.

Dr Clark

I agree with what Willie Sullivan has just said. To come back on Neil Findlay’s point, which is an interesting one, the question that arises is whether the Scottish Government should consider randomisation for Scottish Parliament ballot papers, for both the list and the first-past-the-post parts of the system. That is a broader question.

Gil Paterson

There is another aspect to this. Someone might expect the list to be in alphabetical order. The amount of money that is spent on cornflake adverts since the war is phenomenal, but it is the same box and the same message and they keep saying the same thing. How do we get over to the public that you have changed the system and that they might need to look further down the list because they person they are looking for is not at the top of the list where they would normally expect them to be? Maybe I am answering my own question. How do you feel about that aspect for people who have a disability, or for older people who have no disability but throughout whose lives the order has always been alphabetical?

Willie Sullivan

I had a meeting with the Government’s elections unit to talk about that. List order is a big concern for the society and it is a part of the single transferable vote that could cause a problem. Some of the disability organisations expressed concerns about accessibility. We must be careful not to cure the problem with something that affects voters more negatively.

Dr Clark

You can randomise local government ballot papers, and then get the Scottish Government to look at Scottish Parliament ballot papers, but the Scottish Government has no control over UK general election ballot papers, which would still continue to be in alphabetical order. There is therefore still potential for confusion at another level, if not in local government elections.

Professor James

The Electoral Commission did a study on the issue for the Scottish Government that did not find that voters found it difficult to locate the candidates. The committee should probably look at that study.

Maureen Watt

My question follows on from that. Are we not placing too much emphasis on randomisation? People do not normally vote for candidates; they vote for parties. The candidate has very little influence on the outcome. People seek out parties rather than the names of the candidates. When I studied politics way back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a book by someone called Blondel that said that the candidate is probably worth only 1,000 votes. I think that John Curtice would say that the maximum is 3,000 votes. Little has changed in all that time.

Willie Sullivan

That is a good point. The question is whether the voter is getting what they want. Do they just want a representative from a particular party or do they want a particular representative from that party?

Dr Clark

There is a clear effect, but it is worth remembering—and it is an important point—that there are other sources of advantage and disadvantage. One of those might be party and another might be incumbency. People might vote for the local councillor because they know his or her name and he or she has been of service to the community. We just do not know how some of those things would disentangle themselves. Different issues play into all this.

The Convener

Mark Ruskell has questions on the prohibition on voting more than once and on electoral registration in more than one area.

Mark Ruskell

That is pretty much the question. Do you agree with the prohibition on voting in more than one area on one day? Related to that is the whole principle of being on multiple electoral registers. There are a couple of by-elections in Fife today, for example. If you are a young person who grew up in Dunfermline but has moved to Edinburgh, you might want to vote in the council elections here on council election day but, if you were still registered back home in Fife, would you also want to vote in a by-election there on a different day? The principle of being on two electoral registers is one thing; the principle of prohibition against voting early and voting often on election day is something else. Your thoughts on both of those issues would be useful.

Professor James

It is difficult to argue against changing the law so that people cannot vote twice. It is probably a given that that should be amended. The question then is whether anyone who has done so can be easily identified. We have multiple electoral registers, so that is difficult. Many people have advocated a move to single electoral registers as a way of possibly preventing that. I do not think that there is much evidence that that problem is widespread. Two of us on the panel are university lecturers, and we know that our students have a very mixed sense of identity. Some of them have an identity where their university is and others have an identity back home, and it is understandable and right that they are able to choose between them.

Willie Sullivan

I agree. Wales is trialling the use of a single register, so it might be worth looking at how it gets on with that, because such a system would address some of those issues.

Mark Ruskell

Does that system allow people to be registered in different electoral districts or wards? Does it mean that someone has just one place of residence, or can people switch?

Willie Sullivan

I am not entirely sure. I guess that people would be registered in one place. Having a single register does not really address that point.

Professor James

The broader problem is that, in the electoral register in general, there are huge issues with duplicate registrations and accuracy. An even greater issue is that people are missing from the electoral register entirely. Having a single electoral register instead of a patchwork of multiple registers would allow administrators to check for those issues. One proposal is the creation of an “Am I registered?” website to enable people to check online whether they are registered. That would probably need to be UK-wide, so I do not know how such an initiative would be possible in Scotland. Ownership of a person’s individual record is important, because there are major issues in that regard.

Dr Clark

One infrastructural issue feeds into such issues. In Scotland, four different electoral management software systems are used to maintain the electoral register. Getting those systems to talk to one another, so that the things that we have been talking about could happen, would be an important step.

Mark Ruskell

Do you have any other comments on the bill? Is there anything missing from it? In relation to electoral reform, I was particularly struck by what was said about how we deal with by-elections and proportionality. It would be useful to hear any other points that are within the scope of the bill.

Willie Sullivan

The point about by-elections is key. The move to an alternative vote referendum can upset proportionality in wards and councils—in fact, at one point it shifted the administration at Dundee City Council. Everybody who has been involved in a by-election will have seen the unfairness in the representation of one party being completely wiped out because of the weight of another party’s votes in the whole of the ward, as opposed to what would have happened under a proportionality system.

Professor James

I think that two things are missing from the bill, as I said in my written evidence. The first is a complaints process for citizens. A citizen can go through a judicial process to overturn an election result but, in most cases, that is not what they are after. Usually, they just want to flag up an issue or provide useful information for electoral services, so that the election can perhaps be run better next time. The Electoral Management Board for Scotland could run such a process, or the Electoral Commission could have a single point on its website where someone can flag up an issue. There were problems earlier in the year with European Union citizens not being able to vote in the European elections. There was huge confusion about whether it was a case of just a few people making a lot of noise on social media or whether the issue was more widespread. Such a process would help to identify whether there was an issue, so that is something that the committee could recommend.

The other issue is underregistration, which we have already touched on in part. The Electoral Commission’s research identified that between 630,000 and 890,000 Scottish citizens who are eligible to vote are missing from the electoral register. We are looking to change the franchise, and the bill will enable the registration of attainers, who are one of the main groups that are underregistered because of the move to individual electoral registration. Parents used to be able to add them to the electoral register.

The bill does not have any solutions to that problem. I have mentioned some of the written evidence, but the issue could be addressed in schools. Schools could be required to introduce citizenship classes and explain how to register to vote. That could be done periodically or in advance of an election. There are direct ways of trying to automatically register citizens, but there are potential legal and privacy issues to be considered. There is nothing in the bill to fix the problem, so the committee could recommend something to address it.

Dr Clark

Most of my recommendations are in my written evidence, but I want to stress two things, both of which are about the Electoral Commission and the enforcement of electoral law, which has become increasingly important in recent years.

First, the reporting of donations for Scottish Parliament elections is out of sync with what is expected, for example, in a UK general election. Weekly reporting of donations is required in UK general elections, but only quarterly reporting is required for Scottish Parliament elections. There is a strong case, in the interests of transparency, for reporting requirements to be brought into line and certainly for more regular public reporting of donations.

The second point relates to something that the Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations said last week in the debate on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill. He is going to lodge amendments to the bill to allow the Electoral Commission to increase fines from £10,000 to £500,000. There is an argument for trying to get a degree of consistency in relation to referendums and in Scottish electoral law generally.

The Convener

I thank our witnesses—our guests—very much indeed for their attendance. The session has been extremely helpful. We have taken a lot of notes, which we can follow up on.

10:32 Meeting suspended.  



10:34 On resuming—  



The Convener

I thank members and the previous panel for the discussion that we have had so far. I am sure that the next panel discussion will be equally enlightening and helpful.

I welcome Vonnie Sandlan, public affairs manager at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and Revati Campbell, convener of the Scottish Youth Parliament’s equalities and human rights committee. Thank you both for coming in today.

As with the previous discussion, we will not be having an opening statement; we will just go straight to questions, if that is all right with you.

As you will know, Revati, the Scottish Youth Parliament, as part of its response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on electoral reform, asked young people whether they thought that the Scottish Government should introduce electronic voting. From that, do you think that there is support for electronic voting in Scotland?

Revati Campbell (Scottish Youth Parliament)

In our response to the Scottish Government’s consultation, 51 per cent of our respondents supported the idea of having some form of electronic voting. It is interesting that, in another consultation that we conducted, our young people still preferred to vote in person at a polling station. However, electronic voting should be an option.

The main rationale behind having electronic voting was that it would ease the voting process and make it more accessible for people with disabilities, such as those with eyesight problems, those who are quadriplegic and those who have cerebral palsy.

The Convener

This is just guesswork, but do you think that, because the use of electronic machines is much more common now than it ever has been and younger people have more access to computers and electronic machinery and are more used to using them for accessing all sorts of things, electronic voting would become natural, rather than be something that people would have to think a lot about or be trained in?

Revati Campbell

I think that the electronic side of things is more important leading up to an election, as young people can learn more about the political process through that. When it comes to the actual voting, we found that our young people prefer voting in person, because it makes the voting feel more important to them.

The main rationale behind not supporting electronic voting was based on a large lack of trust or confidence in the voting process. We found mass concerns about hacking and what would happen with the votes. One side said that electronic voting would, as I said, make the process more accessible; the other side said that it would not make it more accessible for people who are autistic, for whom it would be overly stimulating and would actually prevent them from voting. That was interesting.

Mark Ruskell

I want to move on to the subject of barriers to people voting. In your written submission, Vonnie, you indicated particular barriers for people with incapacity and trans people. Will you talk through what those barriers are and how we might be able to overcome them?

Vonnie Sandlan (Equality and Human Rights Commission)

Thank you for that question. In our submission, we discussed individuals with incapacity. An issue arose around the pledge that one has to take in registering to vote. An individual may be eligible to vote but another person may have power of attorney for them. The Electoral Commission’s guidance states that the person with power of attorney does not have the right to register the individual to vote. In our opinion, that guidance has perhaps been incorrectly interpreted from the legislation, and we hope to see that matter clarified in a way that seeks to enfranchise people who are deemed to be with incapacity.

The EHRC does not have a particular position on whether implementing electronic voting is or is not a good thing. For any process that is developed, we would want any new systems to be co-designed and co-produced with disabled people to ensure that they are fully accessible. Any system that further enfranchises disabled people would be welcomed by the commission, but it has to take into consideration the points that there is no one state of disability, that disability is a spectrum and that different disabled people experience challenges and barriers in different ways. That has to be given the fullest possible consideration.

Mark Ruskell

What about the barriers for trans people?

Vonnie Sandlan

Sorry—you asked about that as well.

Our written evidence points out that, in the run-up to the 2017 general election, trans people reported difficulties with registering to vote online. That is because trans people who have registered a gender identity certificate or registered themselves in their new identity use their national insurance number for verification, and their national insurance record is then locked for privacy reasons. The rationale for that is admirable, but an unintended consequence is that those individuals have to register in person in order to vote in their new name. For obvious reasons, trans people may not be comfortable talking about their previous name and identity and how that relates to their personality and identity now.

That is just one of those well-intended things that was done in creating a new system to respond effectively to change. The unintended consequence has been to add an extra barrier for trans people. That issue could quite easily be alleviated.

Mark Ruskell

Is there also a barrier for people who are intersex?

Vonnie Sandlan

The particular barrier that we identified is for people who have changed their sex using a gender identity certificate or through self-declaration. I would not want to make a specific reference to intersex people.

Gil Paterson

I am interested in Vonnie Sandlan’s points about power of attorney. How would that work with someone who has no capacity? Who would actually vote? Would it be the person with power of attorney, who could vote for their own preference? In effect, the person with power of attorney would have two votes because, clearly, the person without capacity would not know how to vote.

Vonnie Sandlan

That gets into the specifics of individual cases. It would need to be given serious and thoughtful consideration. As you will know from talking to various adults who are deemed to have incapacity, there is a spectrum. Some people might still be able to make a decision that reflects their beliefs. For others, the person with power of attorney may serve as a proxy voter. In that situation, we would expect that the person with power of attorney would know the wishes and perspectives of the individual sufficiently well to be able to vote for them.

Neil Findlay

I have a question about information for voters and what the best format for that is. When I worked as a teacher, I found that young people were very informed about elections and voting—although I was a modern studies teacher so, obviously, they were interested in the issue. Are there any ways in which we can expand the information that goes out? What would be the best format to help young people—indeed, everyone—to understand issues such as electoral systems and the voting process?

Revati Campbell

The Scottish Youth Parliament has the policy that all secondary schools should have some form of compulsory political classes. That might not necessarily be modern studies classes, but it would be some form of classes to educate young people about political systems and how voting works so that they can make an informed decision. That would be the best way to give young people their first look into engaging with politics. One good approach is to run sessions with youth workers, who know the best way to engage with young people.

We run a mass consultation survey called “What’s your take?”, which is distributed across Scotland. It has found that 58 per cent of young people feel ready to vote at 16 and that those who do not feel ready to vote feel that way purely because of lack of knowledge and competence around the political system. That is why it is really important that young people are educated in the process.

As you said, young people are informed. They have opinions about issues, but applying those to the political system is more of a grey area. They are not 100 per cent sure how to approach that.

10:45  



Mark Ruskell

We are also looking at the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill. In addition to voting rights, should candidacy rights be extended to 16-year-olds? If so, how might that feed into education? People in high schools could stand for election.

Revati Campbell

The Scottish Youth Parliament has a policy on that issue. We believe that candidacy rights should be lowered to 16. If someone can vote at 16, they should be able to stand for election, too. Young people might feel disengaged from politics because they do not feel that their opinions are valued or that they have a say in the process. Lowering the candidacy age would be a big way of showing that you want our input.

Mark Ruskell

Does that view apply across Scottish Parliament and local government elections, or to local government elections only? Are there any arguments about how that could or should be restricted?

Revati Campbell

I do not know what level of elections the policy refers to. I think that local elections are the best option. Through the consultations that members of the Scottish Youth Parliament do in their local authority areas, we find that constituents often have lots of thoughts about their communities. Local elections would be the best elections for young people to get involved in.

The Convener

That is useful. Gil Paterson has a question about allowing voter registration from the age of 14.

Gil Paterson

Yes—it is a fairly straightforward question. The bill proposes that people from the age of 14 should be eligible to be added to the electoral register. What are your thoughts on that? Would that be a benefit? Is that too young an age for registration?

Revati Campbell

I definitely think that that would be a benefit. It would mean that young people could get involved. They would have two years between the ages of 14 and 16 to educate themselves, learn about the process and learn about political parties, what they represent and whether they fit into their ideologies.

Would that encourage young people? That takes me back to what I said previously. If young people do not know about the system, would they be encouraged to register for that? I am not 100 per cent sure about that, but having that as an option is important.

Vonnie Sandlan

The commission does not have a position on early enfranchisement. Age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. As the regulator of that act, we see the value in having that earlier registration for younger people, particularly if they are still in full-time education, given the opportunities that exist in school to empower young people to understand the power of their vote and how to participate in democratic processes. We would support anything that expands the participation of young people in democratic processes.

Gil Paterson

You have second-guessed my next question. Presently, the engagement on elections starts nearer the age of 16. Would that possibly lower the threshold? The engagement process would start at 14, which would give people two years to really think about what it means to vote.

Revati Campbell

Sorry, but could you explain that a bit more?

Gil Paterson

If the age of registration is lowered, people’s engagement with the political process would start at 14 rather than at 16. Perhaps that would not matter in any way.

Revati Campbell

I think that people are engaged even before the age of 14. The age range of members of the Scottish Youth Parliament is 12 to 25. There is also the Children’s Parliament. Young people care about the countries and communities in which they live from a very young age—that does not just start at 14. I hope that that answers your question.

Vonnie Sandlan

Again, the commission does not have a position on that issue. However, over the past few years, schools have talked about rights-respecting schools, embedding pupil democracy and encouraging young people to participate in the life of their school. It is clear from that approach that the political process—and being involved in it—is being introduced to young people outside modern studies classrooms. Any opportunity that supports schools to build on their activity to encourage young people’s participation will be positive.

The Convener

Maureen Watt has some questions about term lengths.

Maureen Watt

The term length of a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament is two years. The purpose of that is probably to get sufficient turnover and to get more people involved. Different legislatures have different term lengths, but they are usually four or five years. Do you have views on what the term length should be?

Vonnie Sandlan

The Equality and Human Rights Commission does not have a particular perspective on what the term length should be. As with any other issue that we would comment on, what is important is how any changes are communicated and how the electorate are involved in the discussions, to make sure that they are fully informed of what those changes will mean for people’s ability to access their democratic rights.

Maureen Watt

I suspect that, in giving that answer, you were coming at the issue from the point of view of voters, but do you have a view on it as an organisation that is consulted by Government—I am not sure whether you are consulted by local government—on policy making? It sometimes takes a long time to work up a bill. Even the consultation can throw up things that had not been thought about by civil servants or the party in question when it was drawing up its manifesto. Often, it is necessary to consult again.

From that point of view, is there an argument for a term length of four years rather than five, or vice versa?

Vonnie Sandlan

I would like to go back and have conservations with colleagues about that. Particularly as we are a Great Britain-wide organisation, our thinking on the issue has not been focused from that perspective.

The calling of an early general election at Westminster has meant that some bills have fallen, so I can understand the appeal of having fixed terms. However, given that this will be the third general election in what would have been a single fixed term, even if we were to have a four or a five-year fixed term, that could still be changed by the party in power or the Opposition parties to enact political change.

I am not sure whether I am answering your question very clearly; I guess that my response would be that the fixed term almost does not matter if it can still be changed during the course of that term.

Maureen Watt

That might say more about whether Governments respect the legislation that they pass.

Revati, what do you think?

Revati Campbell

The Scottish Youth Parliament does not have a strict policy regarding term length. On a personal level, I think that it would be interesting to investigate that issue. As you said, the term length of MSYPs is only two years. It would be interesting to investigate what young people think are the pros and cons of particular term lengths.

One of the main benefits of a term length of two years is the range of experience that people can have, because our age range is from 12 to 25. Someone could become an MSYP at 14 and leave at 16. Committee members will know from experience that those are very different life points and that the people at those different life points will have different life experience, will have made different decisions and will have different perspectives on what they think that communities look like. That is why it is so important that we have a constant turnover of young people. We want to make sure that all young people are represented. When someone leaves the SYP, they will be a different person. By having that constant turnover, we can bring different skill and knowledge sets to the young people in our communities.

The Convener

Thank you very much—that was interesting.

Neil Findlay

That was a very strong point. On the back of that, do you think that there should be restrictions on the number of times that MSPs can stand for re-election? MSYPs do a two-year term, after which they might move on. Do you think that MSPs should be able to do only two or three sessions, as happens in the United States?

Revati Campbell

I could not give the Scottish Youth Parliament’s view on that. I think that the restriction is being implemented in the coming session for MSYPs; we now have a strict two-term limit to ensure that we get sufficient diversity in the people who come in.

On a personal level, I think that there should be such a limit on MSPs, for the same reason. It is necessary to have a constant stream of new ideas coming through Parliament.

The Convener

That brings me on to whether anything else needs to be included in the bill. Does it strike you that anything has not been addressed?

Vonnie Sandlan

In our response to the Scottish Government’s consultation, we said:

“The Commission recommends that the Scottish Government builds on current initiatives and uses the general positive action provisions under s.158 of the Equality Act 2010 to take action to tackle barriers”

to elected office

“and build confidence”,

particularly among women and

“those from all under-represented groups interested in standing for elected office.”

For any system change to maximise participation in democratic processes, we encourage a co-design and co-production approach, which must involve the people whom it will affect. In particular, as I mentioned earlier, it must involve disabled people; people with a spectrum of different impairments must be represented to ensure that all are covered in any future considerations.

On digital inclusion and intergenerational digital approaches, any transition to a new system has to be a gradual one that supports generations that are perhaps not digitally included at the moment, so that we can ensure that they are included in democratic processes in the future.

The Convener

That makes sense.

Revati Campbell

One of the mass views that was expressed by the young people whom we consulted was that all legal residents in Scotland and the UK should be able to vote. I am an Australian citizen and I am allowed to vote because I come from a Commonwealth country, but many immigrants who come to Scotland and the UK are not from Commonwealth countries and, as a result, cannot vote. We have had MSYPs who were refugees or asylum seekers and could not vote. It is ironic that they could be part of an influential body such as the Scottish Youth Parliament, but were not eligible to vote in elections that affected the young people whom they represented.

The Convener

It is interesting to hear your viewpoint on that issue. It is addressed in the franchise bill that we have been working on.

Revati Campbell

On the question about whether 14-year-olds should be able to register, the Scottish Government recently ran a pop-up consultation at the SYP’s October sitting in Dunfermline, and the majority of MSYPs agreed that young people should be able to register at the age of 14 and that that would encourage young people to vote. However, as I said earlier, the majority also agreed that without the education element, registering at 14 might not make that much of a difference.

The Convener

The educational side—understanding the importance of elections and why people should take part in them—is important.

Revati Campbell

The important thing—this falls slightly into Vonnie Sandlan’s remit—is having education not just on the political system, but on bias, diversity and other issues that affect not only the individual. The issues that affect Vonnie are different from those that affect me, for example. It is important that when a voter makes a decision about what political party or candidate to vote for, they think about how it will affect other people and not just themselves.

The Convener

That is worth saying—thank you.

I thank our witnesses. The session has been very useful to us and a number of notes have been taken on the issues that have been brought up. What has been said has also reinforced some things that we have already been thinking about, while bringing in two or three new angles. That was great.

10:58 Meeting continued in private until 11:12.  



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Second meeting transcript

The Convener (Bill Kidd)

I welcome members to the 21st meeting in 2019 of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. Agenda item 1 is the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. Joining us today are Dame Sue Bruce, Andy O’Neill and Bob Posner from the Electoral Commission. We are limited for time today because we have two panels, so we will not take opening statements. I will ask you a couple of joined questions and you could just lead into it from there.

The bill proposes changing the lines of responsibility for the Electoral Commission so that it is accountable to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body for Scottish elections. Could you explain the impact of the proposed changes to the accountability of the Electoral Commission and who it reports to? Do you have any concerns about the proposed changes to accountability and the new reporting arrangements?

Dame Sue Bruce (Electoral Commission)

Thank you for the opportunity to give evidence. We very much welcome the bill and the establishment of formal mechanisms for the Electoral Commission to be directly accountable to the Scottish Parliament. We think that it is important that the Electoral Commission has a direct formal link to Parliament for accountability for its interactions in any of the Scottish elections. Discussions are on-going, which Bob Posner can talk about.

Bob Posner (Electoral Commission)

Since the Electoral Commission was formed in 2000, we have striven to be accountable to Parliament—appearing before committees on policy issues and so forth—but this is a big change because it is about the financial flow of money connected with Scottish elections. As Sue Bruce has said, we very much welcome the change. We have been working hard with parliamentary and Government officials to make it work and work well. The discussions about how to get the formula and the approach right are advanced.

As a body, we will be diligent in making sure that, in the work that we do in Scotland on Scottish elections, we are directly accountable, the money is transparent, we are properly audited, and there is proper scrutiny and oversight. That will be our approach. The board of the commission and I, as the accounting officer, are clear that that is how we will proceed.

The Convener

Do you have any concerns at all about moving to the new system? Should the move be smooth?

Bob Posner

Yes, I think that it will be. You will be aware that we are also moving to direct accountability to the Welsh Assembly for financial matters, so, in effect, we will be facing three Parliaments. Like all public bodies, we will have an annual business plan and a five-year rolling corporate plan. We will need to ensure that our plans reflect the needs and priorities of the three legislatures. If I have a concern—it is positive rather than negative—it is that it will be for us to be alert to the requirement for officials and procedures in all three Parliaments to interact well and efficiently.

Andy O’Neill (Electoral Commission)

Obviously, there are complications in dealing with three legislatures, but we have been working with Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government officials for a number of years to work out how it will work when the legislation commences. I am aware that the corporate bodies have some comments about auditing and finance formulae and such and we are working with others to sort those things out. It is for the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd of the Welsh Assembly and the Speaker’s Committee of the House of Commons to agree the funding formula.

The Electoral Commission is acting as the expert adviser because we know what we do. We are getting to that point. We are very keen to ensure that the provisions in the bill are commenced as soon as possible after the parliamentary process takes place. The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body will want our estimates submission to be with it around September next year for the following financial year. That is a quite important year for you, because it is a year in which the Scottish Parliament election takes place and we do a lot of things around the Scottish Parliament. It would really help us if we could get commencement quite early.

The Convener

That seems to make a lot of sense. If no one else wants to come in at this point, we have a couple of questions from Mark Ruskell.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Good morning, everybody. In your written evidence you say:

“This Bill includes some elements that will improve the reporting of spending at local council elections. We understand that the Scottish Minister will make other changes using his powers under secondary legislation. The Bill does not present a full picture of these changes.”

Are you saying that it is unclear where the balance of primary and secondary legislation will be? Are you clear about what the changes will be, or do you think there needs to be greater clarity at this point?

Bob Posner

To take a specific point, the bill introduces donation controls in the regime for Scottish local elections, and that is a good thing. It modernises those elections and brings them in line with other elections in the United Kingdom. The bill is moving towards doing the same thing on spending controls for candidates, but we are saying there is more to be done there. There are choices about whether it would require primary legislation or whether it is done subsequently through secondary legislation. Quite a lot can be done through secondary legislation, but we are saying that there is more to be done in the bill. As Parliament, presumably you will look at that.

Mark Ruskell

Would it make sense to put it into primary legislation?

Andy O’Neill

We see regulation—particularly of the council elections—as a package, but some of it is in this bill, some of it is in the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, which you are also looking at, and some of it will be in secondary legislation. Some of that secondary legislation will come in what we call the local government elections order, which will likely come in 2021 for the 2022 elections.

We have been making recommendations on some things since the 2012 local government elections. This bill creates donation controls for council elections. Currently, a candidate has to say what money has been spent on but does not have to say where the money came from. That is deficient compared with what happens in elections in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The bill will bring Scotland up to that standard.

The statement of expenses form is in this bill, but there are other things that will need to change. As you know, we provide candidate and party guidance for elections. The candidate guidance for council elections does not have the same status as the guidance in other elections. If you follow our guidance in the Scottish Parliament elections but you do something wrong, it is a defence to say that you followed our guidance. That is not the same for council elections because, although we have produced guidance for those since 2003, we have not done so on a statutory basis; we have done so as an agent through an agreement with the Scottish Executive. That will change via secondary legislation. We understand from the Scottish Government that those things will be in place for the 2022 elections—some things now and some things later. The Scottish Government is committed to doing that, and we hope that it does.

Mark Ruskell

You have described the full picture. Are you content with it?

Andy O’Neill

Yes.

Dame Sue Bruce

Yes.

Bob Posner

Yes, but, as the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, I would say that. As Sue Bruce said, we welcome the bill because it is going in the right direction and it is modernising and reforming. However, if you step back and look at the wider picture of electoral law, you will see a broad consensus that it needs modernising and consolidating. There is a lot to be done. The Scottish Law Commission worked on it with the other law commissions in the UK a few years ago and published an excellent blueprint report. It is quite a long document about how electoral law across the UK could be modernised. We recommend that the Scottish Government keeps that blueprint in mind. One must not think that this is the end of the journey, and I am sure that you do not. There is a lot more to be done to electoral law.

An example of where there is more to be done is spending and donation controls, which are really about transparency for voters and confidence in the legitimacy of the system. There are inconsistencies. The rules require us to publish weekly pre-poll reports on donations. That is happening now in the lead-up to the general election. You might consider that that is a good thing and want to introduce it for the Scottish parliamentary elections. There is a considerable period after elections before the public sees from the parties’ campaigners’ spending returns what was spent. Those periods could be shortened, which would be in everybody’s interests. Plenty can be done. Those are some examples.

The Convener

Thank you. Those replies were helpful.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

In your written evidence, you suggest that the current code of conduct for observers at local government elections should also be used for Scottish Parliament elections. Does the bill not allow for that?

Andy O’Neill

The bill creates a code of conduct for observers at Scottish Parliament elections. We currently have a code for observers for all elections across the UK, apart from Scottish council elections. The code for Scottish council elections was created in the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Act 2011, but the codes are exactly the same. This bill and the Referendums (Scotland) Bill, which another committee is looking at, currently have provisions requiring us to produce another code of conduct. We would have to consult on it, give it to ministers and have it laid in Parliament. It is likely to be exactly the same as the council elections code, so we have suggested that the Finance and Constitution Committee should use the council elections code, suitably amended or expanded if necessary.

We say that there should be the same code for Scottish Parliament elections, so there would be one code for Scottish electoral events and we would have the other code for everywhere else in the UK. Otherwise, things could be quite confusing for observers, who are appointed for three years. A technical point is that we would have to give them two different badges and they would have to remember which badge they had to wear at which event, which seems an unnecessary duplication.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

You feel that consistency would be an advantage?

Andy O’Neill

Yes, it is about consistency. An amendment to that effect to the Referendums (Scotland) Bill has just come out.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Under the bill, would it be the same—

Andy O’Neill

It would be same code for council elections and referendums. We would presumably change its name to the Scottish electoral events code.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I will not get you to comment on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill, but if you had been looking to create a new code and had had to go through a consultation period, how long would it have taken?

Andy O’Neill

From memory of when we brought the code in, about nine months.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Do you have any concerns around the timescale for preparing codes of conduct for Scottish Parliament candidates?

Andy O’Neill

Do you mean a code on spending? Our concern is about being able to deliver it in time for it to be in place well before the Scottish Parliament elections on 6 May 2021. We talk about a six-month rule—the Gould principle. People might think that that means six months before the electoral event, but a candidate or a party needs to know well before that because they have to plan. In this instance, it would be six months before the beginning of the regulated period, which is the first week of January before the May 2021 electoral event. There are two aspects to the timing. We can currently produce a party code. We do not have the ability to produce a candidate code, which this bill would give us. There is no point in doing one without the other. We need the provisions to be commenced as soon as possible so that we can create the code, but the code is also dependent on what is known as the Scottish Parliament elections order, because the code will reference the order. The order is planned to be revised before the 2021 election. It needs to be laid pretty soon, so that we can get the right references into the spending code and give that to ministers to put into Parliament.

09:45  



Jamie Halcro Johnston

What kind of support and advice do you envisage having to give to those who are covered by the code once it is in place?

Andy O’Neill

We try to achieve compliance through guidance. We do so not just by producing tomes of guidance, which you can all see on our website anyway. We offer an advice service, we go to party events, we do drop-in sessions and we have to do it well ahead. That is the key.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Do people engage well?

Andy O’Neill

Yes. Some parties have skilled trainers and do it themselves using our material. Other parties rely on us to do it for them. A lot of candidates who stand as independents come pretty fresh to this, particularly for council elections, which are at the entry level of formal democracy, and they probably need support. The smaller parties probably need more support than the major parties, which have professional staff to advise them.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

We have been discussing the list order effect. Could you talk us through the key findings of the commission’s recent research on ballot paper ordering at local government elections?

Andy O’Neill

The idea of a list order effect has been floating around for a number of years. For instance, in the 2017 local government elections, 81 per cent of the multimember wards—284 wards—had more than one candidate from the same party standing. We looked at the statistics and found that, in 73 per cent of those instances, the candidate for that party whose name was higher up the alphabet received the first preference. If Sue Bruce and I were standing for whatever party, I would get the second preference, even though I might be the better candidate, because she is “Bruce” and I am “O’Neill”.

That is the perception. Actually, we still do not know whether that is true—it is almost impossible to prove—but if you look at the preferential orders, which you can do because they are electronically counted, you can see that, in 82 per cent of Labour votes, 78 per cent of Scottish National Party votes, 68 per cent of Conservative votes and 64 per cent of Liberal Democrat votes, the candidate whose name was higher up the alphabet received the first preference.

You cannot say for certain that the reason why people would vote for Sue Bruce first and me second is that her name is higher up the alphabet than mine—there are millions of other reasons why people vote for particular people—but there is certainly a perception that the view that that is the reason probably has some validity. People worry about it and have thought about alternatives to alphabetic discrimination, as it is sometimes called.

The Scottish Government has indicated that it wants a review. In our report on the 2017 council elections, we said, “Whatever you do, you should test it to ensure that there are no unintended consequences,” and we volunteered to do the testing. In April this year, the Scottish Government asked us to assess the impact of alphabetic listing on voters, to look at the status quo, to consider the issue of drawing the order by lot—that is, using balls or whatever to order the list, which might result in a list that is all over the place—and the issue of adopting an alternating A to Z and Z to A ballot, where the order would be alphabetic on one paper and the reverse of that on another.

We employed Ipsos Mori to do some research with the public across Scotland to ensure that we got the views of voters. We talked with returning officers and deputy returning officers about the administrative impact of the proposals. We asked the political parties whether there was anything to do with campaigning that we needed to be aware of. We also talked to groups representing people with disabilities. In September this year, we published a report, which is in the Scottish Parliament information centre—no doubt many of you will have read it. What we found from the research—which was qualitative not quantitative—was that the ordering of candidates did not have an impact on the voters’ ability to vote for their preferred candidate.

One of the interesting things that we found from in-depth interviews was that many of the interviewees were not aware that the ballot paper was alphabetically ordered before we told them that it was. We talked to representatives of disability organisations, who were concerned that the changes might mean that disabled people would not be able to familiarise themselves with the ballot paper before they came to the polling station. We were told that disabled people quite often learn the order so they know how they are going to vote before they turn up, so adopting an alternating A to Z and Z to A ballot would mean that they would not know which list they would be facing and would have to learn both.

Administrators were confident that they could administer the process, but they wanted prescribed rules, because there are issues of transparency, particularly if we went down the road of using lots. That would probably mean that you would have to extend the election timetable. We got down to the level of thinking about how long it would take to do the pulling of lots and administrators thought that if you had, say, 20 wards with 15 lots per ward, it would take a long time—do the maths.

There was no consensus across the parties. SNP party officials were very keen on the A to Z, Z to A approach, and Liberal Democrats also supported that to a degree. The Conservative Party was for the status quo. The Labour Party and Scottish Greens did not have a view—to be fair, list order does not really have an impact on the Scottish Greens, because they tend not to stand more than one candidate in most places.

Mark Ruskell

Not yet.

Andy O’Neill

We gave the report to the Scottish Government. It is down to the Scottish Government to propose something, which we would expect because the ballot paper is a form attached to the elections order, and that would come sometime in 2021, before the 2022 local government elections.

I am happy to try to answer any questions or write to you on the subject afterwards.

Neil Findlay

Did you say that it was Ipsos Mori that did the research?

Andy O’Neill

Yes.

Neil Findlay

How many people were surveyed?

Andy O’Neill

It was qualitative research. About 112 in-depth interviews took place, all over Scotland. Interviewers met disability groups, people with learning disabilities and suchlike.

Neil Findlay

If people did not know that the ballot paper was alphabetically ordered, but the results showed that, in 70 per cent of those instances—was that the number you said?

Andy O’Neill

It was 73 per cent.

Neil Findlay

So, in 73 per cent of those instances, even if people did not know that the ballot paper was alphabetically ordered, the candidate for a party whose name was higher up the alphabet received the first preferences. That reinforces the list order effect for me. If people are unaware that the order is alphabetical, what they are doing is voting for the first person they see.

Andy O’Neill

Some interviews were conducted using glasses that, essentially, record people’s eye movements. We produced research on that, too, which you can find on our website. What we found was that the majority of voters tend to start at the top of the list and go down until they find the party emblem, then they will look at the party name and then look for the candidate.

