I would like to welcome the publication of the Electoral Commission report into the conduct of the May 2007 elections. Earlier today, Mr. Gould, the head of the commission’s independent review team, launched the report at a press conference in Edinburgh. The House will appreciate that I am not in a position at present to give a definitive response to all the recommendations or options that touch on the Secretary of State for Scotland’s responsibilities for the elections to the Scottish Parliament. As is standard with these reports, I will of course respond formally in writing in due course.
In May, my predecessor, the Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), made a commitment that the Government would update this House in the light of the publication of Mr. Gould’s report. In making this statement today, I am honouring that commitment.
In the main, I believe that the report is a valuable contribution to the analysis of what went wrong in administrative terms in the period leading up to and including the night of count for the May elections. I do not agree with every aspect of Mr. Gould’s analysis and I shall explain that in more detail shortly. But my one main message for the House today is that it is my principal objective to ensure that, in the interests of the voter, we will never again face the problems we saw on 3 May.
Mr. Gould’s report offers several recommendations about how to achieve that objective. Importantly, he recommends that elections to the Scottish Parliament and to local government in Scotland be decoupled and no longer held on the same day, and it is my understanding that the Scottish Executive had signalled at an earlier stage their intention to look seriously at that.
A positive decision on decoupling would, I think, be welcome, but none the less I am here today to tell the House that I can accept a number of the core recommendations in the report. First, Mr. Gould recommends that electronic counting should in future be restricted to local government elections, and I am happy to accept today that electronic counting will not be required for separate Scottish parliamentary polls. Secondly, on ballot paper design, Mr. Gould proposes that we should revert to two separate ballot papers: one for the regional vote and one for the constituency. Although I may not agree with all Mr. Gould’s reasoning in reaching that recommendation, I see advantage in reverting to the two-page arrangements for future Scottish parliamentary polls and so I accept that recommendation. Thirdly, the report proposes a longer period between close of nominations and polling day, and I am minded to accept that proposal. Fourthly, Mr. Gould has emphasised the importance of consolidating the relevant legislation governing the administration of elections. I am minded to accept that recommendation as it relates to elections to the Scottish Parliament. Fifthly, Mr. Gould has proposed that electoral legislation is not applied to any election held within six months of a new provision coming into force. Provided suitable safeguards can be found, as Mr. Gould’s report encourages, I am prepared to accept that recommendation for elections to the Scottish Parliament.
Mr. Gould has also brought forward a very substantive option, designed in his view to tackle the fragmented nature of responsibility for all the elements that go into the conduct of elections. The creation of a chief returning officer with statutory powers would be a significant alteration of our present structures. I have an open mind on that, but would wish to see a wide-ranging debate among all interested parties about the implications of our moving to such a radically different structure of accountability.
The topic of the overnight count is clearly an issue of concern to Mr. Gould. He recognises that there are advantages and disadvantages to overnight counting, but concludes by recommending that, if polls continue to close at 10 pm, there should be no overnight count of the ballot papers. To abandon completely overnight counting for parliamentary elections would represent a major departure from well-established precedent. I am not convinced that such a change would necessarily have any great benefit for voters, but I am willing to hear the voices of those with a different view.
Mr. Gould devotes some time in his report to what he calls
“the use of ‘naming strategies’ by political parties to seek an advantageous position on the regional side of the Scottish parliamentary ballot sheet”.
He refers to that practice as “sloganisation” of party names and recommends that legislation be amended to
“minimise the possibility of confusing or misleading voters while facilitating a level playing field for all political parties”.
We will consider that recommendation alongside the others to which I have already referred.
I wish to offer a preliminary comment on the recommendation about assigning responsibility for both elections to one jurisdictional entity. Mr. Gould concludes that the “Scottish Government” would be the best logical institution. I have to say that at present I am not persuaded that Mr. Gould’s analysis of that point necessarily supports his conclusion. What we are surely looking for is improved planning and preparation for what in future will be two quite distinct sets of elections. The decoupling of parliamentary and local government elections should create clarity in terms of responsibility and accountability. That said, Mr. Gould’s recommendation is simply that preliminary discussions should take place, and I am willing to give that serious consideration. There are clearly lessons to be learned and changes to be made, but I do agree with Mr. Gould when he says on the final page of his report that
“it is important not to lose sight of the many positive aspects and good intentions of those involved in assembling and conducting the 3 May 2007 elections.”
Mr. Gould sets out the range of interconnected interests that are essential to getting right the various elements in the election process, but he has concluded that the fragmented nature of that planning process was itself a cause for flawed decisions. I acknowledge the Scotland Office’s role in the overall process and can say now that we have lessons to learn from the systemic failures that occurred. The changes that I have announced today are the beginning of the process of correcting those failures and rebuilding trust in the electoral process.
