Draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2002

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Mrs. McGuire: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his last question? I got a bit confused when he said, ''Defection''. I was not sure whether he was offering to jump the dyke or was making an offer to us. I think that we lost the train of thought just a wee bit.

Mr. Duncan: I understand that any thought of defection would worry the Minister greatly. Just to clarify that point, my hypothesis is that it is technically possible for someone to seek election on a regional top-up list, to be a member of a political party, to go through the electoral process and receive regional votes, be elected from the top-up list and subsequently defect, or even defect during the campaign period. How would that be handled? For someone to seek election as a party member and then take a seat as a member of another party or an independent would be to abuse the system.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): Surely, there are two entirely different propositions. There has been a case where someone was elected and then became an independent, so there is already a precursor. The latter is surely a completely different proposition.

Mr. Duncan: I accept that correction. I am talking about what might happen during the electoral process, not after the election. Speaking hypothetically, if someone is elected as a Labour MSP, sees the light and moves to another party, that is entirely their judgment. During the election period, however, it is technically possible for someone to defect.

The Chairman: Order. To put everyone out of their misery, remember that we are debating the consolidation of existing legislation. The hon. Gentleman is possibly straying outside the confines of the order. That might, perhaps, help the Minister during her summing up.

Mr. Duncan: I am grateful for your guidance, Miss Begg.

Articles 56 to 63 deal with the recount of regional votes in a constituency and the allocation of seats. If I understand article 56 correctly, the agent of a registered political party at a constituency count of regional votes may request, within reason, a recount of original votes before, but not after, the transmission of the results of the count to the regional returning officer. Article 63 allows the agent who is present at the recalculation of regional votes to request, prior to the allocation of seats,

    ''the returning officer to re-calculate or again re-calculate the total number of regional votes given for each registered party and each individual candidate in all of the constituencies included in the region''.

That is ambiguous in one respect. Does it mean that agents have the right to request a recount of regional votes in each constituency, or does it mean that there is a right to request a recalculation of the sum of constituency totals already received? If the latter is true, does the Minister accept that the recount of regional votes is most likely to be required after the final tally of regional votes from each constituency in the region? That is because the number of regional seats allocated to each party will be based on those totals.

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If only a handful of votes determines the allocation of the final regional seat, will the Minister make provisions for the recount of regional ballots in each constituency? That is the point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). The system of regional top-up lists is a disaster waiting to happen and if the disaster happens, there is the smell of legal challenge.

Article 58 relates to free postal deliveries for each candidate. What steps can be taken to ensure that regional mailing is not used just for one candidate? That is a worry because regional mailings could be used by political parties that are interested in promoting a candidate in only one constituency. The mailings should be used to promote a party throughout the region. The Minister will be aware that many campaigns are targeted on specific constituencies—I am not looking at her with particular venom—and that political parties will target specific constituencies. The regulations should take account of any possible abuse of the list system to try to circumvent the expenses totals. What discussions have been held with the Royal Mail about the logistics of combining the polls?

I turn to article 71(3) of schedule 2. If a constituency poll is abandoned because of the death of a candidate, how will the return of regional Members for the region in which that constituency is located be completed, given that the calculation for the allocation of regional seats depends on the total number of constituency seats won by each party in the region?

May I press the Minister on dissolution? I understand that she consulted widely on changing the minimum period for dissolution from 25 days to 21 days. Will she justify that change? Given that the Scottish Parliament has a set parliamentary term, could we have a set period for dissolution, rather than a minimum period? However, I accept the Minister's point about reducing the burden on administrators.

Will the Minister clarify a couple of issues about the date of the election? The set Scottish parliamentary term is four years, which I know is of grave concern to, and strikes at the heart of, many Labour Back Benchers. I understood that the presiding officer has the power to vary the election date by a set period either way. Will the Minister confirm that? I cannot find the provision in the order—that might be my omission. Will she tell us why the provision exists—if it does—and why it was not changed or removed? Will she clarify the Scottish Parliament's role in defining the election date?

Finally, I shall address general issues—the Minister will be delighted that I am winding up. Will she assure us that ministerial special advisers in either the Scottish Executive or the UK Government will not engage in activities that could help specific political parties during the campaign? What assurances can she give that announcements made, and advertisements produced, by UK Government Departments during the Scottish Parliament election campaign will not be targeted to give an advantage to, or to disadvantage, any political party in Scotland? What guidelines will be imposed on television and radio broadcasters about

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broadcasts on UK political issues that could be deemed to be unfairly persuasive in the context of the campaign?

What consultation has taken place with various authorities—the Fees Office, the Scottish Parliament or the electoral registration officers—who require guidance in that respect on the use of Westminster staff and, more important, parliamentary equipment and resources, which should be excluded from use during parliamentary activities prior to the Scottish Parliament election? What discussions has the Minister had? She will be aware of the widespread concern in this place and elsewhere that there could be substantial abuse of our resources here during the election period.

I thank the Minister for her indulgence, and should be delighted if she would reassure me on any of those points.

5.10 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I begin by offering the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) a warm welcome to the Conservative Front Bench. It is the first time in nearly six years that the Conservative party has felt able to put someone on their Front Bench who represents a Scottish constituency, and I hope that it will not be the last in this Parliament.

I thank the Minister for her extensive explanation of this large order. I was somewhat dismayed when I received my copy last week, just before leaving for Scotland; I realised that my Sunday would be spent reading the 150 pages of the order. However, I was grateful to have the explanatory notes, which helped my understanding and led to my finding out that much of the order is legislation that has already been considered and discussed. Indeed, I found it helpful to read the record of some of those debates to see which points had been dealt with previously.

As far as I can see, the order makes only two material changes not covered in previous Scottish parliamentary orders or in orders covering United Kingdom elections. I am happy to be corrected if I have missed something, but the first appears to be the supply of electoral registers free to Members of the Scottish Parliament and to candidates, which must be welcomed. The second, which has already been mentioned today, is that of the shortening of the dissolution from 25 days to 21. I would have asked a question about that, but from what the Minister said, it seems that it has been done to bring it in line with a previous UK order. If I am wrong, I should be grateful to hear precisely why it was felt necessary to make that change.

I refer next to the matter of voting by post without need or justification. It is much to be welcomed and has certainly added to people's ease when expressing their voting preferences. Unlike other hon. Members, I have to say that we had no problems in the north of Scotland; things went extremely smoothly, and in a large and scattered area it was greatly appreciated. Some excellent questions have been asked on that matter, and I shall not trouble the Minister further. However, the postal arrangements were very

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welcome—it is good to see them being consolidated in that way—as was the rolling register of voters, which can only be of benefit.

I turn to a couple of specific points. First, I wonder why, in schedule 2, rule 2 changes the length of notice required between publication of notice of an election and delivery of nomination papers as between Scottish general elections, which is seven days, and what I assume are Scottish constituency by-elections, which is 14 days. I wonder why that change is necessary.

The second point relates to rules 39 and 53 in schedule 2. Rule 39 refers to counting agents, and how their numbers are worked out. By a rather complicated process, the number of clerks provided by the returning officer is divided by the number of candidates. Surely the number of counting agents needed should be decided by the number of tables and areas in which votes are counted. I do not expect the Minister to respond to that point, but I thought that it was worth laying down a marker.

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Prepared 30 October 2002