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Constitutional Law

Volume 519: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2010

I beg to move,

That the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 25 October, be approved.

The order consolidates the rules for the conduct of the Scottish Parliament elections and ensures that the accepted recommendations from the Gould report, and a subsequent inquiry by the Scottish Affairs Committee, will apply for the May 2011 election. The draft order has been available to electoral administrators and political parties since it was laid in Parliament on 25 October—more than six months ahead of the 2011 election. Indeed, an earlier version of the draft order was circulated to electoral administrators in April and to political parties in June.

Many Members will remember that more than 180,000 votes were lost due to rejected ballot papers in the 2007 Scottish Parliament and local government elections. That is totally unacceptable in a modern democracy, and there was widespread public outrage at the time. Indeed, I instigated a debate on the subject in the House in May 2007.

Ron Gould was commissioned by the Electoral Commission to review the 2007 Scottish elections, and concluded that six main factors had contributed to confusion, and so to the level of rejected papers. First, there were many problems with the design of the ballot papers. Secondly, a new proportional voting system for local government elections was introduced, and voters were confused by using two electoral systems on the same day. Thirdly, there had been poor co-ordination of the publicity campaigns of the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Government and others. Fourthly, there were problems caused by electronic counting. Fifthly, there had been fragmented and late legislation on the matter and a lack of involvement in the legislative process by electoral administrators. Sixthly, there was a lack of co-ordination within the electoral community and a fragmented approach to planning.

There is no doubt that public confidence needed to be repaired after the problems in 2007, and I believe that a successfully administered UK general election in Scotland earlier this year will have gone some way to doing that. However, I am pleased to say that the Scotland Office has continued the work started by the previous Administration of implementing the Gould recommendations, and the subsequent recommendations of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, that the Government accepted at the time.

The Minister mentioned that he raised the matter some time ago, after the last Scottish Parliament election. He might also recall that in 2004, a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the South of Scotland region argued very coherently that we should decouple elections. Does he agree with himself that that is the best way forward?

I regret that, at that time, the Labour party did not accept the coherence of my argument. It was, of course, the Labour-led Scottish Executive who insisted that the Scottish local government elections and the Scottish Parliament election went ahead together.

In the light of the Minister’s comments and the criticisms that there have been of the 2007 election, why is now not the moment to rethink the fact that there will be two different types of election next year, and potentially in 2015 as well? That could be avoided entirely by the Government changing their mind.

As the hon. Lady will know, having contributed to other debates, that issue has been debated in the House during the consideration of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. However, I will address it later in my remarks.

I appreciate that the Minister has changed his mind—he is perfectly entitled to do that—but he prays in aid Mr Gould. From memory, I am sure that Mr Gould’s recommendation was that there should never be two elections of different sorts on the same day. The order rather seems to run counter to that core recommendation.

I think the hon. Gentleman’s memory betrays him. If he had been paying particular attention to the helpful contribution of the Scottish Affairs Committee on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in September, he would have seen that Mr Gould had said:

“The marking of yes or no on a referendum ballot is much easier to understand and carry out than the requirements of marking an STV ballot”—

a ballot under the single transferable vote. He also said:

“I do not believe that the same factors which led to voter confusion and the large number of rejected ballots at the last Scottish Parliamentary and Municipal elections would arise if both the Parliamentary Election and the Referendum were held on the same date.”

Will the right hon. Gentleman welcome, as I do, the partial acceptance of the thrust of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru’s new clause 4 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which will allay the fears of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) about the 2015 election occurring on the same day as a UK general election?

I will, and I was pleased to read his contribution to the debate on the Bill on the day he refers to, as well as the contribution of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who also welcomed the consultation that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), is undertaking in relation to the 2015 elections and the subsequent elections, every 20 years at which there might be a clash of dates.

Does the right hon. Gentleman concede that while there may be a general election and a Scottish election on the same day, the decoupling of the Scottish election and local elections, as a result of the Gould report, means that the local elections will be out of kilter and that it is not inconceivable that a general election under an alternative vote system could be held on the same day as a local council election under the single transferable vote?

Clearly, it is not inconceivable that such a thing might happen. However, in accordance with the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, that scenario is unlikely. A helpful contribution that the hon. Gentleman, his Front-Bench colleagues and his other hon. Friends could make is that following next year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament, they could take forward a proposal to repeal STV as a voting system for local government elections in Scotland. That was a proposal that the Labour party adhered to without even asking the people of Scotland to participate in a referendum.

I am all for helping out the right hon. Gentleman. It is not often that he and I agree with each other, but has he talked to his coalition partners about such a change in policy?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is a coalition in the Westminster Parliament, and the arrangement in that coalition was that there should be a referendum on AV as the United Kingdom voting system. I wish that his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament had perhaps pressed more strongly in their own coalition negotiations for a referendum to be the requirement for the introduction of STV for local government in Scotland.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for so generously giving way. If he is so keen on the Scottish Parliament making strong representations, what account is he taking of the strong recommendation from the Scottish Parliament that the referendum and the election should not take place on the same day?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that I read in detail the debate that took place in the Scottish Parliament on this subject. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) was able to bring to that debate her reflections on her time in Westminster. I am sure that even she would recognise that during the course of that debate, nothing was said that had not already been said in this Parliament in the debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. No new argument was made by that day’s coalition of Labour and Scottish National party Members.

I rise to respond to the provocation by the right hon. Gentleman. Does he not agree that in that debate last week, we saw a remarkable agreement between the Scottish Labour party and the Scottish National party—that is something that we do not often get—which indicates the strength of feeling in Scotland against the Government’s proposals?

I do not accept that at all. I have read the transcript. As the hon. Lady knows, the arguments that have been made previously in this Parliament were simply rehearsed; some were made without using the available information. I noted that she and others did not point out Ron Gould’s contribution to the Scottish Affairs Committee, which I quoted earlier. He said explicitly that it would be possible for the referendum and the Scottish Parliament elections to go ahead on the same day.

I am grateful to the Minister. He is smirking all over his face, but does he not realise that people are watching this? He is saying that he does not care that the people of Scotland, most of whom did not vote for his party—that is why he is the lone Conservative Scotland Member—or the Scottish Parliament, which is elected by the people of Scotland, have been ignored. He is representing the contemptuous behaviour of this Government at that Dispatch Box.

