Draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2002

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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I want to express my concern that schedule 2 still contains the flaw that it contained back in 1999, in that it is still not possible to have a recount of a close list result once it has been compiled from the individual constituencies. It was a fatal flaw in the 1999 order, and it seems still to exist in this one.

Mrs. McGuire: I shall return to that when I sum up. I shall first set out the various schedules and technical details, but I have taken note of the hon. Gentleman's question and shall return to it.

The explanatory note sets out in detail the changes made to the 1999 order, including those made in relation to the candidate's description on nomination forms to comply with the provision in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and a requirement for copies of statements and relevant certificates for candidates to be sent to the Electoral Commission. Rules 27 and 28 have been amended to provide that any party emblems shown on ballot papers must be printed to the right of candidates' particulars. That change aligns the layout of the ballot papers with ballot papers for other elections, and was made at the request of the electoral administrators.

The definition of ''elector'' in rule 37 reflects the requirements of the new ''rolling registration'' system. Rule 38 includes the requirement for the returning officer to provide each polling station with a large-print version of each ballot paper for display in the polling station to assist voters who are partially sighted. It also includes a requirement for him or her to provide a device for enabling voters who are blind or partially sighted to vote without assistance from the presiding officer or any companion.

Schedule 3 contains provisions on absent voting that are comparable to those made by the Representation of the People Act 2000 for elections to the United Kingdom Parliament. It consolidates amendments made in 2001 to the 1999 order. The

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explanatory note sets out details of those changes, which include the introduction of the declaration of local connection for patients in mental hospitals, persons on remand or homeless persons. Relevant changes have also been made to applications for an absent vote. Additional requirements for applications apply to those for proxy votes only, as no reason is now required to support an application to vote by post, as most members of the Committee will recognise. Schedule 3 also consolidates the other changes made in 2001 regarding the closing dates for applications for absent votes, and the requirement for the registration officer to notify the returning officer as soon as possible of any applications for postal votes that he or she has granted. That enables the returning officer to issue postal ballot papers as quickly as possible within the timetable.

Schedule 4 concerns the issuing and receipt of postal ballot papers, and contains provision comparable to that made by the Representation of the People Act 2000 on elections to the United Kingdom Parliament. The main changes are set out in the explanatory note, and reflect the fact that the issuing of postal ballot papers is no longer undertaken in one stage, but can be done at any time within the timetable set by the returning officer.

Schedule 4 also aligns the procedures on the envelopes to be used when issuing postal ballot papers with procedures on opening those ballot papers. That reflects the fact that agents are no longer entitled to be present at the issuing of postal ballot papers, as that can now take place several times over the period of the timetable. In addition, original envelopes do not need to be returned with the postal ballot paper, and replacement may be issued up to 5 pm on the day before the poll if a postal ballot paper has not been received three days before polling day. The schedule also outlines the procedure to be followed for opening postal ballot papers, ensuring that relevant documents are properly collated, and sealing the receptacles used on the conclusion of this process.

Schedule 5 makes provision for the combination of polls. It deals, in particular, with the situation in which the poll at a Scottish parliamentary general election is taken with the poll at a Scottish local government election. The Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002 was enacted by the Scottish Parliament in January this year. It provides that the ordinary election of councillors in Scotland is to be held on the same day as the poll at the ordinary general election to the Scottish Parliament.

There is no real change in the provisions of schedule 5 from the comparable provisions in 1999.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I understand that the provision is made for the combination of the Scottish parliamentary general election and an ordinary local government election. There does not seem to be provision for the eventuality of a UK general election being combined with a Scottish parliamentary election or a referendum, be it a national or local one. Could the Minister clarify whether the provision exists elsewhere, and if not, what would happen?

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Mrs. McGuire: Again, if my hon. Friend will allow me to come back to that, I will lay out the ground rules first.

There is no real change in the provisions of the schedule from the comparable ones of 1999. Part III, which deals with the modifications of the Scotland local government elections rules, reflects the fact that, last month, Scottish Ministers made new local government elections rules.

Schedule 6 applies, with modifications, certain technical provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983 concerning legal proceedings related to elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Schedule 7 makes provisions for the use of rooms in school premises, and meeting rooms for election meetings. That repeats exactly the provisions of the related schedule in the 1999 order.

Finally, the appendix of forms sets out forms for use at Scottish parliamentary elections. The forms prescribed in the 1999 order for use as returns or declarations of expenditure by registered political parties have not been replicated, as they are no longer required. All other forms have been amended to reflect the provisions of the order.

As I said earlier, this is a substantial order, which consolidates the 1999 order with the three amending orders of 2001, with some further changes, into a single new order to provide afresh for the conduct of elections and the return of Members to the Scottish Parliament. I commend the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2002 to the Committee.

4.51 pm

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): It is a pleasure, Miss Begg, to meet my first Front-Bench engagement under your chairmanship, and I sincerely hope that it will not be the last for either of us.

I am delighted that the matter under discussion is the provisions for the Scottish parliamentary elections. We Conservatives in Scotland now have a very progressive approach to Scottish parliamentary elections, and want them to work as well as they can. As the Minister said, that is the purpose of this very detailed order.