There have been different interpretations of what Mr. Gould means in his report by the phrase “partisan political self-interest”. We now have the benefit of Mr. Gould's additional comments at his press conference today, where he confirmed that
“party self-interest in this context is not necessarily related to one party”.
Mr. Gould’s clarification reinforces my own reading of the report. For example, at several points—specifically, on pages 17, 18, 26, 48, 107 and 113—Mr. Gould advances the argument that too much of the detail prescribing the administration of the Scottish elections was set out in legislation, and was therefore the subject of excessive debate and prolonged discussion among politicians. In his view, much of that detail should be left to electoral administrators to decide, in order to reduce the role that “political interests” play in setting the administrative framework.
The design of the Scottish parliamentary ballot paper was one example raised by Mr. Gould. The approach taken by the Scotland Office was to consult fully on the idea of a combined paper, including with the political parties, the Electoral Commission, returning officers and accessibility groups. Subsequently, and following further statutory consultation with the Electoral Commission, the order that included the ballot paper was debated and approved by Parliament. If that consultation was too inward looking and not focused firmly enough on the voter, as Mr. Gould suggests, I apologise and commit to learning the lessons for the future.
The changes announced today, and those that I have committed to consider further, should give Scottish voters confidence that the experience of 3 May will not be repeated. Specifically, the commitment to use two separate ballot papers for the Scottish parliamentary poll and the removal of the need to use electronic counting outside the Scottish local elections will make elections in Scotland simpler and ensure that future polls are not defined by administrative problems.
I have decided, as part of the necessary action in respect of recommendations affecting my responsibilities, to respond positively to an approach from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee to consider the report and let me have its views. I am grateful to the Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), for his proactive approach.
In addition, I wish there to be further parliamentary debate in this House and will initiate wider discussion with ministerial colleagues and with the wide range of interests involved in electoral matters. That would include the Electoral Commission and Mr. Gould and his team, if possible. I believe that those are important steps to take before we finalise views to be set out in our final written response to the report.
I commend Mr Gould’s report to this House and look forward to more extended debate on its findings in due course.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for the advance copy that he let me have. Although the inquiry was not held according to the terms that we sought, Mr. Gould is a leading world expert on the organisation and management of elections, and is a person of impeccable independence and expertise.
The Secretary of State’s apparent suggestion that everybody is to blame, and that therefore no one is to blame, simply will not do. It is time for the Scotland Office to take responsibility for failing the people of Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman is also the Secretary of State for Defence, and today he has been forced to come to the House to defend his predecessor, who is, disappointingly but perhaps not surprisingly, absent. However, the right hon. Gentleman has scant chance of success, because there can be no defence to the conclusion of an independent reviewer, who says that both the Scotland Office—the Scotland Office, Mr Speaker—and the Scottish Executive were frequently focused on partisan political interests in carrying out their responsibilities, overlooking voter interests and operational realities. Furthermore, what was characteristic of 2007 was a notable level of party self-interest evident in ministerial decision making.
Does the Secretary of State agree that such behaviour is tantamount to attempting gerrymandering in the worst traditions of Tammany hall politics, and that it demonstrates complete contempt for the democratic process, laying bare the inner workings of the Labour establishment for all to see? Is not the position rendered even worse by the fact that the former Secretary of State was also Labour’s Scottish election co-ordinator?
The Secretary of State knows that when candidates and agents break the rules for their advantage they go to prison. What sanction does he propose for Ministers who seek to make rules for their partisan advantage? If the Government cannot be trusted with the basic democratic duty to run elections fairly and without political interference, what can they be trusted to do?
On 23 May, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South promised to apologise if the review found fault with the actions and decisions of the Scotland Office. The review has revealed not only partisan decision making but serial incompetence: Ministers unable to pass legislation in time, unable to take decisions in time and unable to communicate with their counterparts in Scotland; decisions taken against all advice and two different elections with two different voting systems on the same day, with votes to be counted electronically through the night. The fact that the election was not an even worse shambles is due to the work of returning officers and their officials, who should never have been treated in such a cavalier manner.
The current Secretary of State has said that he is not in a position to give a definitive response to the report, but what is required is for his predecessor to give the apology that he promised, and the definitive response the House requires. In the light of that response, we shall judge whether his predecessor is fit to continue in public office. However, what is absolutely clear from this damning report is that in future no one should ever again hold ministerial responsibility for elections simultaneously with responsibility for the conduct of their party’s campaign, and the Minister should immediately be stripped of those responsibilities in the Labour party.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising the appropriate qualifications that Mr Gould brought to the job. Nobody reading the report can say that it is not robust and challenging; it has 120 pages. However, it is perfectly clear from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution from the Dispatch Box that he has not had the opportunity to read them all yet—[Interruption.]—or to absorb them all.
