With permission, I will make a statement on the conduct of the elections to the Scottish Parliament held on 3 May.
A great deal of wholly legitimate public concern has been expressed about certain aspects of last Thursday’s elections, and I entirely share that concern. It focuses mainly on three areas: the arrangements for the administration of postal ballots, the operation of e-counting machines, and the significant numbers of spoilt ballot papers on the night. When it became apparent in the early hours of Friday morning that difficulties were emerging, I contacted Professor Sir Neil McIntosh, the Scottish electoral commissioner. I expressed to him my concern that these issues be addressed as part of the statutory review of the Scottish elections that the commission is obliged to undertake, and as a matter of urgency. Sir Neil was able to offer me that reassurance, and that investigation is now under way.
The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to report on the Scottish parliamentary elections. At the request of the Scottish Executive, it will also be reporting on the local government elections. The commission is an independent body and is committed to ensuring that there is a full and independent review of the Scottish elections. In areas where the commission itself has an operational involvement—for example, in its statutory duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems—the commission will ensure that there is independent evaluation of its own work, as it has done in respect of previous statutory reports. The commission is currently finalising the scope and time scale of the review, but intends to publish a report in the summer.
One focus of public concern has been the adoption of a single ballot paper for the Scottish elections, and another has been the holding of those elections on the same day as the local government elections in Scotland. The poll for the Scottish Parliament elections is set in the Scotland Act 1998. It has a pre-determined cycle, which the Parliament at the time supported fully. I am not aware of there being any calls to change that. The decision to hold the local government elections on the same day was entirely a decision for Scottish Executive Ministers. It was enshrined in legislation which was fully debated and passed by the Scottish Parliament.
Without wishing to prejudice the findings of the inquiry, I would like to set out to the House the sequence of recommendations, consultations and decisions that led to the adoption of a single ballot paper for both elements of the Scottish Parliament elections, which are matters for which the Government have legislative responsibility. On 25 May 2004, my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), announced the creation of a commission, under the chairmanship of Sir John Arbuthnott, to examine the implications of Scotland having four different voting systems. That commission was independent and included nominations from political parties. The commission issued a consultation paper in January 2005 and spent 12 months gathering evidence and carrying out a wide-ranging and extensive inquiry. The Arbuthnott commission issued its report jointly to my predecessor and the Scottish First Minister on 19 January 2006. The report contained a number of recommendations and suggestions, some of them to the Electoral Commission concerning voter education, others to the Scottish Executive—such as a recommendation to move the date of the local government elections—and several to the Government. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West made it clear that it was unlikely that we would be in a position to implement those recommendations in the report which would require primary legislation in time for the 2007 Scottish elections. However, there was one matter that could be progressed without the need for primary legislation—the suggestion that the two ballot papers for the regional list and constituency member be combined into one, with the regional list on the left-hand column, based on the example of the New Zealand paper. In light of the views of the Arbuthnott commission, I decided to proceed with a wider public consultation in order to test whether the suggested move to a single ballot paper commanded more general support, and to explore the appropriate design of such a ballot paper.
The Scotland Office launched that consultation on 9 June 2006. In addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State met with a range of interested parties, including representatives from disability rights groups, to explore these issues. There was a significant level of support for a single ballot paper. Of 29 respondents, the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity party, the Liberal party of Scotland, ENABLE Scotland and Capability Scotland were not in favour of a combined ballot paper. I have requested that all responses to this consultation are placed in the Library of the House. The major political parties who expressed a view were largely in favour.
Derek Barrie, the chief of staff of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, responded on their behalf on 15 June. He said:
“The Scottish Liberal Democrats warmly welcome and fully endorse the proposal to have one ballot paper only for the next diet of Scottish Parliament elections in May 2007. This is one recommendation of Arbuthnott that we fully agree with.”