That is a ridiculous suggestion. The Government will listen to the Scottish Parliament. Had the debate there revealed any new or different argument that was not reflected in the debate in the House, we would have considered it, but nothing new was said. Indeed, as I pointed out previously, less information was available from that debate than was available from the debate in this House. In addition, I have not heard the hon. Gentleman advocate the UK Parliament giving up its right to determine the UK voting system and dates for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

To rewind, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) said that he did not often agree with the Minister. Will the Minister extend the olive branch further and say that he and the Labour party prefer Tory cuts to Scottish independence?

The people of Scotland prefer being part of the UK to Scottish independence, but we are not debating that this evening; we are debating the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2010.

There is only a handful of Lib Dems in the Chamber tonight, but where is the Secretary of State for Scotland? What important, pressing issue means that he did not want to come here to take part in this vital debate?

The Secretary of State had confidence that I would be in a position to make the case for the order. The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity last week to ask where the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was when the equivalent Northern Ireland order was debated, and he will likewise have a similar opportunity to ask where the Secretary of State for Wales is when the equivalent Wales order is debated next week.

On the Gould recommendation for a six-month cut-off for changes in the law that governs the conduct of elections, we have ensured that the electoral administrators and political parties are well versed in the changes to the legislation well in advance of May 2011. Indeed, I discussed the order this week with Mary Pitcaithly, the new chair of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, and I have arranged a further meeting with her and representatives of the board on 21 December.

The targeted 5 November working date for making the order would be challenging for whichever party won the recent general election. However, the projected date for making the order is considerably earlier than the equivalent order before the last Scottish Parliament election, which was made less than two months before the date of the poll.

Will the Minister tell the House—or put the information in the Library—how many people have contacted him who support this particular proposal?

I presume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2010. I was not aware that there was a dispute over the order, which will regulate next year’s elections. The provisions of the order have been widely consulted on—by the Electoral Commission, the Scotland Office and the Scottish Affairs Committee—and they have received support even from the Labour party in the form of the EMB representation.

The public had confidence that the political parties in Scotland and the professionals who serve on the EMB were taking forward measures that had agreement across the political spectrum. However, if the hon. Gentleman has any specific concerns about the content of the order, which is essentially the same as the one promoted by his Government, I would be delighted to address them.

The order applies the recommendations of Gould and the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which were accepted by the previous Government, to next year’s election. It is a large order, and I want to focus on the main changes since 2007.

I am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, as the Minister is aware, and I cannot remember us saying that we recommended that the referendum and the Scottish elections should take place on the same day. I am quite sure that the Committee would have been against that. Notwithstanding that, on the subject of the alternative vote, is he prepared to say how he personally might vote?

Order. I know that the Minister was tempted by that question, but perhaps we could stick to the draft order before us.

Perhaps we can reframe the question. With 60 seconds on the doorstep to speak to a voter in your constituency, will you talk to them about the AV referendum, or will you press the case for your party in Scotland?

Order. It is not me who will be doing that. I would be grateful if hon. Members addressed their remarks to the Minister, not to me.

I will take your advice and stick to the discussion of the order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to refer hon. Members—I am sure that they will be interested in this—to a correction slip that was associated with the draft order. It makes a number of typographical corrections to the draft instrument, which will become part of the final order for printing if the draft is approved by Parliament.

No, I want to make some progress. I also want to leave time for the many Members from Scotland to make their contributions to the debate.

I want to comment on the four points about the draft order that were raised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. First, article 2 of the order defines the term “European parliamentary election” without that term being used in the text of the order. Secondly, rule 20(3)(a) in schedule 2 includes among the minor errors that returning officers can correct in nomination papers

“errors as to a person’s electoral number”.

However, unlike the nomination papers for election to this House, the nomination papers for Scottish parliamentary elections do not contain proposers’ electoral numbers, thus rendering the reference unnecessary. Both those errors, while regrettable, have no effect on the operation of the order. My officials will ensure that returning officers are aware that the reference to electoral numbers can safely be ignored and that the unnecessary provisions will be removed at the first suitable opportunity to amend the order.

Thirdly, the Committee also highlighted article 3(1), which deals with the disregarding of late alterations to the register of electors, and, fourthly, article 4(5), which deals with the effect of alterations to the register where there has been an appeal against a registration officer’s decision. Those provisions have been set out in a substantially similar form in previous versions of the order since 2002, and so far as I know, they have not prejudiced voters or the effective administrations of previous elections. On reviewing those articles in light of the Committee’s comments, we are of the view that there is an overlap with the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983 that renders those provisions unnecessary. Those points were not raised until after the draft order had been considered by the Electoral Commission and had been laid. We propose proceeding with the order in its current form, and we will revisit those provisions once we have the benefit of consulting with the Electoral Commission and other interested parties. As the equivalent provisions in previous orders have apparently not caused difficulty for voters or electoral administrators at previous elections, we do not anticipate any difficulty with those provisions as drafted.

Is not the fact that there are so many mistakes that have to be rectified evidence that the order is being pushed through the House far too early?

I do not think that it is evidence of that at all. The hon. Gentleman will know from his long service in government that from time to time there will inevitably be small errors in such large documents, and particularly ones that have been carried over from documents and orders passed by the previous Administration.

Moving on to the substance of the order, we have consolidated legislation on the conduct of Scottish Parliament elections so that the majority of rules governing them are now in one document, making them easier for electoral administrators and political parties to use.

The order sets out that for the 2011 elections we will return to a manual count of ballot papers for both the Scottish Parliament constituency and regional elections.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give his view on the count taking place that night? Would it be the count for one, two or three ballots? Does he foresee a problem if the counts are split, and the postal ballots are returned together in one envelope?

The hon. Lady makes a valid point about postal votes and how they will be dealt with, and we will speak to the Electoral Management Board about that. It is already clear that counts for the Scottish Parliament constituency and regional elections will take place ahead of any count for the alternative vote referendum.

One problem with joint elections is that some papers are inevitably put in the wrong ballot box. Will not all the ballot boxes have to be opened on the night for all the elections so that the papers can be sorted out before a count can take place?

Indeed, the verification count will be done first, and it will be exactly the same as in 1999 and 2003, when local government elections were held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections.

I hope that I can be helpful. In the general election in May this year, my count was combined with that for another election. There was no problem at all in verifying the boxes first, and the odd stray ballot paper was easily allocated to the correct count. I hope that that example helps to allay any fears that Opposition Members may have.

The Minister said that he did not envisage a time when local government elections, Scottish Government elections and even an election to this place would coincide, but if there is a sequence of five years and four years, that situation will eventually occur. Given the chaos that occurred when two elections were combined in Scotland, what provision has been made in the order to avoid such a clash, or will there be a count system lasting three or four days?