I caution the hon. Gentleman about quoting discrete parts of the report out of context, even though I am about to do just that to give the House an example of the danger of doing so—he may want to take particular note. I shall quote one sentence, from page 120:
“Almost without exception, the voter was treated as an afterthought by virtually all the other stakeholders.”
The hon. Gentleman’s party falls within the definition “all the other stakeholders”—[Interruption.]
The Conservative party’s response makes my point. If you are going to comment on the report—[Hon. Members: “We.”] If one is going to comment on the report, one should at least take the time and trouble to read all of it. Moreover, it would help if hon. Members had listened to Ron Gould when he introduced the report and was asked the very questions that lie behind the observations. In response to a particular question, he said:
“So I don’t think I would absolve any party”.
He was asked about gerrymandering and said:
“‘Party self-interest’ in this context is not necessarily related to one party.”
It behoves us all as the political classes—[Interruption.]
Despite the endeavours of the hon. Gentleman and no doubt others, I am focusing on making sure that what happened will not happen again. The response that I have given today will, I think, ensure that it will never happen again, because I anticipate that the Scottish Parliament will exercise its power to decouple the elections. However, it chose not to exercise that power before these elections; it kept them together.
To return to the report, Mr. Gould made clear what the phrase that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) relies on so heavily actually means. Mr. Gould had the opportunity to single out individuals, but he does not call for anyone to resign. He says that no was being singled out for blame. These were complex issues. People acted in good faith and we have to move forward.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this country has the fine tradition of announcing election results as soon as possible? Will he assure me that he will maintain this tradition?
Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the statement of Alex Salmond, the First Minister, was intentionally misleading when it appeared on the ballot papers in relation to the regional list? Will my right hon. Friend take up the recommendation from Ron Gould that the party name should appear on the ballot paper in future elections?
My hon. Friend chairs the Scottish Affairs Committee and has suggested that the Committee consider the report in the detail that its complexity requires. He raises two important points, both of which I dealt with in the statement. I agree that overnight counts are a long-standing part of our democratic and political process. There is an expectation among the electorate that they will have the results of parliamentary elections immediately after the polls close. That necessitates overnight counts and I do not think that it is any more difficult for machines to count votes overnight than it is for them to count them during the day. It might be more difficult for people to do that, but my experience of elections is that overnight manual counts have been very successful for decades.
I am prepared to consider my hon. Friend’s point on that issue, as I am prepared to consider the recommendations about the designation of parties. However, there will need to be consultation and consideration on the nature of the recommendations.
I also thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Ron Gould is to be congratulated on the report. It is a thorough and authoritative analysis of what happened in May and he has clearly defied those who said that he would not be able to produce such an independent piece of work.
I regret to say, however, that the Secretary of State’s statement today raised almost as many questions as it answered. He is right: all parties had a role to play in this process. Only one party, however, took decisions—his party and that is a fact from which there is no hiding.
The role of the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), requires close examination. Essentially, the Secretary of State has come to the House today to say that a wee boy done it and ran away, which really is not good enough. It has been observed that the Scotland Office does not have much to do. In fact, the organisation of elections is the only executive function that it retains. The Gould report is a detailed and damning critique of the Department’s failings. Today, it seems that another Department has been added to the list of those that are not fit for purpose. It is regrettable that the Secretary of State is not prepared to acknowledge today that the logical and sensible next move would be to give the Scottish Parliament control over its own elections. The Secretary of State says that he is yet to be persuaded of that, but he does not offer any reason why the law should continue to defy logic in such a way.
The report is about more than administrative failings in the electoral process; it is about the politics that led up to that process. The Secretary of State has already referred to Mr. Gould’s comments, and expanded on Mr. Gould’s reference to “partisan political interests”, but the House should be aware of the whole paragraph in which that phrase is used. It speaks of Ministers who
“were frequently focused on partisan political interests in carrying out their responsibilities, overlooking voter interests and operational realities within the electoral administration timetable. At worst, the Ministers disregarded the highly negative and disruptive influence on the elections caused by their delays in arriving at key decisions. At best, they either overlooked or were poorly advised with regard to the serious operational consequences that could and did result.”
It is clear from that paragraph that the process within the Scotland Office was removed from the normal Government process. Some personal explanation by the Secretary of State’s predecessor is therefore required.