Of course, what we are talking about happens only in council elections. In a sense, the solution is to become well known and popular, because people also look at the candidates’ names. There is an issue about the fact that candidates in council elections might be less well-known than parliamentary candidates.

Neil Findlay

Full randomisation would be my solution in order to combat the effect that you have verified. If you are a popular, well-known person, the voter will find you anyway.

Andy O’Neill

We were not asked to look at full randomisation. The Scottish Government asked us to look at two options: order-by-lot and A to Z, Z to A. Although randomisation is not a showstopper, administrators would find it more challenging to administer. Sue Bruce would have to administer it, so she might want to comment at this point.

Neil Findlay

There would be more administration for the people doing the counting.

Andy O’Neill

Yes.

Neil Findlay

I think that that would be the issue.

Andy O’Neill

There would be issues with counting but also with printing, checking and correspondence—all the bureaucracy around an election which, fortunately for them, most people do not know about.

The Convener

Gil Paterson has a follow-up question.

Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

Was any evidence taken about the worth of a candidate? That is, was any account taken of the issue of the extent to which people give their votes to the party and the extent to which an individual attracts votes?

Andy O’Neill

Not in this bit of research, no. It will come down to how popular the candidates are. For instance, the SNP stood two councillors twice in two of the multimember wards in the Western Isles and, on those two occasions, the SNP candidate lower down the ballot paper was elected massively and the other one was not. That will come down to that person being known but, in that case, you are talking about a certain type of community. Of course, it also happens in what you would describe as the central belt. The situation varies around the country. However, it is correct to say that, if you are well kent, the voter will find you.

Gil Paterson

Yes, but if the notion is that there is no effect, you would need to know how many people vote for the party. Randomisation might be confusing, but I wonder if you agree that—

Andy O’Neill

The research looked at how people voted, not at motivation. We did not look at why they voted. Some people were asked to find a specific candidate and we timed their response. The reason why we cannot say that alphabetic discrimination exists as a phenomenon is that we do not know about voters’ motivations when they are voting in the polling booth, because there are many possible motivations.

Gil Paterson

But, to come to a conclusion, that is exactly what we need to know. There is a general opinion in politics that some people give weight to some candidates, no matter how popular they are, and that that is a relatively small figure compared with the number of people who vote for a party. Do you agree that people vote for parties now and not for individuals, so that is where the issue of alphabetical order is relevant? For those people, the first part of the exercise would be finding the party on the ballot paper and, when they find that, they have won the board game.

Andy O’Neill

Yes, in a sense. We hear anecdotally about people choosing candidates because they are higher up the ballot paper. However, if you accept that, on average, where two candidates are standing, 73 per cent of the voters vote for Bruce first rather than O’Neill, and that they arrive at those names by starting at the top and going down the list of parties to find the logo of the party that they want to vote for, and then moving in to allocate their first preference to the party representative who is higher up the ballot paper, that means that 73 per cent are accepting the party ticket and not choosing between the two human beings.

Gil Paterson

Do you agree that the evidence that you presented at the start proves that point? You did not present any evidence that reversed the impression that, in every case, when it came to alphabetical order, the situation is exactly as you have described.

10:00  



Andy O’Neill

I accept that there is likely to be alphabetic discrimination in the process, but you cannot say that for certain because you do not know all the other motivations of the voter. Voters might well be voting for Bruce rather than O’Neill because they know Sue Bruce and think that she is a far better candidate than I am. Various solutions might lessen the effect, but we do not know that either. For instance, if you chose the A to Z, Z to A approach and someone came in and voted alpha-beta for a particular party, you would have to ensure that the next person who wanted to vote for that party would get a different ballot paper, and you do not know that they would, because papers would likely be A to Z or Z to A on the same ballot paper pad. It is a random solution. It probably would not ensure that, if you had two candidates, 50 per cent of votes would go to the first candidate and 50 per cent would go to the other candidate. You would also have the problem that, if you were standing three candidates, one of them would always be in the middle.

Dame Sue Bruce

There is a bit of supposition here. Although statistics suggest that the alphabet rules over the outcome, the findings of the Ipsos Mori research did not back that suggestion up. The findings from the sample who were tested showed that the order did not make any difference, that people did not take longer to find their candidate and that they did not find it more difficult.

There was one area of concern. Groups representing people with disabilities thought that switching names around on the ballot paper might make it more difficult for some people to find what they wanted.

Gil Paterson

I can understand how that could come about, but I think that what is missing here is an understanding of what people do nowadays. There was a time when the name of the candidate would be chalked in big huge signs on the ground because it was against the law to print the party name. Now we print the party name, and I believe that people now go and look for the party, so it would seem sensible to me if the party names were in alphabetical order. This is about fairness and we should be fair to everyone, not just to the public but to the people who stand.

Do you agree that there should be some form of fairness in the system? Democracy should always be fair. You have presented evidence that tells us that, statistically, alphabetical ordering is unfair on some individuals. I already thought that, so I might just be reinforcing my opinion.

Bob Posner

I do not agree that we are drawing that conclusion. Andy O’Neill said that it is a complex equation. A fair summary of our position, as he said at the beginning, is that we should not rush at this, because there is potential for unintended consequences. You talk about unfairness and having a level playing field. If one is going to change a system, one has to think carefully about it. If research tells us one thing, it is that having party names and, now, logos and emblems on ballot papers carries great weight with voters, because that is where peoples’ eyes go first, and other factors—perhaps the name of one particularly well-known candidate—may come into play afterwards. It is a complex equation, and we are saying that, if there is to be change, further research, pilots and thought are needed.

Andy O’Neill

One thing that the research found is that, when we asked voters to find candidates on the ballot paper, they could find them on the status quo paper, the A to Z, Z to A paper and the paper that was ordered by lot. People can find names if they are looking for them. Our primary concern was to ensure that none of the options that we were asked to test confused the electorate.

The Convener

I invite two very short questions from Mark Ruskell and Neil Findlay.

Mark Ruskell

Is the list order factor stronger when two candidates from the same party are close to one another on the ballot paper? I know of one council election in which there were two SNP candidates whose name began with H. Someone who was looking for the SNP probably voted for candidate 1 and then candidate 2, which potentially disadvantaged one of the candidates. I do not know whether you have looked at that sort of thing—people looking for a party and finding two candidates in that party’s slot. Surely, that would have a more pronounced list effect. I do not know whether there is any evidence of that.

Andy O’Neill

There is evidence in the sense that we did a trial with glasses that allow researchers to see where people’s eyes are going. Most people start at the top of the ballot paper, go down the list of parties, find the party logo and find the name. They tend to vote preference 1 for the first name in the party’s list.

Mark Ruskell

First they find the logo, then they start going down the numbers.

Andy O’Neill

We do not know whether there were other motivations—whether they thought H-name 1 was better than H-name 2. We just do not know.

Mark Ruskell

It could have been that.

Neil Findlay

Whether the list runs from A to Z or from Z to A does not have any impact, because the name in the middle stays in the same place no matter what, does it not?

Andy O’Neill

If there are three names.

Neil Findlay

So, we can rule that option out. It does not make any sense. The qualitative research was inconclusive, but the quantitative research evidence—of nearly 75 per cent of the voters—seems pretty conclusive. If any of you were standing for election, would you prefer your name to be Aardvark or Zebedee?

Andy O’Neill

It would depend on whether there were other Zebedees after me.

Neil Findlay

Exactly.

Andy O’Neill

The key takeaway from the research is that in both of the options that we were asked to look at—listing from A to Z and listing from Z to A—voters could find the candidate on the ballot paper.

Neil Findlay

Of course they could find the candidate.

Andy O’Neill

Our primary motivation was to ensure that the system did not disadvantage voters. If they wanted to find a candidate, they could find that candidate.

Neil Findlay

I do not think anybody would dispute the fact that they could find the candidate; what we have to look at is the impact of the list order effect. I think that we need to look further into that.

The Convener

It is a complex matter, and it was useful to hear your views on it.

We now move to electronic voting.

Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

In recent years, you have been evaluating electronic voting. What has been the outcome?

Bob Posner

Electronic voting is very attractive at one level as we move into a digital age. Electronic voting is recognised as a means of voting that will continue to emerge; however, as an organisation, we are still speaking words of caution about it. Examples from comparable democracies around the world suggest that it is probably right to be cautious.

The great disadvantage of electronic voting in comparison with our current system is that it is not transparent. Our current system is great: you can see the votes and what is happening. By definition, electronic voting means that the vote goes into a box somewhere, results come out at the other end and there are issues of confidence and legitimacy—about whether the systems are safe and give the right results—which is a big disadvantage compared with the paper system. Having said that, electronic voting is an accessible means of voting.

We looked at other countries that are experimenting with electronic voting. Australia is an interesting example, as is Estonia. Estonia is a small country where everybody has an identity card and all the people are digitally linked. Electronic voting was introduced with the expectation that people would choose it. However, experience has shown that, at subsequent elections, more and more voters have gone back to the traditional mode. That indicates that, when they have choices, people’s confidence in electronic voting is not that high.

We are speaking words of caution about electronic voting, but we are also saying that it has potential advantages and that it will come in time. We did some pilots a number of years ago. Andy O’Neill may want to comment on those.

Andy O’Neill

There were a number of pilots in England in the early noughties up to 2007, and we carried out independent evaluations. The bill does not ask us to independently evaluate any trials that might be undertaken, but we would like to do that, given that we are the independent Electoral Commission and can offer expertise in the area. We have done it before.

We undertook some evaluation of postal vote pilot testing for the Scottish Government from about 2003 to 2005, but we did not exist in a legal sense in council elections in Scotland until 2011, and we wonder whether that is why there is no provision for us to evaluate electronic voting trials when and if they come.

Tom Mason

Your evidence talks about trying to improve accessibility to electoral events and voter turnout. What do you consider to be the best way to balance the competing demands for increased accessibility and the different methods of voting?

Bob Posner

There is accessibility in the sense of giving the voters different ways to vote.

Tom Mason

Yes.

Bob Posner

Stepping back, there are different systems in comparable democracies. In the UK, we place great weight on postal voting as an alternative as of right, which has advantages and disadvantages. In other democracies, there are different forms of advance voting. Polling stations open in advance of the traditional polling day. In a number of democracies, overseas voters are allowed to vote in local consulates or embassies. We do not offer that option to overseas voters; we rely on postal voting.

People talk about having online voting over the internet or electronic voting machines in polling stations, which is more about having a different means of casting a vote than about creating greater accessibility. I do not think you will find anywhere in the world where there is complete confidence in online voting, but we are beginning to see examples of its being explored, which is probably the right thing to do, albeit with great caution.

It is more interesting to think about whether it would be possible to enable people in the UK to vote more easily. We have 381 separate electoral registers across the whole of the UK, and there is a separate electoral register in Scotland. Wales is proposing to join up those registers and to look at automated registration. If you could join up the electoral registers across the nations of the UK, you would open up all sorts of possibilities.

Would it not be good if I was at one end of the country, not near my home on polling day, but I could go into any polling station and vote? There are some examples of that possibility. Would it not be good if we had joined-up registers and I could register on polling day itself? Canada is a good example of that, because it has joined-up registers.

One of the keys to accessibility is modernising and joining up the UK’s electoral registers. Achieving that would open up options for accessibility.

Dame Sue Bruce

Young people have grown up with digitisation being a common thing and it is attractive to them as we try to encourage them to register, participate and engage with democracy. It also offers an alternative to people who cannot reach polling places. At this stage in the 21st century, it is something that probably should be considered as an option for the longer term, but, as Bob Posner said, the key test is whether people have faith that the system is secure and trustworthy and has integrity. I believe that that would be the main concern of most people.

Gil Paterson

The maximum fine that the Electoral Commission can impose for a breach of the election spending rules currently is £20,000. Last week, we heard from academic experts who agree with the commission that the maximum fine should be raised to £500,000. What impact might that have on people underdeclaring?

10:15  



Bob Posner

There is a range of criminal offences covering aspects of electoral law. If offences are serious enough, they should be looked at in the criminal courts. There is also a civil fines regime covering some less serious offences. We can issue fines up to the current maximum of £20,000 for party and campaign offences. That system has been in place since 2010.

The way that the system has worked in practice is that, quite rightly, most of our fines have been at the lower end of the scale. I think they will always be at the lower end—for example, when, during a campaign, a party gets something slightly wrong and that needs to be pointed out. Many times, we do not fine at all but just point out the breach. Sometimes we apply a low fine of a few hundred pounds or a few thousand pounds. I do not think that that will ever change. That is right, because we do not want to discourage campaigning and participation, and the breach is often not deliberate—the person just does not have the rules right, and they should have the rules right.

At the other end of the scale, there is a lot of money—many millions of pounds—in politics and campaigning. It must be recognised that the prize of elections—winning and being elected—can be tempting, and a lot of organisations are involved now. I am not talking about the main parties, which have a great culture of compliance with the rules in the UK; I am talking about other campaigners who come to an election and other organisations that want to influence how people vote.

There is a lot of money involved in campaigning, and we have seen instances of the rules having been broken. The question for you, as parliamentarians, is whether a fine of £20,000 is sufficient in that context. As the regulator, we do not think it is. There needs to be a higher-level fine—you could pitch it at £500,000 or at whatever amount you think is appropriate—that sits there as a deterrent so that people are less tempted to break the rules or so that, if they do break the rules, the sanction means something. That is the context for our view.

Do you want to add anything to that, Sue?

Dame Sue Bruce

The key point is that it has to be a major deterrent to people breaking the rules in a major way. As Bob Posner says, most of the fines are currently at the lower end. The deterrent would hopefully help people to learn the rules and stick within them. We think that the current maximum fine is at risk of being seen as the cost of doing business for big organisations that can afford to pay it and that, therefore, it is not a deterrent, whereas a larger maximum fine would be. Were that to be made the case under the bill, Scotland would be leading the UK in setting the bar, and that might not be unhelpful.

Tom Mason

I have a quick question. Can parties insure against being fined?

Bob Posner

I do not think so, but I do not know that for sure.

Tom Mason

Would it, in fact, be legal?

Bob Posner

A person can insure against legal costs and so forth, but I do not think they can insure against a fine in any walk of life. I think that I am right in saying that.

It is interesting to take the matter out of politics and regulation of the political rules and to think about regulation in other fields. In the UK, over the past 10 to 20 years, we have seen a trend of enabling regulators to set a level of fine that matters. The top one that we are all aware of is the fine for sharing our personal data, is it not? However, it is interesting to see that, although the Scottish Information Commissioner and the UK Information Commissioner’s Office have been given the power to set fines that mean something, most fines are still at the lower end, where it matters.

In essence, it is about promoting confidence in elections. Imposing a low fine on politicians does seem to beg a question, but we do not want to discourage campaigning.

Gil Paterson

Would you be aiming that fine at election agents or at parties?

Dame Sue Bruce

It would really be aimed at anybody who broke the law, whoever they were.

Bob Posner

Yes. Our absolute priority as a regulator is to get compliance, which is why I alluded to that being one of the good things about UK politics. I know that we have issues, but we do have a culture of compliance with the rules. Compared to some other countries in the world, we have very robust, good elections. The political finance rules are broadly complied with and the political parties work hard at that.

We work hard with all campaigners to help them to comply with the rules, and that includes agents. Agents are a very interesting example in that they are caught in the middle between the local candidate rules and the headquarters and national campaigning rules. I have quite a lot of empathy with agents. If there is one thing that we could all work at, it is helping agents to do their job better and to be more empowered in the system, so that they can control things in their local areas and their work means something. That area could be strengthened.

Gil Paterson

That leads to my next question. At present, there is a financial loss, and I think we can all agree that some of the fines that have been offered up for some heavy spending are like chip money—it is like buying a bag of chips in comparison. A fine of £500,000 would be meaningful, but I wonder whether you have thought about, or had any evidence of, whether the game would change if criminal action were to be taken in respect of declarations that sought to deceive. We are all human—we make mistakes and can spot them—but when parties or individuals set out to deceive, should the matter go to a different area of law?

Bob Posner

There are criminal offences in addition to fines, but the problem with our criminal electoral offences in the UK is that most of them were written 100 years ago. When we talk to prosecuting bodies, the police, the judges and the courts here in Scotland and in the rest of the country, there is a real difficulty because electoral offences are written in rather old language and need to be modernised. In their report, the UK law commissions picked up on the need to take all the electoral law offences and put them in modern criminal law language, so that people can be more readily prosecuted when they breach the law.

However high we set the civil fine, there is currently a gap. If something is serious enough, it should be dealt with in the criminal courts—that sanction should sit there in addition. We do have electoral law regarding data, but it is sometimes quite difficult for prosecutors and police to bring about prosecutions because that law does not quite work in the modern language—the courts struggle with it. There is, therefore, a real need to modernise our criminal law. I commend the pack that was written by the UK law commissions, which has the support of leading criminal lawyers and judges across the country. The law could very easily be modernised, but that would need the time and the will of Parliament. The next phase may be to look at that for your Scottish elections.

Gil Paterson

I take it that, given the recommendations that you are making, you see that as a problem currently.

Bob Posner

Yes, I do.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

In order to impose a fine of whatever size, you have to prove that there has been non-compliance. Do you have sufficient power to gather information if you suspect that there is an issue with compliance? If not, what is the impact of that? If a political party suspects that another party is overspending—perhaps because it has produced five different leaflets in a council election—can you start an investigation in real time or do complainants have to wait until after the election? Do you need to be able to start investigations in real time before leaflets are shredded or whatever?

Bob Posner

As you would expect, we work hard in real time during and in the lead-up to elections to respond where there are concerns and complaints and to avoid the law being broken or, if it is broken, to bring the person back into regulatory line. However, we hit two problems with that. We are not complaining because we are given a good toolbox of investigatory powers but, in practice, over the past 10 years or so, two problems have emerged in how we can regulate and on which other regulators are better placed than we are.

One issue is with our ability to get information quickly in real time, as you alluded to, particularly from other organisations that are involved in the process, such as social media companies or suppliers and providers rather than the organisations or individuals doing the campaigning. For example, at a very low level, we might not have the power to obtain information from a newspaper about who placed an advert without an imprint in it. We have a problem getting hold of information from others quickly and in real time. That is why we have recommended that the bill should expand the power for us to get information from third parties quickly. That would enable us to respond more quickly and investigate. There is a gap there.

The other gap, which I alluded to earlier, relates to financial spend information. Traditionally in the UK, that does not have to be reported to us until well after the electoral event—for the big spend, it is many months after—and that means that a period is built in, with investigations often being opened nine or 12 months after the event has taken place. That does not help confidence in the system. We understand why that was the situation traditionally and that made perfect sense, but we live in a digital age now and certainly the main campaigners—maybe not so much the smaller ones—are doing everything on computer systems. The information is there and it should be possible for it to be available to the public to provide transparency much more quickly, although there is a choice to be made about how much to shorten the periods by and whether to have reporting during an election. That would give the public confidence and would give us the ability to act more swiftly.

Maureen Watt

Will you explain for the benefit of the Official Report which other regulators you share information with and whether there is a problem with sharing that information? How can we speed up the process for you to get the information that you need where there has been a suspected breach of the rules?

Bob Posner

A good example is the use of personal data, which is a direct and topical issue in politics and campaigning. In that example, there is another regulator across the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office, and currently we do not have the power to share data in that context. That is slightly odd. We are gathering information and the Information Commissioner is gathering information, but the Information Commissioner has the power to share data when we do not, which is strange. That presents a slight barrier when we are sharing information.

We work with law enforcement agencies and police authorities across the UK and in Scotland. They often want information from us quickly, and we have to go through a process. We make it work, but there are data protection rules to follow before we can provide information. That is clumsy. An information-sharing power is standard in legislation these days, and a number of regulators in different fields have that. If it occurs to a regulator that it would be useful for another regulator to have data that it has gathered and it makes sense to do so, it is very easy to share that data. Such a power would make the system more efficient.

There are two points about getting information more quickly. We need extra power to require information from others in real time. There also needs to be a sufficient deterrent so that people cannot just say, “No, I won’t.” We need to be able to require the information and get it or to go to court immediately to require it.

There is then the wider issue that I alluded to about how quickly to make transparent the data that major campaigners and major political parties have on not just the money that they are spending but the nature of the spending. That data exists—the campaigners have it and know that they are doing it. Equally, one does not want to cut across the nuances of a particular campaign and how they are campaigning but, rather than transparency later, the core data could be made available virtually immediately to the regulator if the regulator needs it, or it could just be made available to all citizens and the public immediately. One can have a much more transparent system if one wants to. The more transparent one makes it more quickly, the more confident we would all be that our politics is clean and good. Often, we hear about things and there is suspicion but there is nothing to it—in fact, the campaign is not breaking the law but, because nothing is transparent, that cannot be demonstrated. There are benefits in giving confidence.

Maureen Watt

You make a good point at the end there. I would not say that there is an awful lot of confidence in the Electoral Commission when you report what you think is clearly a breach. If the Electoral Commission could have two or three powers that you do not have now to increase confidence in the system, what would they be and are they covered in the bill?

Bob Posner

We have spoken about fines. That is a deterrent and we have the ability to take action, however one pitches that. We have spoken about strengthening our ability to obtain and share information.

We have not focused on digital campaigning. However, we should do so, because so much of the campaigning is now done online and digitally, and increasingly so, and we have no proper rules directed to that nature of campaigning. It seems absurd that, as you know, if you put a leaflet through a door or put something in a newspaper, you have to say who it is from and who is campaigning, so that the voter knows who is trying to influence them, yet online we do not have the equivalent rules.

10:30  



In the Referendums (Scotland) Bill, you have just introduced online controls, and you had such controls for the 2014 referendum. I suggest that you would want that for all Scottish elections. At the very least, you would want transparency on the sources of campaigning online.

Online campaigning needs regulation on top of that. We need powers to regulate online campaigning because otherwise different platforms will do things differently. One platform might ban any political campaigning, which might be a good or a bad thing. Another platform might allow campaigning in a certain way. We will get different approaches from the online platforms, which are run by private companies with different motivations. You probably want some regulatory rules on top of that. Those are our core asks.

Dame Sue Bruce

I support the law commissions’ recommendations that we see what consolidation can be made of Scottish electoral law to strengthen the position here. Obviously, the timetabling of the changes should allow them to come in as effectively and swiftly as possible.

Neil Findlay

Let us take an extreme mythical example of a party pretending that its social media press account was, let us say, a fact-checking organisation. I know that that would never happen in elections in this country, but would you see your organisation potentially having a role in that, given that it was online?

Bob Posner

We are a financial regulator—we regulate the money in politics—and we have always said that we would not want to be a truth commission. It would not be a good idea for anyone to be a truth commission in the UK. Political parties will say what they say and they will campaign to voters. It is about voters understanding who is campaigning towards them, which goes to transparency, and being able to make up their minds about that. We issued a statement yesterday on the issue that Neil Findlay is talking about. We were critical and said that all campaigners must campaign with integrity and transparency.

Neil Findlay

You said that you should have powers for online enforcement, such as fines or whatever. Is that an example of an area where you want enhanced powers?

Bob Posner

The first and most important thing is that voters should know who is campaigning at them. Then there is a question about whether something that is misleading should remain online. You then get into wider areas of online harm. I would not just focus that on politics. There is a much wider regulatory debate about the issue of online harm and the use of online platforms. It does not apply only to us as an organisation. The UK Government and Governments in a number of other democracies, including, I am sure, the Scottish Government, are thinking about the wider issues of online harm in other areas. There is a regulatory position to emerge—I am sure that it will emerge for Scotland and for the UK as a whole—about all online harm, and part of that is what to do about the political aspect.

Neil Findlay

I am sorry to press you on this, but it is important. I understand exactly what you are saying, but I am asking whether you foresee your organisation playing that role in future.

Bob Posner

It is not immediately obvious that we would do that. It would be quite a change from how we stand at the moment. We are a financial regulator. Ultimately, it is a matter for Parliament to decide what it does with its Electoral Commission, but it would be a change.

Neil Findlay

Who would play that role? Would it be Ofcom?

Bob Posner

There are choices about how one approaches that in the UK.

The Convener

You might not want to be the truth commission, but you would not want to be the conciliation commission either, just to mix a couple of words in.

I thank our witnesses for that extremely helpful evidence. If you want to send us any points on issues such as digital imprints, which we have not really covered, we would be grateful for that. I thank Dame Sue Bruce, Bob Posner and Andy O’Neill for their attendance.

I suspend the meeting for a short period, until we get the next panel established.

10:34 Meeting suspended.  



10:36 On resuming—  



The Convener

We are quite tight on time today, unfortunately. If my colleagues have a question, try to get it in and I hope that we will run fine.

This is the second panel under item 1 on the Scottish Electoral (Reforms) Bill. Joining us are Isabel Drummond-Murray, Ailsa Henderson and Ronnie Hinds, all from the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. I welcome you all. As we are a wee bit tight for time, rather than taking an introductory statement, we will move to questions and you can expand on those as we go, if that is okay.

Neil Findlay

My understanding is that there is a proposal to change the name of the organisation. Who does what? Are we creating a new, separate organisation? Will there be two organisations? What is the lie of the land?

Ronnie Hinds (Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland)

We have recently acquired responsibility for doing boundary reviews for the Scottish Parliament as well as local government. Local government has been the focus of our work since the organisation was founded. We recently acquired responsibility for the Scottish Parliament from the national body that previously did that along with the boundaries for Westminster elections.

We are set up to be an independent commission. Ailsa Henderson and I are both members of the commission. We are supported by a secretariat led by Isabel Drummond-Murray. That secretariat supports the Scottish commission and the UK Boundary Commission, which is responsible for the reviews of the UK parliamentary constituencies. The commission shares a secretariat with another commission.

Neil Findlay

I was concerned about duplication and why we would need two organisations. In effect, there is one organisation but two different sets of headed paper. Is that administratively how it works?

Isabel Drummond-Murray (Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland)

There are two separate commissions but one team of civil servants supporting both commissions.

Neil Findlay

We see name changes to organisations in the headlines occasionally because they have to change this, that and the next thing. Will it be a minor issue for you, or is a big administrative change required?

Ronnie Hinds

We do not see it as a major issue. Our submission says that we are open to suggestions for an alternative—suggestions on a postcard, I suppose—but “Boundaries Scotland” is a more succinct summary of what we do.

The name has to change because we are no longer responsible only for local government so our current title cannot be sustained. Something other than “Boundaries Scotland” that captures what we do would be no difficulty to us.

Neil Findlay

You are quite happy with that being the name of the new organisation.

Ronnie Hinds

Yes.

Maureen Watt

I have a supplementary question, convener. You said that the commission now has control of Scottish Government elections, which have been devolved to you from the UK Electoral Commission. How much scope does that give you to change things, or are you still bound by the same rules as the UK commission? For example, could you alter the size of constituencies to take in geographical considerations, island considerations and things like that?

Isabel Drummond-Murray

The legislation governing the reviews has not changed at all; it is just that responsibility has passed to the local government commission to take on what was previously done by the reserved commission.

Maureen Watt

I want to focus on the length of terms. There is a proposal in the bill to move to fixed five-year terms. Will that have an impact on your review schedule? If the term was to remain unaltered at four years, will that also have an effect? What effect will the boundary term have on your work?

Ronnie Hinds

There are two parts to that question. I will try to answer the first part and ask Isabel Drummond-Murray to answer the second. The first part is the question of whether the commission has a view on four-year and five-year terms. Strictly speaking, we are neutral. We will work to whatever terms are determined by the Parliament.

The one qualification that I would add to that is that you will see from our submission that the nature of our work means that it takes quite a period of time to do it properly. Our last set of reviews took just under three years to go through the process from start to finish and produce a report with recommendations and proposals for revised boundaries. Given that, you would expect that five years would give us a bit more headroom for that work. In administrative terms, five-year terms might make our work a little easier but we are not saying that it is a paramount consideration. We could work on either and we have done in the past.

The second part of your question refers to the practicalities of what the bill proposes in relation to how we might move towards, say, a five-year term. Isabel Drummond-Murray can talk about how that would affect the way that we would like to be able to do our work.

Isabel Drummond-Murray

Yes. The bill proposes a 2028 deadline, which is 12 years after we submitted the fifth review in 2016, but whether we move to a five-year term or stay at four years, the 2028 deadline does not fit with maintaining the idea that our proposals can be in place for up to three elections. If we move to five-year terms, we would look to a 15-year deadline. It would not be a target, it would be a deadline. We could review earlier. If we retain four-year terms, we could move to a 12-year deadline, but the current five-year term is slightly out of sync, and so it would need a minor adjustment from the 2028 date that is proposed in the bill.

Tom Mason

I would like to focus on the number of councillors in multimember wards. Do you need the increased flexibility to increase those numbers up to five and possibly down to two?

I notice that the survey shows that you have fairly good consent as to whether that is a good idea, although the survey seemed to be quite small; if I remember rightly, the sample size was approximately 118 people. There is also the impact of changing the number of people in a ward to the proportionality that takes place. May I have your comments on that?

Ronnie Hinds

We welcome the additional flexibility. It makes the key part of our work, which is designing wards that are fit for purpose under the legislation that we work to, a little easier. We could point to examples from the last set of reviews that we did for councils where, if we had had the power, we might have suggested a five-member ward in an area or two. Likewise, we might have come up with a two-member ward.

You have to remember that that is in the context of operating under legislation that simply gave us three and four-member wards, so we were not looking to have five-member wards or two-member wards. Notwithstanding that, we could see occasions when it might have been a good thing to do. Given that under the terms of this legislation we would have a choice between two, three, four and five-member wards, it is conceivable that we might find more instances where five or two members would work.

We welcome the additional flexibility. To answer the specifics of the question, I could not say that we need it because the legislation as it stands has been perfectly satisfactory for the work that we have done, but it would improve our ability to design wards that local people recognised and wanted to be part of if we had other options.

10:45  



Ailsa Henderson (Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland)

There were concerns about community ties being broken last time around, and we know that communities in Scotland come in different shapes and sizes, so the extra flexibility of two-member wards and five-member wards would allow us to capture wards that better capture entire communities within them. At the moment, it is sometimes difficult to use the three-member and four-member wards to do that.

When the minister did not accept some of our recommendations, the point that was made was about the ability of the wards to reflect community ties and boundaries. That extra flexibility would be helpful to us.

It would also recognise that communities are different shapes and sizes and that there are considerable variations in how rural or urban those wards are. Having a variation that runs from two-member to five-member wards also allows us to better tailor those wards. If you are stuck with larger ward sizes and you have very low population density, such as in rural and remote communities or island communities, it is hard to identify wards of a manageable size.

We are working within the definition of effective and convenient local government, which is not defined much more than that, but we are thinking in terms of how voters access their councillors and how councillors undertake their work. Identifying large wards makes that more problematic.

Tom Mason

That leads to my next worry: the operation of multimember wards. As wards get bigger, and there are greater numbers of councillors, who is responsible for what becomes less well defined. Are any surveys being done on the acceptance of multimember wards and the way they work? Your focus is on the boundaries fixing the communities, and not really on taking into account whether people like the idea. Alternative voting systems could be put in place. I am not advocating first past the post necessarily but I admit that, as a city councillor, I know that the operation of multimember wards is problematic in a number of ways.

Ailsa Henderson

We take absolutely no view on the electoral system. We very much work within the rules that we are given. If the electoral system is single transferable vote, we design the wards as best we can for single transferable vote.

On your point about whether there is useful research on the ground, there is not. We have discussed previously how beneficial a body of work would be that looked at how voters interact with the electoral system and interact with their councillors, and how councillor workload is affected by things like district size. To date, there has not been a great wealth of academic research commissioned from practitioners on this.

Ronnie Hinds

The question is well posed. From our point of view, although we welcome the additional flexibility as I said previously, we must recognise that it is a significant step to move from a multimember ward system that offers only the choice of three or four-member wards to one that basically doubles that and says that a ward could have two, three, four or five members.

It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that, under the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, we can have single-member wards in six of the councils. We are currently working with those six councils on that basis. We could therefore quickly reach a situation where we have significantly expanded what we mean by the multimember ward system. What I take to be the point of the question is that that is being done without the benefit of any strong data or research that tells us how the current system has operated since it was implemented.

I am not saying that that is a reason to be fearful of the provisions in the bill, but it is an occasion to ask how much we should know about how multimember wards work in practice. The commission thinks it would be no bad thing for some such research to be carried out.

Tom Mason

Thank you.

The Convener

Jamie Halcro Johnston has a wee back-up question on that point.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

We have talked about community. I am from Orkney, which is covered by the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 with regard to multimember and single-member wards. Communities can sometimes be split up in terms of their representation. The community can stay the same but be lumped in with other areas and, therefore, if there is a boundary change and the group that they are lumped in with changes, the individual councillors might change at every election. How do you balance that? Voters like to know who their local councillor is. They might want to stay part of a group that has a familiar group of councillors. How do you balance that?

Ronnie Hinds

Yes. Others will also contribute but my short answer is that we would do it with some difficulty. That is one of the reasons why we welcome the additional flexibility proposed in the bill.

Essentially, in those terms, we need to seek some appropriate balance. On the one hand, the paramount consideration in the founding legislation is parity, which means that more or less, within a given council area, each elector’s vote counts for the same as every other elector’s vote so that there is no massive disparity within a council area in the ratio between those who are represented and those who are elected to represent them. However, on the other hand, we also have to recognise the importance of local ties, as the legislation puts it, and community more widely, as Jamie Halcro Johnston’s question put it, and we seek to do that. The additional flexibility helps but it does not change the fundamental proposition that we have to manage to do that.

The other helpful thing inherent in the bill is that, subject to one or two amendments that we would like to see, it gives us the opportunity to engage more fully with the local council and the communities that make up the council area so that we get more time for dialogue with people about what it means to be a member of a community; that is in the eye of the beholder. We can try to understand what people feel strongly about and how we can best take account of that when we are trying to design ward boundaries around the legislative framework. The idea of having rolling reviews and time to be doing a smaller number of councils than all 32 local authorities in Scotland at once is an important component of the legislation. That would also help us to strike an appropriate balance between parity on the one hand and community identity on the other. Others might want to come in on that.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Might that be to do with engaging with community councils in particular?

Ronnie Hinds

We are seeking to do that with the six councils that are covered by the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. Recently, on Shetland, we met most of the chairs of the community councils to hear first hand what community means to them.

Ailsa Henderson

In keeping with the spirit of an absence of disruption, that was the initial principle behind having a 12-year upper limit for the reviews, so that if there is a four-year electoral term, the boundaries would be in place for three electoral terms. That would be another argument for moving from 12 to 15 years if a five-year electoral term is used, because it means you are not changing boundaries after every single election. That would mean stability in the ward boundaries, but not necessarily stability in the elected councillors, because of course they could change at any election even if the ward boundaries are the same.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I guess it was just that I have known councillors. My father was a councillor when there were only single-member wards, and he was moved constantly because the boundary effectively changed. He almost moved across seats so that he could stay within our community. It was just that aspect that was of interest. Thank you.

The Convener

Thank you, Jamie. You have covered the issue of rolling reviews, which I was going to ask about.

Gil Paterson will ask the next question.

Gil Paterson

Do you have any concerns about the proposal to subject certain Local Government Boundary Commission changes to enhanced parliamentary scrutiny through orders that would be subject to the affirmative procedure?