Peter Murrell, chief executive of the Scottish National party, responded on 16 August 2006:
“The Scottish National Party is in support of the proposed move to a single ballot paper for both votes in the Scottish Parliament elections. We believe that this will aid understanding of both elements of the voting system and, in particular, remove any misunderstanding that the regional vote is somehow a second preference vote”.
Lesley Quinn, general secretary of the Scottish Labour party, responded:
“The Scottish Labour Party strongly supports a single ballot paper, as this will simplify voting, counting, voter awareness and understanding. A single ballot paper will reduce the potential for voter confusion and be easier for people to use”.
No response to the consultation was received from the Scottish Conservative party.
Beyond the political parties, the Electoral Reform Society responded:
“The Electoral Reform Society supports the use of a single ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament Elections”.
SOLAR—the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland—responded:
“The SOLAR elections working group unanimously agreed to support the proposal that both Scottish Parliament contests be contained on one ballot paper.”
To explore further the issues in advance of decision, as part of this consultation, the Scotland Office requested the Electoral Commission to research with voters the impact of any possible change to the ballot paper format. On 4 August 2006, Sir Neil McIntosh wrote to the Under-Secretary of State enclosing the findings of that research, which involved focus groups in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Dundee. A copy of the research has been placed in the Library of the House, together with the covering letter from the Electoral Commission.
In that covering letter, Sir Neil McIntosh wrote:
“As you can see, the research draws a number of clear conclusions for the design of the Scottish Parliamentary Ballot Paper. These conclusions point to the interests of the voter best being served by: A design of ballot paper that incorporates both the regional and constituency ballot papers alongside each other on a single sheet of paper”.
The findings of the focus groups supported the move to a single ballot paper, with a significant majority of respondents agreeing, and with the overall preference in favour of a single combined ballot paper rather than two separate papers. Only after that extensive consultation, involving the widest possible range of stakeholders, the support of the main political parties who expressed a preference, research indicating the best interests of the voter being served by a single ballot paper and clear official advice, was a decision taken to proceed with a single ballot paper for the Scottish parliamentary elections.
I will now deal with the issue of delays in the administration of postal ballots. The handling of postal votes is increasingly a subject of public interest and concern, which is why we already have stiff penalties in legislation to prevent fraud. The use of postal votes in higher numbers than before makes that all the more important. When it became clear that such delays were occurring in the days prior to polling day, I instructed my officials to contact the Electoral Commission to ensure that those matters would be fully investigated as part of the statutory review.
However, the processes at local level for the preparation and delivery of postal votes are a matter for returning officers and their staff. They make the contractual arrangements that they judge appropriate for their area. They are well aware of the tight time scales involved in getting out the papers to voters. When the Electoral Commission reports, I will, of course, examine whether the Government can take steps to help ensure that the postal vote problems that beset regions such as the highlands and Dumfries and Galloway, among others, do not happen again.
Finally, I shall deal with the issue of e-counting. In 2005, the Scottish Executive approached the Scotland Office to discuss the option of using e-counting at the combined poll. That arose mainly because of the benefits in relation to handling a count of ballots under the single transferable vote method. Manual counts of STV would take many days and be highly complex. My predecessor as Secretary of State, after careful assessment of advice, gave an agreement in principle to the option, but stressed the need for systematic testing and evaluation of the equipment and software. That took place throughout late 2005 and into 2006 up to the final procurement decisions.
Many tests and demonstrations were held for electoral administrators, political parties, special interests and others. Various contingencies were tested, including power failures and ballot papers that had been creased or folded. That process was led by a steering group comprising officials from the Scotland Office, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament, as well as representatives from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, the Scottish Assessors Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. I am advised that none of the simulations gave any evidence of the kind or scale of problems that we saw in some centres on Thursday night and Friday morning. Clearly, this issue will be central to the Electoral Commission’s report.
There are several issues that need to be explored in relation to the problems encountered in the conduct of these elections. The Electoral Commission must now be allowed to undertake its statutory review which, as I have said, will be available by the summer. I will, of course, update the House at that stage in light of its conclusions.