We have heard that some ballot papers could go into the wrong ballot boxes. Is the Minister saying that all ballot boxes will be opened to be verified, regardless of the election?

The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced election campaigner, and he knows that in 1999 and 2003, when the Scottish Parliament and local government elections were held on the same day, that is exactly what happened. Whatever safeguards we put in place, it is not impossible for a member of the public to put the wrong ballot paper into the wrong ballot box.

I want to probe the Minister on that point. If someone voting in the AV referendum has to go to a different polling station to vote in the Scottish Parliament elections, how will the Minister ensure that their votes are verified properly?

I am confident, as is the Electoral Management Board, that that process can be dealt with, but I will raise that specific issue of different polling places—the hon. Gentleman has raised it before—when I meet Mary Pitcaithly, and I will respond to him directly on that.

The Minister is praying in aid the expertise of the Electoral Management Board of Scotland. Does he recall that it comprises the very people who told us before the general election that if we proceeded with an overnight count, it would add two to three hours to the length of the count because of the need to check the identifiers on postal ballots? I said at the time that that was outrageous scaremongering to put us off having an overnight count and that they had not a shred of evidence. It turns out that I was right and they were wrong. Will the Minister deal with the Electoral Management Board with a degree caution, because up to now its advice has been spectacularly rubbish?

The hon. Gentleman is better placed than many others to know exactly how these organisations operate. He will also know that Ron Gould, on whom so many Members place such emphasis, also recommended that overnight counts should be done away with. That was one of the proposals that the hon. Gentleman’s Government quite rightly rejected.

I have not placed the same emphasis on Mr Ron Gould as the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, Miss Nicola Sturgeon, who questioned Mr Gould’s competence because he had the audacity to challenge the wording “Alex Salmond for First Minister” on the ballot paper as it might have confused the electors. Miss Sturgeon thought that that was a ridiculous proposition.

Mr Ron Gould provided an authoritative report that is reflected in the order and in the subsequent Scottish Affairs Select Committee inquiry, but not everything that he said at the time was taken forward. As I said to the former Minister, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), the previous Government’s choice of proposals not to be taken forward was quite right.

I want to ask the Minister for absolute clarity on this. He has cited the Scottish Affairs Select Committee a number of times. Does he accept that Ron Gould did not tell the Committee that it was a good thing to hold the two elections on the same day? He said it would be possible to do it, but he did not endorse it.

Perhaps the Minister could read out the sentence before the quote from Ron Gould that he has already read out so that the House can appreciate the full point that Ron Gould was making.

If I had been able to complete my response to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), I would have acknowledged that Mr Ron Gould’s preference was for separate elections. It was also his preference that there should be no overnight counts at elections because of the opportunity for mistakes to be made. He said:

“The marking of yes or no on a referendum ballot is much easier to understand and carry out than the requirements of marking an STV ballot.”

He also said:

“I do not believe that the same factors which led to voter confusion and the large number of rejected ballots at the last Scottish Parliamentary and Municipal elections would arise if both the…Parliamentary Election and the Referendum were held on the same date”.

What assessment has the Minister made of the possibility of confusion arising from some people being able to vote in the Scottish Parliament elections next year but not being entitled to vote in the referendum?

I am confident that that issue will be addressed by the electoral authorities. There are different electoral franchises, and the electoral registers make it clear who is on which franchise. I cannot guarantee that no one will be disappointed after turning up to vote in an election and finding that they are not entitled to do so, but their status and their entitlement to vote will be determined not by their confusion but by the legal position in relation to the franchise.

I understand that, but at some polling stations in my constituency, up to 10% of the electorate could be entitled to vote in the Scottish parliamentary election but not in the AV referendum. Does that not create the potential for confusion not only for those voters but for the people working in the polling stations and for every other elector as well?

The hon. Gentleman’s comments will no doubt have been heard by the Electoral Commission and those who are going to produce the information material about the elections to be held next May that will be delivered to every household in Scotland.

To be helpful to the Minister, I would like to point out that in London we had the mayoral elections as well as the European elections, which have very different electorates. If the Minister—

Order. I am sure that the Minister is very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s help, but let us stick to Scotland.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall continue with my summary of the order’s impact.

There will be separate ballot papers for the constituency and regional votes. Registered party names must be used on ballot papers, and the design of the ballot paper follows the principles set out in the Electoral Commission’s publication “Making your mark: Good practice for designing voter materials: guidance for government policy-makers”. There will be a longer timetable for running the election, increased from 21 to 28 days, and to accommodate the administrative demands of increased postal voting there will be a longer period between close of nominations and the date of election from 16 days before the poll to 23 days.

The deadline for registering to vote by post and the earliest time that postal votes can be issued is still 11 days before the poll. This longer period between the close of nominations and the date of the election helps to accommodate the increased demand to vote by post. Once all names of all candidates are known, ballot papers can be printed without any delays and sent out immediately after the deadline for registering for a postal vote has passed. For consistency, we have brought the control of donations to candidates and limits on candidates expenses into line with the principles set out in the Westminster rules.

Apart from the consolidation of the 2008 and 2009 amendments to the 2007 order, the main new changes that have been made are as follows. Article 5(2) has been amended to reflect the provisions of sections 18A and 18B of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which set out the requirements for the review of polling districts and places. Article 36 applies to candidates at Scottish parliamentary elections—other than party list candidates—the regime for control of donations to candidates that applies to parliamentary elections by virtue of section 71A of the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Article 43 limits the expenses that may be incurred by or on behalf of candidates—other than party list candidates—in the pre-candidacy or long campaign period before a Scottish parliamentary general election. This reflects the position that applies to parliamentary general elections by virtue of section 76ZA of the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Article 47 incorporates the revised requirements for candidates’ returns for election expenses contained in section 81 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. Article 74 now reflects the requirements of section 110 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 in relation to the information that has to appear on election publications.

Article 88 increases the minimum period between the Dissolution of the Scottish Parliament and the day of poll from 21 to 28 days. This reflects the increase in the overall timetable for Scottish Parliament elections recommended in the Gould report. I am sure that the Opposition Front-Bench team will note the impact of the royal wedding bank holiday on the date of Dissolution of the Scottish Parliament ahead of the Scottish elections. This reflects the increase in the overall timetable for Scottish Parliament elections that was recommended in the Gould report.

