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Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2008

Volume 698: debated on Monday 4 February 2008

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 23 January be approved.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for agreeing to debate the two election-related statutory instruments together. The order is made under Sections 12 and 113 of the Scotland Act 1998. The regulations are made under the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The making of these instruments will fulfil a commitment Ministers gave before last year’s Scottish elections; namely, a commitment to introduce identical procedures for the collection and checking of absent vote identifiers, as were introduced last year for England and Wales.

The decision to delay their introduction was taken after receiving advice that this additional duty on electoral administrators was not achievable given the introduction of the single transferable vote system and electronic counting for the May Scottish parliamentary elections. That was the right decision. I say that as we have had no evidence of electoral fraud in Scotland in recent years. The Scottish elections in May last year received a higher level of scrutiny than any previous elections, and still no cases of electoral fraud have been brought forward for prosecution. But one must avoid complacency, and the number of people wanting to take advantage of voting by post or by proxy is increasing. Some 11.2 per cent of the Scottish electorate voted by post in 2007, compared with 3.8 per cent in 2003. It is important that only those eligible to vote and who have registered to vote by post or by proxy are able to do so. We fully recognise the need for safeguards against any attempt to vote fraudulently. That is why we are now introducing for Scotland those measures that have been successful in tackling fraud south of the border. There has been a reduction in the number of allegations of fraud in England and Wales since the introduction of these measures, which is a positive indicator that, in conjunction with other fraud action, they are effective.

It may be helpful to continue with a brief explanation of what the two instruments do. I should start by saying that there is little difference between the provisions in the draft regulations and the draft order. The regulations apply to UK parliamentary elections in Scotland, and the order applies to Scottish parliamentary elections. The main difference on transitional arrangements I will come on to shortly. The instruments set out the process by which personal identifiers of a signature and a date of birth are to be collected and how they are to be used to check the validity of returned postal votes. Applications for postal and proxy votes are required to include a signature and date of birth. An exemption can be provided for voters who suffer a disability or the inability to read or write. When dealing with applications, electoral registration officers have the power to check certain signatures or dates of birth previously provided by the applicant to the local authority. Electoral registration officers are required to maintain a record of absent voters’ identifiers and to obtain a fresh signature every five years. This takes account of any change in a person’s signature over the period.

The instruments also set out how identifiers are used to check the validity of a returned postal vote. At an election, not less than 20 per cent of postal votes returned will be set aside for checking by the returning officer. All returned postal voting statements must have a date of birth and signature to be duly completed and valid unless the signature requirement has been waived. I know that it is the view of the Electoral Commission that we should have mandated 100 per cent checking for our Scottish regulations, but that would be to extend the measure beyond what is in place for England and Wales, and that in a region of the UK where electoral fraud has not proved to be a significant problem. While we accept the argument that 100 per cent checking is desirable, it is right that for the time being we leave the decision on whether it is necessary to those best able to make that call. In fact, many English authorities determined that 100 per cent checking was appropriate at elections for their local government wards last year. The provisions for the checking of identifiers at an election will not have effect in relation to an election on or before 7 August 2008. This allows electoral administrators sufficient time to collect identifiers from both existing and new absent voters before they are required to be used in an election.

Perhaps I may turn to the transitional provisions, and I hope not to weary the House unduly. The Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2008 sets out transitional provisions whereby electoral registration officers will write to existing postal and proxy voters asking for their personal identifiers. Each registration officer must by 7 April 2008 write to all persons who have an entry on the absent voting records requiring them to provide personal identifiers within six weeks of the date of the notice. If within three weeks no response has been received, a copy of the notice is to be sent as a reminder. If no identifiers are received from absent voters within the six-week period, they are to be removed from the absent voters’ records. Voters will be informed of this and provided with the location of the polling station to which they have been allotted.

The equivalent transitional provisions that apply to the UK parliamentary elections are set out in a negative instrument, the Absent Voting (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2008. The reason for the different approach is that the parent legislation for each instrument says something different about the parliamentary process for introducing such regulations. I draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that provisions will be in place to cover existing absent voters for UK parliamentary elections.

I should also draw attention to the provision that allows identifiers collected for UK parliamentary elections to be used for checking purposes at Scottish Parliament elections. This will allow a single set of identifiers to be collected and retained for both UK and Scottish parliamentary elections.