The Secretary of State will be judged on how he responds to the report, and on whether he ensures, in the interests of the voter, that we will never again face the problems that we faced on 3 May, but the matter does not end there. The conclusion that I draw from the report is that the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South was responsible for a crisis that brought into question the fundamental integrity of our electoral process. It is wrong that he should evade responsibility simply by virtue of taking on a new job in Government. A villain who has left the scene of his crime is still a villain. He must explain his actions to the House, and if no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming, the Prime Minister should remove him from Government.
I refute entirely the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Scotland, now Secretary of State for International Development, in any way acted according to party interest in making the decision. I accept that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) quotes the report correctly. He does not misrepresent the report, but there is not a jot of evidence in it that supports that assertion. The issue of party interest therefore requires further explanation, and I suspect that that is why the media explored the issue with Mr. Gould this morning, when he introduced the report. I have quoted the explanation that Mr. Gould gave, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows exactly what that explanation was. I cannot go beyond that. If people want to understand what the phrase means, they have to look at it in the context of the whole report, the constant references to the issues throughout the report, and indeed Mr. Gould’s explanation.
Let me deal with the issue of the recommendation on who should have sole responsibility for the elections. The issue is covered in one paragraph on page 111 of the report, which says:
“As long as the responsibilities for the decisions which have an impact on the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections are divided between the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government, it cannot be guaranteed that these electoral processes will be conducted effectively, due to the fragmentation of the legislation and decision-making in this context.”
That is in the context of combined elections.
There is no question but that that is exactly what it means. The report goes on to make the recommendation that there should be exploratory discussions
“with a view towards assigning responsibility for both elections to one jurisdictional entity”.
If the elections are to be decoupled, those circumstances will change. I am happy to have those discussions, but we should recognise that if other recommendations of the report are accepted, they will change the environment. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing for it, he must argue from the evidence in the report, which is small, easily accessible and able to be understood.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh Scottish parliamentary constituency had the highest number of spoiled constituency ballot papers? I thank him for his constructive response to the workmanlike report from Ron Gould. Will he confirm that not only that report but the Arbuthnott report recommended that the elections to local authorities in Scotland and to the Scottish Parliament should be held separately, so the Scottish Executive certainly needs to give that careful consideration? Finally, may I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out that for the Scottish Parliament we do not need electronic counting of the ballots?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s contribution, and I can answer yes to all the questions that he poses. I was aware of the comparatively high number of spoiled ballot papers in the constituency that he identifies. No individual constituency is investigated in the Gould report, because the authors of the report determined that the parameters within which they would be working would not explore the outcome or validity of the election. I suspect that that is why they avoided the detailed consideration of any individual constituency. However, their interpretation of the reasons why there were so many spoiled ballot papers essentially comes down to the fact that the two ballots were combined on the one piece of paper, and confused the electorate.
Just where is the Secretary of State’s predecessor this afternoon? Why is he not at the Dispatch Box, apologising? How can he continue to be the Secretary of State for International Development, going round the third world lecturing on parliamentary democracy, when he has been caught with his hand in the till?
I entirely refute the claim that my right hon. Friend has been caught with his hand in the till. That is not what happened. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should read the whole report. There is, for example, a suggestion that parties’ self-interest was served by holding a count overnight. How can that possibly be to the advantage of any individual party? It is perfectly clear that it was considered to be to the advantage of party politics, as opposed to the advantage of any party. I defy any hon. Member to explain how a count overnight could be in the interests of any individual party.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) asked where my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is. The answer is that he is making his way back from the United States of America, where he was attending a meeting of the World Bank, delivering a policy which all of us would wish him to continue to deliver, with the expertise that he has shown.
In the local government elections, most of the spoiled votes were due to people marking their ballot paper with crosses instead of 1, 2 and 3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there was nowhere near enough advance publicity regarding this vital change to the electoral process? Will he ensure that that does not happen in the future? Will he also reconsider his position in relation to electronic counting machines, and ensure that they, and DRS, never again play any part in any election?
There is a recommendation about education—and if the elections are decoupled, as we anticipate that they will be, it will be much easier to educate the electorate about an individual election in future. That is the responsibility of the devolved Administration. It will have to decide how that goes forward, and who, if anyone, it will contract with for electronic counting of ballot papers—if it agrees that that is necessary. For my part, I think that the decoupling of the elections of itself, and the recommendations of the report, makes it clear that there will be no necessity for electronic counting in elections, either for this Parliament or for the Scottish Parliament.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and welcome the work of Ron Gould and his colleagues. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I particularly welcome the sensible suggestion that in future the management of the Scottish elections should be the Scottish Government’s responsibility.