Paragraphs 1(3) and 2(5) of schedule 1 have been amended to allow electoral registration officers to supply returning officers and other persons or organisations with a consolidated version of the register that takes account of any alterations, as opposed to having to provide a copy of the original register and individual copies of the notices of alteration.

Rule 1 of schedule 2 provides the timetable for elections. There is no longer to be a separate timetable for by-elections. Indeed, it may be of interest to hon. Ladies who are still members of the Scottish Parliament that the date has passed for which a Scottish Parliament by-election can be held ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections.

Rule 20 of schedule 2 allows for minor errors on nomination forms to be corrected by either the constituency or regional returning officer. Rule 48(3)(b) of schedule 2 has been amended to allow grandparents or grandchildren to assist a person with disabilities to vote at a polling station. Rule 49(7) of schedule 2 now requires the voter to sign the tendered votes list, which is in line with rule 40(3) of the parliamentary election rules. Rules 69 to 71 of schedule 2 and paragraph 30 of Schedule 4 have been amended to reflect the transfer of responsibility for the storage of election documents from sheriff clerks to constituency returning officers.

Rules 72 to 78 of schedule 2 have been updated to reflect the provisions relating to the death of a candidate during the election period which were introduced by section 24 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. Rule 79 of schedule 2 has been amended to specify what information on Members should be entered in the Scottish Parliament’s returns book, and to restrict the availability of the returns book for public inspection to the life of the Parliament or to such later time as the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament may direct.

Paragraph 10 of schedule 3 has been amended to include a requirement for electoral registration officers to inform a proxy that they have been appointed, and to inform that proxy of the length of their appointment. Paragraphs 16 to 21 of schedule 3 provide for limited access to, and the supply of copies of, absent voting records—such as the postal voters list—for candidates, political parties and elected representatives, as well as public inspection of those records under supervision. That reflects the United Kingdom position under the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001.

Paragraph 5(5) of schedule 4 has been amended to allow the returning officer to determine which of a candidate’s proposed agents are to be appointed for the purpose of attending the postal voting proceedings if the list submitted by the candidate contains more names than have been authorised by the returning officer.

I think the House will acknowledge that we have already had a full discussion of the impact of holding AV referendum on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections. Opposition Members may wish to make further contributions in the time that remains. However, given that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) raised the issue of the clash of elections in 2015, which arises in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, I want to say a bit more about that.

The Government recognise the concerns raised about the coincidence of elections, and we are consulting the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and the parties in Scotland. Specifically, we are consulting on whether provision should be made in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill enabling the Scottish Parliament to resolve, with a two-thirds majority, to delay its election by up to six months to avoid a coincidence with the elections to the House of Commons. That would supplement the existing powers in the Scotland Act which allow the Parliament to dissolve early.

I am pleased that discussions are taking place with various bodies about the elections in 2015. Is the Minister now conceding that it would be unwise for two elections to be held on the same day?

I am recognising that the coincidence of the Scottish Parliament and Westminster elections in 2015 is a significant and legitimate concern. That is why we are consulting on it.

The proposal for the new power would be consistent with existing provisions in the Scotland Act on extraordinary elections. It would also allow a decision to be taken should it be decided at a later date that elections should not be combined.

The forthcoming Scotland Bill will signal the Government’s commitment to implementing the proposals of the Calman commission on Scottish devolution, including the recommendation to devolve responsibility for the administration of elections. The Bill will be introduced in the House soon, but clearly it will not have received Royal Assent by May 2011.

Finally, I should point out that not all the Gould recommendations were for the UK Government to act on; some were for the Scottish Government, the Electoral Commission or electoral administrators to implement.

I hope that the House has been reassured that the draft order will take the necessary steps to ensure successful elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2011, and I commend it to the House.

It is always a pleasure to follow the Minister. As he explained, this order has been in preparation for a considerable time and it forms the final part, I think, of the Government’s response to the report undertaken by Ron Gould on behalf of the Electoral Commission following the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. The length of the measure, at more than 200 pages, is explained by the fact that it is a consolidating measure, and much of its content is uncontroversial and, I am sure, will assist the various interested parties required to implement its provisions. However, we have concerns about the manner and timing of the measure’s introduction to the House and about the fact that it is being manipulated to form part of a wider legislative change that has been marked by excessive speed, political opportunism and a concerning scarcity of competence.

The measure—all 200-plus pages of it—should have been in place prior to the six month pre-election period as specifically recommended by the Gould report. I noted that the Minister in his opening remarks danced around the Gould recommendation about when it should have been in place by referring to consultation, but as the Minister well knows, the recommendation was that it should be in place, rather than it should have been published or made available to various individual electoral administrators. I also recall that the Minister was fulsome in his welcome for that recommendation in a previous life.

We are considering this measure in the final week of November, despite the fact that the Government have had since mid-May to take it forward and, as the Minister said, much of the work on the measure was in train under the previous Government. The Minister failed to explain satisfactorily why that is the case, and perhaps I can venture to suggest that it may be something to do with the yellow rush of spurious and ill-conceived constitutional change the Government are rushing through before their implications are widely realised. It is therefore little wonder that solid and necessary measures such as this one do not get priority treatment, even though Government Members have been aware for more than three years that it should be in place six months ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections.

In between reading this order in detail this morning, I read some of today’s newspapers and learned that in what will no doubt come to be considered our esteemed Deputy Prime Minister’s seminal Hugo Young lecture yesterday, he declared in his typically erudite, modest and understated way that he is the intellectual driving force of the “new progressivism”, an idea that will, perhaps, eventually catch on.

New progressivism is, it seems, a new name for the old expediency of rushing through constitutional change without draft Bills, without pre-legislative scrutiny and without consultation with affected bodies, all of which are also features of what is no doubt the old progressivism of which the Deputy Prime Minister and his small band of followers were supporters prior to the general election.

I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to what happened when his party was in power. At the very last minute, just two months before the election, we had an order like this one that totally reorganised the ballot paper so that there were two columns on it. A complete mess was made of things, and the Labour Government were responsible for the biggest election fiasco ever in the history of this country.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his excitable intervention. I am sure that he, in common with many other Liberal Democrat Members, was at the last election and previously a great fan of pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation, although I note that he now seems to be less enamoured.