I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement and, indeed, for agreeing to make a statement this afternoon. I am glad that he is now taking the issue of the conduct of the Scottish Parliament elections seriously, compared with the cavalier approach that he has shown in the past when the issue has been raised in the House and at the Scottish Affairs Committee.
Despite repeated warnings about the pitfalls of introducing a new voting system, new ballot papers and a new method of counting all on the same day, the approach of the Scottish Executive and the Scotland Office was to carry on regardless. It is not good enough to adopt the Jack McConnell approach to the cost of the Scottish Parliament building—
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
The Secretary of State is responsible, as he himself acknowledges, so will he now apologise to the people of Scotland for Thursday night’s debacle? In particular, will he apologise to the tens of thousands of voters disfranchised due to their vote not being counted? Does he agree that it is totally unacceptable that around 100,000 people—compared with 16,000 in 2003—who actually made the effort to go to a polling station had their ballots disallowed, and that while there is no evidence of disproportionate disadvantage to any party, it does create unease among the electorate that in Airdrie and Shotts, for example, where the majority was 1,146, there were 1,536 spoilt papers?
Does the Secretary of State agree that the public’s confidence in the electoral system will be restored only if a full independent inquiry into what happened takes place? While the perspective of the Electoral Commission will be important, does he accept that it was integrally involved in these elections and—in particular and as his statement suggests—in the design of the ballot paper? The conduct of the elections was influenced by many political decisions and they, too, must be the subject of scrutiny. In that regard, before giving the go-ahead to the constituency and regional vote single ballot paper, did the Secretary of State actually read the report sent by the commission on 4 August, which showed that there was least scope for voter error when two ballot papers were used, and does he accept newspaper reports that the commission put an overly positive gloss on that report and omitted to disclose the finding that the single-paper option was more likely to lead to errors and therefore contribute to a higher number of invalid votes?
I accept that the Scottish Conservatives acceded to a single Scottish Parliament ballot paper, but what they did not accept was the use of that ballot paper on the same day as council elections under a different system of voting. Does the Secretary of State accept that every objective body from which evidence was taken recommended the decoupling of the elections, and that since the local government elections would inevitably impact on the Scottish Parliament elections, he cannot shirk responsibility for those two elections taking place on the same day? Does the Secretary of State accept that somebody has to take responsibility for the situation, and that it lies with his Government and with him?
Let me seek to deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. As my statement made clear, all of us regret the difficulties that were encountered on Thursday and Friday in the conduct of the Scottish elections. That is why it is entirely appropriate that the statutory view that is the obligation of the Electoral Commission be taken forward expeditiously. It is appropriate first to find out what happened and then to understand why those difficulties were encountered. However, I fail to be convinced by the hon. Gentleman’s arguments that it would be inappropriate for the Electoral Commission to carry out its statutory obligation.
The hon. Gentleman bandied around the name of an individual constituency. To maintain the confidence of the Scottish public, it is important that we be very clear that the responsibility for the integrity of results in individual constituencies in Scotland is a matter not for politicians but for the returning officers. If certain results arouse particular concerns, candidates should raise those concerns directly with returning officers.
I fully accept the need for answers. Even as the results were still coming in, I made contact with the Electoral Commission’s Sir Neil McIntosh and made clear to him my desire to make sure that each of the issues that I described in my statement was covered.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the reports in The Scotsman and other newspapers this morning. I can assure the House that the full research findings received by my office are available to all hon. Members in the Library. I do not accept the characterisation of those findings set out in The Scotsman this morning. Instead, I take the view set out by Sir Neil McIntosh that I narrated in my statement.
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing me prior sight of his statement. I am sure that we are all dismayed by the appalling mess made of the Scottish elections, especially when it became clear that as many as one person in 20 who went out to vote was unable to make his voice heard. I welcome the review that the right hon. Gentleman has said will look at the contentious aspects of the spoiled ballots, the postal voting and the electronic counting. I urge that that review be carried out in a way that is as transparent and public as possible, in order to command confidence.