Ronnie Hinds

No, we do not have concerns about that. Ailsa Henderson has already alluded to the process that governed the proposals that emerged from the most recent set of reviews, which is subject to ministerial decision. We think that it is appropriate that Parliament should have that role, and we welcome the scrutiny that Parliament would bring to bear on our work. However, as the committee will know from our submission, we are at pains to stress the independence of the work that we do and the fundamental importance of that for the democratic system within which we work.

We would welcome scrutiny by parliamentarians that added value to the work that we seek to do. Who knows how that will work out in practice? It is not for the commission to suggest to the Parliament how to exercise its scrutiny. We would not do that, but we would expect that, if the Parliament were to take an interest in the proposals that we had made for a particular council area, that might happen partly because that council or the communities in that area had a view on the matter, and I think that that would be fair grist to the mill.

I anticipate that you would come back to us on specific elements of our proposals, because that would be constructive and helpful to us in following the process that is set out in the bill to engage in some further reflection and to carry out a further review against that. We would be looking for quite specific feedback on an area such as—to pick one at random—the Borders, along the lines, “In this part of the Borders, we think that that might not be the best possible fit for community interests.” We could take that away and work with it. We would hope to get out of that process something that helped us to move our work on.

In overall terms, to answer your question, we have absolutely no problem with parliamentary scrutiny. I think that it is capable of adding value to our work.

Gil Paterson

Good. Thank you for that.

The Convener

That was very helpful. You have given answers to questions without them being asked. [Laughter.] Seriously, that was really useful.

Maureen Watt

I have a question about the advertising of proposals for Scottish Parliament boundary changes. Would removing the requirement to publish such proposals in local newspapers have advantages? Is that just yesterday’s form of communication?

Isabel Drummond-Murray

I think that the problem with the Scottish Parliament legislation is that it is inflexible, whereas in local government we advertise as we see fit. For Scottish Parliament boundary changes, the legislation requires not only that we publish notices in at least one newspaper that circulates in each constituency, but that that notice should describe the effect of the change. It is not even enough to have a notice that says, “Go and look at the website.” That means that the process is very expensive. In the first review, my predecessors went down the route of putting in maps, and I think that it cost more than £500,000 in total.

We think that more flexibility would mean that we could choose to do that if we thought that it would be helpful in a particular area but, equally, if we thought that using social media or putting the money into other sorts of advertising would be more worth while, we would be able to do that. It is not necessarily a question of saving money; it is about our having the flexibility to use money that we have in the publicity budget in the best way possible. There is some evidence that local newspaper circulation is down on where it would have been at the time that the legislation was introduced. I do not know that I can definitely say that people do not look at public notices in the press—I am sure that some people do—but I think that we could use a wider range of publicity measures, which might include public notices in papers.

Maureen Watt

Have you set out a plan for the sort of communication strategy that you would want?

Isabel Drummond-Murray

We have not quite done that yet. We are trying different things with the islands reviews. Ronnie Hinds mentioned the benefit of being able to review a small number of councils at one time, which is that we can try things out. We are using social media, which, for us, is breaking new ground, but it is early days. By the time we come to the next Scottish Parliament review, we would expect to have come up with a plan for how best to communicate, but we are not quite at that point yet.

Ailsa Henderson

We have used a range of different methods in the council areas that we are looking at now. That will allow us to figure out which ones are most effective from the point of view of the responses that we get in. We are at a very early stage but, so far, the new methods have resulted in a doubling of submissions, so we think that we are on to something.

Maureen Watt

That is good.

The Convener

Is there anything that is not in the bill that you think is a matter of importance for electoral reform or administration in Scotland? Is there anything that you think needs to be pressed that is not already being proposed?

Ronnie Hinds

While my colleagues reflect on that, this is not something that is not in the bill, but I reiterate the point that was made earlier about the practicalities of achieving the policy intention of the bill as expressed in the policy memorandum; the expression “rolling reviews” is the one that comes to mind.

We would like the opportunity to follow the same kind of more engaged process that we can follow at the moment with the six island councils to be expanded to the whole of Scotland. As matters stand, if we move to five-year terms and do not change the provisions in the bill for having an upper ceiling of 12 years between reviews, it will not achieve in practice what I think the bill is trying to achieve in theory. That is quite an important issue for us. That is not something that is missing from the bill, but it is not stated in a way that we think would achieve the objective.

Now that I have filibustered a wee bit, maybe my colleagues—

11:00  



Ailsa Henderson

I would agree with that. An adjustment to 15 years for reviews, if five-year electoral terms are used, would be helpful. That would mean that the boundaries were designed for three electoral terms, which would be useful, because it would minimise disruption. It would also give us the opportunity to look at a certain number of councils at a time rather than all 32 at the same time. That would mean that there would be more capacity for consultation, more engagement with community councils, different city strategies and so on. It would allow us to tailor things and to get it right.

The Convener

So you are saying that the issue is one of practicalities. If five-year terms are adopted, for it to work, the rolling programme would have to go up to 15 years, would it not?

Ailsa Henderson

Yes. We are talking about multiples of electoral terms—that is to say, three electoral terms. If it is a four-year term, it should be a 12-year period. If it is a five-year term, it should be a 15-year period.

The Convener

Thank you very much. The depth of your replies has been extremely encouraging but, as I said to the first panel, if anything at all comes to mind that you think that we have not covered today, we would be very pleased to hear from you. Your evidence has been extremely helpful.

I thank Ronnie Hinds, Isabel Drummond-Murray and Ailsa Henderson very much for their attendance.

11:01 Meeting continued in private until 11:27.  



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Third meeting transcript

The Convener (Bill Kidd)

I thank everyone for attending the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 22nd meeting in 2019.

Under agenda item 1, we will take evidence on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. We have with us Pete Wildman from the Scottish Assessors Association and Malcom Burr, who is representing the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. I welcome both of you.

You will probably be relieved to hear that you do not need to make an opening statement. We will go straight to questions, and you can develop your answers as you go along—in concert, if necessary.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Good morning, gentlemen. In previous meetings, the committee heard that combining electoral events can cause voter confusion. I find that issue quite difficult because, in some countries, there are votes for the President, the Parliament and local government all at the same time. I wonder whether that is because we use different electoral systems. From an administrative perspective, which is where you are coming from, is it important to decouple electoral events? If so, why?

Malcolm Burr (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Electoral Management Board for Scotland)

Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to join you. As you have noted, convener, I am representing two organisations.

The evidence seems to be—I think that it followed the 2007 elections—that combining elections is undesirable on the ground of the best interests of the voter. I tend to share Maureen Watt’s view: I do not see why that should be the case. In my view, voters are always clear where contests are separate, which is hardly unknown, and by-elections are often combined with general or parliamentary elections without detriment to either.

Administratively, combining elections is certainly more complex. It inevitably increases the risk of something not going quite right, and there is an argument—it is not for me to say whether it is correct—that one election is diminished by the presence of the other. Inevitably, that would be seen to be the local election. It tends to get consumed by national issues, which is detrimental to the process as a whole.

Pete Wildman (Scottish Assessors Association)

From an electoral registration viewpoint, it will depend on whether there are differing franchises. If a parliamentary election was run with a local government-type franchise, we would have to produce two different registers for the polling stations. We would have to do that anyway, but there would be the risk of confusion over who can vote in which election.

Maureen Watt

If there was a general election and a local government election.

Pete Wildman

Yes. In any election, there would be a combined register, because some people would be able to vote in one election and not in the other, so there would have to be a clear—

Maureen Watt

It is the same register in Scottish Parliament elections and local government elections.

Pete Wildman

It is. It would be the same register.

Maureen Watt

Is there a benefit to electoral administrators in having a well-established schedule of electoral events that is known years in advance? You have that, more or less, for Scottish Parliament elections, for example. What are the consequences for you and your members of an unscheduled electoral event such as the one at the moment?

Malcolm Burr

As ever, we will cope. Thankfully, the support mechanisms, including the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, are well established and are well used to supporting snap elections, which are perhaps inevitable. However, a clear schedule of elections is of great benefit to the process.

I go back to the Gould report following the 2007 elections. Ron Gould strongly recommended that no changes be made to electoral law or practice less than six months from the date of a poll. When there are unscheduled elections, it is inevitable that changes come at short notice. We manage that, but it increases risk and leads to uncertainty for everyone—voters, candidates and parties. Therefore, wherever possible, a schedule is greatly preferred.

Pete Wildman

I back that up. A schedule reduces the pressure as we deliver the election, produce the registers, get registration through and work with printers on uploads of data, because it provides time to consider all that and messaging. It is not that it cannot be done—we can deliver elections at short notice if need be—but the risks and pressures are slightly higher.

Maureen Watt

Does it make any difference to you whether the electoral cycle is four years or five years?

Malcolm Burr

Not really. The point is to have a schedule that is known in advance. Whether four-year or five-year terms are preferred is a policy decision.

Maureen Watt

Does it make any difference to you as local government representatives whether terms are for four or five years?

Malcolm Burr

We have had experience of both. The term is officially four years, but the past three terms have been five-year ones. The arguments are well known. If there is a four-year term, there is quicker accountability; if there is a five-year term, there is, arguably, a longer period to develop policy, consult and engage. It is a matter of political judgment.

The Convener

The potential postponement of Scottish Parliament general elections is linked to that to some degree. The bill would enable the Presiding Officer to propose a date for a Scottish Parliament general election if the Parliament was already dissolved. Is it important that such a provision is included? In what circumstances do you envisage that it might be needed?

Malcolm Burr

We support the provision, simply because there needs to be some provision for events that are hard to foresee, such as public health emergencies. The example that we mentioned in our response was a flu pandemic. If there is advice that people should not go about and make contact with one another, it would clearly be detrimental to the electoral process were we still required to run an election. That would likely affect turnout and would certainly be off-putting for everybody concerned. For example, could people campaign? That would be detrimental to the whole process, so it is right that there should be a process to postpone. Obviously, we want the EMB, the Electoral Commission and everybody else who is involved to be consulted about that, but it seems strange that there is no such provision at the moment. We would welcome that.

The Convener

Are you planning for such eventualities now, or will you do so at any point? Do you have to wait until you can see that those circumstances are coming, or should such matters be planned longer term in order for you to be prepared for such an eventuality?

Malcolm Burr

If the bill becomes law, I hope that we would meet the Presiding Officer and set up a process that we could take off the shelf if it should be required.

The Convener

I was involved with the two elections in 2007, and the people whom I spoke to at Glasgow City Council thought that they were carrying quite a heavy burden.

Pete Wildman

Circumstances spring to my mind. I was involved in the Clackmannanshire by-election in the March when the beast from the east brought really bad weather conditions. In such circumstances, it may be sensible to postpone the poll. One could see the mechanism that Malcolm Burr outlined being used in a situation in which, at the last minute, just ahead of an election, one realises that there are particular issues.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Is the phenomenon of voting early and voting often particularly widespread in local elections? What do you estimate the level of fraud is?

Pete Wildman

If it concerns registration, that is probably a question for Malcolm Burr, as a returning officer. If you are talking about impersonation and people voting more than once in an area, my understanding is that such instances of electoral fraud are very low. I am not aware that that is a significant issue.

Malcolm Burr

That is indeed the position. Thankfully, we have very few cases.

Mark Ruskell

What about multiple voting and people being on different registers, perhaps for legitimate reasons? Somebody might be moving or might be at university, or they might have a job in one place and live in another, and they might be on multiple registers. Is multiple voting quite widespread in such situations? People may be legitimately on the register in two separate places.

Pete Wildman

I am not aware that that has been reported as a significant issue.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Good morning. The bill will not stop people being registered in a number of registers. Are there situations in which you can see a reason for people voting in two different council areas?

Malcolm Burr

It is a policy choice. Legally and in principle, the contests are separate, and a person can legitimately be on two registers. Two local government elections are clearly separate contests. Perhaps there is something about having more than one vote that goes against the grain emotionally, but it is purely a matter of policy choice, and people can be legitimately resident in more than one place. Students are a good example in that context. I will defer to my colleague on how that is managed.

Pete Wildman may also want to comment on how things would be managed should there be a wish for that not to be the case and on whether we would need a different system of registration that is available to polling staff. There are a number of practical considerations, but whether it is felt to be right that people can vote more than once is effectively a policy choice. However, the contests are separate.

Mark Ruskell

If people could register on only one register, would that improve accuracy?

Malcolm Burr

That provision would clearly be necessary under the current system.

Pete Wildman

To tie into some of the arguments about completeness, if completeness is measured against the census population, a lot of the census work is done when universities are sitting. In practice, students do not always register at universities. From the anecdotal evidence that we have, they register at and connect more closely to their home address, although they have the option to register at both addresses.

Student registration at university addresses tends to be relatively low. That reflects students’ connection to their home and their understanding of their home politics. That is from anecdotal evidence. I do not have empirical evidence to back that up, but that is what we hear as registration officers.

09:45  



Mark Ruskell

Another issue is that of people failing to register at all. If a student is not in at the time, someone else could fill in the form. The person is not resident at their home at that point, but the university might not be helping students to register either, and people might fall between the gaps.

Pete Wildman

Universities across Scotland are helpful. We are supplied with full lists of all the students who are resident, along with their email addresses. We email and advise the students. In my area, in the past month, the University of Stirling has issued three emails to all its students inviting them to register to vote. However, registration levels are still relatively low. There have probably been about 600 on campus.

Mark Ruskell

That is an interesting case in point. I remember, having looked at the electoral roll, that the number of students on campus who were registered for the European elections was incredibly low, considering the several thousand students who are there.

Pete Wildman

We attend freshers fair, and we promote those things. At the end of the day, it is a voluntary system.

Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

Will you detail what qualifies someone to be able to vote in two or more different places? Is there a limit to where and the number of times people can register?

Pete Wildman

I will let Malcolm Burr answer on the voting side, but the position on registration in Scotland, based on case law, is that students can register twice, at their home address and at their term-time address. For other residents, it is based on where they carry out their main business of life. If someone’s main business of life is in one place, they can register only at that one place. In certain circumstances, it is held that people can register in two places, because of the nature of their business of life. For example, there was a case involving an MP who carried on their duties as an MP in one area and was a lawyer in another area. It depends on the facts as to whether someone can register in that way. However, most people tend to have only one place where they carry on their main business of life.

Gil Paterson

So we are primarily just talking about students.

Pete Wildman

Yes. There will be others, but their numbers are relatively low. Certainly in Scotland, it is mainly students who register twice.

Gil Paterson

So having another home somewhere does not qualify people in any way.

Pete Wildman

No, not if it is just a holiday home and is not used.

Gil Paterson

Do I take it from what you have said that people can register in only two places and not in multiple places?

Pete Wildman

That is right.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Will you repeat the point about where people have their main business?

Pete Wildman

The case law basically focuses on where people carry out their main business of life. That is something that we would ask people to evidence. Technically, somebody could perhaps register in three places. Some people have three residences, spend equal amounts of time in those three residences and carry out substantial activity there. That scenario is not impossible, but it is very unusual. The number of people who do that is very low.

Neil Findlay

It is interesting that you mentioned a member of Parliament. Some MPs have five jobs, so I wonder how many times they would have to register.

The Convener

Thank you—that was interesting.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

The bill proposes allowing all 14-year-olds to register as attainers. Are you supportive of that? Is the current system overburdensome? What are the advantages?

Pete Wildman

The current system dates back to when the register was made up once a year. It was based on where people lived on 10 October, and it did not change during the course of the year. It depended on people reaching voting age in the December following the year in which the register was published. The legislation is incredibly complex. As at 30 November in any year, very few 14-year-olds can register, because they will not be turning 16 in the period from that December through to the following November. However, as soon as we go past that on to 1 December, most 14-year-olds can register, as they will turn 16 in the following 12 months.

That is an incredibly complex message to get out. The form says that if you are 14 or over you can register to vote, so we will get people adding 14-year-olds to the register and we will have to write back saying, “Actually, you’re too young,” so their first engagement with us will be our knocking them back. It is a lot easier for all of us who are involved in public engagement to simply say that those who are 14 can go on the register as attainers, although they cannot vote until they are 16. That makes engagement and messaging a lot easier and avoids confusion. That is the heart of it. We want it to be clear and easy for people to understand when they can register and when they cannot.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

You do not see any issues that those 14-year-olds may feel that they are entitled to vote because they have been told that they are on the register?

Pete Wildman

No. It is clear that they cannot vote until they are 16. The messaging that goes on around elections is very specific.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

We touched on the issue with students, but do younger people take up the invitation to register to vote? Will that longer timeframe encourage more take-up?

Pete Wildman

It allows more time. If we were to set the age at 15, the danger would be that, when the annual canvass came around, someone who was 14 years and 11 months would not put their name on and, by the time it came round next time and they were 15 years and 11 months, it would be too tight. So 14 is the logical age from a practical viewpoint.

I am sorry, but I lost your question there.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I was just asking whether you expect more people registering to vote.

Pete Wildman

I would just say that, compared to someone my age, for someone who is 14, a year, two years or three years is a large proportion of their life. There will be engagement ahead of elections. Ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021, when 16-year-olds can vote, we will get engagement. That will be relatively straightforward, as anybody under 16 is in some form of full-time education, so we can message and target them effectively. Schools have a big role to play in promoting awareness and understanding, and there is evidence to suggest that, if we can get people to vote at 16, they understand the process and will vote later on.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

How many people will be added to the register as a result?

Pete Wildman

I do not know off the top of my head, but I could come back with a figure. As I said, the number of young people who can register will vary during the course of the year.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

On the use of the data, will political parties and others be able to engage with the young people who are on the register, or is there protection?

Pete Wildman

There is protection. The data on 14 and 15-year-olds is not disclosed. The only exception to that is in the run-up to an election, when candidates and political parties will get the details of 15-year-olds who will be 16 by polling day. It is quite a small subset of 15-year-olds, and even then the attainment ages do not appear on the register, so those people will not know who is 16.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

So there is that protection.

Mr Burr, are there any issues with the proposal from a practical local authority point of view?

Malcolm Burr

No. We are supportive of the proposal as a way of improving participation in the process and better preparing ourselves and potential electors.

Neil Findlay

On widening participation and the accessibility of the process, what changes do we need to make to ensure that we make voting as widely accessible as possible?

Malcolm Burr

We do relatively well in encouraging participation, and the previous question concerned another means of doing that. The EMB is keen to see provision for piloting of other voting methods. There is a lot of evidence out there, from many countries, which is sometimes positive and sometimes negative. There is certainly interest in electronic voting. I could go on and on about the issues that are involved in that, but I shall not unless you ask me to. Suffice to say that the bill gives us exactly what we are looking for, which is the authority to conduct electronic voting pilots and analyse their results. That is a good way forward.

Neil Findlay

I will ask you to go on and on in a minute but, on the accessibility issues, has research and analysis been done on the participation rate of, say, people with disabilities, black and minority ethnic members of the community or other minorities compared to that of the general population?

Malcolm Burr

It has, although not by the EMB. The Electoral Commission has conducted extensive work on participation rates and, of course, it has done specific work on the ordering of the ballot paper, which has been illuminating. Such research would be a key element of any pilot and any evaluation of a pilot of other means of voting.

Neil Findlay

What is your view on all-postal voting?

Malcolm Burr

It is best to have a mixed system. One benefit of postal voting is that it gives maximum accessibility and convenience to the voter. Inevitably, the one aspect that one cannot be sure of is that the voter is voting in a secure, safe and threat or reward-free environment.

It is interesting that, in the evidence from Estonia, which is probably the most advanced European state on electronic voting, there seems to be a trend back to people going to a central place to cast their vote. A lot of people will want to do that, and it is right that they should have the opportunity. Personally, I would not be keen on an all-postal election.

Pete Wildman

It is important to give people choices as to how they wish to vote. Ahead of the independence referendum in 2014—certainly in my local area—we saw people cancelling their postal vote because they wanted to vote in person and to feel that they were taking part. It can come down to emotive issues.

Neil Findlay

What are your views on the pros and cons of electronic voting? Obviously, security is the issue that has been raised time and again. Countries across the world are using electronic voting to varying degrees of success. Questions on the integrity of the process are obviously the main concerns. I would be interested to hear your views.

Malcolm Burr

The EMB starts from the point of view that the voter is at the heart of the process, and it is critically important that there is confidence in whatever system or systems we adopt. The EMB uses as a strapline this phrase:

“to deliver a result that will be trusted as accurate”.

As you say, many doubts are raised about how electronic voting systems can be influenced and abused, and some of that is impossible to prove; one is genuinely being asked to prove that something has not happened, which is pretty difficult if there is no evidence that it has. However, doing things electronically is part of life now, and the demand for it is likely to increase.

This question involves a matter of policy, but my personal view is that, in order to ensure the security and safety of the voter and that the vote is as influence free as it can be, even if people are voting electronically, they should go to a central point to do so—that central point could be in a place that people frequent often.

However, there must be confidence in the process. Before we take any steps, we must conduct the pilots. Perhaps even before we do so, we should commission some research about how confident people would feel about voting by a particular means.

Electronic voting is certainly efficient and could, conceivably, reduce the cost of the electoral process—that is always a factor, although it is not the primary factor. It is also increasingly how people expect to conduct their public business.

10:00  



Maureen Watt

I do not know about the Western Isles, Mr Burr, but I know that some islands in Shetland have all-postal voting. Is the turnout higher when that is the case?

Malcolm Burr

Casting my mind back to my days in Orkney, where some of the islands have all-postal voting—I think that even more have it now—the turnout was certainly high, but I cannot remember the statistics. In general, the turnout for postal voters is higher than the rate at polling stations. There is no doubt about that.

Maureen Watt

Your written evidence indicates that the various organisations that you represent are supportive of extending the remit of the Electoral Management Board. Will you say a little about the informal work that the EMB has done to date for Scottish Parliament elections, and explain why a formal role at those elections would be beneficial?

Malcolm Burr

Yes, I am happy to do that. Of course, I should declare an interest, as I am the convener of the EMB.

At the moment, as you know, our statutory remit is for local government elections. You might think that I would say this—thankfully, others have given evidence in support of what the EMB does—but we have become the repository of advice and guidance, promoters of good practice and providers of support to the electoral community in the delivery of all elections in Scotland. The election that is currently in progress is no different—people are looking for support. We do not give directions, of course; we just give recommendations in respect of elections other than local government elections.

We are the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. We are established under an act of this Parliament, so it makes sense that the work that we do for local government elections in Scotland should be extended to Scottish Parliament elections. That is a natural progression, and it is almost assumed—certainly by the electoral community—that we will have that role. It is a role that we will be happy to take on, provided that the resources are there for us to deliver it.

Maureen Watt

We understand that some agreement has already been reached with the Scottish Government on the funds that will be required for the EMB’s enhanced remit. Are the funds sufficient? You will probably say no. Are there any other resource requirements that you wish to highlight?

Malcolm Burr

The EMB has always operated at minimal cost. My predecessor as convener and I are not interested in offices, brass plaques or highly expensive accoutrements. Our work takes a lot of voluntary effort. I have a very tolerant council as regards the amount of time that is required to carry out the role’s duties—in that sense, they are voluntary.

All that I would be looking for is an open ear to requests for financial support for, say, the backfilling of posts in councils or other bodies so that we can undertake the work of the board. That is all. We have a harmonious relationship with the Government on our funding, which is minimal. It is about £120,000, which is not expensive, given the importance of the function that we perform. As I said, I would be looking for an open ear to further requests on a business-case basis.

Gil Paterson

Do you have any comments on the proposals in the bill that would affect the operation of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland? Are there administrative consequences to boundary changes?

Malcolm Burr

We have stated very strongly that the determination of boundaries should be done according to the same principles as other elements of the delivery of elections—that is, that it should be done in a transparent and independent way, but that those responsible for it should not be directly accountable through the political process. The bill preserves those principles. We are generally supportive of its contents, including the proposed freedom to extend the electoral wards where that is thought to be necessary.

I come back to what Gould said about the six-month period. As long as the process is conducted according to a schedule and with sufficient time to enable our registration colleagues to work with it effectively, we think that the current system and what is proposed in the bill meet those fundamental requirements.

Pete Wildman

I agree with that point. It is important that we have time to amend the registers and implement any reviews ahead of an electoral event. A fair amount of work is involved in recasting ward boundaries and so on, and ensuring that all properties are within the correct wards is a fairly intensive process. Therefore we would want to know about that at least six months in advance of any electoral event.

Gil Paterson

Will you comment on the bill’s proposal that we should increase the number of councillors in particular wards? Would an increase from two-member to five-member wards have any consequences for you?

Malcolm Burr

Not really. Wearing one of my other hats, I remind the committee that, along with Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and others, my council promoted the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, which, as members will know, allows for even one-member wards in exceptional circumstances. SOLACE also supported there being such flexibility. However, we have to recognise that there must be a balance between local representation and natural communities and, of course, political balance—because the fewer members per ward, the less proportionality there is—and it is important that that principle be maintained.

Under the three or four-member system some wards are simply so big that it might be argued—although it could not be proved—that it is discouraging to candidates. Such flexibility at that end is particularly welcome—and not just for the islands. Similarly, if a town has a population level such that a ward would comfortably accommodate five members rather than four, it would seem pointless to shave off a part of it simply to preserve numerical parity. Therefore such flexibility is to be welcomed—it would be welcomed by local authorities, too.

Gil Paterson

Might that impact on the populace itself? Do you believe that there is potential for disengagement in remote and rural areas where the population is widespread, such as those that you have mentioned? Some of those are huge, with low numbers of people spread over a vast area.

Malcolm Burr

People still identify with the councillors for their area, but the extent of that area is really a matter of their perception. The system works best when people feel that they are being represented by someone who is resident in their area and is cognisant of its boundaries. On the whole, such flexibility is to be desired if we are also to recognise that another purpose of the system is to ensure political proportional representation.

Gil Paterson

On a similar theme, during the committee’s work on the bill, we have discussed the prospect of candidates’ names being shown on ballot papers using a method other than alphabetical order. As someone who has direct experience of local authorities’ engagement with councillors and the public, what are your thoughts on the ways in which that might affect them, which I will not spell out? If the system were to be changed, what administrative problems would that bring?

Malcolm Burr

That is a very interesting subject. As you will be aware, the Electoral Commission conducted some research, and some of us who read the results were quite surprised that some voters did not appreciate that candidates’ names on a ballot paper are ordered alphabetically. For others, candidates’ names being ordered alphabetically did not bother them in the least; they felt that it was perfectly natural that that should be the case.

It is a matter of policy, of course. Personally, I would certainly not support the alternative A to Z, Z to A system, which would be quite detrimental to voters with special needs, many of whom like to memorise the ballot paper before voting. Whether candidates’ names are listed A to Z or are randomised, there should be one ballot paper. For their convenience, voters should be able to look at the ballot paper before they go into the polling booth—as many voters do—and think about where they will put their mark or marks.

I do not think that there is conclusive evidence on whether the current system is positively detrimental to candidates whose names are lower down in the alphabet. We would welcome further engagement on that, because that point has not been proved beyond doubt. We are certainly open to looking at the evidence. The purpose of all this is to put the voter at the heart of the process, and we should consider anything that increases the likelihood of that happening.

Gil Paterson

Does Mr Wildman have any comments?

Pete Wildman

I am content with the registers.

Gil Paterson

I did not want to leave you on the sidelines.

I hear what Malcolm Burr said. He concentrated on how the system affects people, but we also need to consider the consequences of changing to a non-alphabetical system in relation to costs and administrative pressures.

Malcolm Burr

Those would depend on what method was adopted. There is no doubt that using alternatively ordered ballot papers, if I can put it that way, would slow down the counts and increase the costs. There would probably also be unmeasurable impacts. It would make the lives of the polling staff more difficult, because they would be faced with questions such as “Why am I getting a different ballot paper from the person next to me?” and “What is going on here?”

The committee has heard my personal view that there should be one ballot paper, whether candidates’ names are ordered randomly or alphabetically. I once produced a ballot paper in the Western Isles on which all the candidates had the same surname, so randomisation does not always help.

Gil Paterson

I thought that giving everybody the same name was the best example of randomisation. [Laughter.]

The Convener

That is actually quite interesting.

Jamie Halcro Johnston has a question. I know that he has a special interest in this matter.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Malcolm Burr expertly predicted my question about the islands act and single-councillor areas. Is Western Isles Council or any other council that is covered by the islands act considering introducing one-member wards?

Malcolm Burr

My council is considering that, but only for the islands of Barra and Vatersay, which are separated by sea from the other parts of their current ward—South Uist—and which have a very strong local identity. We have suggested to the commission that, in that area alone, there should be a single-member ward.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I want to come back to the questions that Gil Paterson asked. You talked about the additional burden on polling staff, given that in the Highlands and Islands region some polling stations can be extremely remote and must cover large areas. Do you consider that there will need to be specialist support in those polling stations if the ballot is—I do not want to say “more confusing”—different?

10:15  



Malcolm Burr

I think that such support would be needed, particularly if ballot papers were not to be the same. We would probably look to appoint an additional polling clerk to help voters through the process and answer questions, so that the presiding officer and the polling clerk could get on with issuing the papers in the right way without distractions. In the early stage of such a system, there certainly would need to be additional support, including for postal voters. For example, one can imagine a husband and wife receiving different ballot papers resulting in phone calls to the office about what was happening.

Mark Ruskell

Obviously, the committee is looking at the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill at the same time. If that bill extended the right to vote to people who were seeking asylum, would that cause any issues for you with regard to electoral registration? The system is declaratory, is it not? People fill out their form and provide their residence address.

Pete Wildman

I think that that would cause us administrative difficulties. From an administrative viewpoint, we like something that is clear. If somebody has a clear right to remain in the United Kingdom—if, for example, they have a visa or whatever—even if it is for a defined period, that is easy for us to verify quickly. Therefore, if there was any challenge or any question, we would have documentary evidence to support that process.

For somebody who was seeking asylum, we would have to look at the facts, such as how long they had been resident in Scotland, how long they were going to be resident in Scotland and whether they were sufficiently permanently resident in Scotland to meet the residence criteria in the Representation of the People Act 1983. That could be very difficult and complex; it almost takes us into immigration territory, which would be quite challenging for electoral registration officers.

Mark Ruskell

So you would want clarity about the legal status of the asylum seeker and some sort of administrative card or document so that you could say, “That’s fine—we can accept that.”

Pete Wildman

Yes, we would want proof that the person had a degree of permanent residence in Scotland. It is not just a case of being resident for a day; it is necessary to have sufficient permanency of residence to be deemed a permanent resident. That is the type of thing that we would be looking for.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Mark Ruskell has asked the question that I wanted to ask, but I will widen out the discussion. One of the concerns that I had during our evidence taking on the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill was about the register and how you could check residency. How confident are you in the accuracy of the register, that there is no duplication and that checks can be done to make sure that the people on it are entitled to vote?

Pete Wildman

The register is a fluid, living document, as I said previously, but it is one of the few databases that gets an annual audit. There is an annual canvas—a communication to every household that asks, “Is this information still right?”

There is also an internal mechanism through the Government Digital Service. If I register somebody in my area and they have given a previous address in, say, Glasgow, because the computer systems are linked, my colleague in Glasgow will get notified that I have registered them in my area and they should look to remove them. That process is in place to check for duplicate registrations. As has been highlighted already, there are some people who legitimately have duplicate registrations. We would have to wade through all that to check whether that was the case. At any point in time, people could potentially be on the register at more than one address simply because of timing—they might have registered in one area and not come off the register in another.

If we have doubt about whether someone has leave to remain in the United Kingdom, there is a mechanism whereby we can contact the Home Office, supply the details and it will advise us whether the person has leave to remain within five days. That will happen when there is a trigger, when somebody challenges something that they think might not be right.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I am sorry, but when you say that “somebody challenges something”, what do you mean?

Pete Wildman

We get challenges to registration. Part of the registration process when somebody registers at a property—particularly if we have not invited them to register—is that, by law, we have to write a physical letter to the property. The numbers are very low—in my area, it might be only one or two a year—but occasionally somebody comes back to us and says, “That person does not live at this address.” We then conduct what we call a registration review. We invite the person to contact us and supply their evidence, and we write to the property. If necessary, we hold a hearing and ask the person to come along to prove their residency at the property. Those checks exist in the system.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I wondered whether the challenges were from people curtain twitching and dobbing in their neighbours.

Pete Wildman

Any application to go on to the register is open for public inspection and there is a five-day objection period. We cannot add people to the register until the objection period has run, which allows for somebody to say that the applicant should not be added to the register.

The Convener

This is possibly a wee bit unusual and you might feel that this is not your role but, as we did not give you an opportunity to make an opening statement, are there any matters that are not addressed in the bill that would be useful to be included?

Malcolm Burr

I would not say so. What is in the bill is a policy matter, of course. The board looks at all electoral legislation on the basis of accessibility for the voter, consistency, efficiency and integrity of the process. We look at whether proposed legislation would promote good practice, whether its provisions would be practical to administer, whether it would help the democratic process and whether it would create an undue burden on those of us who run elections. As you will have seen from our response, we are largely supportive of the provisions of the bill, if it is brought in in the right way. I return to the Gould principle that six months is a good minimum time for the introduction of any changes that relate to an election that is reasonably foreseen.

Pete Wildman

What the bill says in relation to registration issues is welcome. We welcome the change to the fixing of the attainment age at 14. It is a moving process and, at this point in time, the bill covers what we need it to cover.

Looking back, the register used to be updated and published just once a year, whereas we now update it monthly. In the future, I would like us to move to a live register that is updated daily, so that someone will go on the register within five days of applying. Perhaps now is not the precise moment for that, but such things evolve.

The Convener

I thank Malcolm Burr and Pete Wildman. You have provided us with good, in-depth argument and discussion. If there is anything that you want to write to us about, please feel free to do so.

10:23 Meeting continued in private until 10:36.  



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Fourth meeting transcript

The Convener

Under item 2, the committee will take evidence on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. Joining us today in the first panel is Dr James Gilmour, who has kindly provided us with a submission on his ideas. I welcome Dr Gilmour and move straight to questions from the members.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Good morning, Dr Gilmour. For the record, will you briefly talk us through your research and key conclusions on the list-order effect?

Dr James Gilmour

How long have you got? We could have a whole day’s seminar taking the five research papers apart, but we will not do that.

Maureen Watt

I did say “briefly”.

Dr Gilmour

Thank you for the opportunity to answer the committee’s questions in person. The list-order effect is very real. There is no question but that, when a party nominates two candidates, the upper candidate on the list receives a greater proportion of that party’s first-preference votes and has greater electoral success. Similarly, when a party nominates three candidates, a greater proportion of the party’s first-preference votes goes to the highest candidate, a lower proportion goes to the middle candidate and a smaller proportion again goes to the bottom candidate on the list, so the effects are real.

There are a number of complicating factors. Incumbency plays a part when we disentangle what is going on, but the sex of the pairs of candidates has no effect. Whether the pairs are male and male, male and female, female and male or female and female, sex has no effect. There is, of course, severe underrepresentation of women, but that is a completely separate issue.

As far as incumbency is concerned, we did a very interesting exercise in response to a targeted consultation from the Scottish Government, in which the candidates’ names were ordered alphabetically from A to Z and they were separated into incumbents and non-incumbents. For the incumbent candidates, alphabetical position had no effect. We grouped those candidates into 10 alphabetical groups. In the first group in the alphabet, 85 per cent were elected, while in the last group 86 per cent were elected; there was no effect whatever.

However, there were effects among non-incumbents. Surprisingly, the second alphabetical group—not the first—was overrepresented, and the last alphabetical group was significantly underrepresented. There might have been complicating factors there. A party that was particularly popular in that election might have had a disproportionate number of its candidates in the second alphabetical group. Conversely, a party that was not particularly popular might have had a disproportionate number of candidates in the last alphabetical group.

