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Gould Report

Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2007

8. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the Gould report on the Scottish elections. (167463)

On 23 October, I made a full statement on the Gould report in the House, in which I committed to taking forward five important recommendations. Recently, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office, gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, he set out our intention to consult very soon on other issues that Mr. Gould raised. I shall have discussions with colleagues before finalising the Government’s response.

Gould particularly found that

“the voter was treated as an afterthought”

in the planning and organisation of the May 2007 elections in Scotland. The Government introduced incomprehensible ballot papers in Scotland, e-counting—particularly discredited by Gould—and postal voting throughout the United Kingdom, which has led to numerous cases of corruption, and which the Electoral Commission warned against. The Government are also introducing pilots on e-voting. This country used to have an enviable reputation for its democratic electoral processes, which have been reduced to the status of those of a banana republic. Is the Secretary of State proud of being associated with that?

The hon. Gentleman is right to base his question on the words of Mr. Gould. The problem, of course, is that he edited them. Not only did he select just one sentence out of Mr. Gould’s report, subsequent letter, press release and evidence to a Scottish Committee, but he edited the sentence. The words that he missed out are:

“by…all the other stakeholders.”

Those stakeholders included the Conservative party—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Mr. Gould has made it perfectly clear that, in his view, all those in the political classes share responsibility for the situation in Scotland; we all ought to be big enough to take that responsibility and to start to address the issues through the processes that I have just announced.

Having listened to the Secretary of State’s answer, I think that he and the Labour party have absolutely no idea of the damage that the situation did to the integrity of the democratic process in this country. He said that consultation would start soon. Will he tell the House what exactly he means by “soon”?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it really is time to move beyond the allocation of blame and party political point-scoring? Surely it behoves everyone, from all the political parties, to get together constructively and put in place arrangements to ensure that we never have a repeat of what happened last May.

That exactly summarises Mr. Gould’s position when he recently gave evidence to a Committee in the Scottish Parliament. He expressed significant disappointment about what politicians had sought to do by picking on his report— [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Those are his words, not mine. Given that my right hon. Friend has in the past been unstinting in his criticism when it was appropriate, we ought to listen to the lesson that he sets out for all of us in the House and in the political classes.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Gould report suggests that we move away from overnight counts. Does he agree that there is no evidence to suggest that counting overnight caused the problem in May, and that we should stick with the tradition where practicable?

My personal view is that the overnight count is part of the recognised tradition of the electoral system in this country. Many people, whether or not they are otherwise engaged or interested in politics, expect to wake the morning after a general election able to know who their Government are to be. That is a big prize to give away. That having been said, in his report Mr. Gould sets out arguments on why asking people to take responsibility for such an important process after they have done a day’s work may not be the best way to deal with things. That is exactly why we decided that it is one of the recommendations that ought to be consulted on, so that the difference of views across the country can inform the eventual decision on whether we make that significant change.

The Gould report focused on the organisational issues raised by the Scottish Parliament elections rather than on financial matters, but since the publication of the report, it has emerged that £326,955 of illegal donations were made by David Abrahams between the 2003 and 2007 Scottish Parliament campaigns. Can the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that none of those illegal laundered donations funded the Labour campaign in Scotland—yes or no?

The hon. Gentleman knows that that issue is not part of my responsibility as the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I can give him a categorical assurance that, in terms of my state of knowledge, none of the donations to the Labour party that have figured in the media over the past couple of days went to fund any part of the Scottish election campaign.

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that the Gould report is extremely important and demands the closest possible consideration. How much time has the Secretary of State been able to devote to it?

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office, has devoted a significant amount of his time to it. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have provided strategic supervision. He and the House can be satisfied that I have sufficient knowledge of the report and the matters relating to it to be able to carry out my responsibilities, which is partly why I am answering questions about it. I am sure that he will not be disappointed.

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman could give a categorical assurance to the House that there were no unlawful or completely unacceptable donations to the Scottish Labour party campaign for the Scottish elections—but does not this very issue highlight the reason why his predecessor the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), who is now Secretary of State for International Development, should not have administered the elections and at the same time run the Labour party campaign?

I do not think that there was any conflict of interest in the role that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development played as the Secretary of State for Scotland. Everything that he did was completely transparent and above board; none of it was done in party interests, nor was the subsequent role that he played as a politician in the conduct of Scottish parliamentary elections.

But does the Secretary of State not agree that his predecessor, who was also Transport Secretary, has a lot of explaining to do to the House, not least about the Scottish election debacle? Does he not agree that rather than hide behind pre-recorded television interviews, his right hon. Friend should face scrutiny in the House and appear before the Scottish Affairs Committee?

Who appears before the Scottish Affair Committee is a matter for the Committee, not for me—or, indeed, for the hon. Gentleman, other than in his capacity as a member of that Committee.