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Mr Goulds review needs to ensure that the voices of all voters, and particularly the marginalised voterswhether it be the young, the poor, our ethnic minorities
or the disabledare properly heard. It should also ensure that, in future, the methodology used by the Electoral Commission in testing original proposals is properly robust and takes all relevant factors into consideration.
Mr. Devine: Does my hon. Friend agree that the returning officers have an important role? What was striking during the last election was the number of people, many from poorer areas, who were not on the register.
Ann McKechin: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that electoral registration officers have a very poor record indeed in respect of their ability to deal with marginalised groups, and this months events have unfortunately made the situation even worse.
From my own experience of representing a Glasgow seat, I know that problems with adult literacy among many in our population remain acute. Scotland has some of the lowest levels of literacy not only in the UK, but in the whole of western Europe. When someones literacy is poor, form filling is a daunting experience and many people lack the confidence even to admit that they have a problem in the first place. If people receive two pieces of paper with two contrasting sets of instructions, by the time they put pencil to paper, we can expect a small but significant percentage to be confused.
Do I think that the elections should have been held on separate dates? Not necessarily. Some polling clerks used their initiative on the day to hand the papers out separately, giving out the second ballot after the voter had completed the first vote. It would probably have been better for the ballots to take place in different rooms in the polling station, so that only one set of instructions was given for each vote. The disappearing guiding arrows in Glasgow and Lothian only made a bad problem even worse. If forms are something that people tackle only occasionally and then often with help from a third party or friend, it should have been anticipated that some looking at the form would have read it as one long list that simply continued on to the right hand side of the page. The regional list was not even in strict alphabetical order. Branded names came first, based on the first letter on the line. Political parties, however bizarre or tiny, came next, and independents came last. The latter positioning reinforced the sight line that the four or five names at the top of the right-hand column were simply a continuation of the independents names on the left side. I was not alone in witnessing the hundreds of papers that showed one cross on the left-hand side and no votes on the constituency side. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) that that was deliberate in some cases, but I do not believe that an overwhelming majority intended to abstain. By that point, they must simply have been baffled.
Branded names have to be analysed. I certainly accept that the Scottish National party is a perfectly legitimate party and that it used the rules as it was entitled to under the law. However, I certainly have a question about the British National party describing itself as a local party for local people. We need to be very careful, because the system could easily be abused.
It is no credit to Scotland that more than 24,000 people voted for the BNP in those elections.
The font size on the form, made to fit the machine, was ridiculously small. That was repeated on the constituency side, even though there was plenty of unused space for an enlarged font size. Instructions such as the guiding arrows should not be removed simply for the convenience of the machinery or at the sole discretion of electoral registration officers. They are fundamental to allowing people to vote as they intend, and that should be a democratic right.
The bewildering choice of regional list candidates, a significant number of whom were making a once-only appearance, needs to be reviewed. It was clear, particularly for individual candidates, that many were also standing for council seats but were canny enough to work out that getting on to the regional list secured them a Royal Mail freepost delivery, meaning that they did not have to trek around delivering everything by hand.
John Barrett: Does the hon. Lady acknowledge the danger of commercial companies, such as those on the Lothian list, using their presence on the ballot paper to get a free mail shot through every door in Lothian, which could be used to advertise their business?
Ann McKechin: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I am aware that at least two of the so-called political parties were simply the creations of one individual, and that one was used to promote an individuals own publication. Standing for elections to the Scottish Parliament involves considerable public expenditure on freepost, and it should be based on serious intent. I believe that candidates should show an appropriate number of supporting nominations. That would not exclude genuine, serious independent candidates.
The prior publicity about the changes in the voting systems was poor. The detailed instructions arrived along with an avalanche of election literature and probably ended up in many cases going straight into the bin. They came too late and were not sufficiently embedded in the general publics knowledge. Again, I would question the apparent lack of work on voters who are difficult to reach. The instructions on completion for postal voters contained a number of disparities.
You have only one vote in the council ballot
is clearly not an accurate way to describe numbering under STV, and there was a total absence of advice for voters about how many councillors per area were being voted for. Why do we keep the voters in ignorance?