Therefore, among incumbents there were no effects, but among non-incumbents there were effects of alphabetical position. The biggest effects of all, though, relate to party pairs and party threes.

Neil Findlay

The Electoral Commission’s submission said that there was no list-order effect. Do you disagree with that view 100 per cent?

Dr Gilmour

No. The work that the Scottish Government asked the Electoral Commission to do had an extremely narrow remit: to consider two designs for ballot papers and to look specifically for a particular candidate who stood alone for their party.

I have read the Electoral Commission’s report, and also the Ipsos MORI research report on which it was based. You are quite right that, overall, the ordering of the candidates had very little effect. The most surprising finding of all that work was how few of the test voters recognised that the ballot paper ordering was alphabetical, which seems amazing.

Neil Findlay

Have you seen good practice in other countries and jurisdictions that might address the issue and so level the playing field?

Dr Gilmour

I am not aware of any other legislature that uses the single transferable vote system having taken positive steps to address the issue. However, one of the research papers that I have referenced contains detailed information on that. It does not form part of my submission, but if the committee wished to see it, I would willingly make a copy of it available. It shows that there is very little evidence of alphabetical advantage in the Republic of Ireland, and that in Malta, where STV is used for both Parliament and local council elections, it has negligible effect. Malta’s Parliament has five-member constituencies. Each party nominates up to 21 candidates for each such constituency, even though the maximum number of seats that it could possibly win is five. Malta’s political culture is totally different from ours but, given the larger numbers of candidates and the greater choice that voters have, the alphabetical effects that we see in Scotland seem to disappear there.

Neil Findlay

Finally, if you had the freedom to design the system, what would you do to try to level the playing field?

Dr Gilmour

In one of my submissions I have made suggestions about increasing ward sizes and stopping the use of by-elections to fill casual vacancies.

Neil Findlay

So you would not do anything about list order, other than increasing the number of candidates?

Dr Gilmour

No—because of the downsides. As I have said in one of my submissions, complete randomisation would be a very simple solution. It would also be the only totally effective one, in that, as far as list order is concerned, there are major problems with all the other potential solutions. The problem with approaches such as randomisation or going from A to Z and Z to A, as has been suggested, lies in voter confusion and disability-related problems. This has not been probed but, in some cases, if a group of voters with a specific disability is sufficiently disadvantaged by not having the appropriate access to accessible information as defined under the Equality Act 2010, that might amount to legally recognised discrimination. That would have serious consequences for the whole legislative programme.

Maureen Watt

We tend to discuss this subject in terms of electoral process. Has anyone done any research into how the parties manage it? For instance, do parties target a particular part of the ward with one candidate’s name and use another candidate’s name in another area? Has anybody considered how the parties organise themselves in that regard?

Dr Gilmour

There are leaflets from the 2007 elections in which a party nominated three candidates and suggested a different order of voting—1, 2, 3; 3, 2, 1; and 2, 1, 3—in different parts of the ward. The party named the communities in the different parts of the ward where it suggested doing that. Parties are not so successful in dragooning or persuading their potential supporters to do what they like. Of those voters who give a first preference to one of a party’s two candidates, only 80 per cent give a second preference to the other candidate of the same party. Parties that try to maximise their support to get people to vote 1, 2 or 2, 1 still have quite a big gap, with a 20 per cent loss.

Similarly, where there are three candidates, of those voters who give a first preference to any one of the three, only 80 per cent give a second preference to one of the remainders, and only 70 per cent mark all three—so there is a 20 per cent loss between the first and second preference and a further 10 per cent loss between the second and third preference. When it comes to maximising their support, parties have quite a lot to learn.

I have made the parties aware of those results and have sent them copies of various papers, with an offer to follow up, although none of them has ever done so.

Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

I get the impression that we are worrying a bit too much about the order effect—aside from the question of disenfranchising disabled or disadvantaged people. Am I to understand that, in order to get a grip of this subject totally, we need far more research, rather than jumping too quickly to any conclusion at this stage?

Dr Gilmour

I do not know that we need more research. Your first remark might be right—that we are worrying about order far too much. As somebody said in one of your previous evidence sessions, it is not an issue for the voter, but it is an issue for some of the parties—and obviously for some candidates, depending on whether their name starts with an A or a Z.

We must not get the thing out of proportion, although the effect is very real. Part of my solution would be to consider what happens in the Republic of Ireland and in Malta. If we increased the number of candidates that parties were standing, the alphabetical effect would probably diminish. I would recommend that we increase the number of candidates who are likely to stand by increasing ward sizes significantly beyond the proposal under the bill, and that we abolish by-elections, so that parties are encouraged to nominate more candidates at the ordinary election and to have some spares, if I can call them that, to fill the casual vacancies when they come along. The evidence is clear from Malta and the Republic of Ireland that, where there are significantly larger numbers of candidates, the effect disappears.

09:45  



From the analysis of the Scottish results, there is also a small amount of evidence that the proportion of votes going to the uppermost candidate was high in three-member wards where there were only four candidates. The split was something like 70:30. However, where there were five candidates in a three-member ward, the split fell to 60:40, and, as the number of candidates went up, it continued like that, right the way down. Just the number of candidates of any party has a beneficial effect on reducing the alphabetical bias in allocation of first preference votes between party pairs.

Tom Mason

Working on the principle that any formula simplifies and exaggerates, are you saying that the bigger the number of candidates, the fewer problems we have with almost everything? The extreme of that is to ask why we should have any wards at all. Why not have just one city-wide election?

Dr Gilmour

That is possible. It would not be practical to have an election for 63 councillors—or 58 or 59, whatever the number is today—for the City of Edinburgh Council. From the voter’s point of view, there are two factors that we must take into account. One is a city-wide issue about proportional representation; the more members we elect together, the greater the representation we will obtain, because, if we have 59 councillors, 59 groups could each win one seat and be represented. In the present partisan nature of our politics, that is unlikely to happen, but it is possible. If we elected them all together, the proportionality across whatever groups are represented would be greatly increased. However, the other aspect is a requirement for local representation. It is inappropriate that I, who live in the south side, should be represented by somebody who lives in Leith or in the north-west of the city. It is not a conflict; it is a balance between local and city-wide representation. We must balance the two factors.

In my submissions, I have made the point that, in the four main cities and in densely populated urban areas, the present threes and fours are ridiculous. Even the Government’s proposed limit of five members is far fewer than it could be. It is seven in Northern Ireland. In a city such as Edinburgh or Glasgow, it could be eight or nine.

Tom Mason

Is the conflict that the single transferable vote is not the right system for local government and that we should look for some other form of voting system?

Dr Gilmour

No, not at all. One of the joys of the single transferable vote is that it is so flexible. If we wanted to elect all 59 councillors in one election, STV is perfectly capable of doing that.

I supervised an election in Iceland in which there were 550 candidates for 25 places on a national council, and the entire island was the electorate. STV is an extremely flexible system. On the other hand, if, for good practical reasons—for example, on some islands—the sensible size of the ward is only two members, STV proportional representation works well there as well. It is one of the most flexible voting systems. It has flexible implementation.

One of my concerns is that, since STV was introduced for local government elections in Scotland, we have taken a very constricted or restricted view of what size wards can be. In my submission, I drew attention to the education authorities of the 1920s, for which a much more open and voter-centred view was taken of what made a reasonable size for a ward or electoral district.

Tom Mason

If we have large numbers, do we not lose the connection between the constituent and the councillor, because they are representing so many people?

Dr Gilmour

No, I do not think so, although it depends to some extent on how the councillors get on and whether they will work together. I live in a four-member ward in which four different parties are represented. That has been so at every STV election, although it has not always been the same four parties. The councillors in my ward work as a team. One of them picks up issues for a particular alphabetical group of electors and deals with them, provided that they are non-partisan matters. For partisan matters, I know which of my four ward councillors to go to. Some of those four councillors are in the administration and some of them are in the opposition and provide scrutiny, so there are advantages in that as well. People can relate to individual councillors or to a team of councillors; there are effective means to do that. However, if people—the councillors who are elected—do not want to make the system work, they will stop it from working, which is not what the voters are looking for.

Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

I have a couple of questions. Did you say that you were researching the list-order effect on behalf of the Scottish Government, or did I pick that up wrongly?

Dr Gilmour

I do not quite understand the question.

Gil Paterson

Did you say in your introductory remarks that some of your research was carried out for the Scottish Government?

Dr Gilmour

Nothing that I have done has been for the Scottish Government, but I have used my research in making responses to a variety of Scottish Government consultations on the issues.

Gil Paterson

Okay. A proposal has been put to us for people who might have difficulty if the list was not alphabetical, but your evidence suggests that nobody applies the alphabetical system when voting, because they go to the first person listed for a party on the ballot paper.

Dr Gilmour

I have no specific evidence on that, but the conclusion from looking at the data as a whole is that the majority of voters vote by party. Therefore, they probably look for the party emblem and most of them read the ballot paper from the top down. They look down the list until they see their chosen party’s emblem and put “1” there and then look for the other candidate and put “2” there.

Gil Paterson

You are very perceptive; my next question was going to be about that aspect. I might come back to it. The data suggest that alphabetical order does not come into the equation at all. It seems to be the case—this is what is suggested by the numbers that you have mentioned and those that we have already heard—that people give their first choice on the ballot paper to the candidate for their party nearest the top of the list, no matter what the name is.

Dr Gilmour

There are interesting results from situations in which there are party threes—that is, where parties have three candidates. If the first preference is for the highest candidate of the three on the ballot paper, the majority of the second preferences go to the middle candidate, not the bottom one. If the first preference is for the bottom candidate on the paper, the majority of the second preferences go to the middle candidate, with a smaller number going to the top candidate. If the first preference is for the middle candidate of the three, those voters split evenly—for their second preference, half of them go up the ballot paper and half of them go down it. It depends on whether voters choose to read the ballot paper from the top to the bottom or from the middle.

Gil Paterson

I have a follow-up question—I think that you have already answered it, but I want it to be clear for the record. Did you carry out any research on how people vote? Do they go to the party first and then pick from the party list?

Dr Gilmour

I have done no research on that whatsoever. My research is based on the published electoral results and the repository of ballot data that we have in Scotland, which is a unique resource. I analyse what voters did, but I do not know how they did it or why.

Ipsos MORI’s work for the Electoral Commission, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government, gives an idea of how some voters looked at the ballot paper. The eye-tracking work showed what voters looked at first and last on the ballot paper, but it does not tell us anything about why they did what they did. That would require research in behavioural psychology, which is quite difficult and very expensive, especially if it is quantitative, which it would have to be in order to get behind what is in the figures.

On the other hand, although some parties are very agitated about alphabetical effects and the fact that, occasionally, out of their pairs of candidates, more of those who are placed higher on the list get elected than those who are placed lower, as far as voters are concerned, that is not an issue and we are agitating about it too much.

You have to consider all the downsides of making any change. You have to remember a very important point about A to Z and Z to A lists. If I were a candidate for a party that nominated three candidates for my ward, one of whose name began with A, the other began with Z and my name begins, as it does, with G, and the Government was determined to use A to Z and Z to A ballot papers, I think that I would have had a strong case for judicial review. Although the Government would be deliberately manipulating the paper to remove a bias between A and Z, the effect of that would be to permanently disadvantage me, because my name falls in the middle. I think that that would be discrimination, and I could call for judicial review—I would certainly want to ask if I could.

The Convener

Thank you. That introduces another interesting angle for which we unfortunately do not have time to explore. Mark Ruskell has the final question.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I was struck by your comments about multimember wards and the potential to have administration and opposition councillors in the same ward. Having been a councillor in a similar situation, I know that there is a constructive tension in that.

To wrap up the session, will you reflect on your proposal to scrap by-elections for local government and say more about your thoughts on recounting the original votes? I can see there being a few issues in terms of the length of time between the original vote and the by-election and the impact on parties that might put forward only one candidate in the original election and would perhaps be removed from any subsequent reallocation.

Dr Gilmour

I will pick up that last comment first. That is the whole point. In an ordinary election, if a party thinks that it will win only one seat, it plays safe and nominates only one candidate, who will have to be a man or a woman, so there is no diversity of representation at all.

If we increase the ward sizes so that the party might win two seats, it would have to nominate a team of two. Those parties that nominate men only would stand out like sore thumbs and would be dealt with through social and political campaigning.

10:00  



The point about not holding a by-election to fill a casual vacancy and instead going back and recounting the original ballot papers is that, to take advantage of the situation, parties must have a spare candidate—that is, at least one more than they expect to win seats at the original election—so that if such a vacancy arises and the ballot papers are recounted, they have a candidate who was not previously elected available to take it. That has been standard practice in Tasmania for decades; it is also standard practice in Malta.

Malta not only fills ordinary casual vacancies by that means; it has a provision whereby—I certainly do not look favourably on this—candidates are allowed to stand in several constituencies, which significant numbers of them do. They can be a member of Parliament for only one constituency, so if they are successfully elected in several constituencies, as some of them are at each election, they have to decide which constituency they will represent and they stand down in the others. There are then immediate casual vacancies in the other constituencies and immediate by-elections, which are conducted by counting the ballot papers again. That applies equally if the casual vacancy arises halfway through the life of the Parliament—they go back to the ballot papers.

Mark Ruskell

Are you saying that that works best where there are much larger multimember wards, because it incentivises parties to put forward multiple candidates and they can rely on their back-up candidates to come in?

Dr Gilmour

There are two interacting factors. If you have larger wards, where such wards are practicable, and instruct the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to maximise the size of wards—there should be parity—that would increase the size of the teams. The team size could be increased even more by doing away with by-elections for casual vacancies and getting parties to nominate a bigger team that includes a spare or two in case a by-election arises.

That approach would remove two of the current structural barriers to diversity. When parties nominate small teams or, in many cases, only one candidate, there is no opportunity for diversity. The biggest lack of diversity at the moment is with men and women. Women are 52 per cent of the electorate, but at one local government election only 23 per cent of the candidates were women and 24 per cent of the elected councillors were women. There is a long way to go if this Parliament is serious about properly representing in local government the diversity of the electorate. However, addressing the issue of representation in the Scottish Parliament is a job for another day.

The Convener

There are other questions, but we have two panels today and I am sorry to say that we have no more time. Dr Gilmour, that was extremely interesting and worth while.

Dr Gilmour

If the committee has other questions, please do not hesitate to ask the clerks to send them to me. I can provide answers to them, and it will be for you to decide whether they are made part of a public or private submission.

The Convener

That is kind of you. Thank you very much for all your time.

We will have a wee changeover of witnesses.

On our second panel today, we have Graeme Dey, the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, and Alison Fraser, Iain Hockenhull and Maria McCann from the Scottish Government. I welcome you all.

We will move straight on to questions, to make sure that we get through as many as possible.

Maureen Watt

The policy memorandum notes that the proposal to change terms to five years is not the “settled preference” of the Scottish ministers. Do you support a change to five-year terms? What are the advantages and disadvantages of increasing term lengths from four to five years?

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The more I reflect on that, the more I come to the view that five-year terms ought to be the direction of travel. There are a number of reasons for that, which I will provide in no particular order.

Five-year terms have become the norm in the Scottish Parliament over the past two parliamentary sessions. If we project forward for the next 15 years or so, four-year terms would result in two potential clashes and, as members know, clashes are neither desirable nor without challenges in having to legislate to try to avoid them.

Five-year terms are a tidier approach. If there is a clash, there are two different electoral systems at play and, in 2007, we saw the difficulties that arose from that, including spoiled ballot papers. We do not want council elections to be overshadowed by national elections, because they are important in their own right.

Wales and Northern Ireland have moved to five-year terms, as have other countries including France and the Republic of Ireland. There are cost-saving implications with five-year terms. We estimate that, for both sets of elections, that would save about £37 million over the next 20 years.

A number of reasons brought us to the view that five years would probably be preferable, but I recognise that there is a range of views.

Maureen Watt

If the provisions in the bill were agreed to, would they take effect in time for the next scheduled Scottish Parliament elections in 2021? Would that give sufficient time for the implementation of changes in electoral registration and administration?

Graeme Dey

All those factors have been the subject of intense discussion with the relevant stakeholders. We would follow the Gould principle, which is the six-month rule. Off the top of my head, the likelihood is that we would lay any relevant commencement materials in September 2020 under the affirmative procedure, with a view to them being agreed to by November 2020, which would give stakeholders the period of time that they are looking for.

Gil Paterson

The bill will prohibit an individual from voting more than once in local authority elections that are held on the same day. However, it will not prevent someone from appearing on more than one electoral register. Is the prohibition enforceable, given that dual registration is allowed? How could voting more than once be detected?

Graeme Dey

There is a lot in those questions. First, I ask Iain Hockenhull to give the committee some background.

Iain Hockenhull (Scottish Government)

It is a feature of our system that we do not have one single register. As a consequence, students are typically registered either at home or at their university address, or they are on both registers. It is very difficult to police or establish whether all students should be voting in their university constituency or at home. We do not have that level of prescription in our system; we allow people to choose. As a result, the system operates in that way.

Underlying the system is always the criminal law, which will penalise anyone who tries to exploit the system by illegally voting twice. We do not have any evidence of malpractice, or evidence to suggest that the law is being flouted in that way. If we were aware that there was a problem, we could look at the issues and tackle them.

Graeme Dey

The bottom line is that we have no evidence to suggest that there is a significant problem in that regard. In addition, we have to be careful in our approach to ensure that we do not create a disparity between United Kingdom elections and Scottish elections.

Gil Paterson

I can understand that. I cannot remember whether there has been any inquiry, or any research, into people voting twice. Do we know whether people are breaking the law in that way? Have we checked?

Iain Hockenhull

By including the provision in the bill, we are not accusing anyone of having broken the law in that way. It simply addresses an issue that we included in our consultation in 2017-18, in which we asked if people thought that the current situation should continue. There is currently a bit of an anomaly in comparison with the position for other elections. At national level, someone does not get two votes, whereas in a local government election, someone who splits their residence between two locations is able to vote in both areas provided that they are in different council areas, although they cannot vote twice if those places of residence are in the same council area.

In the consultation, we essentially asked whether that practice should continue. We were not saying that it was wrong, but we were offering the option to say whether or not it should continue. More than 80 per cent of the respondents to the consultation said that we should stop it. The consultation analysis was strongly of the view—or rather, the flavour of the analysis suggested—that the one-person-one-vote principle should be the reason for putting a stop to the practice.

Gil Paterson

But the Government has resisted making that change in the bill, because we want to stay the same as the rest of the UK.

Iain Hockenhull

The bill is making a change by removing the ability for someone to vote in two locations.

I will separate out the issues. If the bill passes, it will become illegal to vote twice in two different areas in one local government election, just as it is in Scottish Parliament elections. It is still possible for someone to be on two different registers, but they have to choose which location to vote in. If they voted in both locations, they would be committing a criminal offence, with a maximum penalty of up to £5,000.

Gil Paterson

Would it not be easier, in the spirit of the one-person-one-vote principle, to enable people to be on only one register—end of story? Would that be a solution to all this? In effect, it would meet the demands of 80 per cent of respondents to the consultation, as you mentioned, because that is what they are telling us.

Iain Hockenhull

It is partly a question of resource. We could establish a single national register and make people choose. For example, a student at the University of Aberdeen who lives in Dumfries would have to choose whether to be on the Dumfries register or the Aberdeen register. However, they might subsequently choose to change their mind, and we might have to think about imposing a limit, so that people cannot change their mind more than twice a year, or something like that. There are options, but it is a question of whether we want to put resource into pursuing that aspect.

Graeme Dey

Of course, resource would be required to do that. In addition, it would potentially—I stress the word “potentially”—put students off voting if they were confined to voting only at home, for example. There is a range of issues, and we are taking a proportionate approach.

10:15  



Gil Paterson

The proposals would mean that someone could still vote in one area at a scheduled election and then in another area at a by-election. Perhaps you can clarify something. Given that two separate elections are quite common when it comes to local government elections—in almost every election that I can remember, a by-election has also taken place somewhere at the same time—would it be possible for someone who is registered in two areas to vote on the same day in a national election for local government and in a by-election in a different area? Would that still be allowed?

Iain Hockenhull

That is an established feature at all levels of the UK electoral system. Historically, it has not been considered to be enough of a problem to be pursued. It is a feature of the system.

Gil Paterson

So that would be allowed under the current system.

Iain Hockenhull

Yes.

Gil Paterson

Thank you for that.

The proposal to allow attainers to register from the age of 14 has been welcomed. We have heard a lot about how important it is to educate young people on the electoral system. If registration from the age of 14 is going to happen—the committee has received overwhelming evidence to suggest that people think that it is a good idea—what will the Government do to utilise that new episode in people’s lives? How will we achieve what we have set out to do?

Graeme Dey

You are right to make the point that the proposal has been widely welcomed, and I think that it will make things a lot simpler. Just last week, I sense-tested it with a group of young people from my constituency and got a very positive response.

With regard to how we raise awareness of the change and the whole journey around political awareness, there is currently a political literacy strand to education. There will also be a lot of publicity to come, involving the likes of YoungScot and the Scottish Youth Parliament, to raise awareness. I could provide a much more detailed answer, but in essence that is where we are. Some follow-up work will be done to support the change.

I do not know about committee members, but I get the sense that young people are now very much alive to politics in a way that perhaps they were not 20 years ago. They are very switched on. As I said, when I sense-tested the proposal last week with 30 youngsters from my constituency, they were very much up for it and very much on the ball when it came to the political process.

Gil Paterson

I appreciate that point, and I agree with you—since the 2014 referendum, political awareness among our young people has been immense across the board. They are very much engaged, whether they are in favour of independence or against it; that is not the question.

Will the Government put in some resources to help the education authorities to educate young people on the process itself? To people who vote all the time, the process must seem fairly easy, but I come across many people who worry about presenting and voting, as simple as that may be.

Graeme Dey

The answer is that that is up to local authorities, as they control the education system locally, and they can tweak what they currently deliver to explain to people the changes in the system. I do not think that it is a massive deal. Curriculum for excellence is a vehicle for providing education on that point, and I am pretty confident that huge resources will not be required to raise awareness of the change.

As I said earlier, information will not only come through local and national Government; YoungScot and the Scottish Youth Parliament will also do work in that regard. My view is that we are covered.

Gil Paterson

I have a further question on the availability of resources. We have heard that it is quite an onerous task to keep the electoral register up to date. Has the Government considered what assistance it might provide to ensure that the register is resourced and kept up to date as well as it can be?

Graeme Dey

In terms of resources?

Gil Paterson

Yes.

Iain Hockenhull

We are in dialogue with the electoral professionals—the Electoral Commission and electoral registration officers—regarding what is needed. The bill makes provision for the Electoral Management Board for Scotland to get involved in Scottish Parliament elections, and the policy memorandum describes some additional funding that has been given to the management board for its co-ordination role, to help it with its new powers for Scottish Parliament elections.

Maria McCann (Scottish Government)

When it comes to improving registration, we have been working jointly with the Westminster Government and the Welsh Government to bring forward a programme of canvass reform in order to target resources to those who are underrepresented and to make it easier to channel resources appropriately. We have been doing a lot of detailed work on that. As Mr Paterson suggested, there is a real need to improve the register and to get the underrepresented groups on it. We will bring forward a Scottish statutory instrument on that shortly. A joint policy approach is being taken.

Mark Ruskell

Do you think that the education of young people would be enhanced if they could stand for election themselves?

Graeme Dey

Are you seeking a personal view?

Mark Ruskell

An official view from Government would be fine, but a personal view will suffice.

Graeme Dey

That is covered in the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, is it not? It is an area that you have teased out before.

Mark Ruskell

It is not covered in the franchise bill, but it could be. I guess it is a live discussion, so I am interested in your view on it, personal or otherwise.

Graeme Dey

The position that we are taking at the moment is probably the right one, but I recognise the argument around 16 and 17-year-olds voting and the point at which they can stand. That is an on-going conversation. Right now, however, I think we are in the right space.

Neil Findlay

What is your view on electronic voting? What do you foresee as a system that we may consider?

Graeme Dey

It is important to define what we mean, at this stage, by “electronic voting”. There is an immediate presumption that we are talking about online voting here and now. The work is at a very early stage, but what is envisaged in the first phase is to facilitate electronic voting in a central place, not least in order to accommodate people with learning disabilities and to make voting easier for them.

The option to move to some sort of electronic voting system is always there, but there are security and other concerns around that, and I think that such a system would be somewhere down the line. Essentially, in the immediate term, the proposal is to work with disability groups to address some of the concerns that they have.

Neil Findlay

So, a phase of that work is already on-going. Is that work—

Graeme Dey

Sorry—there are no firm plans right now for a pilot, but that is what we are moving to, and that is what we have in mind.

Neil Findlay

As regards what is actually being done at the moment, is that one hour a month of a civil servant’s time, is there a team or is there a person working on it? How far has it gone?

Iain Hockenhull

A member of the elections team is considering possible pilots. The main focus at the moment is on accessibility. Rather than the transmission of a vote, the idea is more about securely and privately allowing someone with a visual impairment, for instance, to register their vote, bring it along to the polling station and have it uploaded in such a way that no one else gets to see how they are voting, thus affording them privacy. There would be no electronic transmission in any of the pilot ideas that we are currently discussing or looking at.

Neil Findlay

So someone with a visual impairment, say, would complete their ballot paper elsewhere before coming along.

Iain Hockenhull

They would get some sort of package at home that would allow them to make their choice, and that could then be communicated in a different way, but not crossing the internet—so no one else would get to see what they had chosen.

Neil Findlay

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard people with a visual impairment making the point that, wherever they cast their vote at the moment, it is not private. Would what is proposed allow them to make a private decision?

Maria McCann

Yes. The proposal is for electronic delivery of the ballot paper. People would then use whatever reader they use at the moment. That is very important, because they use it for so many other aspects of life. They will be able to make the decision in private and no one else will know. We still have a long way to go: we are still working on the detail, but that was the most pressing thing.

Neil Findlay

To be absolutely clear, we are not talking about remote voting, electronically. We are at the initial stages of moving to a central location where you would cast your vote in some electronic format to be determined at a future date.

Maria McCann

We have not got down to the detail on that, but online voting—voting from your phone or something like that—is not being looked at at the moment.

Neil Findlay

What discussions have been had with other countries’ electoral registration teams about their experience of electronic voting?

Maria McCann

Two members of the team visited Estonia recently during an election. They were able to see that whole process in action. The percentage of people voting online in Estonia has increased. It was quite low the first time, at about 20 per cent, and it has gone up. I think it is heading towards half, so it is growing in popularity, but obviously the full traditional system was also available.

Neil Findlay

Did electronic voting lead to increased participation?

Maria McCann

I do not know: I would have to go and see if there is any research into that.

Neil Findlay

I understand the point of moving towards electronic voting for people with a visual impairment or other disability, but presumably the point of electronic voting is to increase participation—that is how it has been presented historically. If there is no increase in participation, what is the point?

Maria McCann

We could write to you with the detail of the Estonian situation, if that would help.

Neil Findlay

Thanks. Finally, do you see a role for organisations such as the Electoral Commission in reviewing electronic voting?

Graeme Dey

That is our intention: it will require an amendment to section 5 of the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002.

The Convener

I have a couple of quick questions. The first is about the role of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, which has asked the Scottish Government whether you are open to future funding requests. For example, if local government posts need to be backfilled because of additional workload on those who hold dual roles, will you be open to such a request, to facilitate better working of the system?

Graeme Dey

Indeed. The dialogue on that sort of thing will always be on-going. We have actually increased the funding, as the board requested. I will give you some numbers: the grant in 2018-19 was £78,700; in 2019-20, it was £100,600; and we have agreed on an estimated £115,600 for 2020-21. We remain open to any valid approaches from the board.

The Convener

Thank you. My second question concerns the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. The intention of the legislation we have been presented with is to allow for rolling reviews of boundaries, but we have heard concerns that the bill as drafted would not allow for that if term lengths were changed to five years. Will you lodge amendments at stage 2 to address that?

10:30  



Graeme Dey

Obviously, that would depend on the proposed move to term lengths of five years being accepted. The commission has indicated that, in those circumstances, it would want us to look at a review period of 15 years. I have reflected on the commission’s views on that and am sympathetic to them. I will write to the committee about that in due course. The commission has made a reasonable case.

The Convener

Mark Ruskell has further questions on that issue.

Mark Ruskell

The commission welcomed the flexibility to propose two and five-member wards, but we noticed that the financial memorandum states:

“It is not envisaged that the total number of councillors for a local government area would change as a result of a Boundaries Scotland review.”

For clarity, will the commission be able to recommend increasing or, indeed, decreasing the number of councillors in a council area as a result of a change in ward numbers?

Graeme Dey

I invite Maria McCann to give a detailed answer to that question.

Maria McCann

It would be able to do that. I think that, during the fifth round of reviews, it worked on the assumption that there would not be vast changes in the number of councillors. However, there were some proposed changes, and my recollection is that they were accepted. That is not to say that there would be an absolute ban imposed on changes. That would be allowable. They would be accepted as they were before.

Mark Ruskell

I am aware that there were some subtle changes as a result of the previous review. If the intention is that flexibility will remain, getting that on the record is welcome.

What consideration has been given to the proposed changes on proportionality, particularly in two-member wards?

Maria McCann

We have not looked at the proportionality issue. Obviously, it is relevant, but it was not part of the consultation and it has not been specifically looked at. We did not look at quite a lot of aspects of the boundary commission legislation. Topics were picked, and that was not one of them.

Mark Ruskell

Why was that issue not looked at?

Maria McCann

To be honest, I do not know the origins of that. However, the issue could be looked at.

Mark Ruskell

It is a proportional voting system, so the answer is on the tin, is it not? If you are going to look at changing the system, why would you not look at proportionality as part of that?

Graeme Dey

We will write back to you in detail on that.

Mark Ruskell

My final question follows on from that. How is the multimember proportional system working, and is there scope for reviewing it? You may have heard different views today and in previous evidence sessions on whether the system is great and whether it is working well and is optimised. Perhaps it would be of interest to open up those areas. I do not know whether the Government wishes to do that.

Graeme Dey

There is certainly no time in this parliamentary session to do that, but I am sympathetic to Mr Ruskell’s point. The system has been in place for some time, and there is a range of views on how effectively it works. I will not express a view either way. It is reasonable to ask whether a review of its effectiveness might be taken forward in the next parliamentary session. That would be appropriate.

The Convener

I want to raise an issue that is of concern mostly to candidates—it is a genuine concern for them. The requirement that the home addresses of parliamentary candidates be published has been removed, which is perfectly logical and sensible in the current climate—probably in any climate—but the home addresses of candidates in local government elections still appear on electoral notices and ballot papers. In my opinion, that jars. What do you think about that?

Graeme Dey

Indeed, convener. Through correspondence with Richard Lyle, the Scottish ministers have made a public commitment to amend the requirement to publish candidates’ addresses on ballot papers for local government elections. To be clear, that would provide an option for candidates to have such publication continue if they so wished. Such a change would not need to be included in the bill; it could be addressed as part of the conduct order for the local government elections in 2022.

However, I entirely agree with you, convener. That is why, given the probability that council by-elections will come around soon, I undertake to consider whether, in the new year, we might introduce an affirmative SSI that would address the issue more quickly.

The Convener

Thank you very much for that. The issue will be important to many people.

Tom Mason

The issue of the list-order effect on ballot papers has been raised, but it is not dealt with in the bill. Does the Scottish Government have plans to consider it?

Graeme Dey

I thought that that issue might come up. Obviously, it provokes a great deal of discussion. I have certainly reflected at great length about the various options that exist.

We all recognise that the current system is not perfect. However, we should not change it simply for change’s sake: any change should be made for good reason, such as to make the system more effective, fairer or less biased. If we were to go into that in detail, a lot of work would need to be done on the pros and cons of the various alternatives.

The committee will be aware that the Scottish Government has been considering two options. The first is drawing names by lot; the second is having two ballot papers, one of which would list candidates from A to Z while the other would list them from Z to A. We asked the Electoral Commission to look at those options in detail, and we have not yet reached a decision on whether to adopt either of them—or, indeed, any other option. It is clear that any option would involve both pros and cons. There is an argument for testing some options in local government by-elections to see what actually works in practice in a Scottish context.

However, I agree with Bob Posner of the Electoral Commission that we should not rush into changing the system and thereby risk unintended consequences. I do not mean to sit on the fence by saying that. If we are to make changes, we need to get them right. As I said earlier, the fact that we believe that the present system is flawed does not mean that we should change it simply for the sake of doing so.

I know that others consider randomisation to be an option. By way of background, I add that the Scottish Government estimates that implementing such an approach would add £2 million to the cost of conducting an election—which is not to mention the administrative burden that it would create. I am also trying to work through in my head how such a system would not create another bias somewhere along the line, depending on factors such as whether we had 100 per cent uptake of ballot papers.

Other issues add to the confusion in that area. For example, to assist people with visual impairments, we are currently required to have large-print sample ballot papers at polling stations. We might ask how we could possibly have those samples if the ballot paper were to be randomised, as opposed to having one straightforward paper—or two papers if the A-to-Z and Z-to-A option were to be adopted. Further, some local authorities still want to count by-election ballot papers manually, and having multiple forms of ballot paper would create a great deal of difficulty for them.

In making those points, I am not suggesting that we should not change the system; I am simply laying out the pros and cons for the various options, which I am sure the committee will also have considered.

Tom Mason

As you mentioned in your previous answer, that really raises issues about the need to review the whole electoral system.

Graeme Dey

The question is one of whether to recognise the potential for bias in the current arrangement. We need not accept that possibility; it could be argued that people simply go to the ballot paper and look for their party of choice or for its emblem. We have had a substantial piece of work done on the time that people take, using various approaches, to arrive at the name of the person they want to vote for. A fair bit of work has been done on that but, right now, none of it is absolutely conclusive in any direction.

Neil Findlay

You casually flung in a figure of £2 million there. Where did you get that figure from?

Maria McCann

We looked at the issue in 2015, when we were preparing the e-counting specification for local government elections. We asked suppliers what the additional costs of the e-counting process would be, and they provided us with an estimate—obviously, we would have to go out to tender to get the figure verified.

Neil Findlay

When I finish up in Parliament, I think that I will go into shuffling ballot papers for a living. It seems to be a profitable business.

Mark Ruskell

I would like to ask about the maximum fines that the Electoral Commission can impose. At the moment, the maximum is £20,000. The cabinet secretary gave a commitment to raise that to £500,000 in relation to referendums. Is there a commitment to match that? Name a figure.

Iain Hockenhull

We are in discussions with the Electoral Commission on that subject, and we are considering the options in the light of the progress of the referendums legislation. The Electoral Commission has mentioned a figure that is tied to the old powers of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, which could levy fines of up to £500,000 for data breaches. That is the figure that is proposed, but, as I said, we are in consultation on that.

Mark Ruskell

What discussions have you had with the Electoral Commission about extending its powers to include a power to require information and a power to share information?

Iain Hockenhull

We have considered those powers. There are some limitations on what we are able to do, given the existing structure of the devolution settlement, because the Electoral Commission is a UK-wide body that deals with all elections.

The Electoral Commission has existing powers to obtain information, but a number of issues have been raised in relation to which it might be possible for it to go further. However, as I said, they might be outwith the scope of this Parliament.