Although we are considering this statutory instrument for the first time this evening, it is referred to, and already amended by, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which has completed its Commons stages and is now being scrutinised in another place. The Bill—which, as I have said, refers to this statutory instrument—will permit the Scottish Parliament elections to coincide with the date of a referendum on AV, something which just about everybody other than members of the Government think is a bad idea. As the Minister noted in the latter part of his remarks, even the esteemed Ron Gould expressed his doubts on that matter. So the Commons has considered the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill prior to the statutory instrument to which it refers having been approved by the House of Commons. That is not only completely illogical, but it is contrary to standard parliamentary practice and represents a worrying precedent. The Minister was careful not to seek to explain it, perhaps because he is embarrassed at such a blatant political fix. Perhaps he will explain it in more detail in his later remarks. I am not an experienced Member or an expert on parliamentary process by any manner of means, but if this is a measure of the tactics used, it leads me to wonder how we are expected to undertake our role in scrutinising the Executive properly.

The Executive have made much of their “respect agenda” towards the devolved Administrations and Assemblies, so why have the Minister and his Secretary of State, who is absent tonight, singularly failed to consult the Scottish Executive on the clash of dates? The Scottish Parliament’s view was clearly expressed last week when, by 89 votes to 30, it said that the elections to which this statutory instrument relates and the referendum should not be combined. It seems that the “respect agenda” has been superseded by the old and regressive new progressivism.

I ask the Minister to address a number of questions about the content of this measure. The Gould report recommended the appointment of a chief returning officer. Why is that recommendation not being followed through? Surely one of the main problems identified by Gould was the inconsistency in interpreting the guidelines. I am sure the Minister will recall that as a result of the number of list candidates who applied to stand in the 2007 elections, the returning officers in both Glasgow and Edinburgh removed a line of instruction to the voter at the top of the ballot paper but failed to consult others prior to making that decision.

Why are the UK government not considering, as the current proposal from the Scottish Government does, putting the Interim Electoral Management Board on a statutory footing, despite the fact that it is now the main source of professional advice and co-ordination for all elections held in Scotland? Do the UK Government believe that there should be two separate electoral management boards in Scotland or that it makes sense for such a board to be formed but not deal with either UK or EU elections? What arrangements will the UK Government establish to co-ordinate returning officers and chief returning officers for the 2011 elections, and for subsequent UK and EU elections?

If the Scottish Government proceed to make the IEMB a statutory body for local and Scottish Parliament elections, what do the UK Government envisage will be the relationship with it if other elections are held on same date and if the Minister’s much-vaunted consultation on what happens in 2015 does not end up in any result? Who will be responsible for what? How are we going to achieve consistency in rulings and implementation of arrangements?

Why is this statutory instrument following the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, rather than preceding it? Surely this statutory instrument should have been presented to Parliament before the Bill was introduced—there has been sufficient time for that following the general election. Will the Minister tell us on how many occasions a Bill that includes reference to a particular statutory instrument has completed its stages in the Commons prior to that statutory instrument being approved by this House? Does he not agree that this sets a dangerous precedent and attacks the ability of this House to scrutinise legislation properly?

Why is this statutory instrument coming to the House less than six months prior to the Scottish Parliament elections, despite the Minister’s acknowledged acceptance of the Gould recommendation that the rules should now be not merely published, but in place? Why are the coalition Government continuing with a joint ballot on 5 May 2011 when evidence and expert feedback suggests that the amount of spoiled papers will be higher? Surely that mirrors the problem identified in 2007 that multiple ballot forms can confuse, particularly those who are frail, those who have learning difficulties or those for whom English is not their first language. What testing has occurred and what methodology did it use? If the joint ballot is to be held on 5 May 2011, can the Minister clarify how the ballot papers will be set out? Will they be on separate ballots? If so, will they be on separate coloured ballots that have been tested and are acceptable for people with eye conditions? What testing will take place? Have all the proposed ballot papers been tested by the Electoral Commission? Have any discussions taken place with the Interim Electoral Management Board in Scotland about the dual poll? What concerns did it raise?

This statutory instrument rectifies the inadvertent problems in the previous election rules that prevented a candidate from being able to run as a candidate with a descriptor for two registered parties and use a registered symbol of one of those parties. I declare an interest as a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament. Perhaps in future elections those on the Government Benches may stand as combined party candidates. I therefore ask the Minister when that situation will be rectified for future UK elections as it has been for the Scottish Parliament elections.

On prisoner voting rights, will the Minister clarify when the Government intend to amend the franchise and whether that will occur before the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections? In their explanatory notes, the Government contend that they do not need to qualify their statement on the Human Rights Act 1998 because they do not consider the Scottish Parliament to be a legislature for the purposes of article 3 of the first protocol. Specifically, they mention the Toner case in regard to the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which a ruling has been made. Does the Minister not accept that the legislative competence and power of the Scottish Parliament is considerably greater than those of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and accordingly will he clarify further why the Government have now determined that the ruling will apply in Scotland? Why have the Government not adopted a precautionary approach and what estimate have they made that their interpretation will be subject to legal challenge?

Given that the Scottish National party failed to consult this place or the other parties when it took away the tax varying powers, does my hon. Friend share my concern that Scotland perhaps does not have a proper Parliament any more thanks to the SNP?

I am grateful as ever for the erudite intervention of my hon. Friend. Given that other matters are being discussed today in Edinburgh, perhaps we will all be able to reflect on those discussions in the fullness of time.

If reforms in prisoner voting rights are not implemented before May 2011, does the Minister consider that there will be further legal challenges on the alternative vote referendum and, if so, are the Government qualifying their Human Rights Act statement as regards that poll?

There are errors in schedule 2 of the printed draft order. Parts 2 to 7 are, from page 64 onwards, erroneously referred to as parts 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. As the Minister has mentioned, five additional drafting errors were noted by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. He has clarified those errors. Will he tell us what steps will be taken to provide corrected information and the final order to those who will have to implement it?

On schedule 5, in what circumstances does he envisage a combination of Scottish Parliament and local government polls? Will he consider, given the Gould recommendation, that that is likely to occur only when there is a local government by-election? What provisions will he put in place should a council by-election take place on the same day as a Scottish Parliament election and an AV referendum? I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to those specific questions.

I have been slightly distracted by a decoy from the Government Whips, but we in the Hebrides can forgive such decoy activities from Orkney and Shetland.

I am no lawyer—perhaps a reasonable crofter, but certainly no lawyer—but as it stands we feel that there are serious issues with the order. As the SNP’s lawyer put it:

“This order is a perfect example, of how NOT to write legislation.”