The elections featured new voting and counting systems, and a new ballot paper design for the old system. The blame for the chaos has been attributed to each of the changes, but does the Secretary of State agree that we should wait for the review to understand properly where the problems lay, and that we must not fall into the trap of tarring all reforms with the same brush?
Did the Secretary of State and the Scotland Office look at and try to learn from the report into the Greater London authority elections of 2004? Similar problems with postal voting were encountered in Scotland last week, and we should not be making again the same mistakes that happened in the past. Therefore, will the Secretary of State give a guarantee that the review’s results will be shared across government? It would smack of incompetence if we were to keep making the same mistakes time after time.
There has been much speculation in the newspapers about the private companies involved in running the postal voting and e-counting for last week’s elections, and some people have suggested that the blame lies with them. Will the Electoral Commission look at the contracts in detail? Were stringent enough penalty clauses in place to give the companies adequate motivation to make sure that they were able to conduct the elections without problems?
Given the evidence from the experts that the single ballot paper was the best option, will the Electoral Commission review the adequacy of the testing that it carried out? It seems that it may not have been robust enough to identify the scale of the problems that were encountered.
Elections should not be run for the convenience of returning officers or political parties. We must remember that it is the voters who are the most important, so I hope that the commission will interview them, especially the ones who were confused by the system. In that way, we can understand where their problems lay.
In particular, there has been anecdotal evidence that putting the Scottish National party slogan “Alex Salmond for First Minister” on the ballot paper has caused some people to be confused between the party and the personal votes. Will that matter be looked into as well?
When the report is published, will the Government invite all political parties and stakeholders to comment on the results and seek to build a consensual way forward? In that way, the cherry-picking of recommendations can be avoided. It is in everyone’s interests that the problems are identified and the solutions found. That is vital if elections are to have legitimacy and if the credibility of our democracy is to be preserved.
I shall try to answer the questions put to me by the hon. Lady. First, she mentioned the way that the new voting system, the e-counting and the design of the ballot paper all came together, but she was right to say that we should await the review’s outcome. We need a clearer sense of the relative contribution that different elements might have made to the difficulties experienced last Thursday and Friday.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the GLA elections. I am aware that investigations were held at the time into the performance of the firm DRS, the same contractor that was responsible for the count last week. My understanding is that the company’s performance in the GLA elections was considered as part of the procurement process.
I have already been in touch with Sir Neil McIntosh to request that the postal voting issue be considered as part of the review that needs to be carried out. The hon. Lady asked about the tests and whether the contingencies were appropriate. As I narrated in my statement, a wide range of interests were represented on the steering group responsible, including not just politicians but a much wider range of people who have direct responsibility for and experience of administering elections. Clearly she makes a valid point that notwithstanding the extensive work of the project board, during which political parties and not simply the party of Government were invited to observe the operation of the counting machines, difficulties occurred at a number of stations, and it would be entirely appropriate for the Electoral Commission to give consideration to that in the process of its review.
The hon. Lady raised a specific issue about the designation “Alex Salmond for First Minister” appearing at the top of the regional list. It is fair to acknowledge to the party of which the hon. Gentleman is leader that that was one of the designations previously registered with the Electoral Commission—my recollection is that parties are entitled to 12 designations, and that was one of them. There has been comment since the election that it may have been a contributory factor, but as I said, it is for others to comment on that issue.
On the hon. Lady’s final point, I concur with her view that the responsibility is to identify why the problems occurred and to find solutions and a way forward. That is why I have given an undertaking that I will certainly update the House in light of the Electoral Commission’s review.
It is welcome that the equipment was evaluated in advance. What estimate was made of the accuracy of the scanners? Would a manual check on the day of the election have been an advantage to boost confidence in the new system?
Of course there was judged to be a high level of accuracy in the electronic scanning, but it is worth bearing in mind that there was the facility, which was used on the night, for manual examination of papers over which there was dispute. In that sense, electronic counting was not to the exclusion of the possibility of a manual count; there was provision whereby disputed papers could be considered by manual examination.