I hope that everybody in all parties agrees that the integrity and impartiality of the management of elections has to be uppermost among our responsibilities. In the case that we are discussing, that responsibility lay with the then Secretary of State for Scotland, who is not here, and the present-day Minister of State at the Scotland Office. We learn from the report—this is the crunch point in the exercise of ministerial office—that Labour Ministers
“frequently focused on partisan political interests…overlooking voter interests”
That is a scandal in a western European democracy. The charges are extremely serious—when will Ministers take responsibility and do the honourable thing by resigning?
I have already dealt with that issue. I repeat that I entirely refute the idea that my right hon. Friend or my hon. Friend acted as the hon. Gentleman describes. I pray in aid the whole report, and the explanation that Ron Gould himself gave to questions; I cannot answer for him, but I can refer to the answers that he gave. He takes the feet from the interpretation on which the hon. Gentleman relies. Given the constraints and circumstances of this opportunity in the House, it might behove the hon. Gentleman better to have accepted the obvious criticism, explicitly made, of how his party behaved in the elections; that might have given his position more credibility than it has.
As one who was on the ground that day, I should say that we all let our constituents down, because there was a need for a more professional and better-informed public information campaign. That focuses on the work of the Electoral Commission; that issue has to be addressed, as well as the professionalism of returning officers. Whoever is First Minister—Alex Salmond or Donald Duck—clarity has to be brought to the list system, so that such situations do not happen again. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that the consultation process will be speedy, so that any recommendations that he accepts will be brought in well before the next election? The system could then be tried and tested, and our constituents will not suffer in the same way again.
I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that he and the voters of Scotland expect—that this will not happen again. The report makes key recommendations; I expect that the Scottish Executive will act on at least one, and I will act on the others. The combined effect of the acceptance of those recommendations will ensure that such things do not happen again.
Other issues have been explored, of course. They may not have been directly responsible for what happened on 3 May, but the investigation has revealed a number of things that could be considerably improved. I have listed them, I accept that we will take them forward for discussion, and I have committed to doing some of them.
I do not speak for the Electoral Commission, but I understand that it has made it clear that it will learn lessons, which I am sure will relate to voter identification. We will have to deal with the issue of clarity of party identification, given the report’s analysis of its effect. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the report has criticisms of all those involved in the political process; frankly, a mature approach requires all parties to accept that.
Some of us in this House believe that the position of Secretary of State for Scotland is an important, honourable and ancient one. Is not this debacle—this tragedy for democracy—evidence that the Prime Minister, and the previous Prime Minister, has shown little regard for the people of Scotland? Indeed, it is an insult to the people of Scotland that the position of Secretary of State for Scotland should be tagged on to the position of another Secretary of State within the Cabinet. However capable the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessor, who is now Secretary of State for International Development, might personally be, it is obvious from the debacle that we see before us that one person cannot carry out both of those onerous duties. Will the right hon. Gentleman take the message to the Prime Minister that this House believes that not having a full-time Secretary of State for Scotland is an insult to the people of Scotland?
The hon. Lady brings a degree of personal knowledge of such conflicts to the question, as at one stage she was shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, although at the time she represented an English constituency, which she still does—[Hon. Members: “We are all British.”] I understand that. [Interruption.] If Opposition Front Benchers could just contain themselves, I am making the very point that they are making a noise about, which is that many of us in this House have been called on at different times in our political careers to be able, in nominal terms, to do different things. It is the ability to be able to deliver that is the test. I do not accept the hon. Lady’s point, but I do accept that we all have an interest in ensuring that the very positive recommendations of the report should be taken forward as quickly as possible.
While I am on my feet, I remind the Liberal Democrats that they, too, were in government in Scotland, and had responsibilities when these decisions were made; they were part of the decision-making processes that combined to create what people have called a perfect storm.
Many of my constituents felt extremely short-changed by the whole election process, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s recognition of that on behalf of the Scotland Office. I look forward to similar apologies from all the other parties concerned in due course.
Will the Secretary of State look into the role of returning officers? He may be aware that they receive substantial payments in addition to their roles mainly as chief executives of councils in Scotland, although officers at a lower grade often do the actual work. Will he consider whether there is a better way of organising things, rather than through the current returning officer system?
When Members who have not read the report in full—they appear to be here in substantial numbers—get a chance to do so, they will find the part about the professionalisation of returning officers, where some important recommendations are made. I think that those of us who have experience of having to deal with returning officers in the context of elections would welcome some of the professionalisation that is suggested. This is properly a matter for my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers at the Ministry of Justice. I will ask them to examine the matter carefully to see whether we can take forward these recommendations to meet the objective that Ron Gould sets out.