We have found no fewer than 27 individual problems with the drafting of the order. Some have been reported to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which has accepted four of them. I shall not, for the benefit of the House, go through all 27 today. However, I shall give an overview of what has happened over the past months in relation to our Scottish elections.

Let me start by reiterating the fact that our Scottish elections should not be run from Westminster. Our elections are a unique part of Scottish democracy and, frankly, the way in which the legislation for our elections has been treated is nothing less than shocking. It gives me some delight—and perhaps a bit of schadenfreude—to think that the referendum that was going to eclipse our elections has now been eclipsed by a certain royal wedding. We wish them good luck and thank them for the bank holiday that is coming our way.

May I seek the hon. Gentleman’s clarification on which referendum he means? I had understood that there was to be a referendum in Scotland, instigated by the Scottish Government, that was to eclipse all other electoral activity in Scotland.

The SNP would have treated the Scottish people with more courtesy than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who have treated them with disdain by parking their tanks on the lawn of the date of the Scottish election—the first Thursday in May in 2011, a date that had been scheduled for many years.

This Government have ignored the strongest point of the Gould report into the 2007 Scottish election, which stated that, among other things, there should be a six-month period between the statutory instrument coming into force and polling day. We are already within the six-month period for the Scottish parliamentary elections and are thereby in violation of the strongest recommendation in the report. Why do we need six months? The report states:

“Throughout this report, we have pointed to problems that have arisen because the passing of electoral legislation has been unduly delayed. To avoid these problems, we would recommend a practice found in the electoral laws in other countries. These laws provide that electoral legislation cannot be applied to any election held within six months of the new provision coming into force.”

Even without the report, that is surely common sense. We have international practice and the Government are indeed fond of citing international examples. It is beyond me how they can fail to note that other countries use the six-month electoral law. When electoral legislation is rushed through at the last minute it is the voters who suffer.

I want to discuss the new ballot papers, which do not adhere to Electoral Commission recommendations and have not been properly user-tested. Forms J and K on the order do not exactly correspond to the form on page 20 of the Electoral Commission report, “Making your mark”, which was directed at Government policy makers. The Scotland Office says that it has used that information in drafting the forms in the statutory instrument, but the form on page 20 of the report is plainly far superior to what the Government have offered. Specifically, I am concerned about the spacing of the lines separating candidates and parties, which do not extend over the page. Also, the spacing of the words and emblems are not closely matched to the box. Those points might seem trivial, but if only 5% of voters make an error we have a serious problem, as we discovered in 2007.

The average voter is, perhaps, too busy with shopping, picking up the kids and the stresses of work to make absolutely sure that they are complying with what the Government intended. People are not going to have rulers ready to discern which line applies to which candidate and party. Surely, it is the job of this place, for now, to make such things as easy as possible for the voter and to remove potential bear traps.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the lining up of candidates and party affiliations. Does he recall that in the disputed American election of 2004, with the famous hanging chads in Florida, one problem was the design of the ballot paper on which the candidates did not line up with the designations?

To be absolutely honest, I do not recall that, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it. Presumably, when those ballot papers were being designed someone thought that would not be an issue but lo and behold it did become an issue in Florida and other areas.

The problems I am highlighting could have been avoided if the Government had followed the Electoral Commission’s suggestion of user-testing the new ballot papers. That has already been mentioned. As far as we can tell, the Government have not made any attempt to get the new ballot paper checked. Even the ballot paper in the ill-fated 2007 election was user-tested by at least 100 people. That number was small, given what happened, but better than none and better than what is happening now.

Without independent evaluation, we cannot be sure that the ballot paper will be easily understood and will not lead to confusion. In addition, we will, or could, have an AV referendum on the same day using a slightly different ballot paper and a different design altogether. As none of the ballot papers has been tested independently, we cannot assume that the vast majority—towards 100%—of people will understand these ballot papers, just as I cannot assume that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) would understand me if I started speaking in Gaelic. It might make sense to me, but countless others, including the hon. Gentleman, might be left in the dark.

This is not the first time that the Scotland Office will have heard our concerns. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks me to translate—he probably assumes that I am speaking in Gaelic already. [Interruption.] It is time he learned some.

Order. This is not a private conversation between the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) and the Whip. If the hon. Gentleman addressed the Chamber it would help us all.

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman tempts me unduly.

Since May, we have had difficulty in getting copies of the order. When we did so in June, they were lacking in detail, specifically the previously mentioned ballot forms. We were told we would receive a near final copy of the draft order by the end of June, but we saw nothing until the order was laid before the House on 25 October—the third day of the Committee on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Of the 27 issues we have with the drafting of the order, I shall, as I said, highlight but a few. The heading for part 2 seems to have been lifted from the Representation of the People Act 1983. It is one thing to lift a title when it has something to do with the order, but when—as in this case—the title has little or nothing at all to do with our elections, copying it from the Act misses the fact that the order contains no provisions on the franchise. There is no separate Scottish parliamentary election franchise; the franchise for voting at an election to the Scottish Parliament is in section 11 of the Scotland Act 1998. Nothing in the order can add anything to those provisions, or take anything away from them, given the extent of the order-making power under section 12(1) of the Scotland Act. The franchise is contained in primary legislation enacted by the UK Parliament rather than in an Act of the Scottish Parliament or other secondary legislation.

The heading should reflect the actual content of part 2, not the legislation it happens to have been adapted from. In this context, the “Oxford English Dictionary” defines “franchise” as:

“The right or privilege of voting in public elections—especially for members of a legislative body.”

Provisions on the electoral register relate simply to the mechanisms for the exercise of the right, not to the right itself.

Under article 43, the translation of the new limits for Westminster elections could lead to unforeseen campaign finance consequences. We note that if the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill becomes law, there will be a combined ballot in May 2011. As highlighted by the Channel 4 News and Bureau of Investigative Journalism inquiry into certain expenses incurred in the 2010 general election, the attribution of expenses between different electoral events can be subject to a number of interpretations. That opens up the possibility that the expenses limit attributable to the referendum could be used to circumvent the limitation of election expenses at both candidate and party level—perhaps a loophole.

It has been noted that in the event of a combined election, with the main political parties in Scotland all making the necessary declarations to become permitted participants, the Conservative party may be able to spend £5 million, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties £4 million and the SNP £500,000. It is entirely possible that the PVSC Bill will not have received Royal Assent before 5 January 2011, which marks the start of the regulated periods for the Scottish Parliament elections. If that is the case, referendum expenditure at that point will be unregulated, as the referendum period under the Bill commences on Royal Assent. As I have said, the SI could create a massive financial loophole for campaign spending.