There was no doubt about the result of the election, which was victory for the Scottish National party, but the chaos in the counting, the postal votes and the spoiled ballots was a debacle. Did the Electoral Commission warn 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, and at the end of the ballot design phase was there any further testing? Will he now publish all relevant ministerial correspondence? The statement was completely inadequate. It did not include reference to the necessary full, independent judicial inquiry and the Secretary of State has not faced his responsibilities, which frankly should involve him considering his position.
First, I have assured Sir Neil McIntosh of the full co-operation of Ministers and officials in the inquiry being undertaken by the Electoral Commission—the statutory review set down as the responsibility of that independent electoral watchdog. In turn, the Electoral Commission has made it clear that where matters touch on its direct responsibility, there will—as in the past—be independent evaluation of that role. Frankly, the interests of Scotland are best served by allowing the review to take its course, to ensure that as expeditiously as possible we can find answers and solutions to the types of problems that arose on Thursday and Friday.
If I were to give my true impressions of Thursday, I doubt that I would be allowed to remain in the Chamber. Given the experience both at the polling booths and at the count in the evening, can the Secretary of State give any indication as to the split in the spoiled papers of the national vote against the local government vote? In all the counts I saw, the number of spoiled papers in the local elections was far greater. Does the 100,000 include that figure or is it additional to the 100,000?
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. Although a number of figures have been bandied around in the newspapers, I urge caution about the number of spoiled papers. We should allow people to continue with their work. Secondly, on the relative balance of spoiled papers between the local government elections and the Scottish Parliament elections, I am not in a position to offer the House guidance on that matter, but I take comfort from the fact that, at the request of Scottish Executive Ministers, the Electoral Commission review will not only examine the Scottish Parliament elections but will give due consideration to the local government elections that took place contemporaneously.
Is this not just the latest in a catalogue of so-called electoral reforms introduced by the Labour Government that have gone wrong one after another? It comes on top of the scandal of the postal votes farrago in the general election, and the deregistration of thousands of service voters. Is it not redolent of banana republic-style chaos in the electoral system, and is it not essential that we have an inquiry not only into how the situation came about, but into whether the election should be—
I am not convinced by the case that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I am not sure that such terminology is helpful, in that it seeks to prejudge the serious and considered review being undertaken by the Electoral Commission. A whole range of new measures have been introduced by the Government to give greater assurance to voters on voting methodologies, and it ill behoves him to seek to create a partisan advantage out of what is a serious issue for the Scottish people.
Will my right hon. Friend convey to his right hon. Friends in the Cabinet the strong suggestion that in no circumstances at all should the DRS company or electronic counting machines be allowed to play any part in the next general election for the Westminster Parliament?
Without wanting to diminish in any way the standing of the Electoral Commission, many of us have real concerns about the adequacy of a report produced by it. The commission may just be too close to the process. Does the Secretary of State accept that the commission’s review may not be the last word on this matter, and will he keep in mind the possibility of a further inquiry by somebody who is independent of the Scottish political scene, but who knows a bit about politics? I am thinking of somebody of the standing of former President Mary Robinson from the Republic of Ireland. It may be necessary to involve somebody like that in order to restore the integrity of our electoral system.
I would not wish to undermine in any way the important role that the Electoral Commission plays. The hon. Gentleman’s description of a body that stands outside the Scottish political process but is of some standing seems to fit fairly accurately the work of Sir Neil McIntosh and the Electoral Commission more broadly across the United Kingdom, as our independent elections watchdog. None the less, of course I will consider whatever recommendations are made by the review, which, as I said, will report by the summer, and I will report back to the House in the light of that review. I reinforce the fact that the Electoral Commission itself is clear that, as in previous statutory reviews that it has had to undertake, where matters bear directly on the conduct of the commission there will be a full independent evaluation of that part of the process.
Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the interpretation of the ballots was the same across the country? I ask particularly with regard to the parliamentary elections: if a voter ranked people 1, 2 and 3, which was obviously wrong, was the 1 always taken to be the same as a cross, or was that sometimes counted as over-voting? Were the same criteria used in all constituencies when deciding whether to agree to a recount? I have heard that in one constituency where the majority was less than 100 a recount was refused, but in another, where the majority was almost 400, the leader of the Scottish National party—although it was not his constituency—insisted to the electoral returning officer that a recount should take place.
Let me try to deal with my hon. Friend’s points in turn. First, she asked about the conduct of electoral returning officers in different constituencies throughout Scotland. Guidance is offered to each of those electoral returning officers, but the decision at each count is ultimately a matter for the individual electoral returning officer. Secondly, the determination of whether to allow a recount in a particular constituency is ultimately a matter for the individual returning officer. Judgments were exercised by individual returning officers according to individual circumstances.
Many people not only in Scotland but throughout the country will be appalled by the Secretary of State’s complete lack of contrition for the national humiliating chaos and shambles in Scotland. May I suggest that the Secretary of State take the advice of his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, East (Mr. Marshall), abandon this obsession with electronic systems and go back to the old-fashioned system that commands the confidence of the people of this country? The returning officer in my borough of Rushmoor in Hampshire decided not to use an electronic signature verification system, and instead to resort to the mark 1 eyeball, the result of which was that we had no problems in Rushmoor. The returning officer, Mr. Andrew Lloyd, did an excellent job and I commend him to the Secretary of State for his advice.
I am now certainly aware of the advice that the hon. Gentleman has offered me. I assure him that we will give serious consideration to recommendations that might emerge from the Electoral Commission review that is under way on the conduct of Thursday’s elections.
I, along with most MPs, watched the battle take place on Thursday and Friday—and I have great concern that although people in the electoral system will be reviewing the system, they are actually part of the problem, so we must be careful about that. May I make a point about the confidence of the Scottish people? When the majority is lower than the number of spoiled papers, should not all those papers be recounted? That applies to all parties.
My hon. Friend used the phrase “in the electoral system”, so it is important that I make it clear, not only to him but to the people of Scotland and throughout the country, that the review will be carried out by the Electoral Commission, not by a politician or a political party. That being said, I have also made it clear that the Electoral Commission realises that there will be an independent evaluation of any work in which it was involved as part of the prior steps leading to the election. That is the appropriate point at which to leave the matter until the review has been concluded. The question of whether any further steps will be necessary in the light of the review can more appropriately be determined after we have seen the Electoral Commission’s recommendations.
It is a hallmark of this Government that they increase the power and size of the state, yet then cannot run it properly. It is clear that that incompetence extends to the electoral system and to people’s democratic rights—so will the Secretary of State invite the United Nations to act as an electoral observer in any other elections that are held in the remainder of this Parliament?
First, for clarification, let me make it clear that the e-counting process was overseen not only by parts of “the state”, as the right hon. Gentleman describes them—the Scotland Office, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament—but by representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, the Scottish Assessors Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. It is not entirely accurate to suggest that this is a matter of party politics. However, I am intrigued to note that despite the right hon. Gentleman’s sense of indignation about the results in Scotland overnight on Thursday and on Friday, he carefully chose to suggest the United Nations, rather than a super-national institution somewhat closer to home with more experience of running elections: the European Union.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the circumstances of the Cunninghame North count, where the Labour candidate was refused a recount, despite the concerns raised about the Arran ballots by several individuals who were completely unconnected with the Labour party, and the close nature of the election? The returning officer initially said that the majority in the election was 54, but shortly thereafter, with no explanation, the figure changed to 48. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that we need to determine whether the guidelines were adhered to on Thursday night, and whether they need to be strengthened?