A sensible silk would start his plea in mitigation with an apology, but we have not had a scintilla of a shadow of a suggestion of an apology from the Secretary of State. Is that simply because he believes that there is absolutely nothing in the report for him and other Ministers to apologise for?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong on two counts. I am not a senior counsel, so I am not a silk. And secondly, I did apologise. When he reads the official record, he will see that I used the word “apologise”.
Although there is much to be commended in the report’s conclusions, one area is not highlighted as I would want it be—the part about the different forms of election. There are four different systems in operation, and surely it is time to return to one: first past the post. Secondly, in connection with an earlier point made by my right hon. Friend, may I say that electronic counting is the worst way to count votes? That was the worst experience I have had at a count; I could see absolutely nothing taking place that made any sense. As a consequence, we have what I describe as a democratic deficit, which must be addressed.
In my statement in response to the report, I made it clear that we do not anticipate using electronic counting again in parliamentary elections for which we have responsibility. The decision to have a different system of voting in local government elections was one made, quite rightly, by the Scottish Parliament in the exercise of its devolved powers. As I am a supporter of devolution, I support its right to make that decision. It behoves all of us to accept the reality as far as voters in Scotland are concerned, and to ensure that we conduct elections in a way that takes account of the confusion that might be generated. We should also use existing agencies to ensure that voters are educated so that they understand the systems and what the active exercise of their vote means, however they do it. If people understand that, they will use their votes appropriately.
The Secretary of State indicated that on the back of this report he will have a period of reflection and consultation. Does he intend to use that opportunity to reflect and consult on the operation of the postal ballot system? In 25 years’ experience locally, I have never known an election at any level where I have heard from so many people who felt effectively disfranchised because of the vagaries and shortcomings in the operation of the postal ballot. People are being excluded, not least in a vast area such as the highlands and islands, where family or work commitments can change at comparatively short notice. Will he include that important issue in the forthcoming consultation process?
I can immediately contrast the right hon. Gentleman’s constructive contribution with that of his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who for a moment forgot that the phrase “Scottish Executive Ministers” in the report refers to Liberal Democrat Ministers as well as Labour Ministers.
When someone has achieved at least some of their ambitions, as the right hon. Gentleman has, they can retire from ambition—but perhaps the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is not in that position yet.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. There is an interesting chapter in the report about postal votes, which collects evidence of experiences that a number of us have seen acted out in our constituencies, in this election and others. If I have understood the report correctly, the principal cause of the problem with postal votes in the 3 May election was the combination of the ballot papers and the bulk of paper to be handled, how it came out of the post and whether it could be scanned into the electronic system. I do not think that those circumstances will be repeated. They certainly will not while I have responsibility for elections to the Scottish Parliament, so they are unlikely to happen again. There are, however, other recommendations and advice for returning officers that should be studied carefully. Those fit into the category of recommendations that I think it better to refer to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Justice. If there are proper lessons to learn, they are not just for Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom.
Given the smooth running of elections to this House, when the Secretary of State makes his final report, will he find room for a section that draws the main lessons from the events that we are considering and addresses them to those who wish to change elections to the UK Parliament, especially those who advocate a combination of constituency and list systems?
Just say yes.
I am tempted just to say yes—but I do not want this to move from a statement on the Gould report on the conduct of the elections to a debate about electoral systems. However, personally, I think that there is much in what my right hon. Friend says.
To save the Secretary of State from pointing it out, I start by saying that I am English and I represent an English constituency. For years I was proud of the United Kingdom’s electoral systems and of the fact that people all over the world looked to us for the way in which to conduct proper elections. Then a judge said that postal vote fraud in England would disgrace a banana republic, and now Labour Ministers are accused in an independent report of trying to corrupt the electoral process. When will someone resign, or are the Government totally without shame?
The report does not suggest that any Minister tried to corrupt the electoral process. [Hon. Members: “It does.”] It does not. I defy the hon. Gentleman to show me where the report states that, even if a sentence or two is taken out of context. I rebut the suggestion that any part of the report even hints at that. Ron Gould certainly did not say that today when he was asked in his press conference what phrases meant.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, an English Member and fellow Unionist, feels it appropriate to ask questions about this matter because it is of interest to him, and to this Parliament. I agree with him that we should do everything that we can to protect the integrity of our electoral system. However, the report makes no suggestion that anyone was at fraud. The administration failed; there is no suggestion that anyone was at fraud. Hon. Members who interpret the report in that way misrepresent it.