Mark Ruskell

Are you thinking about reviewing the payment regime for returning officers?

Graeme Dey

There are on-going discussions on that subject, which we hope will come to a satisfactory conclusion relatively soon.

Mark Ruskell

Will any changes be in place in time for the 2021 Holyrood elections?

Graeme Dey

That is the intention.

Mark Ruskell

Do you think that, if returning officers get it wrong, there should be some form of financial sanction? For example, in the local government elections in 2012, a ballot box in Glasgow simply was not counted but the result was declared. The entire ward had to be counted again, and the returning officer generously paid for that recount out of his bonus—I suppose that that was a form of performance-related pay.

Could any sanctions be brought in to deal with the situation in which a returning officer has clearly not met the standard that is required but will still get a substantial bonus for running the election?

Graeme Dey

There would have to be a determination between something being genuine human error and its being quite significant.

Mark Ruskell

It is about responsibility. Under the current structure of payments, taking on that responsibility is handsomely rewarded.

Maria McCann

As part of the review, we have been considering the areas of remuneration and responsibility in their entirety. The points that you make are under consideration.

Mark Ruskell

The instance that I talked about was an isolated example, thankfully, but it was a real one.

The Convener

That is interesting. It would be good to know where things stand on that issue at the moment and where things are going.

Graeme Dey

As with a couple of other issues that have been mentioned today, it is worth saying that this is a work in progress. We are happy to write to the committee and keep you updated as matters progress.

The Convener

Thank you. Maureen Watt has a question on the SPCB.

10:45  



Maureen Watt

On 12 November, the committee received a letter from the SPCB. The letter set out its concerns about taking on the accountability and responsibility for the Electoral Commission, specifically with regard to the concerns related to budget, the potential for overspend and auditing arrangements. Has the Scottish Government reached agreement with the SPCB to resolve its outstanding concerns?

Graeme Dey

Funnily enough, that issue was one of the first things that I noticed when I first picked up the bill. I understand entirely the concerns that the SPCB has raised, and there are on-going discussions about those concerns. The situation has not been sorted yet, but I can say with confidence that it will be sorted to the satisfaction of the SPCB and anyone else with a relevant interest. As soon as we get to that point, I will advise the committee of that.

The Convener

For everyone’s information, I say that the SPCB is the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. I should have introduced it in that way—I apologise.

There is a recommendation that electoral law should be consolidated. For example, the committee heard from the Electoral Commission that the outdated language that is used to describe criminal electoral offences makes prosecution difficult. The committee is mindful of the work of the law commissions in the UK that recommended the consolidation of electoral law. Is the Scottish Government considering further work on modernising and consolidating electoral law?

Graeme Dey

You are correct to point to the cross-UK work that has been done on the issue. We expect further findings to be published next year.

We recognise the need for consolidation. In some respects, the work that is being done in this bill and in the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill is doing that, but it is clear that there is a case for further consolidation work to be done, particularly given the fact that the bill that we are discussing today is, in essence, a series of amendments to other pieces of legislation. We recognise that there is a need to consider, over the coming years, the consolidation of Scottish electoral law.

The Convener

Is the Scottish Government considering the impact on this bill of any changes made in the Referendums (Scotland) Bill?

Graeme Dey

Yes.

The Convener

Can you give us any idea of what impact there might be?

Graeme Dey

The Referendums (Scotland) Bill has not completed its passage yet. I do not mean that as a flippant remark, but it has yet to complete stage 3. We will consider the situation after that point. Again, I am happy to keep the committee updated on that.

The Convener

Yes, it would be wrong to pre-empt anything.

I think that we have reached the end of our questions. I thank the minister and his team for coming to the committee today.

10:48 Meeting continued in private until 11:20.  



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14 November 2019

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21 November 2019

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28 November 2019

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5 December 2019

Delegated Powers and Law Reform committee

This committee looks at the powers of this Bill to allow the Scottish Government or others to create 'secondary legislation' or regulations.

Read the Stage 1 report by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee published on 28 November 2019

 Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee's Stage 1 report

Debate on the Bill

A debate for MSPs to discuss what the Bill aims to do and how it'll do it.

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Stage 1 debate on the Bill transcript

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-20740, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill at stage 1.

16:12  



The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

I thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its scrutiny of the bill and its stage 1 report. I also thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its valuable contribution to the consideration of the issues that we are about to debate.

Having heard evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, both committees have welcomed the proposals in the bill, although they have rightly sought to explore further some of its aspects. This afternoon’s debate—brief as it will be—affords us a chance to do just that.

With the Scotland Act 2016 having transferred responsibility for Scottish elections to this Parliament, we have an opportunity to make meaningful and appropriate improvements to how we conduct elections.

I will address some of the bill’s key components. On term lengths, we consulted extensively on whether the current four-year terms for Parliament and local government remain the most appropriate approach. We propose moving both to five-year terms, which will allow for greater stability in our electoral cycle. Last year, I wrote to all members, seeking their thoughts. I hope that today’s debate will help us to reach a settled view on the issue.

As a result of clashes with United Kingdom general elections, our previous two Parliaments have been five-year terms. We need to decide what works best in Scotland. Having weighed the options, my preference is for five-year terms, and I welcome the support for that from the two committees.

Changed term lengths is one of several reforms in the bill that will affect the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. As members will be aware, the commission’s remit now includes boundaries for Scottish Parliament elections as well as for local government areas and wards. That change is reflected in a new name: boundaries Scotland. Under the bill, boundaries Scotland will have powers to recommend two and five-member local government wards where that fits local circumstances and communities.

The bill also allows for rolling boundary reviews, which 71 per cent of respondents to our consultation supported. The bill’s current deadline for reviews—12 years—reflects a four-year term. In response to the stage 1 report, I have agreed that the local government review deadlines will be increased to 15 years if five-year terms are adopted.

The bill proposes that approval for local government boundary changes will no longer reside with ministers and will now require secondary legislation under the affirmative procedure in Parliament.

The role of Parliament is further expanded through provisions that make the Electoral Commission more directly accountable. The commission will be funded by, and accountable to, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body for the work that it carries out in relation to devolved elections. The commission will also be given powers to create codes of practice covering observers, third parties, candidate expenditure and donation controls. I am pleased that the Electoral Commission welcomes those reforms and the principles behind the bill, and I am grateful to it for its on-going engagement.

The bill recognises the importance of other key stakeholders in Scottish elections, and expanding the Electoral Management Board for Scotland’s remit to include Scottish Parliament elections reflects that. Since 2008, the Electoral Management Board has been an invaluable element of elections in Scotland, ensuring that they are delivered to a high standard. It is a vital resource that is regarded with envy by other nations of the UK. The board assists local authorities in co-ordinating elections and referendums, and it promotes best practice through training and information for electoral professionals. That vital work strengthens our system and reinforces voter confidence, so I am pleased that the board will now provide direction for parliamentary elections.

Turning to other provisions, the bill will simplify registration of 14-year-olds. Those approaching legal voting age can already apply to be added to the electoral register as attainers, but the current system is needlessly complex and unclear. Our proposals mean that anyone eligible in Scotland who is aged 14 will be able to register as an attainer. That is a small change, but it will make a big difference to young people’s participation, and it has been welcomed by both the SPPA Committee and our colleagues in the Scottish Youth Parliament.

The bill updates existing legislation to enable electronic voting solutions in the future. The initial aim is to use technology to support voters with sight loss to vote independently and in secret. After engagement with stakeholders, we are undertaking a limited field trial of electronic ballot delivery to assist those with sight loss. Like the committee, I do not think the time is right for internet voting, but it is important to allow Parliament to explore its options once technology is more established. To be clear, any pilots of electronic voting solutions that are proposed by the Scottish ministers will be considered by Parliament.

The bill creates an offence of voting more than once at local government elections, aligning their rules with the rules for Scottish Parliament and UK elections.

The bill also ensures that the Presiding Officer’s existing power to postpone Scottish Parliament elections operates if Parliament has already been dissolved. That is important in minimising risk to the public during emergencies or unexpected events, and it addresses a present gap in the powers of the postholder.

I appreciate that the committees have highlighted that there are opportunities for further reforms, and I agree. However, the bill is a significant step forward in many important areas, although, as I said, it is by no means the end of the journey.

There is an important point about proper consultation and care when considering reforms. Like the SPPA Committee, I am sympathetic to members wishing to tackle the alphabetical bias of the list-order effect, but I agree that options must be carefully researched to avoid disadvantaging voters. We must, for example, respect the needs of those with disabilities and the neurodiversity of the electorate. As the committee’s report states,

“There is no point simply replacing one set of problems with another”.

That echoes my own comments at the committee’s evidence session, at which I said:

“we should not change it simply for change’s sake”.—[Official Report, Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, 5 December 2019; c 20.]

However, that is not a signal for inaction. We need to find a better way forward that does not have obvious drawbacks.

I appreciate that much of the bill’s content is highly technical. Boundary changes and powers of the Electoral Commission sound quite dry in isolation. However, we should value rigorous independent oversight of our system, and the bill enhances that. The reform bill brings in changes to support stakeholders and reassure the public, building on strong foundations of partnership working and our proposals to widen the franchise.

I will finish as I started, by thanking the committees for their engagement. I look forward to the debate.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill.

16:20  



Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

As the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I am pleased to speak on behalf of the committee in this debate.

As has been mentioned, the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill proposes a number of changes to electoral practice and administration in Scotland. It is a technical bill, but it is an important one because it is vital that any changes to our elections work effectively and enhance the democratic process. The electoral system must be accessible to everyone who has the right to vote.

I am grateful to committee members for working together to produce a unanimous report on the bill. I also acknowledge the experts in the field of running elections who generously gave up their time to inform our scrutiny of the bill.

The bill contains a number of provisions, and I will highlight the main conclusions that the committee reached. We heard different views on the relative merits of four and five-year terms for Scottish Parliament and local government elections. Ultimately, the committee was satisfied that the balance of evidence supports a move to five-year terms for both. That schedule will make clashes between elections less frequent, and there is an argument that a five-year term will allow more time for policy development.

The committee also supported the proposal in the bill to allow two-member and five-member wards for local government elections. We anticipate that that will be particularly useful in more remote and rural areas. We heard some concerns about the impact of two-member wards on the proportionality between votes cast and wards won. The committee believes that two-member wards should be recommended only in exceptional circumstances, such as in remoter rural areas, including islands.

The committee supports the proposal in the bill to make it an offence to vote more than once at Scottish local government elections that are held on the same day. That will bring local government elections into line with UK and Scottish Parliament elections. However, we were not clear about how that provision will be enforced, as there are challenges in cross-referring between electoral registers.

The committee welcomes the Scottish Government’s proposed approach to electronic voting. There is a need to proceed with caution in relation to what is relatively untested technology. The proposal to undertake pilots is welcome, as is the focus on smaller-scale improvements to enhance the accessibility of the voting process, particularly for people with disabilities, which has been mentioned. We suggest that the Scottish Government accelerate its engagement with groups that represent disabled people.

A number of other provisions in the bill were welcomed by the committee, including the proposed simplification of the rules to allow anyone aged 14 and over to register as an attainer before they are officially old enough to vote.

The committee took evidence on some topics that are not included in the bill. For example, we heard evidence about the list-order effect, whereby candidates whose names are nearer the top of the ballot paper are more likely to be selected. That is potentially unfair to candidates whose surnames come later in the alphabet. There was no consensus on how the list-order effect should be addressed, but we recommend that the Scottish Government ask the Electoral Commission to take a wider look at different approaches to ballot design.

Another issue that the committee has highlighted is the requirement for candidates’ addresses to appear on ballot papers for local government elections.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I note that the consultation included a proposal to remove the current legal requirement for candidates’ addresses to appear on ballot papers for local government elections. I have written to the ministers, asking whether they also intend to allow candidates to have their addresses withheld from publication on council websites and noticeboards on council premises, so as to protect applicants who may previously have been abused.

Bill Kidd

I thank the member for raising that subject, which was discussed in committee. A number of people raised concerns with us about security and safety, which have been long-term issues. The committee is pleased that the minister has agreed to address the matter as soon as possible. He is in the chamber, and I am sure that he listened to what Mr Lyle said about the wider aspect.

The committee also noted that there will continue to be scope to reform the electoral system in the future. For example, there is a need to address the important issue of under-registration. The committee was supportive of the idea of reviewing the multimember ward system for local government elections, too.

The Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill proposes a range of changes to electoral law covering Scottish Parliament and local government elections, and those proposals have been broadly welcomed. On that basis, the committee was content to recommend to Parliament that the general principles of the bill be agreed to.

16:25  



Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

Broadly, we welcome the bill, and we will be supporting it at stage 1. It contains mainly technical, but nonetheless important, changes to aspects of electoral law.

I will confine my remarks to three areas, in each of which there are a number of questions for the minister to reflect on as the bill progresses—namely, parliamentary terms, two-member council wards, and electronic voting and voter participation. My hope is that the minister will want to engage constructively with us, and indeed with members across the chamber, on our concerns about those aspects of the bill as it progresses through the legislative process.

I will talk first about parliamentary terms. This session, the Parliament will sit for a maximum of five years, as was the case in the previous session. That reflects the change of the norm at UK level, from four-year sessions to five-year sessions—a change that moved from convention to law in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Speaking personally, I regret that change. I prefer four-year terms to five-year terms, but that ship would appear to have sailed, although—who knows—it may yet sail back.

What is important—here, as in all matters of electoral law—is that the interests of the voter are paramount. I suspect that what the voter wants is clarity. In that sense, it matters less whether terms are four years or five years; it matters more that the issue is clear and beyond unnecessary doubt.

It also matters that this session of Parliament should not set its own limits. The length of this session was set before the 2016 election; the length of the next session should be set now, and not after the 2021 election. There is no controversy on those matters. Therefore, in principle, I support the move made in sections 1 and 2 of the bill to fix the terms at five years for both the Scottish Parliament and local government in Scotland.

However, there is one fly in the ointment—and this is the matter on which I would like the minister to reflect. If the reform in sections 1 and 2 of the bill is happening because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, what will the Scottish ministers do when, or if, that act is repealed? I suspect that its days are numbered. Most commentators think that it has not worked—after all, we have had not one but two early general elections since the act came into force. The fixed terms of the UK Parliament do not seem to be particularly fixed, and, of course, the current Conservative Government has a manifesto commitment to repeal the act. How does the minister think that we should reflect that rather fluid picture as we debate and deliberate on section 1 of the bill?

I turn to two-member council wards. As the law stands, all council wards in Scotland have either three or four councillors. The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 allows the creation of one or two-member wards in the islands. That makes good sense. However, section 4 of the bill would allow the creation of two, three, four or five-member wards in any council area in Scotland.

As we have heard from its convener and read in its stage 1 report, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee supported that proposal, but it voiced concerns, reflected in the evidence that it received, that the degree of flexibility envisaged in section 4 is not an unalloyed good and that it comes with some potentially negative consequences, which need to be carefully thought about. I urge the minister to take those concerns seriously.

In particular, the worry is this. Two-member wards may be desirable in some sparsely populated areas that have strong community boundaries, but—and it is a big but—proportionality between votes cast and seats won is the explicit objective of the single transferable vote system that we now use in Scotland for local government elections, and two-member wards make the achievement of that proportionality much more difficult than is the case with larger, multimember wards.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Will the member take an intervention?

Adam Tomkins

Let me finish my point and then I will let Mr Findlay in—if I have time, Presiding Officer.

Surely, we do not want the new flexibility, which section 4 of the bill heralds, to undermine that all-important principle of proportionality.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

There is time for interventions.

Neil Findlay

I very much agree with what Adam Tomkins is saying, but the committee took evidence from one academic who argued for very large wards in order to ensure proportionality and choice. What is Mr Tomkins’s view on that? I would not like to see wards of eight or 10, or anything like that.

Adam Tomkins

It is a very odd day in the Scottish Parliament, because not only does Mr Findlay agree with me, but I agree with Mr Findlay—on this matter. We must, therefore, both be wrong. I would like the norm to be four or five-member wards, as it is three or four-member wards at the moment; only exceptionally should wards be smaller or larger than that.

The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee noted what it called its disappointment that the Scottish Government did not commission more research into the matter of the proportionality of two-member wards and recommended that two-member wards should be used only in “very exceptional circumstances”. I agree with that recommendation and ask the minister whether he and his officials will commit to working with me and, indeed, other members who are interested in the matter to craft a stage 2 amendment to the bill that will ensure that overuse of two-member wards is not permitted or allowed to undercut the principle of proportionality on which our local government elections in Scotland are based.

Finally, on electronic voting and voter participation, I am sure that we all want to do what we can to encourage voting. High voter turnouts in elections are better than low voter turnouts, for everyone who believes in the democratic process. That said, however, some of the more frequent suggestions as to how voter turnout may be encouraged need to be treated with caution. Moving from Thursday elections to Friday or weekend elections would have grave implications for a number of religious groups, for example, and should, in my view, be resisted for that reason.

Likewise, moving to electronic voting should be resisted. It may have considerable benefits, not least for those who find access to polling stations a physical challenge, whether that is for reasons of poor sight or other physical disabilities, but other European countries with experience of electronic voting report serious concerns about security. Researchers have found the Swiss system to be flawed, the Estonian system is said to be outdated and open to attack, and in Finland the view has been taken that the security of online voting is not yet advanced enough to ensure either the confidentiality or the integrity of the voting system.

The bill does not enable electronic voting, but in section 6 it enables pilot projects, as the minister explained, which may include some form of electronic voting. The committee describes that

“light-touch approach”

as

“probably the most appropriate approach”

and I cautiously agree. There is a need to proceed with great caution, given the very real concerns about security that have been voiced across Europe. At the same time, consideration must be given to the accessibility of polling stations, as I have already said. Therefore, while cautiously welcoming section 6 of the bill, I ask the minister to specify how he proposes to ensure that any pilots exploring the use of electronic voting in Scotland will make sure that the integrity of our voting system is not compromised by untested technology.

Overall, we are supportive of the bill at stage 1, but we look forward to working with the Government and, indeed, with members from across the chamber on amendments that address the concerns that I have outlined.

16:33  



Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the committee’s members and convener and the clerks who have been helping us through the bill. We have had some very interesting evidence sessions. It is not the most exciting bill to come before Parliament—it is certainly not the most exciting thing that has happened today, which has been a very lively day in Parliament—but the bill is very important to our democracy. The way in which we organise elections is vital in order to ensure that the widest number of people can participate and that the elections are fair, people have confidence in them and they are seen to be fair.

If we look at how different electoral systems work and how different methods of voting deliver results—or sometimes do not—and all the nuts and bolts of elections, we see that it is an area of huge importance, with significant consequences for our country and our people. When elections go wrong, they can go badly wrong.

To see that, we need only look at the shambles of the Iowa primary or the chaos that the country that is supposed to be the leader of the free world and a beacon of democracy ended up in as a result of the hanging chads in Florida—an aged, creaking system was at the heart of the problem, although there was also a liberal sprinkling of corruption. Closer to home, we had the Scottish local government election shambles in 2007. Such situations can be painful to watch, but we should not just point the finger at others when they get it wrong.

We must keep our democracy match fit, and some of the provisions in the bill seek to do that. The bill also seeks to increase participation in our democracy, which is a key aim. All of us, regardless of our political views, want the maximum number of people to participate in our democracy.

There were mixed views on term lengths. Mr Tomkins made it clear that his view is different from that of others in his party. People in my party have different views, and I am sure that the same is true of the minister’s party. That situation reflects the research that was put before the committee, which showed that there is no firm view on the matter. However, on balance, the Labour Party supports five-year terms.

We also accept that, in some circumstances, two or five-member wards might be required for local government elections to enable local circumstances to be met. All members of the committee were clear that two or five-member wards should be used only in exceptional circumstances and should not be the norm.

As I said earlier, we do not accept the arguments for huge wards that some witnesses put forward. The pitch was made that there would be some sort of arrangement between the eight or 10 or however many members there were and that they would all get on well and would all produce the goods, but if we are honest, we know that it is more likely that they would fight like ferrets in a sack. I do not think that having such big wards simply to produce proportionality would work. We must ensure that local connections, geography and communities are respected and not dispensed with solely on the basis of an arithmetical formula.

Mr Tomkins said that he was aghast that he agreed with me, but I am sure that someone who was once a disciple of a Mr T Sheridan can find space in his heart to have some common linkage with a woolly liberal like me. It was good to hear Mr Tomkins agreeing with me.

The committee had a great deal of debate about, and showed great interest in, the list-order effect, whereby those candidates who are higher up the ballot paper because their name is nearer the start of the alphabet gain an advantage. We all know of people who have gone to great lengths—by changing their name to Andy Aardvark or whatever—to gain such an advantage. I recall the use of the phrase “Alex Salmond for First Minister” being mentioned during the committee’s deliberations. Who remembers that? That is an example of the exploitation of the list-order effect. I have to say that the SNP was quite right to do that, because it recognised that it would gain an advantage from it.

The list-order effect disadvantages people—there is an in-built advantage for candidates who are higher up the ballot paper. Therefore, I ask the minister whether he will commit to commissioning proper, decent-quality, in-depth research into how we can address that. I think that full randomisation must be the answer, but that is only my personal view.

On electronic voting, I am open minded. The committee was very cautious about it, and I am cautious about it, too. The only electronic voting system that I have looked at up close—Mr Tomkins will enjoy this—was the Venezuelan electronic voting system. I was in Venezuela as an election observer—in 2012, I think. It was a hotly disputed election in which there was less than 1 per cent between the candidates. The electoral system that we saw operating there was highly sophisticated—within it, there were 17 audits.

The Jimmy Carter foundation examined that system and said that it was the best voting system in the world, which is very interesting. A full manual recount of the vote was done because the result was so close, and it replicated almost exactly the electronic ballot. There are therefore countries across the world that we might want to learn from that we might not initially think would be the countries that we would want to learn from.

Finally, we should look much more closely at postal ballots for all elections because it is the most successful way of engaging as many people as possible.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Mark Ruskell to open for the Green Party. Mr Ruskell, I will be generous with you, also.

16:40  



Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I join other members in thanking the clerks, all those who gave evidence, and the other members of the committee for their consideration of the bill.

The bill represents a baby step towards democratic reform, so I welcome its general principles. To be honest, however, it is hardly groundbreaking stuff. Even when taken together with the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, we have miles to go if we are to reinvigorate democracy, improve registration and turnout, and make Holyrood and council chambers truly representative of the people they serve.

Last year, I went with the Presiding Officer to visit the Swedish Parliament, where there was genuine concern that turnout in elections had fallen a few percentage points from the high 90s. We can only dream of those levels of voter participation in elections in Scotland.

We still live in one of the most democratically underrepresented countries in Europe in terms of the levels of government that operate and the numbers of elected representatives who serve. In Sweden, one out of every 145 citizens has stood for election, whereas in Scotland, it is one in every 2,000. In Sweden, political work is normalised in communities and it really shows in Sweden’s political culture. Does the bill address that democratic deficit? I do not think that it does. It takes a small step towards doing so, but does not really address it.

I welcome the five-member council wards as an option for the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to consider. That would deliver more proportionality, but to represent what the public actually votes for in an election, we would need wards of around six to seven members. In answer to Mr Findlay’s point, we took some evidence on that, and there were some more expansive suggestions that we could have city-wide lists or council-wide lists. Even sticking with the system that we have at the moment and expanding it to true proportionality would require six to seven members per ward.

Worryingly—and I share Mr Tomkins’s views on this—the option of two-member wards is also on the table in the bill. Beyond the islands, where the flexibility to have one and two-member wards already exists, I can see no circumstances in which two-member wards would be appropriate. The fact that the Government did no work to consider the bill’s impact on proportionality is disappointing. I do hope that, 13 years after its introduction, a wider review of the multimember ward system will now take place. It would be good if the minister could reflect on when that could happen. Committee members all had different perceptions of how well the multimember system has worked, so now is a good time to review it.

I felt that the committee disappeared down a few rabbit holes when hearing evidence. One was the list-order effect. I do not deny that it might be real, especially for candidates of the same party whose surnames start with the same letter. It is, however, clear that a wide range of other factors, especially incumbency, are more important, particularly in local government elections.

Another red herring was around registration. The bill makes it illegal to vote more than once and I suspect that most people would think that that was already the law; they might be surprised to learn that it is not. Registration on multiple registers is not a problem. Groups such as students move around, and it is far more important that they are enfranchised to vote wherever they are resident at the time of the election rather than having no vote whatsoever. Underregistration is a much bigger issue that should concern us.

The shift in the length of the parliamentary term from four to five years is to be welcomed. There is no point in trying to second-guess the chaos of Westminster timetabling anymore, and five years allows Parliaments to get more into their stride.

We received very little evidence on electronic voting, to be honest, which I am a bit disappointed about, but I am aware of major concerns from organisations, including the Open Rights Group, about whether e-voting can ever be genuinely secure, anonymous and verifiable. The Government appears to be quite agnostic on electronic voting, but I ask the minister to focus work with disability groups on other methods of increasing participation, including postal voting. I also ask that the Government work with the Open Rights Group and others in fully assessing the implications of any pilot well before they are even considered.

The provisions in the bill to allow attainers of age 14 to be entered onto the electoral register could be a real springboard in helping young people play a full role in democratic life. I urge the Government to help equip our young people with the knowledge that they need about our democracy while they wait for their full rights to vote to come to fruition. It is an unusually exciting provision in a bill that has perhaps been more about tidying up than igniting a renewed democratic vision.

16:45  



Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I do not know what Neil Findlay is talking about; this is the stuff that Liberal Democrats love to talk about. I was formerly an election agent and I would spend hours and hours discussing the detail of the size of wards and how many members we would have—two, five, six or seven. I could last forever on that kind of stuff. We could spend all our time at conferences talking about it, probably along with Neil Findlay.

Neil Findlay

As Willie Rennie is a Liberal Democrat, that is the least surprising thing that I have ever heard.

Willie Rennie

Neil Findlay and I might have one of those discussions ourselves—I might inflict that on him. Adam Tomkins is objecting to that for some reason.

During the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition of 1999 to 2007, we brought in the proportional representation system for local councils. As Sarah Boyack might remember, there was a debate then as to the size of the wards. In the end, we came up with a compromise. We wanted bigger-sized wards to reflect that in rural areas some of the distances are utterly huge. Up in Caithness, the wards are enormous—they are much bigger than many of our constituencies. There was a debate at that time and we compromised on three and four-member wards. Having two and five-member wards would help to keep communities together in more urban areas, increase the amount of proportionality in urban areas, but also reflect the real distances that are involved in rural areas and the sheer number of community councils and school parent councils that are in those communities. It is sensible to have two and five-member wards, although I would probably change it further and include bigger-sized wards. We know that on islands, there is potential to go to one-member wards, which I think is equally sensible.

We also support the cautious approach on electronic voting pilots, particularly for people with sight loss. That is a sensible way to proceed. We need to be careful with our democracy. There are measures that some people are proposing that we should not try out, as they may jeopardise the whole electoral system. I would be cautious with electronic voting pilots.

It is sensible to have declarations on internet adverts. We have seen that Facebook has changed in order to give greater transparency; however, for other adverts, there needs to be an ability to find out who its original source is, so that we can track back and hold it to account for anything that is said.

There are provisions relating to the Electoral Commission being accountable to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. Considering the debate that we had quite recently on the independence of the SPCB, we need to be careful regarding that institution. The Electoral Commission reporting to the SPCB means that it is even more important to make sure that the SPCB is considered as an independent body. I agree with all that.

I even agree with Neil Findlay on doing further research on the randomisation of ballots. I recall that when Steven Purcell was the leader of Glasgow City Council, he almost lost his seat because he happened to be a bit further down the ballot paper. I am not sure that the constituents in his ward really intended for that to happen, but it did almost happen. We need to be mindful of that issue and there should be further research on it. There is a bias towards those whose names are at the beginning of the alphabet, and somebody who is near the end of the alphabet, like me, has a great interest in changing that.

However, we do not support the five-year term lengths. For a long time, the norm has been four years. In my view, there is no reason why we should change from four years; that term gives a regular renewal of our democracy and sufficiently long terms in Government but also enough democracy within our system. As we have seen, in our country, politics changes a lot, and the electors should have the right to change their Governments more frequently than every five years. It feels like we have had elections and referendums every five minutes for the past decade, but I hope that that will not always be the case. A four-year cycle would be sensible. As Adam Tomkins said, we might not continue with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. We might be back in the same position of having to make sure that we separate election years by another means. We should do what is right for our democracy in Scotland and have four-year terms instead of five-year terms. We want to avoid a repeat of the chaos around 2007. We can do that by making sure that we have a system in this Parliament that accommodates any change at Westminster.

In order that I can make another speech on the subject, I hope that there will be another elections reform bill and that it will be more radical. We could have a reform to the voting system in this Parliament. We could align it with the local government voting system, so that we can avoid confusion by having the single transferable vote across the country. That would allow us to educate people fully on the ballot paper. Even with randomised ballot papers, we would have a connection with the communities as well as greater proportionality and simplicity. I urge the minister to consider that for the next elections bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We now move to the open debate. Speeches should be of up to five minutes.

16:51  



Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

As Neil Findlay and other members from across the chamber have said, on the face of it the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill might seem to be dry and technical. However, the changes that are proposed to our election arrangements are sensible and will enhance democracy.

Increasing the term between Scottish parliamentary and local government elections to five years will ensure that there will be no election clashes in the future, so we can avoid the confusion of 2007, when we had two different elections on the same day. Every election should have its own focus and uniqueness: we should provide the best circumstances for voters to concentrate on the specific issues that are raised in that election. The situation in 2007 was detrimental to the message from local government about the work that it had been undertaking, as well as to folk who were trying to get re-elected. It muddied the water.

The provisions to change council ward membership by introducing one-member, two-member and five-member wards to the current system of three-member and four-member wards is a significant adjustment that has, as we have seen, its detractors. We have heard that there are differences of opinions on the matter. However, the key is to allow for local circumstances and local people to make the decision. Of those who responded to the consultation, 72 per cent agreed that, when deciding ward sizes, local circumstances and geography should be given more weight. That confirms my view that that is the right way to go.

The idea “Vote early, vote often” is not mine, but the principle in the bill of one person having one vote, in respect of local government voters who are registered in two council areas, will be an improvement on the current situation, and was supported by 93 per cent of consultation responders.

The provisions on electronic voting will give us the opportunity to investigate the practicalities of providing better voting access for people who find it hard to participate in the process. For me, that is where it might end, because of the worries about folk hacking into the system. That said, I am pleased that because of other countries’ negative experiences with electronic voting and potential cyberattacks from outwith Scotland, we will require further legislation before a pilot or trial scheme can be implemented.

Registering attainers who are aged 14 and over without the complication of assessing a year-end notional age is a step forward and will make the registration process simpler for everyone. More important is that it will encourage young attainers to register early and to participate in the democratic process, and not just for the here and now. Introducing people early will, in itself, be good for democracy and voting intentions in the long run.

Currently, there is no requirement for candidates in council elections to disclose where financial donations to their campaign have come from. In the name of transparency and fairness, I—like most of the consultation respondents—agree that that should change. The bill makes provision for that.

The candidate list system discriminates against people who have names that begin with a letter that is late in the alphabet. Some of the evidence that we received—in fact, all of it—suggested that the mere fact of one’s name being further down the list is detrimental. I am therefore really pleased that the Government is prepared to look at the matter and, let us hope—I think that we can—sort it out.

All in all, the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill will make sensible adjustments to our electoral process and will, I believe, improve democracy in Scotland. That is what it should be all about.

17:57  



Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

Because elements of the bill relate to local government, I declare an interest as a councillor in Aberdeen City Council.

The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has been pleased to scrutinise the bill, and I am grateful to the minister for his response to our recommendations in the stage 1 report.

Broadly, the bill seeks to make changes to electoral law—mostly to reform aspects of practice for local government elections, although it also touches on term lengths for Parliament and makes facilitating arrangements for trials of electronic voting, among other things.

I welcome making permanent the change to five-year terms for Parliament. That will provide certainty and sufficient time for the Government of the day to progress its policy objectives.

I support the move to enable the Local Government Boundary Commission to introduce two-member and five-member wards where appropriate, although I hope that more is done on assessing the effect that that would have on the proportionality of votes that are cast at elections and on wards won.

I am generally supportive of examining whether electronic voting would boost political engagement. However, we should be very careful, because any action that we take should have the validity of election results as its first priority. Nonetheless, I advocate that we work towards electronic counting; it has always struck me as being rather absurd that we sit there counting by hand when we have electronic machines that could do it for us.

I will focus the remainder of my remarks on a few areas in which there appears to be a difference between the approach that is set out in the report and the thinking of the Scottish Government. I note that the Government has supported the majority of the recommendations, and I am glad that ministers will lodge appropriate amendments at stage 2. However, it appears to be the case that there are alternative viewpoints on a couple of issues. They are not areas of huge disagreement—they are simply matters on which further reflection will be required.

One committee recommendation was that further consideration be given to the effect of postal ballots on turnout. However, it appears from the minister’s letter that the Government is hesitant to commit to such work. I hope that the minister will reconsider that, because postal votes are a valuable aspect of our electoral system. If they would boost engagement, we should reconsider them.

In addition, I am glad that the minister has agreed to consider again increasing the maximum fine for breaching election expenditure rules, which would ensure welcome consistency with the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020.

One element that was discussed in the committee but is not included in the bill is a review of multimember wards in order to improve electoral practice and administration. The Scottish Government has stated that there is not sufficient time in the current parliamentary session to consider the issue in depth. That is a fair assessment, but given my first-hand experience in the matter, I implore those who are in Parliament after the next election to make the issue a priority, so that Parliament does all that it can to ensure that local government works as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In particular, proportionality should be examined. We know that it improves with higher councillor numbers per ward, but following that through to its natural conclusion could mean wards being replaced with area-wide proportional representation lists, which would not help the public to interact with their representatives. Perhaps a solution can be found that is based on the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament, in order to give ward and authority-wide mandates that more accurately reflect the electorate’s views.

The bill includes a couple of things that might require amendment at later stages, but I endorse the conclusion of the stage 1 report that the changes are broadly acceptable. With that in mind, I am happy for the bill to proceed and will vote accordingly on the motion, later today.

17:01  



Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

Like colleagues in the chamber, I think that the bill represents a welcome opportunity to consider how we can improve our electoral process. As the Electoral Reform Society stated in its evidence to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee,

“Meaningful, and more inclusive, participation should absolutely be the cornerstone of electoral reform”.

The society also highlighted that the reforms that are before us are not

“in any way enough to achieve a democracy fit for 21st Century Scotland”

and pressed for us to ensure that any amendments that are made to the electoral system through the bill are reviewed when the outcome of the local governance review comes before Parliament. That is not to speak against the bill; it is to say that we should view it in a wider context.

The bill makes modest changes, and the Labour Party will support its general principles. We welcome the cap on spending in local government elections and the action on online advertising, which will bring Scotland into line with the rest of the UK on that issue. We also welcome the change to allow those who are aged 14 and over to join the electoral register, which several members have mentioned. That must be backed up with increased work in our schools to ensure that young people are aware of local government and how it interacts with their lives.

When the Parliament was set up, there was a huge effort in that regard, and that has continued. Those of us who have hosted school visits to the Parliament know that there is interaction, that teachers are interested in what we do and that young people are engaged. The challenge is to achieve real engagement in school so that young people want to get active, to vote and potentially to stand as candidates. I hope that the changes will be important and will be followed through with education in order to improve voter turnout among young people. The changes could serve as an example for UK elections.