I hope that the House will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to pass comment on results in individual constituencies. If candidates have concerns and wish to take legal steps in light of the determinations made by electoral returning officers, it is appropriate for those officers to give due consideration to the matter, but I am not convinced that it would be appropriate, or without prejudice to the right of candidates to take the action that they deem necessary, for me to pass comment on individual constituencies at this stage.
Is the Secretary of State aware that in the Greater London authority elections three years ago, there were 385,000 spoiled ballot papers—three times as many as in the recent Scottish elections? Will he ensure that the findings of his review are used in next year’s GLA elections, and if, as he says, the same contractor was involved in the GLA elections three years ago and the Scottish elections last week, will he please ensure that that contractor has nothing to do with the GLA elections next year?
In terms of ballot papers being ruled out, that was a matter for individual electoral returning officers, and in that sense I am not sure that the conflation of the issue of the contractor and that of the number of spoiled ballot papers holds as an argument. That being said, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the terms of the Electoral Commission statutory review of the elections will be widely distributed, not simply among Members of the House but beyond.
Last week was an embarrassment, and we owe the people of Scotland an apology. I was at a count that was suspended at 5.30, and there were 1,700 spoiled papers. It recommenced at 12 o’clock and did not finish until 20 minutes to 3 in the afternoon. I share with hon. Members on both sides of the House a concern about the Electoral Commission’s role in investigating the matter. My right hon. Friend should look to some other body to carry out the investigation.
Our first obligation is to secure answers. A statutory review by the Electoral Commission has already begun. I have made it clear that where that inquiry touches on matters that are directly the responsibility of the Electoral Commission, there will be independent assessment. The appropriate step at this stage is to allow that work to be completed. The review is not without time limit; there is an expectation that it will be made available during the summer. At that point, there will be an opportunity for the House to reflect on the recommendations, and for any further steps to be taken.
Is not the simple lesson to be drawn from last Thursday’s fiasco in Scotland that the Government’s tinkering with our electoral system has been hugely damaging, whether we are talking about e-voting, the incomprehensible ballot papers produced in Scotland, the corrupt postal voting system, or proportional representation? Until recently, our electoral process was an example to the world, but under the current Prime Minister and the current Government, the democratic process has been undermined, and we have been reduced to the level of a “banana republic”—those are a judge’s words, not mine.
Amid his indignation, the hon. Gentleman suggested that there was e-voting in Scotland on Thursday. As someone who actually voted in Scotland, let me say that it is clear that he does not understand that it is e-counting, rather than e-voting, that we are discussing today. If he is suggesting that it is fundamentally wrong that Members of Scottish Parliament are elected under a proportional representation system, I would simply say, with respect, that that matter was resolved at the time of the passage of the Scotland Act 1998, and I am not convinced that that is particularly relevant to our discussions today.
I cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and offer an analysis or description of why the spoiled ballot papers were spoiled. In a limited set of circumstances, people choose to spoil their ballot papers intentionally, but I think that the prudent and responsible course in the circumstances is to allow the Electoral Commission to take forward its statutory review and explore whether there were other factors that contributed to the number of ballot papers spoiled in Scotland on Thursday evening.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that on election night, when ballot papers were rejected they were shown to the agents and the candidates and the rejection was agreed, and that when the declaration was made, the number of spoiled ballot papers was announced? If that is the case, why can he not tell us now how many ballot papers were rejected?
As I have said, when I sought from officials this morning the definitive number of spoilt ballot papers, a figure was available for a number of constituencies, but not the total number of constituencies in Scotland. That work is continuing. On the first point that the hon. Gentleman put to me, I cannot comment with authority this afternoon on the conduct in each individual constituency at the count, which is rightly the responsibility not of a politician but of the electoral returning officer in that constituency. If there are specific concerns about specific counts, the appropriate action to take is to discuss that with the electoral returning officer in that particular constituency on the night, and thereafter, if necessary, to take whatever further action is required.