In article 88 of the draft order, it seems that the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body was not consulted regarding the date of Dissolution. In 2002, when changes being made to the 1999 order reduced the Dissolution period for the Scottish Parliament from 25 days to 21 days, that process was subject to consultation and, indeed, discussion. We are having trouble finding any evidence of the same happening with this draft order. As we all know, article 88 changes the number of working days in the Parliament. It is my hope that someone from the Scotland Office was in close contact with the Scottish Government or Parliament. Can we have some confirmation that agreement was sought from the Scottish Parliament or the Government for the change?

The entire process has been devoid of political party consultation, which, believe it or not, is important. Our parties, across the House and the devolved legislatures, have the experience and knowledge to help draft election legislation. Would the Government not consult the construction industry on legislation related to it? Why then have we had such a hard time in getting information and consultation on this particular order?

One might wonder why we need to be consulted. Surely the lack of political parties in the elections process would be welcome. However, the Gould report stated:

“Electoral legislation—especially in a fragmented legislative environment—is nuanced and dense. Understanding is usually built up through years of experience ‘on the ground’, whether as an administrator or a party activist. This understanding is difficult to develop on a purely intellectual level, which is why practitioner input is vital.”

The Government have rushed through Parliament all aspects of the legislation relating to elections in Scotland. This has led to the drastic addition of critical amendments on the hoof. We have not been able to study these issues properly, and we can expect that more amendments will be pushed through the House of Lords before the process is over.

I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and I am trying to work out what he finds wrong with the order. All I can deduce is that a line on the ballot paper is not long enough and that he finds the heading of part 2 incorrect. Is there anything of substance that he finds wrong with the order?

Usually I welcome interventions. I am reluctant to slam the hon. Gentleman, but if he had listened to what I was saying 30 seconds ago, he would know that I was speaking about the lack of consultation of those who had developed knowledge and practice in elections. That lack of consultation has led to weaknesses in the order.

Even though the draft order was laid before the House on 25 October, it has not become law. Even though the Electoral Commission considers that the combination polls are on track, it still says that

“delivering well-run polls on 5 May will be a major challenge”.

Yes, we received a copy of the draft order ahead of time, but it was lacking in the things that were most important and was, therefore, only partly helpful.

Finally, we understand that this is an affirmative order and cannot be amended on the Floor of the House. That is indeed a problem for if we could, I would be more than happy to amend the instrument and vote for it, but since it is a take-it-or-leave-it situation, I am afraid I might have to leave it.

I shall be brief as I know that some of my colleagues hope to get into the debate. At the start of it, we could have been forgiven for wondering why a document that should be an uncontroversial order dealing with the rules relating to elections caused so much grief and so many exchanges across the Chamber. Amid the political knockabout that went on, there is a serious point about the manner, the timing and the way in which the order has been brought before the House, which causes serious concerns about parliamentary process.

The hon. Lady has obviously studied the order. Can she tell us what changes to the order she would like to see?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make some progress. It is important to recognise that the order contained some drafting deficiencies, which the Minister was good enough to highlight. The reason that there has been so much discussion of the order tonight is that there is unfinished business from some of the other debates that have gone on, particularly about the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Government Members may shake their heads, but the issue concerns not only the Members present this evening. It is a serious matter for the Members of the Scottish Parliament who voted the way they did because they did not believe that it was right to have the referendum and the Scottish Parliament election on the same day. That was made very clear by the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee, including, as I understand it, by a member of the same party as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) who also believes that it was the wrong decision.

The problem is that such an approach has left the people of Scotland, particularly parliamentarians in Scotland, feeling that no matter what they say or do, their votes and views do not count in this place. That is a particular problem because the Government initially set out to talk about and highlight the new respect agenda. That simply has not come to pass, and it has been highlighted once again by the delay in bringing what should have been a relatively uncontroversial order to this Chamber for debate. Perhaps an expert on the constitution and the workings of the House will tell me I am wrong, but I find it odd that we should have discussed the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which refers to the order, in advance of the order itself. That seems highly unusual, and I hope that the Minister refers to that in his winding-up comments.

People keep raising concerns about holding the referendum and Scottish Parliament elections on the same day, because we have bitter experience of things going badly wrong. We understand that mistakes were made last time, and we want to ensure that they do not happen again, so I find it difficult to listen to the Minister selectively quoting Mr Ron Gould. If we are serious about ensuring that we do not repeat the same problems, we should take account of everything that the Gould report says.

On several occasions I have pressed Ministers to tell me whether they will listen to the views of the Scottish Parliament. I have heard warm words but seen absolutely no action.

The Minister referred to last week’s debate in the Scottish Parliament and my participation in it. I said that no plausible explanation had been given as to why the Scottish Parliament had not been consulted on the process. Given that the Parliament passed the relevant motion by a two-thirds majority and the Minister knows the importance of its view, does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should recognise its expressed will?

I absolutely understand my hon. Friend’s position, and she is absolutely right. I hope that in closing I can give the Minister one final opportunity to recognise the will of the Scottish Parliament and state that he not only hears it, but will do something about it.

I have taken part in all our constitutional debates on the Floor of the House, and I yet again welcome to his place the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who has taken a very keen interest in these matters. I am glad that he takes an interest in what, in theory, should be a Scottish-only affair, but it is disappointing that, yet again, the Deputy Prime Minister has not deigned to grace us with his presence. Nor, indeed, has the Secretary of State for Scotland, so I can only wish him a speedy recovery, because I cannot think of any other reason why he would not want to take part in this debate.

When the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland responds, I trust he will confirm that, unlike the Deputy Prime Minister, he has actually read the Gould report. Hon. Members will recall that, when the Deputy Prime Minister did on one occasion deign to turn up, he was forced to admit—[Interruption.] The Minister might have read the report of the report, as the Deputy Prime Minister admitted to doing. The Gould report raises some serious concerns, but I do not wish to labour the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) made so eloquently.

My memory could be defective, but I somehow feel that in a previous life, in another role in this House, the Minister used to emphasise and put great weight on parts, if not all, of the Gould report. Perhaps he will clarify that later on.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue and, like him, look forward to the Minister emphasising which parts of the report he agreed with then and still agrees with today. I am sure that, unlike certain Liberal Democrats, he is sticking to his guns.

