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Elections: Scotland

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2007

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland (Douglas Alexander) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

This Statement sets out the Government’s final response to the recommendations of the Commission on Boundary Differences and Voting Systems under the chairmanship of Sir John Arbuthnott. Its report, Putting Citizens First: Boundaries, Voting and Representation in Scotland, was presented on 19 January 2006 to my predecessor as Secretary of State for Scotland, my right honourable friend the Member for Edinburgh South West, and the First Minister. The Scottish Executive are today issuing separately their response to the recommendations that relate to their responsibilities.

The commission was set up in the middle of 2004 following the decisions taken by Parliament regarding the reduction in the number of Scottish MPs and subsequently the retention of the original size of the Scottish Parliament. Its establishment took into account also the decision by the Scottish Parliament to introduce the single transferable vote (STV) for the next Scottish local government elections in May 2007. Its remit was to examine the consequences of having four different voting systems in local and parliamentary elections in Scotland and different boundaries between the Westminster and Scottish Parliament constituencies.

The commission was asked in particular to make recommendations on whether any action needed to be taken in respect of:

arrangements between elected representatives;

electoral boundaries;

relationships with other public bodies and authorities; and

the method of voting in Scottish Parliament elections.

Its wide-ranging report is a thorough piece of work that shows careful attention to the issues and raises a number of important concerns, which have been debated in this House on a number of occasions since publication.

We are now in a position to respond to the recommendations made in the report. Not all of these were for the Government to consider, some being for the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Parliament or the Electoral Commission.

I note that the commission confirmed that having different boundaries between the constituencies of this House and those of the Scottish Parliament is not a matter that requires further action and should not drive change at this time to the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament.

The commission recommended that there should be greater alignment between the Scottish Parliament constituencies and local authority areas in Scotland. Any action that might need to be taken by the Government will depend on the outcome of work being taken forward by the Executive. Consideration of possible new structures for the regions for Scottish Parliament elections and the future review of constituency boundaries would also follow from this.

The Government are pleased that the commission’s conclusions generally support the operation of the additional member system (AMS) for electing members to the Scottish Parliament, which will remain the system to be used in the next elections in May 2007.

The Scotland Office consulted in June 2006 on the commission’s recommendation that the ballot papers for Scottish Parliament elections should be redesigned in order to improve voter understanding of AMS. I announced on 22 November 2006 that the two separate ballot papers used in previous Scottish Parliament elections would be replaced for the elections in May 2007 by a single paper, with the left side listing the parties standing for election as regional MSPs and the right side the candidates standing as constituency MSPs.

We do not propose to replace the present method of electing regional members with open lists, believing that this would overcomplicate the voting system.

We note the commission’s recommendation strongly in favour of allowing a candidate both to stand in a constituency and to be on a regional list, and following this have no plans to introduce any change in this area for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

The coupling of the Scottish local government elections with those for the Scottish Parliament is a matter for Scottish Ministers and that Parliament.

Introducing the single transferable vote for European Parliament elections for Scotland would not be novel, since this is the system already used in Northern Ireland. However, we do not at this time believe that there is a strong enough case for changing the voting system in Scotland for elections to the European Parliament. There would need to be strong reasons to diverge from the system used in the rest of Great Britain. None is immediately apparent.

The recommendation on electronic counting and electronic voting is in line with the modernising process of the electoral system that the Government are pursuing. E-counting is already being planned for the Holyrood and Scottish local government elections in May 2007.

The recommendations on the conduct and functions of constituency and regional MSPs are matters for the Scottish Parliament to consider.

The recommendation that young people leaving school should have a good understanding of voting and parliamentary democracy is a matter for the Scottish Executive.

We support the intention behind the recommendations regarding providing further public information on voting arrangements before each election and on the elected representatives after them. However, these are matters for the Electoral Commission to take forward in the first instance. Its public awareness campaign for the 2007 elections will provide information on these elections and the voting systems that will be used.

The text of each of the 24 recommendations made by the Arbuthnott commission, with the Government’s responses to these, is available on the Scotland Office website.

In conclusion, I must thank the Commission on Boundary Differences and Voting Systems for its work and report.