There is no doubt that great damage has been done to trust in the political system by the events of last Thursday and Friday, and everyone involved in Scottish politics, as a politician or in an administrative position, has a responsibility to make sure that they never happen again. In that connection, will my right hon. Friend have early discussions with the Scottish Executive about introducing legislation to ensure that as far as possible local government elections under the single transferable vote system are not held on the same day as Scottish parliamentary elections—or, indeed, UK parliamentary elections?
As my hon. Friend knows, for a long-standing campaigner for devolution like me, the rightful place for the decision on the timing of local government elections in Scotland is Holyrood. I am sure that careful consideration will be given to the report that the Electoral Commission is preparing by the incoming Scottish Executive, of whatever hue. That said, it is heartening that Scottish Executive Ministers have already made it clear that they wish the conduct of the Scottish local government elections to be considered as part of the statutory review undertaken by the Electoral Commission.
I do not wish to prejudice the forthcoming trials of the guilty, but I do wish to make some points about the remit given to the Electoral Commission. In particular, may I ask whether it will be allowed to make publicly available all the ballots that were ruled out, so that they can be examined—either the ballots themselves or copies thereof, particularly the local government ballots? That will enable us to clarify whether, when three Xs had been marked, there would have been some way of allowing at least one of those votes to be counted. Can the rules for recounts be clarified, and can we ask the Electoral Commission to clarify whether a financial clawback from the returning officers and the firms involved would be possible, as they have not delivered adequately? Will my right hon. Friend examine the question of wasted votes, too? In Glasgow there were more than 78,000 wasted Labour votes in the second ballot. There were also 91,000 wasted Labour votes in the West of Scotland, and 112,000 wasted Labour votes in Central Scotland, on the second ballot. I certainly hope that the House will reject his proposal that the European Union be called in to monitor the situation. It should not be called in to monitor any European—
I shall try to deal with the multiple questions that my hon. Friend put to me. First, for the sake of clarification, I can assure him that it was not a proposal of mine that the EU be called in to look at the conduct of elections in the United Kingdom. I was merely reflecting the fact that it was intriguing that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) had not chosen the EU, given its role in electoral observation missions elsewhere in Europe. On my hon. Friend’s second point about so-called wasted votes, he is a long-standing campaigner on the issue, and given his commitment to the Co-operative party and its ideals, he has long argued that there could be a case for standing Co-operative candidates from the regional list. That is a matter on which I am sure he will continue to campaign.
The final matter that I wish to address is his first point about the remit given to the Electoral Commission. It is important to clarify the fact that I did not invent the Electoral Commission’s role overnight on Friday, and thereby designate it as the appropriate statutory body. As I understand it, under section 5 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission has a statutory obligation to review elections, including the Scottish Parliament elections, so it is not a mechanism that has been devised for these particular circumstances. It is a statutory review which, as a matter of course, has been taken forward. My intervention with the Electoral Commission on Friday morning was to ensure that under the terms of that statutory review, the specific issues that were of concern, and which I elucidated in my statement, would receive consideration, and I was given that assurance by Sir Neil McIntosh.
Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) about spoilt papers, and returning to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) told us about the Cunninghame North shambles, I too ask whether we can look at the papers. There were 1,700 spoiled papers on the regional and Scottish Parliament vote—over 10 times more than normal. I asked to look at those papers to see what the problem was, but that was denied me—all I was shown was a television screen. One vote was counted because there were two dots in a box. I am sorry, but this is not democracy. What is my right hon. Friend going to do to look at all these ballot papers, which have now been flung in a bucket somewhere, and to put the situation to rights for the people whose votes were not counted?
I can assure my hon. Friend that these ballots are not, as he suggests, flung in a bucket somewhere, but kept. On his substantive point about the facility whereby people are able to see the ballot papers, it is the case that a photograph of the ballot paper was shown on a number of television screens at counts across Scotland. However, the fact remains that I cannot comment today on the conduct of individual returning officers at individual counts, whether in Glasgow or elsewhere. If there are legitimate concerns that it would be appropriate to raise with returning officers, they should in the first instance be raised with those returning officers by the candidates affected.