In the council elections where parties fielded more than one candidate per area, there were repeated incidences of forms containing two or three crosses against candidates rather than numbers, and in almost every case, a candidates chance of being elected was substantially increased if the initial letter of their surname was near the beginning of the alphabet.
I am astonished that the Electoral Reform Society should have declared the council elections a success. The rejection rate was high, and candidate selection in highly marginal areas being determined by their position in the alphabet cannot be seen to be progressive. There
was no increase in the numbers of women or ethnic minority councillors. In fact, we probably ended up with fewer, including the loss in my own constituency of the sole Asian female councillor in Scotland. There was no significant increase in turnout, and despite the fact that, like myself, members of all the main political parties spent a lot of time trying to inform voters about the changes, many people were baffled by their consequences, including losing the long-cherished ability to vote out an unpopular representative.
This is not the time for shouting the odds at each other and spouting media soundbites. We all have a degree of responsibility for this result. The voters lost out and anyone who is interested in democracy needs closely to examine what went wrong and truly listen to the electorate before we make further changes. They deserve no less.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin). I hope that any investigation to be conducted by the Electoral Commission or commissioned by the Scottish Executive will look closely at all the points that she has raised. I concur with almost every one of them.
I am pleased that, among the contributions that we have heard this afternoon, there has been little doubtI cannot say no doubtcast on the result of the elections. Not only did the SNP win, but all the United Kingdom parties lost seats. I thank leading members of all the UK parties for their regular visits to Scotland, which were very beneficial to the SNPs campaign.
As we speak, the SNP Government and the First Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), are setting out priorities for the new Administration in the Scottish Parliament. I hope Members in all parts of the House will wish that Government well, but today, here, we are discussing the technical problems associated with the polls rather than the resultalthough I am certain that the SNP majorities and gains could have been more significant than they were, given the national swing.
There has been mention of elections in other countries. That is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about the debacle that we experienced in Scotland. In the past, many of us who spend time in countries that are emerging democracies have been able to say with great pride and absolute confidence, regardless of our politics, that we are in no doubt about the result of a particular election. I have sometimes found it hard to listen to politicians or political party activists in other parts of the world explain their difficulties and lack of trust. We all know of countries where the degree of coercion is great. As the problems in Scotland have shown, however, something extraordinarily minor can cause the great problems that we have seen. Certainly I cannot imagine that any politician in Scotland or the rest of the UK would scoff at the electoral problems suffered by Florida a few years ago.
Before 3 May, it was apparent that there were serious problems. A number of Members have drawn attention to the problems of constituents who had applied for postal votes. I experienced difficulties myself: my postal vote only arrived on Monday. In my area, council workers were out delivering postal votes by handI do not know whether they were scuttling around in taxisto ensure that they arrived. For those working offshore, they arrived too late and people were disfranchised, which is completely unacceptable.
It was not, however, only the issue of postal votes that gave cause for alarm in advance. On 7 March 2007, my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) told the Delegated Committee dealing with Scottish parliamentary elections
At first glance, the statement on the example ballot paper, You have two votes, could be misleading.
Certainly, having entirely different voting systems for elections on the same day leaves the door open to confusion... If both systems were to be used on one day, then a great deal of voter education would be essential.
There will be new arrangements in... the local government elections. That will mean a vote using STV, and, as previously stated, unless the same system is introduced for the Scottish Parliament election on the same day, or those two elections are decoupled, then there is every chance that confusion will be a factor in those elections.
The SNP also made a submission to the Scottish Electoral Commission. A letter from Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive, raised three points with Andy ONeill, head of the commission, two of which were ignored completely. Those were not the only warnings, but I want to put it on the record that warnings were passed to a number of relevant authorities before the elections.
All of us SNP spokespeople were sitting in the BBC Scotland studio as the surreal events unfolded. I do not know how long colleagues were told they would have to stay in their seats and keep things going until they were replaced by elected MSP colleagues. I was told two hours, but I sat there for five hours before I was finally relieved and left the studioit was just after a number of fantastic SNP gains. However, during that time we learned not only about the problems as they were being reportedthere were literally thousands of spoiled ballot papersbut about something else, which the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) reminded me of: the extraordinary scene of a DRS spokesperson almost laughing off what was happening when addressing anybody involved in the political process, including the politicians and the pundits involved in the programme. As we witnessed that we thought, My goodness, she has absolutely no idea how serious the situation is.