We have some reservations about the bill. Quite a few members have mentioned electronic voting. We have heard about problems across Europe and in the US and the fact that electronic voting does not increase participation. Electronic voting can be problematic, and it can cause staffing issues in polling stations. As we have heard, in one or two parts of Europe, electronic voting has not worked. For example, after the introduction of electronic voting in Belgium, where voting is compulsory, voting numbers dropped. We need to look at the issue in a bit more depth, and stage 2 could be a good opportunity to do so.

We want to modernise the process of voting, but there is an issue with the integrity of the process, which is paramount. Electronic voting will potentially make the process more streamlined but, if big organisations such as banks and other financial institutions are not safe from cyberattack with all the budgets that they have, we really have to flag up a concern that there could be issues. Neil Findlay’s and Mark Ruskell’s suggestions about postal ballots are worth looking at in considering how to encourage people to get involved.

Another area that was discussed is the numbers of councillors in council wards and the concern about underrepresentation. It has not been mentioned so far that we are one of the most underrepresented countries in the world. We have only one elected representative for every 4,270 people. On one level, moving to two and five-member wards gives flexibility, and it has been welcomed by some, but the comments today—

Tom Mason

Will the member take an intervention?

Sarah Boyack

Yes, briefly.

Tom Mason

Is it the case that up to very recently—when we left the European Union—every member of the Scottish community had 19 elected representatives?

Sarah Boyack

We do not have the same level of local representation that there is in the rest of the EU.

Everybody has focused on proportionality, which I totally agree with. Another issue is the capacity of councillors to represent people in what can be incredibly large wards—that is clearly an issue in island and remote and rural communities. There is also the issue of whether we could have more councillors in our communities, rather than just focusing on the number of wards in terms of proportionality. Bringing those two issues together might be another way to look at them. It was interesting to hear reservations from Bill Kidd and colleagues in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, because they paralleled the reservations that came up in the Local Government and Communities Committee when we looked at the issue.

Finally, I will talk about representation. Alongside the bill, we have talked about encouraging young people to vote. There is a broader issue to do with encouraging everybody to vote. The numbers participating in local government elections are very low in comparison with the numbers participating in either Scottish Parliament or UK elections. There is a need to encourage people to get involved in local elections and local government. When we look at the sizes of wards and the numbers of people standing in wards, we should be thinking about participation and encouraging people to get involved. When we look at the parity of representation between women and men in Scotland, we see that only 30.5 per cent of local government representatives are women. We should be looking to improve that—it is not good enough.

Let us get the details of the bill right and use the opportunity of having the debate on the bill to encourage greater numbers of young people to vote and to think about how we encourage young people and people from underrepresented groups to become candidates and, potentially, elected representatives. The bill is an opportunity. Although it cannot do everything, I ask the minister to think about—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You will have to be quick.

Sarah Boyack

I ask the minister to have a look at multimember wards, which have been mentioned by a couple of members, and do a proper review of how they have worked and the range of changes that could be made to increase representation.

17:07  



Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in the stage 1 debate on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. As we know, the bill is part of a package of measures that are intended to update our electoral processes, alongside the related but distinct bill, the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill. It is probably fair to say that the latter bill, which deals with issues of franchise and so forth, has perhaps attracted a wee bit more attention than the drier—as they have been described—provisions of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. However, the reforms that are proposed are nonetheless important.

As we have heard, the bill covers a number of key technical issues that underpin our electoral processes. First, it is proposed in the bill—I understand that the Government’s position is still unclear, but the minister can clarify—that we move to a five-year electoral cycle for the Scottish Parliament and local government. That would be moving away from the present statutory position of four years. I have heard what members have said on that, and not everybody is in agreement. I think that it is entirely reasonable to move to five years and that it would help to facilitate longer-term policy planning and, I hope, greater consultation, which is important.

The bill will provide the new boundary commission with the necessary discretion to establish two or five-member local government wards where special local circumstances pertain. I have heard in the debate that that discretion should be exercised carefully to ensure that we do not unduly risk proportionality issues. The view has also been expressed that a two-member ward has resilience risks, for example if one of the two members becomes ill or otherwise incapacitated. In broad-brush terms, the possibility of a two-member ward is important to reflect the diversity of Scotland and underline the important fact that one size does not fit all.

The bill also sets forth a series of proposals that will amend the way in which the Electoral Commission carries out its work. There are provisions that will extend the role of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland to cover Scottish parliamentary elections. There are provisions on rules on election expenses returns and the important issue of donations for local government elections.

There are also provisions that will provide enabling powers to carry out exploratory trials or pilots for electronic voting in local government elections. There is to be a further debate on electronic voting. There are many potential positives but also an awful lot of issues that require to be addressed in detail to provide voters with the assurance that their vote is secure and will be fairly counted. We are not there yet, by any stretch of the imagination, but I welcome exploratory trials to consider improving the accessibility of voting for people with disabilities.

In addition to the work of the lead committee, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, the committee on which I sit, the Local Government and Communities Committee, looked at the bill and held an evidence session with Ronnie Hinds of the Local Government Boundary Commission, as it is currently called, and Jonathon Shafi of the Electoral Reform Society. We had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion with them on matters relating to the bill and on wider issues relating to the subject matter. As far as the bill itself is concerned, I am pleased to note that the minister has responded positively to the recommendation that was made, including by our committee following the evidence from Ronnie Hinds, that we move to 15-year cycles for local government boundary reviews.

We also held an interesting discussion on the important issue of council by-elections. In effect, those take place at present using the alternative vote method, given that there is normally only one vacancy to be filled. That is far from ideal. The Local Government and Communities Committee has suggested that the issue merits further consideration. I note that the minister in his reply to the convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee indicated a willingness to engage in further discussions on possible reforms here. I look forward to those discussions.

Another wider issue that has been referred to this afternoon and on which the Local Government and Communities Committee would welcome further engagement is the system of multimember wards. It has been 15 years or so since the passing of the relevant legislation introducing the system. It may be that we review that system at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Aside from those comments, I am very pleased to support the principles of the bill at stage 1.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to closing speeches.

17:13  



Neil Findlay

At the beginning of the debate, Gil Paterson made an important point about the desire to see every election have its own focus. That is right. When elections are coupled together, the local government elections—as is always the case with local government—get shoved down the agenda. It should not be like that.

Some issues that were raised in the debate are very interesting. Adam Tomkins was right about voters needing clarity and certainty. That is absolutely the case in any election. Where there is uncertainty, it undermines the whole democratic process. The point about no Parliament setting its own term is equally important—that should never happen.

There is a question about what would happen to the bill—any future bill would have to take this into account—if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was repealed. Who knows what the situation would be then? I would be interested to hear the minister’s response to that point.

We have heard quite a lot of comment on four and five-year terms, which reflects the differences of opinion between members. Perhaps a four-and-a-half-year term would be the answer. Who knows?

A number of views were expressed on two and five-member wards. I can picture Willie Rennie on “Mastermind”, with ward size as his specialist subject. Indeed, I can see him at the Liberal Democrat conference—him and Alex Cole-Hamilton, up all night with their peppermint teas and in their Lib Dem onesies—discussing the intricacies of ward sizes. Meanwhile, Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott would be holding up the bar. I am not quite sure where Mike Rumbles would be—he would probably be locked outside so that he could not influence anybody.

Richard Lyle was right to raise the issue of candidate addresses. There is a balance to be struck between openness and transparency and personal security. I do not know where the line should fall, but it is a legitimate question.

Richard Lyle

My point was about a candidate that I know of, who was formerly abused by her husband. She was distraught when her new address was published by the council.

Neil Findlay

That is an unintended consequence. We might not think about such things happening, so it was a legitimate point to raise.

Tom Mason raised the point about our being represented by 19 people when we had all the MEPs. My only response to that is that I can never get my head around the fact that, at one point, one of them was David Coburn.

Prior to our starting work on the bill, I did not know that someone could register to vote more than once—every day is a school day on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. There are practical issues about how we address that situation and ensure that it is not abused.

Sarah Boyack raised some excellent points about voter education and engagement, which is key. When I was on West Lothian Council, we had an excellent voter education team that did a lot of work out in the community—in shopping centres, schools and so on—to sign people up to vote. However, all those services have gone. That team worked around the electoral cycle, not just at election time. They did that work throughout the year and were skilled at it. In the culls caused by local government cuts, many such services have been dismantled and we are the poorer for it. Local government should be the building block of our democracy, but it is often undervalued and underrated, and councillors are underpaid.

Graeme Dey said that the Parliament should have its say on electronic voting, which is right, although there are issues around its costs and practicalities. I can picture in my mind another public sector information technology project, which sends a shiver down my back. If we are going to move towards electronic voting, we will need to move with caution, but I am open-minded about it.

The bill is about widening access to voting and democracy. Hopefully, we can develop that as the bill goes through the parliamentary process.

17:18  



Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I give my regular thanks to our committee clerking team for their support in the preparation of the stage 1 report that we are debating. I also thank the members and clerks of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their contribution to the process.

The bill that is before us is wide ranging, and our committee has contributed a considerable body of detailed work on each of the topics that are covered. Our convener, Bill Kidd, has already provided an overview of the committee’s position and our support for the principles of the bill, so I will address a few of the issues that continue to arise.

On term lengths, it is apparent to me that we have gone too long without answering the questions that have arisen from, initially, the 2011 act and the broader trend towards five-year legislative sessions. The Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies have already broadly accepted that principle. It is rendered slightly problematic by the fact that, as other members have said, we have lived through three general elections at UK level in the past five years. The reality is simply that, to avoid election clashes, a level of flexibility will be required.

The bill also contains provisions that relate to postponing elections for the Parliament. The committee weighed the benefits of being able to respond to unforeseen consequences against the breadth of the power that is being given to the Presiding Officer. Again, a degree of flexibility is required, but we should be wary of pulling the Presiding Officer into areas of potential controversy, particularly when there could be heightened tensions during an election campaign and when a Presiding Officer might be seeking re-election in their own constituency.

As I am a Highlands and Islands MSP, an issue of more local relevance to me is the provisions around council wards. I come from the islands, where special rules are already in place, and it is clear to me that what the bill proposes has some merit for our remote and rural communities. Local government should reflect local needs rather than there being a one-size-fits-all approach. Deviation should be possible where there are strong and considered arguments in its favour.

When multimember wards were introduced—often spanning several communities—the link between place and representation became weaker. A reformed approach at the community council level could have gone some way towards addressing the issue, but that has not happened. However, the committee concluded that there was a lack of evidence from the Scottish Government on the effect of two-member wards on proportionality.

The committee also considered the provisions that relate to voting in more than one local authority election on the same day. As we set out, it remains difficult to see how such a law would be enforced effectively without changes to registration arrangements. The committee has not taken a position on the way forward in that regard, but it has at least set out its thinking, and the Scottish Government has ruled out a single-register approach.

We have had several discussions in the chamber on the question of electronic voting. For regions such as mine, there are clear benefits but also clear disadvantages to the potential approaches that have been suggested. The Scottish Government has recognised that work in the area is at an early stage, which is welcome, and I would encourage the Government to have a fuller debate in the Parliament before any significant change in policy is set in motion.

I will touch briefly on the powers of the Electoral Commission. The committee has looked at consistency with regard to referendums and the different levels of penalty that are available to the Electoral Commission when election or referendum laws are breached. The Scottish Government outlined in its response sympathy for the committee’s arguments and that it intends to clarify potential ways forward, which is a positive approach.

Another area of consistency between elections and referendums is the Electoral Commission’s investigatory powers. It is my view that they should be the same for both of those electoral events. The Scottish Government has, quite reasonably, set out the reservations that apply in those areas. However, if parity of approach is broadly accepted, there is surely scope for raising the issue with the UK Government and exploring matters in a co-operative spirit.

My colleague Adam Tomkins highlighted our support in principle for the bill and the need to provide clarity for voters, particularly around the issue of term lengths. He also raised the issue, as I have, of concerns about the impact on proportionality of the proposal for smaller, two-member wards, which the committee also had concerns about. Tom Mason highlighted concerns about the effect of two-member wards on proportionality and referred to his experiences as a councillor and how the proposed changes might impact on local communities.

There were other positive contributions to the debate from various members. Neil Findlay and Adam Tomkins surprised each other by finding areas of agreement. Willie Rennie surprised no one by highlighting just how excited the Lib Dems can get about this sort of thing. Adam Tomkins also spoke about the security of electronic voting. I still have concerns about the security of that voting process. I had hoped to introduce amendments in that regard to the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, but I was not able to. I intend to have similar amendments considered for this bill, but I will be happy to work with the minister on those. Sarah Boyack talked about voter education, which is very important, as we must have the resource in place to ensure that voters are aware of their rights, have information about who they are voting for and understand the issue of responsibility.

Alongside the multitude of provisions in the bill, we should also consider the bill’s broader importance, as it would alter the rules about how our democracy functions. The bill would set the foundations for a number of relatively significant changes to the functioning of our elections at both Holyrood and local authority levels. As ever, that will place a burden on us to ensure that the structures that we put in place are not only fair and credible but stable and resilient.

17:25  



Graeme Dey

This has been a considered and thoughtful debate, which, despite its short nature, has been very useful. It has certainly been a memorable debate for me, not only because of the spectacle of Neil Findlay and Adam Tomkins agreeing on a number of matters but because I concur with them, which is deeply concerning.

Members have highlighted the competing views on a number of topics linked to the bill. I will focus on those aspects, and I apologise to those members whose contributions I do not have time to cover.

I am very happy to engage in the same constructive approach that Adam Tomkins took today. He talked about the five-year term issue and the interaction with UK elections, given the possibility of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 being revoked. There is no easy answer to the question that he posed. I simply take the view that we should proceed by planning for what we know. At the moment, if we were to take a five-year term approach, the likelihood is that we would avoid two clashes over the next 20 years. That would be the same approach that is taken in Wales and Northern Ireland. Instinctively, I think that that is what we should do.

On Adam Tomkins’s valid point about two-member wards and his seeking assurance that the use of that provision would be by exception, I absolutely agree with him. I am not sure how an amendment along the lines that he was talking about would be framed, but I am happy to engage with him on that. However, I make it absolutely clear that that approach would be used only in exceptional circumstances and, of course, any proposal would come back to the Parliament for ratification under the affirmative procedure.

A number of members rightly highlighted some of the concerns to do with e-voting. I reassure them that we are at an early stage, and I entirely recognise the concerns that were expressed, particularly about the integrity of the process. Again, we would consider pilot projects, all of which would be subject to scrutiny by the Parliament before they were taken forward. I hope that that provides reassurance to colleagues.

Neil Findlay’s speech was very constructive. I absolutely recognise the issue around the list-order effect and how some participants in elections are disadvantaged. I am happy to acknowledge the need for further research, and I am willing to undertake to explore the issue further with the Electoral Commission, because the issue is not going away and we really need to find a way forward. However, in doing so, we must not simply find ourselves in another situation in which someone is disadvantaged in some way.

Willie Rennie, like Neil Findlay, explored the issue of full randomisation. I get that argument, but I want to highlight some of the downsides to that, without in any way dismissing it as an option. There would be issues for people with certain disabilities who seek to memorise the ballot paper before they go to vote. Members need to bear in mind that a number of individuals going to vote depend on having an enlarged ballot paper in the polling station, and we could not provide that option if the process was fully randomised. This may seem a bit spurious, but there is also the matter of dealing with households that have multiple ballot papers posted to them, because the ballot papers would be completely different.

As I said, I make those points not to dismiss in any way the idea of randomisation; I do so to highlight that very few alternatives are 100 per cent straightforward.

Mark Ruskell and Sarah Boyack mentioned encouraging young people’s full participation in the process. I agree. Obviously, political literacy is embedded in curriculum for excellence, but I offer a bit of reassurance on the matter. Over the past few months, two high schools in my Angus South constituency have either reintroduced or introduced modern studies into the curriculum. In fact, one school is expanding that into secondary 2 in order to get young people engaged in that subject. I think that the direction of travel is already positive, but it is an important topic.

Mark Ruskell, Tom Mason and others mentioned the need to review the whole local government electoral system. As I said at committee, I have sympathy with that view. It has been quite a number of years since that system was introduced, and I think that it might be time to look at it. However, given the parliamentary timetable, I think that we will be into the next session of Parliament before that is possible.

A number of members suggested postal ballots as a way forward. I recognise again that perhaps there would be benefits in trying pilots, but I have reservations about postal ballots, which I explained at committee. I say again that, as we move forward to stage 2, I am happy to talk to members about how we might address the points that they have made.

Richard Lyle sought clarity on the order that I intend to bring forward in a matter of months to address the publication of local authority candidates’ addresses. I assure him that that will cover the publicly displayed list of nominated candidates. I commend his work on the issue, because it is something that has mattered to a number of people, particularly in the circumstances that he noted.

Although the bill addresses many facets of electoral law, the central theme is that of putting the interests of the voter first. I am pleased that it has attracted wide-ranging support from stakeholders and members in the chamber today. I hope that members will join me in supporting the principles of the bill. Once again, I commit to working constructively with colleagues to make the bill even better.

Financial resolution

A financial resolution is needed for Bills that may have a large impact on the 'public purse'.

MSPs must agree to this for the bill to proceed.

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Financial resolution transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is consideration of motion S5M-20364, on a financial resolution for the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament, for the purposes of any Act of the Scottish Parliament resulting from the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill, agrees to any expenditure of a kind referred to in Rule 9.12.3(b) of the Parliament’s Standing Orders arising in consequence of the Act.—[Kate Forbes]

Vote at Stage 1

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Vote at Stage 1 transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The first question is, that motion S5M-20740, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill.

The Presiding Officer

The next question is, that motion S5M-20364, in the name of the cabinet secretary, on a financial resolution for the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament, for the purposes of any Act of the Scottish Parliament resulting from the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill, agrees to any expenditure of a kind referred to in Rule 9.12.3(b) of the Parliament’s Standing Orders arising in consequence of the Act.

Meeting closed at 17:32.  



MSPs agreed that this Bill could continue

Stage 2 - Changes to detail 

MSPs can propose changes to the Bill. The changes are considered and then voted on by the committee.

Changes to the Bill

MSPs can propose changes to a Bill  these are called 'amendments'. The changes are considered then voted on by the lead committee.

The lists of proposed changes are known as a 'marshalled list'. There's a separate list for each week that the committee is looking at proposed changes.

The 'groupings' document groups amendments together based on their subject matter. It shows the order in which the amendments will be debated by the committee and in the Chamber. This is to avoid repetition in the debates.

How is it decided whether the changes go into the Bill?

When MSPs want to make a change to a Bill, they propose an 'amendment'. This sets out the changes they want to make to a specific part of the Bill.

The group of MSPs that is examining the Bill (lead committee) votes on whether it thinks each amendment should be accepted or not.

Depending on the number of amendments, this can be done during one or more meetings.

First meeting on changes

Documents with the changes considered at this meeting on 12 March 2020:

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First meeting on changes transcript

The Convener

Item 3 is stage 2 proceedings on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. I have a considerable amount to get through before we get to the meat of stage 2, so please bear with me.

I welcome Graeme Dey, Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, and his accompanying officials. Officials are not permitted to speak on the record during formal proceedings. I also welcome Jeremy Balfour MSP, who has lodged amendments to the bill.

Members might find it helpful if I remind them of the stage 2 process. Everyone should have a copy of the bill as introduced, the marshalled list of amendments, which sets out the amendments in the order in which they will be disposed of, and the groupings.

There will be one debate for each group of amendments. I will call the member who lodged the first amendment in the group to speak to and move that amendment and to speak to all the other amendments in the group. I will then call other members who lodged amendments in the group to speak to their amendments and other amendments in the group; at that point they will not be asked to move their amendments. Members who have not lodged amendments in the group but who wish to speak should indicate that to me or the clerk and we will make sure that you are called.

If the minister has not already spoken on the group, I will invite him to contribute to the debate just before we move to the winding-up speech. The debate on each group will be concluded by my inviting the member who moved the first amendment in the group to wind up.

Following the debate on the group, I will check whether the member who moved the first amendment in the group wishes to press it to a vote or to seek to withdraw it. If the member wishes to press it, I will put the question on the amendment. If the member wishes to withdraw it, I will ask whether any member objects to that. If any member objects, the amendment is not withdrawn and the committee must immediately move to a vote on it. If any member does not wish to move their amendment when it is called, they should say, “Not moved” and do so audibly. Any other member who is present may move the amendment; if no one does so, I will immediately call the next amendment on the marshalled list.

Only committee members are allowed to vote. Voting in divisions is by a show of hands. It is important that members keep their hands clearly raised until the clerks have recorded their votes. The committee is required to indicate formally that it has considered and agreed to each section of the bill, so I will put a question on each section at the appropriate point.

At the outset, I should say that if we have a tied vote on any amendment, as convener I will vote as I did in the division, and will do so consistently throughout the process.

I hope that that was clear to everyone.

Sections 1 to 3 agreed to.

Section 4—Electoral wards: number of councillors

The Convener

The first group is on the number of councillors in local electoral wards. Amendment 22, in the name of Mark Ruskell, is grouped with amendment 23.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Good morning, everyone. Amendment 22, in my name, is quite a simple one. Its effect would be to remove the discretion of boundaries Scotland to recommend a two-member ward and to retain its ability to recommend boundary reviews of three, four or five-member wards. That reflects contributions that were made in the debate at stage 1, in which there was broad cross-party concern about the impact of more widespread use of two-member wards on the ground of proportionality. In the evidence that we took at stage 1, the minister was clear that, unfortunately, no assessment had been made of the impact on proportionality of introducing two-member wards, which was both surprising and a bit disappointing.

I should point out that amendment 22 does not affect section 1 of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004, which was amended by and pertains to the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. Members might remember that the 2018 act introduced the ability to select boundaries that were served by one or two-member wards. There were very special geographic circumstances around the argument for that, which I totally respect. Amendment 22 has been drafted in such a way that it does not affect that provision, which is specifically in relation to islands. I am still struggling to understand the circumstances under which, in a mainland situation, a two-member ward would be appropriate, but perhaps the minister will have relevant examples that might convince me otherwise.

I appreciate where the minister is coming from with his amendment 23. It is an attempt to pin down a little more the circumstances in which a two-member ward would be appropriate. I had a look at schedule 6 to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, but that does not really offer any more guidance, to be honest. It says that, as a general rule of thumb, there should be equal numbers of electors within electoral wards, but that that can be overridden under “special geographic considerations”. However, it does not say what those are. That does not give me much comfort in relation to how a two-member ward might be selected and what such considerations might be in that circumstance.

I will leave my remarks there and listen with interest to what the minister has to say on the subject.

I move amendment 22.

The Convener

I call the minister to speak to amendment 23 and the other amendments in the group.

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Thank you, convener, and good morning. Amendments 22 and 23 are both concerned with multimember wards in local government electoral areas. The bill as introduced seeks to allow two and five-member wards in order to permit greater flexibility in specific local circumstances. The Parliament has already legislated to allow one and two-member wards in island areas, as we have heard, and the bill’s provisions will build on that by allowing the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to tailor its proposals to take account of local circumstances and geographical considerations.

Mark Ruskell’s amendment 22 seeks to remove two-member wards as an option in any circumstance. I suggest that that goes too far, as the option of two-member wards gives the commission the flexibility that it needs in order to best adapt to individual communities with special circumstances. Our approach has been welcomed by the committee, and 70 per cent of those who responded to the relevant question in our consultation indicated support for it. Two-member wards allow the commission to reflect the geographical and historical distinctiveness of smaller communities and avoid it being obliged to shoehorn a smaller community into a larger one that might be, for example, on the other side of a body of water or a mountain range.

I observe that Mr Ruskell’s amendment does not take proper account of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, with the result that an island community could be included in a one or three-member ward but not in a two-member ward, as that would be prohibited. I am sure that that was not his intention—I think that he indicated that—but that is what the amendment would achieve. That is another reason why I recommend that the committee does not agree to amendment 22.

All of that said, I fully understand the concern that two-member wards should not be overused, so I have prepared amendment 23 following discussions with Adam Tomkins, who aired the issue in the stage 1 debate. The amendment highlights the existing duty, which Mark Ruskell indicated, on the boundary commission to balance the need to ensure parity in relation to the number of councillors per voter in a local government area with the need to respect any special geographical considerations.

I appreciate that some members might like to go further and more actively constrain the use of two-member wards, but it should also be borne in mind that the bill strengthens parliamentary oversight of the commission and that any proposals from it that would abolish or alter the boundaries of a local government electoral ward will have to be approved by the Parliament under the affirmative procedure.

We have considered whether an exceptional circumstances test could be adopted for the use of two and five-member wards, but there are a number of tricky issues with reaching a satisfactory test without undermining the commission’s discretion. Ronnie Hinds, the chair of the commission, has written to me to indicate that restricting the use of two and five-member wards would limit the commission’s ability to meet the aspirations of councils and communities to strike an optimal balance between parity and the other factors that it is obliged to consider. He has also suggested that any implications for proportionality would be better considered as part of any future review of the multimember wards system, and he notes that the likely date for the first proposal for a two-member ward other than for an island community is not until 2026.

I would be happy to discuss the issue further with interested members and the commission ahead of stage 3. However, amendment 22 would remove altogether the commission’s ability to propose two-member wards and remove the ability for island areas to have two-member wards, which was agreed by the Parliament and is covered in section 19 of the 2018 act. I therefore ask Mark Ruskell not to press amendment 22. If it is pressed, I ask members to reject it.

I urge members to support amendment 23, as it emphasises the importance of the existing tests in relation to proposals by the commission on the design of local government electoral wards.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I agree with much of what the minister said. I am glad that he highlighted the comments that my colleague Adam Tomkins made in the debate.

I can see what Mark Ruskell is trying to do with amendment 22, but there are many areas in which it would simply not be suitable. I remind him that there are single wards in the Highlands that are larger than the entirety of the central belt of Scotland. It is not just an issue for island communities, because there are other places in the Highlands that need to have flexibility, should the commission suggest it. For that reason, I will not support his amendment.

09:45  



Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

On balance, I think that I agree with the minister’s position. It seems odd that, if we accepted Mark Ruskell’s amendment 22, we would be able to have one-member wards and wards of three, four or five members, but not two-member wards. Is that two-ism? The logic of that makes no sense to me, so I agree with the minister’s position.

Mark Ruskell

I think that Mr Findlay misunderstands what is proposed. The drafting of amendment 22 seeks to ensure that the provisions of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 would still apply, so it would still be possible to have one and two-member wards, but explicitly in the context of the 2018 act. The minister suggests that there is a difference of opinion there, but I have had legal advice that suggests that that is not the case. We could discuss the matter ahead of stage 3.

There is still a weakness around special geographic considerations. The minister mentioned bodies of water, mountains and so on. There are also the provisions that say that there must be a link to a community. If boundaries Scotland were to propose such an amendment, I think that it would make sense for a statement to be provided that related to the individual decision, which Parliament could scrutinise, because it is impossible to generalise in such situations.

Mr Halcro Johnston made a point about Highland wards. I live in a council ward that is almost the size of Luxembourg and which has three members, but it is difficult to generalise and to apply that to the context in which a two-member ward might be appropriate.

I feel that there is still something missing. Schedule 6 to the 1973 act does not give us much of a clue as to how such two-member wards would be applied. If the minister was minded to continue the discussion with a view to strengthening the consideration of this area in some way, I would be prepared not to press amendment 22. Mr Dey appears to be nodding. He is nodding—that is great. He has helped me to make up my mind.

The Convener

Do you wish to press amendment 22 or to withdraw it?

Mark Ruskell

I will withdraw it.

Amendment 22, by agreement, withdrawn.

Graeme Dey

I clarify that I am quite prepared to take away the idea of providing an explanation to accompany any proposal for a two-member ward. We can continue that dialogue to stage 3.

Amendment 23 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 4, as amended, agreed to.

Section 5 agreed to.

Section 6—Electronic voting

The Convener

Amendment 4, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendment 5.

Graeme Dey

I have made it clear throughout the bill process that the Government is committed to listening and responding to concerns and ideas that are designed to improve the electoral system. I am grateful for the perspectives and suggestions that have been offered by members of the committee and people beyond the Parliament.

Amendments 4 and 5 adopt the suggestion that was made by the Electoral Commission in its stage 1 evidence. The commission is already a key player in our elections, and other innovations in the bill reinforce its role in Scotland. Members will recall that the commission suggested that it was keen to play a formal part in evaluating pilot schemes in local government elections. As we will discuss in relation to Mr Balfour’s amendments in the next grouping, we already have a robust system for trialling improvements to the electoral process, which is set out in section 5 of the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002. That section allows local authorities to propose pilots on a number of topics, including voting methods and electoral communications. The Scottish ministers consider those proposals and, if they are agreed, they are laid before the Parliament for approval.

At present, local authorities are obliged to evaluate the completed pilot and publish a report. I agree with the Electoral Commission’s suggestion that that evaluation role is best suited to the commission’s independent expertise. It is a role that it already performs for pilots in England and Wales and it has previously provided a similar service on an informal basis in Scotland. That the Electoral Commission was not given that function in the first place appears to have been the result of its not being fully established at the time of the enactment of the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002.

Amendment 5 seeks to transfer the statutory evaluation role from local authorities to the Electoral Commission. It will also reduce the workload for local authorities in relation to pilots, which will allow them to focus on the practicalities of designing and delivering those pilots. The amendment also recognises the important contribution that can be made by stakeholders such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland, as the provisions encourage the Electoral Commission to consult as it considers appropriate.

Amendment 4 makes a consequential change that is needed as a result of amendment 5 amending the 2002 act. I ask members to support amendments 4 and 5.

I move amendment 4.

Mark Ruskell

Will the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities be consulted about this, because it is a shift in the powers of the Electoral Commission, is it not?

Graeme Dey

I am led to believe that there has been some contact with COSLA, and that that will be an on-going process.

Amendment 4 agreed to.

Amendment 5 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 6, as amended, agreed to.

After section 6

The Convener

Amendment 1, the name of Jeremy Balfour, is grouped with amendments 2 and 3.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

It is a basic aspiration of all voters to be able to vote independently and in secret. That not only affords appropriate respect and equality of treatment to each voter but preserves a fundamental principle of our democratic system, which is that the ballot is secret. Often there is insufficient appreciation of the importance of the secrecy of the ballot. It is a vital and foundational principle that prevents voters from being threatened or rewarded for voting in a particular way. If their vote is secret, there is no evidence on which to pursue punishment or reward.

Three quarters of people with sight loss who were surveyed by the RNIB reported that they could not vote independently or in secret at the 2017 general election, and similar reports were received following the 2019 general election. Currently, there are two voting aids available to blind and partially sighted people in polling stations: a large-print ballot paper and a tactile voting device. The need to ensure that no ballot paper is different in a way that could identify the voter means that a large-print ballot paper can be used only as a guide for the standard ballot paper, not as a replacement.

The tactile voting device has been the subject of a High Court decision down in England, which found that it alone was not sufficient to enable voters who are blind or partially sighted to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion. The use of either voting aid can result in having to show your vote to another person to be confident that you have voted for the person and party that you would like to win that particular seat or region.

I believe that it is important that the Scottish Government explores alternative voting methods, including electronic voting, that would enable people with sight loss to vote independently and in secret. Section 6 removes barriers in the current primary legislation that could limit or prevent future trials of electronic voting at local government elections. Amendment 1 recognises that the Government is on a journey with this issue, and I recognise the work that has been done already. My concern is that it is not a duty and there is no timescale for evaluating any of that work. Amendment 1 places a duty on the Scottish ministers, but it gives them the flexibility to delegate the functions to local authorities or others, if appropriate.

If amendment 1 is agreed to, it will support efforts to adapt the voting system so that blind and partially sighted voters can vote in secret, like everyone else in our country.

Amendment 2 requires the Electoral Commission to issue guidance to returning officers on their existing duty, but it specifies that that should include permitting the use of such tools as mobile phones or magnifiers. I understand that, at the last general election, which took place at the end of last year, the Cabinet Office sent out a letter to returning offices to say that the use of such tools should be allowed. However, that was not binding and there is mixed evidence from across the country, which shows that that did not happen in some places.

Many people with sight loss use mobile phones to read documents audibly or visually or carry pocket-sized video magnifiers to help them to read. For some time, the RNIB has argued that people with sight loss should be allowed to use such tools in the polling booth to help them to read the options on the ballot paper. Clearly, they would still not be allowed to photograph their ballot paper; that would remain a criminal offence. Amendment 2 would be particularly helpful for people with sight loss, as it would remove reliance on the tactile voting device which, as I said earlier, has been ruled unlawful. It would help to ensure that more people with sight loss would be able to vote independently and—this is key—in secret.

Amendment 3 is an enabling amendment. If it is passed, it will introduce time provisions for amendment 1.

I move amendment 1.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I thank Jeremy Balfour for lodging these amendments, which I will support. It is obviously an important issue.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I commend Jeremy Balfour for the work that he has done on this issue. It gives hope to individuals who have sight loss or are partially sighted that they will be respected in the process. That is what we are trying to achieve. The amendments give the issue the merit that it deserves, so I will support them.

Graeme Dey

I am very much supportive of the underlying intent of the amendments that Mr Balfour has lodged. The Government is committed to breaking down barriers to inclusion in our electoral system. However, I am afraid that there are a number of issues that prevent me from supporting Mr Balfour’s amendments. That said, I commit today to consider further with him in advance of stage 3 whether it would be possible to make changes in this area.

The key problem that we have with amendment 1 is how the proposals interact with the current system for running pilots of this kind. As we discussed in the previous group, rules for proposing running pilots are already set out in section 5 of the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002. Under that act, local authorities propose pilots to the Scottish ministers, who bring appropriate proposals to the Parliament for approval. The local authority runs the pilot, evaluates it and publishes a report on its findings. As a result of amendments 4 and 5 being agreed to today, the Electoral Commission will in the future take on the evaluation role in ensuring independent and expert scrutiny of such pilots. I do not think that the Scottish ministers are best placed to run such pilots. Local authorities have a statutory responsibility for delivering elections and they are best placed to deliver pilots of the type envisaged in amendment 1.

Mr Balfour’s amendments have raised questions around how pilots should be commissioned and the ways in which completion by a certain date can be required. I am happy to consider those points further with him. Although requiring the completion of a pilot by the end of 2024 would not, at first glance, seem unreasonable, such hard and fast deadlines might pose practical problems in the amount of initial work that would be required, including engagement with stakeholders, impact assessments, testing and proofing, as well as an appropriately rigorous procurement exercise. I say that to offer background, not to undermine in any way the commitment to work with Mr Balfour to see whether we can make progress in this area in the coming weeks.

To provide reassurance to Mr Balfour, I would like to record that the Government has been progressing work in this area over the past months. The approach has focused on what voters with sight loss told us would help them to overcome the barriers of the traditional system. After holding a series of workshops in 2019 with those who face those significant barriers to voting, we are already exploring a prototype solution to enable people with sight loss to cast their votes digitally. It is important to highlight, especially given the concerns about full online voting, that the prototype is not designed as a full end-to-end digital solution and will still produce a ballot paper.

10:00  



The prototype, which is at an early stage of development, will undergo field trials with potential users in late spring or early summer this year. During that timeframe, I am happy to invite committee colleagues to join me in a session in which we can experience using the prototype for ourselves.