I am glad to hear the Secretary of State emphasise that the lessons in the report go beyond Scotland, because we are not considering simply a little local Scottish difficulty. Some of the issues, especially sloganising party names, problems with postal votes and the construction of the ballots, are covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. If the Electoral Commission does not have the discretion to deal with those issues, especially ruling some party names and slogans out of order, we need to examine the legislation, which covers the UK and all the elections in it. It is important not to lose sight of that in our discussions.
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why we have already committed to feeding in to the Green Paper on consultation and constitutional matters some of issues that this valuable report raises. There are lessons for all of us who are involved in politics about getting, in our debates and discussions—which, of necessity, as Ron Gould says, we will approach from a party political point of view— the right mix between such an approach and the voters’ interest. The point at the heart of the report is that the political classes got that balance wrong. That may be a function of the way in which we have dealt with such issues historically. Perhaps we are now at a turning point for the way in which we should tackle them in future.
Following what my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) said, may I tell the Secretary of State that the problem for many people with postal ballots was not their complexity or whether the form fitted the envelope, but the fact that they never saw them, because they did not arrive in time?
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referred to electoral systems. The single transferable vote system for local government had far fewer problems than the system for election to the Scottish Parliament. May I therefore recommend to the Secretary of State that the right thing to do is simplify the electoral systems by ensuring that they all use STV?
Let me say two things to the right hon. Gentleman, who I think was making a party political point dressed up in another way. First, the failure to get the ballot papers printed and distributed in time for postal votes was, in my interpretation of the relevant chapter of the report, also a function of the fact that the ballot paper was a combined paper produced using a centralised print scheme, and the fact that the bulk of the numbers could not be processed. It all comes back to the combination of the two papers, in my view. The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced politician and he will have a chance to read the report at his leisure and come to his own conclusions, but that is my view, on two readings of the report. We might even have a chance to ask Mr. Gould whether that interpretation is right.
Secondly, when I looked at the comparative number of spoiled or rejected papers under STV as opposed to those in the Scottish Parliament elections, which uses the first-past-the-post system and the additional member system, I came to the same conclusion that the right hon. Gentleman did. However, more careful consideration might suggest that the system of auto-adjudication under STV may have masked the number of people who did not enter their votes properly on the STV ballot paper, because it accepted votes with a cross on them, if there was only one cross. We need to be careful about coming to conclusions from a partial interpretation of the ballot papers, as there may be hidden mistakes made by people that did not come out in the rejection system.
A sequence of events normally precedes a disaster—I say that from an old miner’s point of view—and we saw a number of sequences of events, which resulted in probably the worst debacle that we have seen for many years. It ill becomes all parties first to argue that they want an independent review—many of them also questioned whether it was really going to be independent—and then, now that that independent review is here, to call for one person’s head. A sequence of events means that everybody has to take some blame for what happened. I look forward to the debate that we will have, because I for one will have my say on what went wrong. I believe that thousands upon thousands of Labour voters were disfranchised in that election. We should have won that election, and I still believe that we would have won it if all the votes had been recounted, as I said at the time.
I commend my hon. Friend for his contribution. He has distinguished himself in the House as a Member who is prepared to lay criticism wherever he thinks it should lie, in debates to which he contributes. His point about the integrity of the report as a whole is an important one, which I have been stressing all afternoon. When Ron Gould specifically says that no one should be singled out for blame, it defeats me why people interpret his words in order to do just that.
When a public opinion research company was commissioned to do research into the Scottish Parliament ballot paper, it found that
“the rejection rate of 4 per cent. was significant as this was close to the actual rejection rate in the 3 May election.”
Following that report, the Electoral Commission recommended to the Secretary of State’s predecessor that further consideration be given to combining both votes on one ballot paper. Why did the Secretary of State’s predecessor reject that advice? Was it because he had already decided that, for party political advantage, he wanted a ballot paper with that design?
If the hon. Gentleman is going to make that sort of allegation, he at least has the obligation to say what the party political advantage could be for any party in having a combined ballot paper. If he can explain that to me, I will give some credence to his assertion. He will have the opportunity to do that somewhere else, outside the Chamber. He surely has the analysis in his mind and he should be able to tell me what it is. I challenge him to do that, because I cannot for the life of me see how any individual party is advantaged by a combined ballot paper. If he could even give me some indication through his body language whether he has any reason, that would help. [Interruption.] Right—I suspected that.