I welcome the way in which the Government have engaged with the electoral administrators, and appear to have reflected many of their concerns in the new order for the 2003 elections. This sort of substantial order is not easy for the Government or Opposition Members present, who will have had to take some time to get to grips with the detailed nature of its provisions.

I begin with some queries on the provisions for combinations of polls. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) alluded to one of the questions that I will pose.

In the 1999 elections, not only was a new two-vote electoral system used in Scotland for the first time, but the Scottish parliamentary poll was combined with a local government poll. As the Minister said, that combination of polls is due to happen again in May

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2003. Did the Scotland Office and/or the Scottish Executive analyse instances of voter confusion arising from the new system and combination of polls? If so, what steps will be taken to prevent a repeat of such confusion in 2003?

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith mentioned, there is no provision for combination with a general election poll, should that happy occurrence transpire. The order also makes no provision for possible combination with a referendum on the same day. I should therefore be grateful for any guidance that the Minister could give us on how those possibilities might be incorporated into the regulations.

The practices of local authorities in the organisation of polling stations, ballot box arrangements and counting procedures vary substantially throughout Scotland. What analysis has the Scotland Office and/or the Scottish Executive carried out of best practice among local authorities, with a view to encouraging less efficient authorities to adopt the more successful procedures?

Finally, on the combination of polls, will the Minister confirm that the polling hours for the local poll will be the same as those for the parliamentary poll? Is it the norm for local election polling hours to be from 8 am to 9 pm but for parliamentary polls to be from 7 am to 10 pm? If the polling hours are not coterminous, would it not be impractical and unfair for any electors determined to get to their polling station to vote Scottish Conservative before 8 am, or indeed for those who work until after 9 pm, to be prohibited from doing so? Such a person could vote in a parliamentary poll, but not in a local government poll. It would be interesting to have some guidance from the Minister on those points.

Article 9 of the order relates to absent votes. The Minister will be aware of the substantial increase in the use of absent votes, so attention to detail when tidying up such procedures would be welcome and should anticipate any possible problems. There is evidence that procedures for the issuing of absent vote ballot papers vary throughout Scotland. Can the Minister guarantee that electoral professionals are getting together to ensure a more consistent approach? What about the validation of permanent absent votes? The approach to validating applications for permanent postal or proxy votes seems to vary throughout Scotland. In particular, I know of students who have applied for permanent postal or proxy votes at their university or college; however, in some instances, electoral registration officers have used leeway to interpret the granting of postal or proxy votes as temporary.

Given the increase in the number of people choosing to use postal or proxy votes, will the Minister assure us about the delivery of postal ballot papers by Royal Mail? What analysis has there been of the number of people who applied for, but did not receive, postal ballot papers in time for elections to the Scottish Parliament or to Westminster? It is important that we learn lessons. In my area, there were problems with delays, and some people did not receive the ballot papers at all. Such voting procedures will become an

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increasingly important part of elections, so how much attention is the Minister giving to the details of those procedures? Will there be changes to ensure standardisation in the issuing of information on the procedures for absent votes? It is obvious that different local authorities issue such information in different ways.

Article 40 deals with limits on candidates' election expenses. Candidates and their agents will, of course, spend a lot of time planning their expenditure well in advance of the start of an election campaign. That is especially true in elections to the Scottish Parliament, because the election date is known. Rolling electoral registers are now in place. As a result, the total number of electors can change monthly, which in turn affects the maximum expenditure limit. What leeway will candidates be allowed if their expenses, based on the number of electors, are within the limit in the period before the campaign starts, but then go marginally over the limit as a result of a drop in the number of electors on the rolling register? In areas such as the Minister's constituency, where the student presence is substantial, the total number of electors may change substantially from month to month.

Have the Government considered the increasingly meaningless way in which the limit on election expenses affects constituency and list Members of the Scottish Parliament? I understand the Minister's enthusiasm for restricting the length of the campaign, but MSPs campaign constantly—especially the regional Members, of whom I know many in the Scottish Conservative party. Those MSPs campaign constantly. Can the Minister provide an assurance that there are realistic means to control the campaign limit in a meaningful way? Is the Minister concerned about the lack of action against those who start campaigning early? There is a limit on campaign expenses, but we have to take some meaningful action against those who breach the limits. What tightening of the regulation has been contemplated, but evidently dismissed?

On article 25 in schedule 2, which relates to candidates for return as regional Members, can the Minister clarify what the position would be if, after the close of nominations, a candidate who had been included on a registered political party's regional list defected to a different party? The Minister might not have given much thought to that, but I am sure that it is closer than she thinks. Would such candidates be excluded from the list, or would they still be elected if their previous party were allocated a sufficient number of regional seats? Would such a person be free to sit as a representative of another party? That matter is particularly apposite, given the prevailing tendency for some MSPs to lean towards—shall we say—independence with a small, rather than a capital, ''i''. It seems to us that it is technically possible for someone to seek election on a regional top-up list and then defect to another party, or become an independent, during that process and still be elected from the top-up list. I should be interested to hear the Minister's guidance, either now or later.

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Prepared 30 October 2002