Amendment 3 would commence on the day after royal assent the provisions that would be introduced by amendment 1. That is fairly unusual and I am not clear why the usual convention of not commencing provisions within two months of royal assent should be departed from in this case.

Although I am sympathetic to the underlying intent of amendment 1, it does not sit well with existing powers and it would not add to the important work that is already in progress. Therefore, I ask Jeremy Balfour not to press amendment 1 to a vote or move amendment 3. However, if he does, I ask that members do not agree to amendments 1 and 3.

I appreciate that amendment 2 is motivated by a desire to promote inclusion. Requiring guidance for returning officers on appropriate tools for voters with sight loss is a laudable aim. As we have heard, basic guidance on that topic was issued by the Electoral Commission during the 2019 United Kingdom general election, and I know that the commission is open to further discussion on the best way in which to share that guidance.

Unfortunately, as amendment 2 is drafted, the provisions would take us outwith the powers of the Scottish Parliament, because the duty that the amendment would impose on the Electoral Commission would be a change for the whole of the UK, rather than just for devolved Scottish elections. As I said, I am supportive of the fundamental idea that is being considered, and I am happy to engage with Jeremy Balfour. I invite him not to move amendment 2, but if he does, I ask members to reject it.

Jeremy Balfour

I thank the minister for his remarks, which are helpful and deal with some of the issues that have been raised by my amendments.

The concern among some in regard to amendment 1 is that Governments and ministers come and go and, although I have no doubt that Graeme Dey and his Government are happy to push forward on the issues, future Governments might be less keen. It is important to put in place an appropriate timescale so that people do not have to wait for ever.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Are there any jurisdictions in which there is best practice that we can learn from in the field of making blind people feel that they are more included in the voting system?

Jeremy Balfour

I am not an expert in that area, so I am not able to answer the question, but I think that we have gone a long way as a country on that.

I would welcome further dialogue with the minister and his team over the next two or three weeks. In the light of his comments, I will withdraw amendment 1 and not move amendments 2 and 3, and I will not push them to a vote.

Amendment 1, by agreement, withdrawn.

Sections 7 to 9 agreed to.

Section 10—Attendance of observers at Scottish parliamentary elections

The Convener

Amendment 6, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 7 to 9.

Graeme Dey

Amendments 6 to 9 are somewhat technical in nature and have been lodged at the request of the Electoral Commission. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires the commission to prepare specific codes for observers at Scottish local government elections. The codes cover the applications process to be accredited, what processes may be observed and the conduct and rights of observers. The codes are of value to not only observers, but the electoral professionals who must accommodate observers in polling stations and at counts.

The Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill, as drafted, extends the duty on the commission to cover Scottish Parliament elections and by-elections, which is one of a number of provisions in the bill that cements the Electoral Commission’s place in the Scottish electoral landscape.

The Electoral Commission has highlighted that there are no significant differences between observing at different electoral events, so there is no need for different codes for local government and Scottish Parliament elections. The amendments therefore seek to remove any need for separate codes to be produced for local government and Scottish Parliament elections. The codes must be taken through a set process, which includes consultation with the Scottish ministers, laying before the Parliament and publication. The change will avoid duplication of effort and is consistent with provisions for referendums and with the approach in England and Wales. I invite members to support amendments 6 to 9.

I move amendment 6.

The Convener

Members have no questions. Do you have anything further to say, minister?

Graeme Dey

No, convener.

Amendment 6 agreed to.

Amendments 7 to 9 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 10, as amended, agreed to.

Section 11 agreed to.

After section 11

Amendment 2 not moved.

Sections 12 and 13 agreed to.

Section 14—Financing of Electoral Commission

The Convener

Amendment 10, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 11 to 19.

Graeme Dey

Members will recall that when I gave evidence at stage 1, there was a discussion about progress in reaching an agreement with the Scottish Parliament on its role in relation to the oversight of elections and the work of the Electoral Commission and how that would all come together. Questions were asked about reaching an agreement that suited all parties.

In the intervening period, there has been extensive discussion with the Parliament and these amendments are a consequence of that. Amendments 10 to 19 make a number of improvements to the bill’s provisions, granting the Scottish Parliament an oversight role in relation to the Electoral Commission’s activities concerning devolved Scottish elections. The commission will be funded by and accountable to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body for the work that it carries out in relation to devolved Scottish elections.

We have been discussing with officials from the Scottish Parliament and the Electoral Commission how best to make those arrangements work effectively. Amendments 10 and 11 clarify that the Parliament will only be obliged to reimburse the Electoral Commission in relation to expenditure that is properly incurred. That has been covered by a revised estimate which has been approved by the SPCB. However, the SPCB may reimburse any expenditure that is not covered by such estimates at its discretion.

Amendments 12 to 15 relate to the date by which the Electoral Commission is required to send an estimate of its income and expenditure for each financial year to the SPCB. Parliament officials have asked for discretion to vary the date on which estimates should be sent. The amendments enable the SPCB to determine that date.

Amendments 16 and 17 address the requirement for Electoral Commission income and expenditure to be

“consistent with the economical, efficient and effective exercise by the Commission of their devolved Scottish functions.”

The bill currently requires that to be confirmed by the SPCB, but we have agreed with the Electoral Commission and parliamentary officials that the duty should be placed on the Electoral Commission instead. That is consistent with the approach taken in the Scottish Parliamentary Commissions and Commissioners etc Act 2010, which established the Commission for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. The Electoral Commission’s activities are subject to the existing audit requirements in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Amendments 18 and 19 remove sections 17 and 18 respectively. Those sections sought to set out audit arrangements to assist the SPCB in the exercise of its duties under the bill. Further discussion with Audit Scotland and the Auditor General for Scotland has resulted in the conclusion that those provisions are not necessary to enable the auditing of the Electoral Commission’s devolved responsibility and that the existing audit arrangements are sufficient.

I invite members to support amendments 10 to 19.

I move amendment 10.

Amendment 10 agreed to.

Amendments 11 to 17 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 14, as amended, agreed to.

Sections 15 and 16 agreed to.

Section 17—Examination of Electoral Commission by Comptroller and Auditor General

Amendment 18 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 18—Audit and accounting officers

Amendment 19 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Sections 19 to 28 agreed to.

Schedule agreed to.

Section 29—Reviews of local government wards and number of councillors

The Convener

Amendment 20, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendment 21.

Graeme Dey

In its stage 1 report, the committee expressed support for review periods of 15 years for local government boundary reviews, subject to the introduction of five-year terms being retained in the bill. After productive engagement with the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland—which will soon be known as boundaries Scotland—I agree with the committee’s recommendation.

The approach in amendment 20 will give boundaries Scotland the time to balance careful consideration of local communities and the stability of recognisable boundaries. Fifteen years should be sufficient time to ensure that measured proposals for boundaries in each local government area can be put in place. We think that 15-year cycles will also improve the bill’s provision in relation to rolling reviews for local government areas, by allowing greater time to consider specific areas that require attention.

It has been suggested that a move to five-year terms should lead to the review period for Scottish Parliament boundaries being changed. I do not think that that case has been made. There are important differences, not least that a review of Scottish Parliament boundaries would always be undertaken as a single event.

However, I am convinced of the need to move the deadline for Scottish Parliament reviews to 2025, rather than 2024, as is currently provided for in the bill. Amendment 21 will make that small but important change, which will allow boundaries Scotland to submit its proposals 12 months before the Scottish Parliament elections in 2026, ensuring that there is access to the most recent and relevant data to inform recommendations.

I hope that members will support amendments 20 and 21, which were requested by the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland.

I move amendment 20.

Amendment 20 agreed to.

Section 29, as amended, agreed to.

Sections 30 and 31 agreed to.

Section 32—Scottish Parliament constituency boundaries: timing of first report

Amendment 21 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 32, as amended, agreed to.

Sections 33 and 34 agreed to.

Section 35—Commencement

Amendment 3 not moved.

Sections 35 and 36 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

The Convener

Thank you. That ends stage 2 consideration of the bill and the public part of the meeting. I thank the minister and his officials, and Jeremy Balfour, for attending.

10:15 Meeting continued in private until 10:30.  



Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill with Stage 2 amendments

Additional related information from the Scottish Government on the Bill

Stage 3 - Final changes and vote

MSPs can propose further changes to the Bill and then vote on each of these. Finally, they vote on whether the Bill should become law

Debate on the proposed changes

MSPs get the chance to present their proposed changes to the Chamber. They vote on whether each change should be added to the Bill.

Documents with the changes considered at the meeting held on 3 June 2020:

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

Debate on proposed changes transcript

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The next item of business is stage 3 proceedings on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. Members should have the bill as amended at stage 2, the marshalled list and the groupings of amendments.

The division bell will sound and proceedings will be suspended for five minutes for the first division of the afternoon. The period of voting for the first division will be 30 seconds. Thereafter, I will allow a voting period of one minute for the first division after a debate.

Members who wish to speak in the debate on any group of amendments should press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible after I call the group. Members should now refer to the marshalled list.

Section 6—Electronic voting

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Group 1 is on voting by disabled persons. Amendment 1, in the name of Graeme Dey, is grouped with amendments 2, 16 and 10.

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The amendments in this group seek to place particular focus on the needs of voters with disabilities. It goes without saying that we all wish to ensure that our elections engage and include all voters. The Electoral Commission already issues guidance on accessibility and keeps it under review, and it is actively looking at how that material can be updated.

If passed, amendments 1, 2 and 10 will require the Electoral Commission to report on the assistance that is provided to disabled voters in devolved elections. That will effectively ensure that all those who are involved in the delivery of devolved elections or any pilots are held to account on engagement with disabled voters. The intention is to underline the importance of ensuring a level playing field for all voters—regardless of disability—so that they can exercise their democratic right to vote securely and in private.

I have discussed this matter in some detail with Jeremy Balfour, who at stage 2 agreed not to move his amendments and to work with me to formulate the amendments that are before us today. I am grateful to him for the constructive approach that he has taken. Mr Balfour, like me—and Colin Smyth, with his amendment—was spurred into action following the report by the Royal National Institute of Blind People on the 2017 general election, which found that only a quarter of blind and partially sighted people were able to vote independently and in secret. We must make progress on that matter.

In detail, amendments 1 and 2 apply where a pilot scheme is carried out in local government elections. Such pilots are proposed and administered by local authorities, and changes agreed at stage 2 mean that, in the future, the Electoral Commission, rather than the local authority, will formally report on the operation of those pilots.

Pilots can cover a range of issues, such as administration of the poll and moves to encourage voter participation. Amendment 2 will require the Electoral Commission to include a description of the extent to which the pilot has assisted voting by disabled persons in its reports. Amendment 1 is a technical drafting change to accommodate amendment 2.

Not all the pilot schemes will specifically involve provision for voting by persons with disabilities, but by their very nature, all pilots might have an impact on how people with disabilities are able to vote. It is therefore important that all reports on pilot schemes specifically address how disabled persons have been assisted by the scheme.

Amendment 10 applies to the reports that the Electoral Commission is required to produce on the running of Scottish Parliament and nationwide local government elections. The amendment will require the Electoral Commission to report on the steps that are taken by returning officers to assist disabled persons to vote. By promoting the need to consider the assistance that is given to disabled persons at elections as a factor in assessing elections and pilots, we hope to address and identify any deficiencies in the current system and to promote fair and secure voting in the future.

I have some sympathy for the spirit of Colin Smyth’s amendment 16 and I am grateful to the member for discussing it with me in advance. It seeks to set out a scheme in which ministers could commission a feasibility study on improving ballot paper design for blind and partially sighted voters. However, the amendment envisages a standalone feasibility study that is unconnected to an actual election. By contrast, the existing pilot provisions in section 5 of the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002 allow trials of such things as innovations for blind and partially sighted voters who have visual impairments to take place in an actual local government election and for their impact to be evaluated and reported on by the Electoral Commission. The Scottish Government thinks that it would be much better to trial such innovations in actual elections.

In addition, there are many innovations to be considered that can reform the way that people, particularly blind and partially sighted people, are able to vote. Therefore, I would not wish to commit to prioritising the type of study that is covered by amendment 16—one involving indents in the ballot paper, in other words—over others, especially without assessing the merits of that method against others, and the likely costs and the time that would be required.

On the technical aspects of amendment 16, it would introduce a new provision in the bill that would be the only provision not to amend existing electoral law; in other words, it would be the only standalone provision. The problem is that that would not hook into existing statutes. The legislation does not have the usual nuts and bolts to make it work. For example, there is no interpretation provision, which means that it is unclear what is meant by “a feasibility study”, “indents” and “other identification method”. The central matter that the amendment seeks to make a provision for is uncertain. Further, the amendment does not require local authorities to submit a proposal for a feasibility study to the Scottish ministers; rather, it is discretionary.

Subsection 6 of amendment 16 provides that the Scottish ministers must lay before the Scottish Parliament a report on the results of such a study within three years of the regulations coming into force. In the context of that provision, it would be very difficult to prepare regulations that would stand up to the proper scrutiny of the Parliament.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I understand the Scottish Government’s commitment to running pilots in elections that are actually happening. Could the minister confirm whether tactile voting, in particular the type that uses indented ballot paper, or other forms of tactile voting paper, will be considered for those pilots, or are those pilots just about electronic forms of communication and voting?

Graeme Dey

The easiest way to answer that is to say that nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out. We have done some work on that type of thing and it has thrown up a number of issues.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, we had been developing a prototype solution to enable people with sight loss to cast their votes digitally. That prototype has been developed to a point where it is ready to undergo initial field trials with potential users. I have extended an invitation to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to come and see that in action. Although we had intended that that work would occur over the coming months, it has, of course, been paused in the light of Covid-19. However, it will resume as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.

Therefore, I cannot support amendment 16 on either a substantive or a technical level, but I hope that I have managed to reassure Mr Smyth to some degree of the work that we are doing and are committed to progressing in this important area for voters who are blind or partially sighted.

I move amendment 1.

15:15  



Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Amendment 16, in my name, sets out a clear proposal to enable a feasibility study into a measure that would help visually impaired voters enact their right to a private ballot. As the minister said, research by RNIB following the 2017 general election found that three quarters of blind and partially sighted people were not able to vote independently and in secret. I am sure that everyone agrees that that is just not good enough. It is an unacceptable intrusion on blind and partially sighted people’s voting rights, and it is an issue that we must address.

One of the key barriers that has been highlighted to me is the fact that, without sight, it is impossible to identify which way to hold the current ballot paper, and a possible solution is to have a physical indent in one corner of it. That, in conjunction with the use of tactile voting devices, which involve tactile markings being placed beside a list of candidates on the ballot paper, would allow someone with a visual impairment to identify their preferred candidate or candidates, which would help significantly more blind and partially sighted voters to exercise their right to a secret ballot.

Although I appreciate that there are existing possible pathways for accessible voting pilots, and I welcome the minister’s comments and his recognition of the need to address the issue, the reality is that progress on the issue has been lacking. Put simply, the current pathways are not delivering. My amendment would create a clear process for trialling that particular mechanism, and, possibly more importantly, a clear expectation that it would be trialled, along with others that could help to address the barriers faced by blind and partially sighted voters.

I recognise that the immediate challenge that we face is simply to enable elections to happen, and that is why, on the issue of timeframes, I have been flexible in amendment 16. The three-year timeframe that is set out in it applies from when the regulations are laid, not from when the primary legislation is passed, which means that the timescales will still be within the control of the Scottish ministers. For that reason, I do not agree that there is any technical reason to oppose the amendment.

However, if the minister’s concerns are primarily technical, he could deal with that quite easily. In his closing comments, he could give a clear commitment to enacting a pilot on this particular proposal, along with the other pilots that he talked about. My big concern is that, so far, the minister’s emphasis has been almost entirely along the lines of electronic voting and that propositions such as tactical voting devices and indents in ballot papers are simply going to be excluded.

Although I welcome the minister’s general remarks about the need to consider how to make voting more accessible, that does not in itself reassure me that amendment 16 is not necessary. Put simply, there is no guarantee that we would have a pilot scheme on indents in ballot papers. That is a move that is supported by a number of organisations such as the RNIB, whose research has shown the failure of the current processes and pathways. I have difficulty in understanding why the Government has found itself on the wrong side of the charity and its members on this issue.

I appeal once again to the minister to use his closing remarks to give a more unequivocal guarantee that, as part of its on-going work on the issue, the Government will ensure that there is a pilot and a trial of the particular proposal that I am talking about, which has been suggested by a number of groups. It is not a solution that has been invented by me; it has been suggested by blind voters who, frankly, know better than all of us what barriers they face.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I want to make a short intervention in support of amendment 10. I also want to ask about the progress that has been made with regard to people with disabilities having a vote. It is fair to say that, over the years, large steps have been taken to allow more disabled people to take part and to use their democratic rights. However, people with visual impairment have perhaps been left behind in that journey. Of all the people with obvious disabilities, they are the ones who still struggle to be able to do that in a way that most of us take for granted.

I thank the RNIB for the work that it has done on the issue, and I thank the minister for working with me on the amendments that we are discussing today.

Clearly, when elections are called, all of us expect go along to a polling station to vote without anyone else being involved in the process and with it being done completely privately and without interference by others. That is not the case for those who have a visual impairment or who are blind. The steps that we are taking today will be significant. They will allow trials in different areas, which I hope will allow us to come up with a scheme to use technology so that people with such a disability will be able to vote independently. It is a step forward and I look forward to see what comes out of the trials. I hope that the amendments will have all-party support.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Labour members will support all the amendments in the group. I think that we all want to see as much progress as possible to allow citizens to vote independently and in secret, as all of us here do—we are not asking for anything more, just equality in the process.

Amendment 16, in Colin Smyth’s name, is a commonsense, practical and pragmatic approach. It has a clear process and there is no reason why it cannot stand alongside other actions that are being taken by the Government. The support of the foremost national body supporting blind and visually impaired people is very significant, and I hope that the minister will reconsider and support this amendment.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The minister spoke about the offer that has been made to provide information to the committee. Would he accept an invitation for officials to come to the cross-party group on visual impairment so that they can have further dialogue about the amendments?

Graeme Dey

I would be happy to come to the cross-party group myself to hear views at first hand, if that would be useful.

There is no disputing the need to address the barriers that are faced by blind and partially sighted people in exercising this most fundamental democratic right. Mr Smyth has highlighted the design of ballot papers, which I recognise as being worthy of consideration—that is why we have already considered it. Engagement with the sight loss community last year highlighted a number of challenges in designing separate ballot papers, including the risk of a customised ballot paper making an individual’s vote more readily identifiable; the fact that electronic counting systems that are used in local government elections might not be able to process specially customised ballot papers; the fact that braille-type ballot papers would not be a complete solution, as we have received consistent advice from the sight loss community that only a small and decreasing number of people can read braille; and the likely high cost of producing indented ballot papers, not least because they would have to be supplied to every polling station.

I do not rule anything out or in, but I wanted to make those points. We have taken and do take the issue seriously. Any change to the ballot paper needs to be thoroughly tested prior to introduction. We need to be careful when planning such work, to ensure the most effective and productive use of resources. That factor motivated the Government amendments in this group, which seek to encourage the Electoral Commission to identify what changes are most needed to assist disabled voters. Rather than being narrowly prescriptive in primary legislation, identifying need based on practical advice and recommendations from key stakeholders seems to be the best way to prioritise pilots and studies.

We had a trial ready to go—it would have been under way but for Covid-19—which demonstrates the Government’s commitment in this area. I reiterate that we are committed to going further to assist our disabled voters to fully participate in elections. I invite members to support amendments 1, 2 and 10 and I invite Mr Smyth not to move amendment 16.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendment 2 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Group 2 consists of minor and technical amendments. Amendment 3, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 14 and 15.

Graeme Dey

As the Presiding Officer indicated, the amendments in this group are minor and technical; they contain no policy changes. Amendment 3 is consequential on amendments to section 6 that were made at stage 2. It splits section 6 into two sections to reflect the fact that section 6 now amends two separate acts—namely, the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 and the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002.

Amendments 14 and 15 are consequential on the insertion in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 of a new section 17, which concerns boundaries Scotland’s reports and their implementation. As it refers to “regulations” being made rather than “an order”, the two references to “order” in section 1 of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 are replaced by references to “regulations”.

I move amendment 3.

Amendment 3 agreed to.

After section 6

Amendment 16 moved—[Colin Smyth].

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The question is, that amendment 16 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

There will be a division.

I suspend the meeting for five minutes to permit the division to take place.

15:26 Meeting suspended.  



15:31 On resuming—  



The Deputy Presiding Officer

We will proceed with the division on amendment 16.

For

Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Ruskell, Mark (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Rowley, Alex (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Rennie, Willie (North East Fife) (LD)
McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow) (Lab)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Johnstone, Alison (Lothian) (Green)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Against

Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)
Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
White, Sandra (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Stewart, Kevin (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
Matheson, Michael (Falkirk West) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
MacDonald, Gordon (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Gougeon, Mairi (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)
Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Dornan, James (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Beattie, Colin (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Adamson, Clare (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 19, Against 54, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 16 disagreed to.

Section 16—Electoral Commission: five-year plan

The Presiding Officer

Group 3 is on Electoral Commission: five-year plan. Amendment 4, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 5 to 7 and 9.

Graeme Dey

Amendments 4 to 7 and 9 make a number of further refinements to the bill’s provisions, granting the Scottish Parliament an oversight role in relation to the Electoral Commission’s activities concerning Scottish devolved elections. The proposals have been developed in close consultation with Scottish Parliament and Electoral Commission officials.

Amendment 4 removes two requirements that the bill places on the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. The first is a requirement to have regard to certain reports and recommendations by the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is no longer relevant as a result of the removal of section 17 at stage 2 following representations by the Auditor General and Audit Scotland.

The second is a requirement on the SPCB to consult Scottish ministers in deciding whether it is satisfied that the Electoral Commission’s five-year plan is consistent with the economical, efficient and effective discharge of its functions, and in making any recommendation for modification of the plan. The SPCB can, if it wishes, consult Scottish ministers, but it is not necessary for it to do so.

That provision was based on the UK arrangements, which are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. On reflection, and in consultation with parliamentary officials, it is considered that it would be excessive for that to be a specific requirement in relation to the SPCB. The obligations on the Westminster Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission are relevant primarily to financial matters that are not involved in the SPCB’s oversight of the commission’s devolved activities. Amendment 4 therefore seeks to remove the strict requirement on the SPCB to consult ministers—although, as I said, it will be free to do so if that is considered appropriate.

Amendment 6 requires the SPCB, where it recommends any modification to the Electoral Commission’s five-year plan, to lay before Parliament a document that explains its reasons. That new duty is imposed as a result of the proposed removal of the reporting duty on the SPCB under section 20.

Amendment 9, which I will address shortly, removes section 20 from the bill. Amendment 5 makes a technical change as a result of amendment 6. Amendment 7 is consequential on the proposed removal of section 20 and removes some of the requirements to be included in any report made under section 20.

As I mentioned, amendment 9 removes from the bill section 20, which would place on the SPCB an obligation to report to Parliament on its activities in relation to the Electoral Commission in a similar manner to the way in which the House of Commons Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission currently reports to the UK Parliament. However, parliamentary officials highlighted the differences in nature between the SPCB and the Speaker’s Committee, and we have instead agreed on a simpler approach, as set out in amendment 6.

I invite members to support amendments 4 to 7 and amendment 9.

I move amendment 4.

Neil Findlay

The Labour group will support amendments 4, 5 and 6, but we will oppose amendments 7 and 9 as we want to ensure that the bill provides for the maximum amount of reporting to, and oversight and scrutiny by, the Parliament.

Amendment 4 agreed to.

Amendments 5 and 6 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Amendment 7 moved—[Graeme Dey].

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The question is, that amendment 7 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

There will be a division.

For

Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)
Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
White, Sandra (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Stewart, Kevin (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Ruskell, Mark (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
Matheson, Michael (Falkirk West) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
MacDonald, Gordon (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Johnstone, Alison (Lothian) (Green)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Gougeon, Mairi (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Dornan, James (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Beattie, Colin (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Adamson, Clare (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)

Against

Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Rowley, Alex (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow) (Lab)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 58, Against 12, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 7 agreed to.

After section 16

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Group 4 is on Electoral Commission: accounts. Amendment 8, in the name of the minister, is the only amendment in the group.

Graeme Dey

Amendment 8 places on the Electoral Commission a requirement to submit its accounts, as certified by the Comptroller and Auditor General, to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, and to lay a copy of those accounts before the Scottish Parliament. The bill previously sought to place an obligation on the Comptroller and Auditor General to lay a copy of the accounts, but that provision was removed at stage 2 following representations from the Auditor General and Audit Scotland. Amendment 8 will ensure that the accounts will indeed be laid before Parliament, but it places that duty on the Electoral Commission.

I move amendment 8.

Amendment 8 agreed to.

Section 20—Reports by Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body

Amendment 9 moved—[Graeme Dey].

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The question is, that amendment 9 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

There will be a division.

For

Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)
Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
White, Sandra (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Stewart, Kevin (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Ruskell, Mark (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Rennie, Willie (North East Fife) (LD)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
Matheson, Michael (Falkirk West) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
MacDonald, Gordon (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Johnstone, Alison (Lothian) (Green)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Gougeon, Mairi (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Dornan, James (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Beattie, Colin (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Adamson, Clare (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)

Against

Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Rowley, Alex (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow) (Lab)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 59, Against 12, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 9 agreed to.

After section 22

Amendment 10 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 31—Changes to local government areas or electoral arrangements: procedure

Amendment 14 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Group 5 is on local electoral wards. Amendment 11, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendment 12.

Graeme Dey

The bill would allow two and five-member wards in local government areas in addition to the existing three and four-member wards. That is intended to permit greater flexibility and to reflect local circumstances. For example, a two-member ward could be used to avoid a distinct community being lumped in with others in a larger ward without account being taken of natural barriers such as a mountain range or a body of water.

There was consensus at stages 1 and 2 that two-member wards should be used sparingly. At stage 2, Mark Ruskell suggested that boundaries Scotland could be required to specially explain the use of two-member wards in making its recommendations, and that is what amendments 11 and 12 would achieve. They would require a statement to be made in the report to justify the use of two-member wards. That requirement would not apply in relation to island areas, where one and two-member wards are already possible as a result of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. Amendment 11 applies the requirement to review recommendations, and amendment 12 applies that to any further review that is required as a result of parliamentary scrutiny.

I have considered whether further steps, such as a presumption against the use of two-member wards, would be appropriate. However, I think that it is important to give boundaries Scotland the flexibility to prepare its recommendations—subject, of course, to the existing rules on ensuring parity and respecting geographical distinctiveness.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the bill will substantially strengthen parliamentary oversight of boundaries Scotland. In the future, its proposals to abolish or alter the boundaries of any local government area or electoral ward or to increase or decrease the number of councillors to be returned in an electoral ward will have to be approved by Parliament under the affirmative procedure.

I urge members to support amendments 11 and 12, which seek to underline the clear will of Parliament that the use of two-member wards should be carefully considered and expressly justified while still respecting the independence and judgment of boundaries Scotland.

I move amendment 11.

Mark Ruskell

I thank the minister for the constructive engagement on the matter.

The two amendments definitely move the conversation on from stage 2. There were widespread concerns that the adoption of two-member wards would, in effect, lower proportionality in electoral wards in Scotland. I agree that any adoption of two-member wards outside the context of island communities should be a unique and exceptional case.

I ask the minister for clarity on whether boundaries Scotland will be able to comment in the reports on that proportionality aspect in making a recommendation to Parliament. That is clearly not its primary consideration in a proposal for a changed ward boundary and the number of members who represent that ward, but considering proportionality and how the adoption of a two-member ward might impact on that for voters would certainly be useful.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No other member has requested to speak, so I call the minister to wind up.

15:45  



Graeme Dey

I will respond to Mark Ruskell’s point. That is not specified in what is being asked of boundaries Scotland, but it is a reasonable ask and it is a conversation that we can have in relation to the make-up of the explanation that it provides.

Amendment 11 agreed to.

Amendments 12 and 15 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That ends consideration of amendments.

Members will be aware that, at this point in proceedings, the Presiding Officer is required under the standing orders to decide whether, in his view, any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter—that is, whether it modifies the electoral system and franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. In the Presiding Officer’s view, the provisions of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill do not relate to a protected subject matter, and it therefore does not require a supermajority to be passed at stage 3.

Final debate on the Bill

Once they've debated the changes, the MSPs discuss the final version of the Bill.

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

Final debate transcript

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-21891, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. I call Graeme Dey to speak to and move the motion.

15:48  



The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

I thank everyone who has engaged with the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill throughout its parliamentary passage. Many constructive contributions from all parties have helped to improve the legislation, which I hope we will shortly pass.

I particularly recognise the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its scrutiny, and I thank the electoral professionals for sharing their expertise, and individual MSPs such as Adam Tomkins, Mark Ruskell and Jeremy Balfour for their very helpful input.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I very much agree with those points. The Electoral Commission has told us that it is really keen that the legislation is in place six months before it is needed. Will that be possible in advance of the 2021 elections? That would be a great commitment to make today.

Graeme Dey

That is certainly the intention. Although we could not support Colin Smyth’s amendment earlier, I acknowledge how well intentioned it was.

I am pleased that we have at last been able to return to this important legislation following a delay caused by the Covid-19 crisis. During that delay of nearly three months, a small number of Scottish local government by-elections have been postponed.

I appreciate that the pandemic has also raised questions, at least in some quarters, about the arrangements for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. It is too early to make any decisions about next year and, in the midst of the pandemic, the public would be less than impressed by politicians appearing to be overly concerned with their own re-election 11 months from now.

However, I can tell the chamber that we are carefully monitoring the situation and beginning to explore options for the delivery of the election with returning officers and electoral registration officers through the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. That will inform any decisions—

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

I understand that the priority of the Government and everyone else is tackling issues around the pandemic. However, bearing in mind that the Electoral Commission stated that any changes around the arrangements of a poll must be in place six months before the election, surely consideration of those matters needs to start to take place now.

Graeme Dey

The work that is going on now will inform any decisions that require to be made further down the line by the Parliament. However, to give some assurance on Mr Kelly’s point, we would expect the conduct order, which the Government is required to bring forward, to be laid in October. We are looking at the pros and cons around all of it now, but it is our intention to do that.

Turning to the specifics of the bill, I am pleased that a consensus has been reached that Scottish Parliament and local government elections should run on five-year cycles. The last two Scottish parliamentary sessions have lasted five years, so that has become the norm, and it brings us into line with a number of other countries.

We now have experience of five-year terms, and as an approach, I think that it strikes the right balance between giving time for an efficient programme for government and remaining accountable to the electorate. This agreement would also ensure that we avoid the possibility of two clashes with other elections between now and 2034.

Expanding the statutory role of the Electoral Management Board has been universally welcomed. The EMB is vital in promoting best practice in electoral administration and supporting the electoral community. The convener of the EMB, Malcolm Burr, already has the power to issue directions for local government elections. If the bill is passed, the convener will gain a further power to issue directions for Scottish Parliament elections. That new power will arrive at just the right time—future proofing our system to cope with the practical challenges that we might face in an election next year.

The bill also delivers improvements in boundary reviews. It renames the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland as boundaries Scotland, to reflect the body’s recently expanded remit for parliamentary constituencies. It provides for a rolling programme of local government boundary reviews, and increases the maximum period between reviews to 15 years, which will allow boundaries Scotland to prioritise the review of areas that have seen significant population changes.

As we have discussed at previous stages, the bill will also allow for two and five-member wards, to best meet the needs of local communities.

Scottish ministers will be required to lay before Parliament regulations that implement boundaries Scotland’s proposals; they will not have the discretion to decide whether to lay such regulations. It will be for the Parliament, under the affirmative procedure, to approve or reject the proposals, which I think is as it should be.

One of the most significant changes in the bill is making the Electoral Commission accountable to the Scottish Parliament, instead of to the Speaker’s Committee of the House of Commons at Westminster, for the work that it does in Scotland. The commission welcomes that change, having been closely involved in the development of the provisions. It is right and proper that oversight of and funding for the vital work that the Electoral Commission undertakes for Scottish elections should rest here.

The commission will also gain new powers, including the power to set codes of practice for candidate expenditure. Following an amendment that was unanimously agreed to at stage 2, the commission will lead the evaluation of all pilot schemes, formalising a role that it has previously played. The Electoral Commission plays a vital role in the delivery of fair elections, and I am delighted that its relationship with this Parliament will be a direct one.

The bill also extends the Presiding Officer’s existing power to rearrange the polling date for a Scottish parliamentary election by a month, so that he can do so even when Parliament has been dissolved.

Those are the key systemic reforms in the bill, but it addresses a number of other important issues. After dialogue with colleagues from across the Parliament, we have today included provisions that will require the Electoral Commission to report on the assistance that is provided to disabled persons at Scottish elections, including by those that are running pilot schemes. We need to meet the needs of all voters to ensure that everyone can exercise their fundamental democratic right to vote securely and in private.

This Parliament led the way by giving 16-year-olds the right to vote in the 2014 referendum and at subsequent elections. In the bill, we build on that progress, promoting engagement with Scotland’s young people by ensuring that they register as attainers at the age of 14. That will allow our partners in local government and education to have early conversations with young people about their voting rights. I was encouraged to see early progress in increasing the understanding of political processes in my own constituency, prior to the pandemic hitting.

We are also modernising our local government elections so that electors will vote in only one local authority area for polls held on the same day. That will bring local government rules into line with those for the Scottish Parliament, and will protect the principle of one person, one vote.

The bill contains a range of reforms that will support voter participation and the work of professionals in our electoral community. However, I acknowledge that many members feel that there is still work to be done. Indeed, I am one of them. As I have maintained throughout this process, the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill is a step in an on-going journey; it is by no means the end of the road. For example, members have raised questions about proportionality and accountability in electoral wards, and calls have been made for a wider review of our council multimember ward system.

Such a complex piece of work is clearly a question for the next parliamentary session, but I am pleased that the bill has encouraged that debate, which might well be expanded upon in the coming hour or so.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill be passed.

15:55  



Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

I start with the important points that Sarah Boyack and James Kelly made to the minister. It is important that we all understand that, today, the Electoral Commission said that it continues to recommend that all legislation relating to elections must be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with. That includes this bill and any future legislative change that might be needed to accommodate or manage the next election to the Scottish Parliament, whether it takes place on schedule in May 2021, or whether it has to be delayed.

It is welcome that the minister has confirmed on the record his Government’s commitment to ensuring that that six-month timetable is complied with, no matter what. We cannot have exceptions to that. We know that we live in extraordinary times. We know that we are confronting an emergency, but we cannot make in a hurry emergency rules that change the way in which representative democracy and our elections are run in this country, pandemic or no pandemic. The Electoral Commission is unambiguous and I welcome what I have taken to be the minister’s equal unambiguity.

We have some time, because six months before next May is not until the end of this year. We have some time during the summer and the early autumn to ensure that our rules are fully in place six months before the election is held. I welcome the fact that that has been said clearly this afternoon.

I also welcome the way in which the minister has conducted himself throughout the passage of the bill.