Let us deal with the issue of advice. The fact is that the testing was carried out, and that it apparently revealed a certain level of error. Despite that, however, the Electoral Commission, which carried out the work, reported it back to the Secretary of State and strongly recommended the combined ballot paper on the basis of its research. It did the work, and it recommended—[Interruption.] Part of the problem for the hon. Gentleman is that the letter containing that recommendation exists. It just so happens that Mr. Gould, although he was offered it, did not come to look at it. That is not necessarily a criticism of him. It is a criticism of those who seek to extend his conclusions beyond what they will sustain, which is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is doing.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the inconsistency of approach of returning officers throughout Scotland towards recounts in the elections in May. Does he agree that, irrespective of whether an electronic or a manual system is being used, it is appropriate that recounts should be available, particularly when a result is close?
I know that there was great concern about the fact that, on the same night and in pretty similar circumstances, one officer in charge of a poll decided to have a recount while another said that to do so was impossible. That caused a degree of concern, and I believe that all democrats should be concerned about it. Because of the constraints that Ron Gould and his team put on themselves during the review, however, they could not look at any of those constituencies individually. Perhaps it was better that they did not, because they did not want to open up the validity of the outcome of the election, and I think that most of us would want to accept that. However, this does not alter the fact that the whole thread of their recommendations on the professionalisation of returning officers ought to deal with that kind of inconsistency, and it is to be hoped that we can establish a process that professionalises them to the point at which all voters and all these kinds of decisions are treated in the same way across the country.
May I urge the Secretary of State to give a more thoughtful response to the cogent points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing)? The reality is that this monumental mistake—I nearly said “cock-up”, but that would have been unparliamentary—was made, and was known to have been made, at a time when there was a full-time Secretary of State for Scotland. What sort of message did it send to the people of Scotland subsequently to make Secretary of State for Scotland into a part-time post? For that matter, what message did it send to the armed forces to do the same thing to the post of Secretary of State for Defence? It was a very bad message indeed to send to both constituencies.
Factually, the hon. Gentleman is incorrect, but it would serve no purpose to point out when there was a full-time Secretary of State and when there was a part-time one. That is irrelevant. The point that he is making is that we should not have a part-time Secretary of State for Scotland. However, the people of Scotland, for whom he purports to speak, are much less exercised by this issue than he is. I suspect that he is making the point for party political purposes, rather than out of any consideration for what is in the best interests of the people of Scotland.
Returning to the issue of manual and electronic counting, does my right hon. Friend agree that the return to a manual count would be the biggest and most significant way of restoring the electorate’s faith in the system? It would be much more significant than having professional returning officers.
The presentation of ballot papers that voters can clearly understand, and that do not confuse them by the way in which they are combined, will be the single biggest advantage for voters in the future. Making all these comparatively straightforward, simple decisions now will ensure that this never happens again; my hon. Friend is perfectly correct about that.
To return to the issue of the postal voting chaos that disfranchised many of my constituents, I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is keen to extend the time frame for elections, but that is not the only issue that needs to be looked at. What action does he plan to take on the ineffectiveness of some of the private companies involved in running the elections, particularly in regard to the postal ballot? Presumably, those companies were contracted on the basis that they knew when the deadlines were and when they needed to have the postal ballot forms printed in order for them to be delivered in a timely manner. Given that some of those companies have a poor track record on working on elections—not only for Scotland but for the Greater London authority in 2004—what does he intend to do about this?
The report addresses those issues and brings to the attention of those who need to know it that these contracts were made with penalty clauses. They should have been carried out in a professional manner and if they were not, it is a matter for the contracting parties to take forward the redress to which they are entitled. More importantly, we now have some significant experience of handling postal votes and we should be getting better rather than worse at doing it. I note that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) is in his place on the Front Bench and I am sure that he is listening carefully to this discussion. I propose that these important potential lessons relating to postal votes and associated matters be transferred to the Ministry of Justice. If there are lessons to be learned and actions to be taken, voters right across the UK should benefit from them.
This has clearly been an embarrassing, difficult and uncomfortable statement for the Secretary of State for Scotland—and rightly so. The right hon. Gentleman said in his statement:
“If that consultation was too inward looking and not focused firmly enough on the voter, as Mr. Gould suggests, I apologise and commit to learning the lessons for the future.”
I would like to give the Secretary of State an opportunity to expand on that apology, which is very narrow. It is conditional and focuses only on the consultation process. Will he take this opportunity to make the situation less uncomfortable for himself by apologising further—beyond the limited and conditional apology that he has so far provided?
I am entirely content with the words in my statement. I am entirely content that they respond in a positive way. When we all reflect on what happened and the criticisms that have been made, we will be able to go far beyond the places where Opposition Members have been trying to focus their questions to me this afternoon. We all have something to learn from this, and that includes the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who I am sure will be receptive.