There are some genuine and serious concerns about the logistics of combining the polls, and having had a chance to work through the rather weighty 260 pages of the order, I fear that some of those concerns have not been resolved adequately. In the brief time that I have, I shall try to touch on a couple of them. I should add that my local Liberal Democrat MSP—or rather my current one until May, when he loses—does not even agree with what the Minister is doing.

The first of the three issues that I should like to cover is postal votes. If you have had a chance to look at the report, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will recall the problems that we had in 2007 with local authorities issuing postal votes on time. Of course, the point of a postal vote is that it is for somebody who cannot make it along on the day. Some people did not get their postal votes landing on their doormats until the Monday or Tuesday of the week of the election. I am sure that the House will agree that that is most unsatisfactory. I would be grateful if the Minister would further outline exactly what he proposes to do to ensure that that situation does not happen again given that, on this occasion, effectively double the number of forms will be sent out.

The second issue relates to polling stations and counting stations. The returning officers have made clear in their submissions to the Scottish Affairs Committee, and elsewhere, their concerns that counting stations will not be big enough to take all the ballot boxes that are required and to do all the sorting and sifting that will be necessary. Indeed, additional recompense will be required because they will need to keep the counting stations open not only through the Thursday night but throughout Friday and perhaps into Saturday. In one or two locations, owing to well-observed religious views, the count for the referendum might take place the following week. There is also the serious issue of how Royal Mail will be able to cope, because not only the constituency lists but the material for the yes and no campaigns in the referendums will be going out.

Finally, despite the warm words from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), we still have not received absolute clarification of how much money Scottish local authorities will receive to help to pay for all the issues that I have outlined. Perhaps he could lean over and explain to the Under-Secretary what those figures are. It is disappointing that having eventually dragged this report out of the Government, they did not follow normal practice and let us scrutinise it before we debated the final stages of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Under-Secretary can outline exactly how much compensation will be given to Scottish local authorities to run this ill-conceived referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections.

There are many issues of substance in the order. We want to be very co-operative with the Government, as has happened in our relationships with Governments in the past when we have had to ensure that we had successful Scottish Parliament elections. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) said, the problem is that we have got off to a very bad start, particularly regarding the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, the problems with which have already been indicated.

I have to tell the Government that the determined view in Scotland is that the Government are showing something of a pattern in their attitude to the Scottish parliamentary elections, and perhaps in their attitude to Scotland. I am disappointed about that given that I know the Under-Secretary very well and have, I think, worked with him reasonably constructively in the past. I am disappointed by his attitude to last week’s Scottish Parliament debate, of which he seemed so disdainful and dismissive. That was not his attitude in the past, and it is beginning to be symptomatic of this Government’s attitude to the Scottish Parliament, where substantial points were raised in that debate.

The core of this argument is that, as been acknowledged, an enormous mistake was made in the elections of 2007. Essentially, people believed that the arrangements for the elections were devised to suit the politicians, not the voters. I say in all sincerity that we are in danger of making that mistake again. This is illustrative of the attitude to the Scottish Parliament debate, where we were trying to point out that there are issues of substance. The best way to resolve them is through dialogue and constructive engagement. The fact that the coalition Government made this decision without even cursory reference to the Scottish Parliament or the elected Government of Scotland raises serious and continuing questions about their approach. That undermines our confidence in the Government’s ability to resolve the problem.

I am grateful. Given the problem that the hon. Lady is highlighting, does she not feel that that power should reside with the Scottish Parliament, not here?

I know that that has been under discussion for some time, and I think the hon. Gentleman knows our views on that. However, I wish to stick to the core argument.

I make a plea to the Government, who have a real opportunity. If they are prepared to engage with key parties and listen to the different perspectives, perhaps we can come to a shared resolution. Their intransigent attitude of asserting rather than engaging in argument is leading to enormous difficulty, which will be confirmed next year. I plead with the Minister to try to resolve the problem rather than just weep at it when it occurs, and I ask the coalition Government finally to engage with the Scottish Parliament on matters as important as the elections to that Parliament.

I will respond to as many points related to the order as I can in the time available to me, but if some matters are not covered, I undertake to write to the Members in question. To allow the fullest possible debate, I thought it right to take a large number of interventions because the order and the other matters raised are important to people in Scotland.

I accept the sincerity of the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), but I do not accept that it shows disdain for the Scottish Parliament not to agree with a conclusion that it reaches in a debate. I respect its right to have that debate, although frankly I am extremely surprised that it took three months for it to take place if the issue was of such a pressing nature for the public in Scotland. Some valuable contributions were made in it, but they reflected contributions made when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was debated in this House. Nothing new was added to lead the Government to any view other than that we should hold the referendum on 5 May. Of course, we commit to working with the Scottish Government, Scottish political parties and the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the election and referendum on that day are a success.

May I ask why the Minister did not consult the Scottish Parliament about the proposal? Does he regard that as a breach of the respect agenda?

I do not accept that it was a breach of the mutual respect agenda that this Government are pursuing. It was right that a provision of such significance be brought to this House first. As soon as it had been announced to this House, the Scotland Office was in contact with the Scottish Government and parties in the Scottish Parliament, and it has maintained that dialogue.

As I indicated earlier, we accept that the coincidence of the 2015 elections is a significant issue to consider. That is why, earlier in the summer, the Secretary of State wrote to parties and authorities in Scotland to acknowledge that fact, and why the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), indicated that there would be a consultation on the matter. I look forward to hearing the views of the Scottish Labour party and the other parties in the Scottish Parliament as part of that consultation. We are committed to our agenda of mutual respect, and that is highlighted no better than in the Bill that we will shortly bring forward to enhance greatly the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) made a number of points about the cost of the count. We have been quite clear that the additional costs of the referendum will be met by the UK Government.

We are short of time. The regulations that are contained in the order will allow additional time for consideration of postal voting issues. I have confidence that the Royal Mail in Scotland will be able to cope with all the issues that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) raised a number of points, but I share the view of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) that it was not clear where they were heading. I do not know whether we were being criticised for being too rushed or for being too slow.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) showed that he had learned shamelessness from the master, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), in suggesting that his party would have brought forward this order quicker. It is not the case; we have kept to as tight a timetable as we can and we have kept the rationale of the previous Government. Many of the issues he raised related to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which is currently being dealt with in another place, and, to an extent, to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.

The other evening I heard his other mentor, the noble Lord McAvoy, making a passionate speech, highlighting many of the same issues. He raised some specific points, which I will respond to in writing.

Question put.

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 1 December (Standing Order No.41A).