I spoke about three aspects of the bill during the stage 1 debate, which was in early February but feels like a lifetime, if not a generation, ago. I will speak about two of those aspects today. The first is two-member and five-member council wards. As the law stands, all council wards in Scotland have either three or four councillors. The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 allows the creation of one-member or two-member wards in the islands. Section 4 of the bill allows the creation of two-member, three-member, four-member or five-member wards in any council area in Scotland. That flexibility is welcome, but only to an extent. We all understand that that flexibility is not an unalloyed good and that, notwithstanding the fact that two-member wards, or indeed five-member wards, might be desirable in some areas that have strong community boundaries, they should not have them at the cost of undermining the proportionality between votes cast and seats won, on which the single transferable vote system that we use across Scotland for local government elections is based. Two-member wards make the achievement of that proportionality much more difficult, as Mark Ruskell said earlier.

In its valuable stage 1 report, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee said that two-member wards should be used only in “very exceptional circumstances”. I agree with that. I welcome the way in which the provisions on the possible creation of two-member or five-member wards under section 4 of the bill have been strengthened during the passage of the bill by the Government amendments moved at stage 2 and those that were passed unanimously earlier this afternoon to require the Boundary Commission for Scotland to report in full to the Scottish Parliament about any future recommendations that it makes that any ward should be created that has only two or as many as five members.

Those are important steps in the right direction but all those steps, if they are taken at all, must be taken while bearing in mind that parties across the chamber want to see two or five-member council wards only in what the standards committee called “very exceptional circumstances”.

The final element of the bill that I want to reflect on, which has not been talked about this afternoon but is nonetheless important, is the setting at five years of term lengths for elections to this Parliament and to local government. I have not changed my mind since stage I, when I said that I prefer four years to five years, but that boat has sailed—at least for the time being—because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The important thing here is not to have a largely futile argument about which—four or five years—is better but to ensure that there is clarity and certainty. Whenever we think about electoral law, the interests of the voters must be paramount. That is what the Electoral Commission is there for and why it says that all those rules, whatever they are, must be in place six months before the date of any election.

For as long as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 continues to fix the term of Westminster elections at five years, it makes sense for our term to be fixed at the same interval, so that there are not occasions when this Parliament and the United Kingdom Parliament are to be elected on the same day. However, as I said in the stage 1 debate, it is the policy of the party that won the most recent general election in the United Kingdom to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. I am not yet clear what it proposes to replace the act with, but that important clarity and certainty needs to carry forward, irrespective of the fate of the 2011 act. We should not be wedded to five years out of principle, because there is no principle that says that five years is better than four years or any other relevant period. The important thing is to make sure that the interests of the voter are paramount at all times. We—or the Parliament that is elected at the next election, whenever that takes place—might need to revisit that and keep that option open, if and when the 2011 act is repealed.

16:02  



Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I too thank the clerks and all those who have given evidence to enable us to get a bill that, although it is not the longest, has important points that need to be discussed.

Any electoral reform should be meaningful, inclusive and aim to increase participation. Throughout the bill process, the checks that the Electoral Reform Society set out in its evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee all those months ago have been met to some degree. As we pass the bill, it is important to consider the debates that we had earlier, which reflected the discussions at stage 2 about how the bill might be strengthened—in particular, in relation to those with visual impairment or who are blind. Jeremy Balfour raised those issues at stage 2 and, today, we have debated amendments from Colin Smyth and the minister.

As others have said, the current system does not enable people who are blind or partially sighted to be completely independent in casting their vote, and that is not good enough. Even though voters with visual impairments are now allowed to use their phones in the polling booth—not to take a picture but to ensure that they know what is on the ballot—the guidance was not applied universally by returning officers. Colin Smyth’s amendments, which we debated earlier, called on the Scottish ministers to roll out a feasibility study of indented ballots or other methods that would support visually impaired voters. Although we have passed the Scottish Government’s amendments and not Colin Smyth’s, some progress can be made. The prize has to be a ballot that is secret for all voters and accessible to all. I hope that there is more work to come on the issue.

In addition to that, I welcome the transfer of oversight of voting trials, including electronic voting trials, to the Electoral Commission. That will ensure that independent expertise is utilised fully and it also frees up the resources of local authorities, which would otherwise be responsible for analysing the results. However, at this stage, I argue for extreme caution in using electronic voting, because, as I observed in the stage 1 debate, there have been major problems in other European countries that have trialled electronic voting; it has not always worked, and there are fraud issues.

As has also been discussed, another key concern at stage 2 was the possibility of the introduction of two-member council wards, which we need to reflect on. The Government relies on our councils, which are democratically accountable, to make tough financial decisions—whether to address the fact that there has been underfunding over the years or to look at how they resolve the additional burdens of Covid-19. We need to remind ourselves that, although there have been arguments for change for understandable reasons, the political leadership of our councils can change on the basis of incredibly small margins, so it is vital that we retain fairness in political representation and accountability. I therefore very much welcome the minister’s comments in response to Mark Ruskell. Two-member wards must be used only in unique and exceptional cases. A better approach would be to go for a larger number of councillors in wards, especially if the issue is a sense of underrepresentation, and particularly in remote and rural communities. I hope that that is looked at. Scotland is hugely diverse and we need those changes to be monitored carefully. I hope that the minister will commit to that.

I would also like the minister to comment on how the pandemic might affect people’s voting intentions in relation to whether they feel happy to go out and vote, and on whether there will be a need to do much more promotion of postal voting to enable people who have been shielding or who are still concerned by the pandemic in the months to come. I am thinking in particular about the council by-elections that are coming up—that is a topical issue on which I am keen to get the minister’s comments.

The bill has brought about some really important discussions on how our democracy should function in Scotland. It has enabled us, as a Parliament, to reaffirm a commitment to inclusivity and increased engagement. The challenge for us is to make sure that the bill marks the start of those conversations—not the end. I very much look forward to seeing how the changes that are in the bill come to fruition and enhance our electoral process.

I will finish on the importance of encouraging young people to vote. It is hugely important that we make our elections as representative as possible, and that we establish stronger lifelong voting habits. None of us can be happy with current levels of voting. Let us hope that we can use the bill—and the amendments that come afterwards in the form of orders that come through the Parliament—to encourage the maximum number of people to vote to get the Governments that they want, whether at local or Scottish level. I hope that, in passing the bill, we can reflect on that, and enable and encourage more people to vote.

16:07  



Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I will keep my comments on the bill relatively brief. However, as others have done, I thank the clerks and all those who gave evidence throughout the passage of the bill. I also thank the minister for his constructive attitude throughout the bill in discussing a variety of amendments that came through committee, and that have been debated in the Scottish Parliament today.

This is, largely, a technical bill. Its purpose is not wholesale democratic renewal or increasing voter turnout. We still need to do a lot of work to renew our democracy and to encourage democratic participation at all levels. In fact, reform work still needs to be done in this session of the Scottish Parliament ahead of the next Scottish Parliament elections—whenever they might be.

The Electoral Commission’s briefing for this afternoon’s debate points out two areas of that reform work. One is the need to increase fines in relation to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000; a second is about the inclusion of imprints on digital campaigning, which is hugely important. We saw the role of digital campaigning in the recent European referendums, and we are in a situation in which a lot of the campaigning in the run-up to the Holyrood elections will be digitally based. It is really important that voters understand who is paying for the messages that flash across their social media screens during those elections.

As others have done, I highlight the very welcome simplified registration for 14-year-olds to join the electoral register as attainers. I was thinking about that the other night, because my son will turn 14 in just a couple of weeks’ time. He is already starting to show an interest in who makes decisions about things locally, has been in touch with his local councillors, and has actually got a few wins, which is great to see.

As he goes into secondary 3, he has gotten interested in national and international politics through his modern studies. There is a great opportunity in S3 to prepare young people to be active citizens. In many ways, the generation that is coming through now is the first to really understand what we are doing to the world and the last that can do anything about it. That places a huge responsibility on their shoulders as citizens and, quite frankly, the earlier that they can start democratic participation in life, the better.

I welcome a number of other things in the bill. We had a useful debate this afternoon, and at stage 2, about the importance of including people with sight loss and making the voting system easier for them, whether through a tactile system or an electronic device. We need to improve the voting experience for people, as well as its security.

In relation to people with sight loss, the use of an electronic device is a responsible use of the technology. A wider roll-out of e-voting would not be responsible, particularly given the major concerns raised by a number of European countries that have attempted to roll out electronic voting in recent years. Any voting system that we put in place has to be secure, anonymous and verifiable: paper and pencil is the most secure, anonymous and verifiable system that we can put in place, as long as people are able to use it. The exception that proves that rule is the plight of people who have sight loss, who often need another person with them to be able to vote.

I am pleased to hear from the minister that voting pilots will be brought back to Holyrood; I am sure that they will come under a good degree of scrutiny. I am also pleased to hear that a review of local government electoral systems and boundaries might be coming, perhaps not in this Parliament but in the next one. I agree that the issue is complex, but, after 13 years, there is the appetite to review whether we have the system right and how we can improve it.

There is a lot of work to do with regard to our democratic renewal. I hope that the Government does not wait too long to put in place the final pieces of the electoral reform that it needs to make in this session to enable the Holyrood elections to take place, and that whatever Government takes the reins at Holyrood next time, that there will be a more radical view of democratic reform and voter turnout, so that we can start to incentivise active citizens in our society.

16:12  



Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I thank the clerks, the committee, the officials and witnesses as well as the advisers for their work on the bill. The minister is right in what he has said about the 2021 elections: we need to be cautious and we should not be too self-obsessed about the matter.

The minister has indicated that the time for making a decision would be October. To try to project what will happen in a month’s time is difficult enough and to do that for six months ahead will be even more problematic. We might need to be even more flexible in the current circumstances, because it would be wrong to be cavalier in the event of a second peak, should it come at the time of the 2021 elections. We need to be mindful that these are unpredictable times and that we might need to be agile in those circumstances.

I am pleased that we have returned to the subject of council ward sizes. The issue was debated when the bill was originally introduced and we were in favour of greater proportionality for some wards, in urban areas particularly, to reflect the size and coherence of communities. We also wanted to reflect that, in some rural areas, particularly those such as Caithness, the Highlands and other parts of Scotland, the distances are huge and the number of parent and community councils that all need serviced is even bigger. Having that bit of flexibility needs, of course, to be fully justified, but it is a wise thing to have and we support it

With regard to voting pilots, we need to be careful with our democracy. People have confidence in the processes, even though we rely on people’s good faith and honesty to maintain that integrity. We support a cautious approach to electronic voting pilots, particularly for people with sight loss, as that would aid access to democracy, but we need to be careful.

It is also sensible to have declarations on internet adverts. We have seen greater transparency on that front with Facebook. On the Facebook ad website, it can be fascinating to see exactly who is paying for what, and which communities. Greater transparency of adverts on the wider internet would be a great thing.

It is right to transfer the responsibility and accountability for the Electoral Commission from the Scottish Government to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. That transfer emphasises the need for the corporate body’s independence, which we should not jeopardise in the future with political stunts.

I think that Adam Tomkins is right—there is no clear answer on the issue of having four-year or five-year terms. We need some stability, and it is not a futile debate. For years, we survived with four-year terms, which allowed a renewal of our democracy on a frequent basis. Sometimes, five years seems a very long time, especially in the rapidly changing world that we have just now due to a global pandemic, the trauma of Brexit, the EU referendum, and having several Prime Ministers come and go. We have had a lot of change, so it would be sensible to have a fixed term of four years in the future. I see the possible revision of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 as an opportunity to consider whether we can change back to having four-year terms in this Parliament, which would give us the frequency of democracy that would help us all.

16:16  



Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in the stage 3 debate as the passage of the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill nears its end. I, too, thank the bill team and the clerks to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I also thank the witnesses who helped me and the other members of the committee understand the bill’s many provisions.

Before the Scottish Parliament was set up, I was a member of the McIntosh commission, which looked into the relationship between the new Parliament, the new Government and local government. I was also a member of the subsequent Kerley commission, which looked into the voting system for local government and payment of councillors, among other things. I think that the bill contributes to the evolution of the process of devolution that Donald Dewar talked about.

Along with the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, which the committee also recently considered, the bill is a building block towards enhancing our democracy. That will always be a process, because the Parliament evolves as it acquires more powers, and we have to continue to monitor the efficacy of new procedures and systems. That also applies to electronic voting, which should not be confused with electronic counting. Some of us will have experienced electronic counting—it did not go very well and has not been used again since. However, the time will come when we will both vote and count electronically.

I am sure that most members in the chamber are sympathetic to and can get behind the moves to make voting as accessible to those with sight loss and impairment as it is to the rest of the population. I was grateful for the minister’s letter of 28 May, which detailed that work is being done to develop a prototype solution. Given its interactive nature, the trial had to be paused due to Covid-19, but I hope that it can go ahead at the earliest possible opportunity.

Part of strengthening democracy is the change in the bill that, as other members have said, will allow greater flexibility in the number of councillors per ward, to reflect Scotland’s diverse nature, rurality and remoteness and the fact that one size does not fit all. I believe that the change is important, but I agree with Mark Ruskell that we need to keep an eye on the situation to ensure that democratic representation is maintained.

Some people are unhappy with the move from a fixed term of four years to one of five years. However, as the minister said, five years is the norm in most countries. Having served as a minister in each of the past three Governments, I know and understand the pressures on the civil service, especially on those in the legal directorate, to deliver what is required to put the governing party’s manifesto commitments into competent legislation.

I had a wry smile on my face when Adam Tomkins spoke about fixed terms today, as I did during his speech at stage 1, given that there have been three elections in five years in the other place. The idea that we should be taking our lead from there is, frankly, ludicrous.

There are many other important aspects of the bill to discuss, such as those on the Electoral Commission’s code of practice and the commission’s oversight of expenses and donations. However, I finish by mentioning the great part of the bill that strengthens voting at 16 by allowing young people to register from the age of 14. I hope that we will all support the bill at decision time.

16:20  



Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am delighted to participate in the stage 3 debate on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill. The proposals in the bill make some sensible changes to the Scottish democratic process. Of course, the primary change is to amend the periods between Scottish Parliament and local government elections from four to five years. The new timescale will ensure that Holyrood and local council elections will not take place on the same day.

However, that is no guarantee, as it does not prevent Westminster elections from occurring on the same day as either Scottish Parliament or local government elections, and we have already heard that the United Kingdom Government’s intention is to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. We are not yet sure what it will replace that act with, but it wishes to remove it. Regardless of that, UK general elections can take place and have taken place outwith fixed terms, even with the act in place. Therefore, although the proposed changes make clashes less likely, they cannot prevent them entirely. However, in such circumstances, the Parliament would be able to take further steps to avoid future clashes.

Having served in years gone by as a councillor for a single-member ward, I recognise the benefits of that system, in which a small electorate could have one dedicated councillor. That meant that, in some rural wards, things were managed much more sensibly. However, I also acknowledge the benefits that multimember wards have brought to Scottish local government by ensuring more flexibility with representation across the piece.

We have discussed the introduction of the two-member ward system, which I think combines the benefits of both systems. As has already been indicated, however, we must ensure that we have such wards only in exceptional circumstances and where a three-member ward would be totally impractical. We have also discussed five-member wards, which will be brought in for our most densely populated areas and which will help to ensure a more proportional result for local government across the area concerned.

Those proposals should be seen as sensible in relation to the review of local government. Certain areas can experience significant development and an increase in population over short periods, which must be reflected in an examination of the electoral system. Allowing the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to determine when electoral wards are to be reviewed—as long as that is done within a set period—gives us much more flexibility, which I think is vital.

The proposed change to allow the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer to postpone elections is also sensible. We can see the implications of the public health crisis that we are experiencing and suffering. The current situation could create the opportunity for an election to be managed in a way that would allow a postponement to take place. The fact that the Presiding Officer will have to consult the Electoral Commission before setting any new date is welcome, as that gives us some safeguards.

Members have made some very strong contributions in the debate and throughout the three stages of our scrutiny of the bill. Adam Tomkins spoke about the commitment to the six-month timetable. We have discussed that issue, and I can tell the minister that am delighted that it is being considered as we move towards the next Scottish Parliament elections.

Sarah Boyack talked about ensuring that we have younger voters. It is vital that we engage with young people and ensure that they understand democracy at the local level and at the parliamentary level, and how it is brought together.

Willie Rennie was quite correct when he spoke about ensuring that we are flexible and said that there is still a lot of work to be done.

The bill helps to ensure that our democratic processes in Scotland are updated, refreshed and flexible. For that and many other reasons, I support the bill.

16:25  



James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

I rise to speak in favour of the bill, which Scottish Labour will support at decision time.

As Mark Ruskell said, the bill is largely technical, but there are some good parts in it. It is important to avoid clashes between elections for local government and for the Scottish Parliament. Those of us who were candidates in the 2007 elections will remember the confusion that was created when two sets of elections were run at the same time. The primary point is that that did not help the public, which should be the most important consideration.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I do not want to sound too party political, but we should bear it in mind that, at the time, the United Kingdom Government had responsibility for elections in Scotland.

James Kelly

I do not think that that was a helpful intervention, to be honest.

I will mention some of the other aspects of the bill. It is important that the provisions on donations for local government elections bring the legislation into line with that in the rest of the UK. The provisions that allow younger voters to be able to register at 14 are very welcome, because we should be doing all that we can to get younger people interested in politics at an earlier age. The new arrangements that will improve access at poll stations for disabled voters are also very welcome.

I want to touch on the earlier discussion on the next Scottish Parliament election. When it comes, that will be a very important election. It will deal with how the pandemic has been handled and how we emerge from it, it will be the first election post-Brexit, and people will legitimately raise the issue of Scottish independence. Therefore, it is important that the democratic process is not constrained in any way.

As things stand, the reality is that, if the election were to be held next year, it could take place against a background of social distancing, which would present big challenges to the parties and to voters. A lot of the traditional ways of campaigning, such as knocking on people’s doors and asking them to vote, and standing at street stalls, will not be able to take place if social distancing measures are in place. There could also be an impact on the arrangements for the poll itself. If there is still social distancing, how do we get people in and out of polling stations safely? How do we ensure that the poll is conducted properly and that public safety is paramount?

I note what the minister said about an order being introduced in October, but the options need to be looked at seriously now. There are real challenges and, to be honest, a question mark remains over whether the poll can take place in May 2021. The Government will need to start discussions on the matter imminently.

We all agree that democracy and transparency around elections are important, and the bill helps in that regard. We will support the bill at 5 o’clock, but I reiterate that there needs to be discussion and consideration in relation to the next Scottish Parliament election.

16:29  



Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

As the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I have worked with colleagues over months on the shared goal of strengthening aspects of the democratic process through the bill. For that, I thank all committee members and our highly professional clerking team. Although the electoral changes that the bill presents are seemingly relatively small, the updates have been made significant by thoughtful consideration and precision.

The bill proposes five principal changes, which range from enacting the principle of one person, one vote and attempting to eradicate weaknesses in our system that could give rise to electoral fraud to increasing parliamentary scrutiny of election finances.

The committee discussed how best to balance the social and economic needs of more geographically remote regions of Scotland with the need for political demographic parity.

An obvious change is that the bill officially increases the length of a parliamentary session to five years, which is beneficial in a number of regards. Five-year election periods are optimal in reducing clashes between Scottish Parliament, local government and Westminster elections. Consistency and clarity in that regard has been found to minimise the number of rejected and incorrectly completed ballot papers. Another widely accepted benefit of longer election terms is that they allow for the policy process to be completed and for policies to take better effect on the ground.

We have agreed that new technology makes electronic voting a real possibility. That is important; if the technology is used correctly, it will be able to improve voting for people who have disabilities, particularly people with visual impairment. The Royal National Institute of Blind People found that 75 per cent of voters with visual impairment were unable to vote independently or in secret in the 2017 general election. Electronic voting has the potential to ensure that such people can exercise their right to a secret ballot. For some people, that might seem like a small legislative change, but it will have a big impact on people who live with a disability and it will enable people who have been at a democratic disadvantage to exercise their right to vote freely and thereby fully participate in a key component of our democratic system.

The electoral changes in the bill have been carefully considered, with the intention of promoting fairness and accessibility and increasing equality in Scottish democratic processes. Through the changes, we can build on the significant democratic progress that has been achieved over the past 100 years. Our making it possible for everyone to exercise their right to vote in secret is poignant when considered from a historical perspective. Although there is wide consensus in the Parliament and the nation that all should have the franchise, irrespective of disability, sex or race, we must recognise that that has been hard-fought ground for good and courageous people.

In that context, it is impossible for us to talk in Scotland about democratic rights and the need to reduce all forms of discrimination without recognising what is going on right now in the United States, as people respond to the atrocity that led to the death of George Floyd, a good man who was committed to seeing an end to the cycle of violence. What has happened reinforces that we cannot take democratic rights for granted. It is our responsibility not only to recognise our privilege in the democratic process but to speak up and make a stand when we see discrimination.

That is why I want to end my speech by taking the opportunity to make a related but slightly different democratic statement: black lives matter.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the closing speeches.

16:33  



Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I echo the words of the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and express my solidarity with all those who are protesting against the violence in the US—indeed with people who are joining in across the world. I think that many people are standing in solidarity with the protesters today.

I thank the convener, committee members and clerks and all the witnesses, who assisted us greatly in our deliberations on the bill. We had some interesting meetings.

By its nature, the bill is pretty dry, bureaucratic and technical. However, it is important to our democracy. In a participative, representative democracy, elections must be free and fair, and must be seen to be so. Confidence in the system’s integrity is fundamental to its success. The bill clarifies the role of the Electoral Commission and will rebrand the Boundary Commission for Scotland as boundaries Scotland. I am sure that that will be expensive, as all these things are, and I am sure that it will be money very well spent.

Our democracy has to be constantly under review to reflect changes in society and culture, and some of the provisions in the bill do that. It seeks to increase participation in our democracy, and I think that we all look forward to seeing the positive results of the initiatives to assist disabled citizens in accessing their ballot and visually impaired voters in voting independently and in secret. It is extremely important that people can exercise their right to vote, and that all barriers to that are removed. That should be an on-going task; I hope that it will be a rolling programme of work, and that the minister will ensure that officials engage with the RNIB and others, as they put forward very practical suggestions. It is disappointing that Colin Smyth’s amendment was not agreed to.

We support the provision of five-year parliamentary session lengths. Adam Tomkins mentioned that support for that is by no means unanimous—indeed, it was not unanimous in my party either. People have views on it one way or the other, and that is no bad thing. However, the majority supported the five-year session lengths.

We also support the possibility of having two or five-member electoral wards in exceptional circumstances, as Adam Tomkins said.

As the bill has come through each stage, it has not addressed the effect of list order, which the committee took evidence on. Many people feel that certain candidates are disadvantaged because of the in-built advantage for candidates who are higher on the ballot paper. During this process, a commitment was made that some serious work would be done on that, and I hope that, in summing up, the minister will confirm that the Government will undertake in-depth research, because the previous research was pretty thin. My personal view is that full randomisation would be the best option.

Willie Rennie mentioned issues to do with paid advertising in elections, which is not covered in the bill. However, he made a very valid point. We have seen the impact of paid advertising in other countries and our own, and it is always good to know who is behind an advert.

We had a number of discussions on electronic voting, and people were open minded about it. However, security was the key issue.

We all have a vested interest in the Scottish election in 2021, some of us for some reasons, and some for others—I am looking at Richard Lyle, because he and I have a reason to be interested the 2021 election.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

We’ll no be here.

Neil Findlay

Exactly. It is very important for Mr Lyle and me that that election happens on time. Some people might not want it to, but I hope that, in summing up, the minister will confirm that there is no prospect at this point that the election will delayed, or tell us whether there has been any planning in the Government for it to be delayed.

Finally, I think that the bill missed an opportunity to develop more on postal ballots, because all-postal ballots have a place in our election process.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much, Mr Findlay. I must be feeling ill because I see that you and Richard Lyle agreed with each other. I will need to keep taking my pills.

16:39  



Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

We have missed out on the opportunity to have a Findlay-Lyle pact, but maybe that is still to come.

It is welcome to pick up the bill again for stage 3. I thank the clerks, committee members and everyone else who has been involved in putting it together. As we have heard, it is a significant set of proposals that make changes to our electoral system for the Scottish Parliament and local government.

The bill has been improved by parliamentary scrutiny. I thank the minister for his cross-party engagement during previous stages. I appreciate very much his efforts to build consensus across the chamber and to recognise just how important that is in dealing with quasi-constitutional issues.

I am also aware of the work that the Scottish Government has done with my colleague Jeremy Balfour in developing the minister’s provisions relating to blind and partially sighted voters.

However, we can all acknowledge that some of the policy questions that the bill throws up have no perfect solutions. Many, such as on term limits, are trade-offs between a number of considerations. As was highlighted by my colleague Adam Tomkins, expressions of regret about the move to five-year sessions for the Scottish Parliament have come from members across the chamber. However, the bill acknowledges what has become standard practice over two sessions of the Parliament’s relatively short life.

There will also be other difficulties. We have heard that repeal of the United Kingdom’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has found its way into the Queen’s speech and—by default rather than by design—the predictability that the legislation initially sought has not been found in recent years, with there having been two extraordinary general elections since 2015. Perhaps that will be a question for a future Scottish Parliament to look at, and perhaps the balance will shift in time. For now though, the bill reflects the reality that we live in.

Also at stage 2, attempts to remove the bill’s reference to two-member wards fell. I would like to make it clear that I understand the feelings of members who have concerns about that. They are, of course, entirely correct to say that two-member wards water down proportionality in the electoral system, but it is also relevant that the point was already conceded in the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, and it is difficult to defend one without the other.

As Willie Rennie highlighted, and as I know very well as a member of Parliament for the Highlands and Islands, there are distinctive communities outside Scotland’s islands for which we have, unfortunately, devised few ways to represent them. Boundary changes are relatively frequent events. Local authorities can still seem to be distant, and it has been almost 50 years since many natural communities had their own forms of local democratic expression. However, I emphasise that the two-member ward power should be used sparingly, and be reserved for occasions where there is a genuine distinction that makes larger wards impractical.

I do not, however, want to dwell on areas of disagreement, because there was a significant level of unanimity at stage 2. Audit and financial provisions found favour across party lines, as did the important roles of the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Commission for Scotland in reviewing wards. That has been valuable and there have been many positive observations and contributions from members across the chamber.

As I highlighted, my colleague Adam Tomkins welcomed the minister’s constructive approach. He also raised concerns about two-member wards, but recognised the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s concerns on the same issue. He noted that the committee’s report suggested that two-member wards should be used only in exceptional circumstances.

Convener Bill Kidd highlighted the potential role of electronic voting, particularly for people who have visual impairments, and the impact that that could have on their ability to vote.

Alexander Stewart brought his expertise as a former councillor from the fair city of Perth to discuss the detail on and experience of multimember wards. He also spoke about the role of the Presiding Officer in addressing moving of election dates when, for example, a major crisis occurs. The circumstances in which we find ourselves are a reminder that there is much that is beyond Parliament’s control and our ability to predict what will happen.

This is an important bill and it is necessary that the questions be answered at the current time. It is right to take a cautious and consensual approach when we are dealing with such significant questions, so that we can agree solutions. The bill raises a number of questions that do not have simple answers. However, it is a welcome step forward and will find support from Conservative members.

16:43  



Graeme Dey

I thank members for their contributions to the debate. Before I turn to some of the points that have been raised, I record my appreciation for the efforts of the officials who drafted the bill and have done such a fine job in progressing it since it was introduced many months ago.

As I noted earlier, the bill’s process has been drawn out, thanks to the pandemic. I do not mind admitting that I needed a quick, or maybe not so quick, refresher course before we picked it up again, such was the length of the period that had elapsed between stage 2 and stage 3. I am extremely grateful to the bill team for their endeavours, as I am to members for their constructive input to the scrutiny process throughout. I will pick up on some points that have been made.

A number of members, most notably Adam Tomkins and James Kelly, majored on having the rules for an election in place six months prior to the planned poll. That is what the Government is working towards; as I said earlier, the conduct order is planned for October. I offer James Kelly the reassurance that the discussions that are under way concern that and not any possible delay to the elections, which Neil Findlay touched on. That is not what is being considered. The discussions are about the challenges that would be faced in an election campaign, which Mr Kelly eloquently discussed.

I attach a couple of caveats to what I have just said. First, given the nature of the pandemic, we might, as Willie Rennie said, have to be agile, fleet of foot and prepared for changes as we go along. It could be that a subsequent amendment will need to be made to the conduct order because of the pandemic and how it pans out.

We might also need accompanying primary legislation if, for example, there is a need for people to vote over two days. That would address James Kelly’s point about the challenges of conducting an election in the current circumstances. I say those things not to roll back from my earlier statement or to set hares running, but simply because they are possibilities. I also say to Neil Findlay that there is, as I said earlier, no discussion being had at this stage about delaying the poll, so he can look forward to his retirement from the Scottish Parliament.

Sarah Boyack made a number of good points. She is right to say that the current system does not work for people with visual impairments. There is no doubt about that; it treats them with a lack of respect. The prize is parity of treatment for them. We should aspire to get there by working with them on the best way forward. I agree, however, that electronic voting should be proceeded with cautiously, for the reasons that Sarah Boyack and Mark Ruskell identified.

Sarah Boyack also made a point about the pandemic having impacted on people’s confidence to go out and vote. There is another thing to consider in that regard. Earlier, there was talk about the value of postal voting, but many people lack confidence in postal voting. That view is perhaps misguided, but that is where they are, so we need to be alive to that.

A couple of points were made by Mark Ruskell about digital imprints. We are considering action on digital imprints. It is important that voters and the Electoral Commission can identify the source of online election material. However, I am sure that Mark Ruskell will appreciate that I cannot, in the current circumstances, stand here today and give a timescale for that.

As he did during the passage of the bill, Neil Findlay picked up on the list-order effect. We had a good discussion in committee about that. The committee took the view that there is no point in simply replacing one set of problems with another, and my take on the matter is that we should not change simply for the sake of change. To be clear, neither I nor the committee were looking to excuse inaction: change is needed. However, it must be change for the better and it must not have unwelcome unintended consequences. Again, it would be unrealistic to expect such a change to happen in the current parliamentary session, but it is work that must inevitably be done, and at the level of detail that Mr Findlay talked about.

In opening the debate, I made the point that today is simply one step—albeit a significant one—on the electoral reform journey. Therefore, I want to highlight a number of areas that will become the focus of attention. Richard Lyle mentioned candidates’ addresses.

Richard Lyle

I welcome the fact that—as I hope is the case—the minister is about to announce that the situation with regard to candidates’ addresses is about to be reviewed. To my mind, a candidate’s address should not be published on a council website or displayed on any council notice boards. I made a request that that practice be ceased in order to safeguard candidates who might previously have faced domestic abuse, and who fear the consequences of their address being publicly displayed. If the minister is going to announce that that will no longer happen, I will welcome it and sincerely thank him for it.

Graeme Dey

I indicated to the committee that I plan to make changes by secondary legislation to address those legitimate points. We will not face a council by-election until October, but the matter is on the to-do list, and changes will be made in time for that by-election.

Other issues that arose during the committee’s work were further powers for the Electoral Commission; review of the system of multimember wards, which was highlighted again today; women in elected office and tackling gender imbalance, which has to be looked at in the future; and consolidation of electoral law, which will be a substantial piece of work that Parliament in the next session might need to address, because it needs to be dealt with.

I will take a moment to reflect on the significance of our discussions today in the chamber. Parliament has had powers over its elections and the wider electoral landscape for only a short time, but we have already made real changes. This bill and the recent Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020 are part of a process of reform and modernisation that is key to the health of our democracy. Scotland has demonstrated creativity, adaptability and a commitment to inclusive elections with those on-going reforms. Although we must move carefully, we can be proud of the progress that we are making as a Parliament and as a nation.

Electoral processes, like those of Parliaments, do not stand still. Four months ago, no one would have considered the possibility of the Scottish Parliament’s holding virtual question times and having ministers and members contributing to hybrid chamber sessions via a screen surrounding the Presiding Officer’s platform. However, courtesy of the pandemic and our having had to find ways of working, that is where we are.

We might not have such an imperative driving wider electoral-process changes, but we must nevertheless remain open to further improvement—not least when it is designed to encourage voter participation. The bill should be seen as evidence of our ambitions in that area and of impetus in the journey that we are on.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

That concludes our stage 3 debate on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill.

Final vote on the Bill

After the final discussion of the Bill, MSPs vote on whether they think it should become law.

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Final vote transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The first question is, that motion S5M-21891, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill at stage 3, be agreed to. As the question concerns an act of Parliament, I ask members to cast their votes now.

For

Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)
Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
White, Sandra (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Stewart, Kevin (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)
Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Ruskell, Mark (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Rowley, Alex (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Rennie, Willie (North East Fife) (LD)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow) (Lab)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
Matheson, Michael (Falkirk West) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Macdonald, Lewis (North East Scotland) (Lab)
MacDonald, Gordon (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Johnstone, Alison (Lothian) (Green)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Gougeon, Mairi (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)
Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Dornan, James (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Beattie, Colin (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Baillie, Jackie (Dumbarton) (Lab)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Adamson, Clare (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)

The Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 74, Against 0, Abstentions 0. The Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill is passed.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill be passed.

[Applause.]

The Presiding Officer

I propose to ask a single question on the three Parliamentary Bureau motions, including the motion on recess dates. Does any member object?

Members: No.

The Presiding Officer

The question is, that motions S5M-21904, S5M-21906 and S5M-21926 be agreed to.

Motions agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee be designated as the lead committee in consideration of the legislative consent memorandum in relation to the Environment Bill (UK Legislation).

That the Parliament agrees that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 (Supplementary Provision) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 [draft] be approved.

That the Parliament agrees, further to motion S5M-17943 and under Rule 2.3.1, that the parliamentary recess dates of 27 June to 30 August 2020 (inclusive) be replaced with 27 June to 9 August 2020 (inclusive) with the exception of 2, 9, 16, 23, 30 July and 6 August 2020, on which dates business may be programmed by the Bureau.

The Presiding Officer

The next question is, that motion S5M-21915, in the name of Michael Russell, on the approval of a Scottish statutory instrument, be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Presiding Officer

There will be a division.

For

Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)
Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
White, Sandra (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Stewart, Kevin (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)
Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Ruskell, Mark (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Rowley, Alex (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Rennie, Willie (North East Fife) (LD)
McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow) (Lab)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
Matheson, Michael (Falkirk West) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Macdonald, Lewis (North East Scotland) (Lab)
MacDonald, Gordon (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Johnstone, Alison (Lothian) (Green)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Gougeon, Mairi (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Dornan, James (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Beattie, Colin (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Baillie, Jackie (Dumbarton) (Lab)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Adamson, Clare (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)

Against

Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)

The Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 58, Against 17, Abstentions 0.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2020 [draft] be approved.

The Presiding Officer

The final question is, that motion S5M-21916, in the name of Michael Russell, on the approval of an SSI, be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Presiding Officer

There will be a division.

For

Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)
Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
White, Sandra (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Stewart, Kevin (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)
Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Ruskell, Mark (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Rowley, Alex (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Rennie, Willie (North East Fife) (LD)
McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow) (Lab)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
Matheson, Michael (Falkirk West) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Macdonald, Lewis (North East Scotland) (Lab)
MacDonald, Gordon (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Johnstone, Alison (Lothian) (Green)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Gougeon, Mairi (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Dornan, James (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Beattie, Colin (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Baillie, Jackie (Dumbarton) (Lab)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Adamson, Clare (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)

Against

Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)

The Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 58, Against 17, Abstentions 0.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Representation of the People (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2020 [draft] be approved.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes decision time. We will resume tomorrow at 2 o’clock with virtual portfolio question time.

Meeting closed at 17:05.  



Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill as Passed

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