Although the SNP regularly makes the point that we do not want to tell the good people of England how they should make their own arrangements, I strongly advise the Greater London authority and Mayor Ken Livingstone to take a careful look at the electoral experience that we in Scotland had. London had its own problems in its first electionsin which I understand DRS was also involvedbut I hope that it does not go through what we in Scotland have just had to go through.
The motion discusses the inquiry issue. I am pleased that the Scottish Cabinet yesterday discussed that. First Minister Salmond and his colleagues are looking into that; he remains committed to an inquiry taking place, and the details will be announced in due course. However, I and my party colleagues have a problem with what the Opposition motion calls for in terms of an inquiry. I intervened to try to get clarification from the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on who should initiate an inquiry. It is inconsistent to be against the Electoral Commission being in charge of the inquiry and then to call on the UK Government to conduct it, because we know what their role and that of the Scotland Office in this matter was. That is why the SNP will not support the Opposition motion. We will support the Scottish Executive.
The hon. Gentlemans leader has spoken about the moral authority of the resultit did not seem to apply in terms of local government, but it seemed to apply in the Scottish Parliament. If the hon. Gentlemans party establishes an inquiry and it shows that the people were disfranchised, will he support having the elections re-run, particularly in places such as Livingston which had 1,700 spoiled papers when most had about 800?
Angus Robertson: Some people might be interested in a re-run. Owing to the popularity of the new Government, I am certain that the SNP majority would increaseeven seats close to the hon. Gentlemans constituency that we just failed to win would fall within our grasp. No serious case is being made for re-running the election, and I do not think that the electoratewhatever their political viewswould encourage that.
I will conclude shortly, as other Members wish to speak, but I first wish to raise a couple of matters to do with the Secretary of State for Scotland. He was right to warn Members against mis-speaking in terms of what is said in the House. He went on to quote from his own contribution of 8 May 2007. I am keen not to mis-speak it, but it should be put on the record that he read out half a sentence of what he said, stopping at the point where there is a comma. Therefore, it will be useful if I now read out the whole sentence. He read out:
I urge caution on two fronts. First, a final tally is still to be reached on the number of spoiled papers
but according to the information that I received this morning, it does not reach 100,000.[ Official Report, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 29W.]
I shall conclude by repeating the questions I asked the Secretary of State on 8 May. I am repeating them because I did not get an answer to them, and I would like to have an answer now. I asked whether the Electoral Commission warned the Secretary of State of concerns about the design of the ballot paper. When the ballot paper size became apparent, did he decide that all must appear on one page? At the end of the ballot design phase, was there any further testing? I then asked him to publish all relevant ministerial correspondence.
It is important for all those questions to be answered and to be a matter of public record. Frankly, the Secretary of States contribution was underwhelmingmuch like his initial statementand he seemed to be saying, Not me, guv, rather than anything else. It is not good enough. Thank goodness we now have a Scottish Executive who will treat this issue with the seriousness that it deserves, unlike the UK Government, who are running away from their responsibilities.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Given that time is short, I shall make only a few points. First, I ask that the investigation examines the decision to have both ballots on the same day, not only in the context of possible erection irregularities [ Laughter. ] I know what I meant. [Hon. Members: Keep it up.] I will endeavour to do so. That is a fair point [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Davidson: The observation that I wanted to make was about the impact on local government. It was my experience that the local government campaigns were almost totally submerged in the discussion of the Scottish Parliament results. That is not good for local democracy at the local government level. I would be very interested in any evidence about the extent to which there were discrepancies in this election, as distinct from others, because my impression was that the tide flowed in the same direction in the Scottish Parliament elections and those for local authorities, irrespective of the merits of individual councillors, which is inappropriate and unwise.
I would also ask that as many as possible of the ballot papers be made available. The point that I made earlier about anoraks being able to see them is important. Much work could be done to establish correlations that will help us to avoid mistakes in the future. It should not be swept under the carpet.
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