In accordance with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 we have fully consulted the Electoral Commission on both instruments. We have also consulted with a reference group of experienced electoral administrators. Their comments and those of the commission have been helpful. I commend the instruments to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 23 January be approved. 8th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Davidson of Glen Cova.)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the inner workings of these two measures and their overlapping content. The Minister will expect me to congratulate the Government on their wisdom in not trying to introduce these measures in time for the last Scottish election, when one can only imagine that one more element of chaos might have been introduced into the difficult administration that took place at that election.

I think the Minister was trying to tell the House that they had not been able to identify any spoilt postal ballots. However, the situation was such that there were so many spoilt ballots all round that they would have been difficult to pick out. It struck me that there appeared to be very few MSPs who were of a mind to challenge the count when the elements were so largely out of balance.

Both the order and the regulations deal with similar items. Is there any rationale for having a five-year term rather than a four-year term for a review of the registration? It would appear from the wording that the registration officer could, or probably would, wait until 31 January before sending out a demand for re-registration to all those who have been registered for five years or over. This means that some who registered in January or February may well have five years and 11 months between registrations. Will the registration officers be able to consider sending out a notice on the fifth anniversary of a registration if they decide that is appropriate?

The fact that these registrations will now contain a signature and a date of birth is certainly a good protection against something that occurs only in unruly countries where votes are cast on behalf of the dead. One hopes that this will be a guard against people trying to carry out what I think is known as “personation” in elections.

I can see, in some ways very properly, that if someone does not return the demand sent by the registration officer they are struck off, but should there not be some provision for an appeal? In what way can the situation be rectified if someone feels that they have been wrongly struck off?

I have been interested to see the proceedings of the Scottish Affairs Committee recently in another place when it was interviewing Mr Ron Gould, who carried out the review of the Scottish elections. Following the findings that he brought in on that fiasco, and the comprehensive list the Minister gave us of all those who have been consulted, does he feel sufficient people have been consulted so that if anything goes wrong he will be able to say that it is impossible to blame any individual?

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I, too, welcome the order and the regulations. They appear to stem from discussions that were held in your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Electoral Administration Bill in 2006, when provisions were inserted to require absent voters to provide personal identifiers to electoral registration officers. I have no quarrel at all with the timing of these instruments and I agree with what the Minister said about the sense of bringing them before us now.

The order sets out the process by which personal identifiers are to be collected and how they will be used to check the validity of returned postal votes. It is surely right—we have always taken this view—that we should make it easier for electors with a disability or the inability to read and write and that they should be exempt from providing personal identifiers. The transitional arrangements, which the Minister described in detail, seem entirely sensible. The regulations implement a change removing the standing fee of £5 and having the fee calculated on the basis of the price of copied returns at the rate of 20p for each side of each page. That is a perfectly defensible proposal.

During the passage of the Electoral Administration Bill, my noble friends and my honourable friends in another place supported what is being implemented tonight. It is right to encourage new methods of voting, including more postal votes and internet voting, since the participation of the electorate in voting is crucial to the health of our democracy. It has been noted that all-postal ballots in local and European elections helped to increase voter turnout. There are certainly dangers of electoral fraud. It is good to hear from the Minister that so far those dangers are not running ahead unchecked, but it is right to be prudent in seeking to avoid them. Problems of personation, multiple voting and intimidation may, as the noble Duke suggested, be observed in wild countries. I hazard the suggestion that within the British Isles such practices are not historically unknown, though they may have happened in slightly less ruly parts of the country than noble Lords are familiar with today.

Having said that and having strongly welcomed these prudent measures, I think that it is right to encourage voting in person, as that is an act of civic participation that gives a higher profile to the importance of the ballot in our democracy. Therefore, while I am happy to endorse the changes that ensure that people who are unable to vote in person because they are ill or away from home are able to vote by post, I hope that we may look at measures that will make it easier for people to vote in person, including certain changes in the days on which people vote. The date—weekend voting and all that—is probably of greater significance than the matters that we are considering tonight. However, it is right to ensure that our elections are secure and to combat electoral fraud, and these instruments seek to do that.

My Lords, my noble friend is probably right to raise some questions about the merit of voting in person. Having cast a postal vote, which is bound to be done a few days before the end of the campaign, something can be revealed that completely destroys one’s choice.

The content of both these statutory instruments seems to be fine but I am bit worried about the length of the notes appended to the order. I say that in the context of the unexpected chaos that occurred last May. I was one of 11.2 per cent who had a postal ballot and, in fact, I brought my postal ballot down here and showed it to various people in the Liberal Democrat Whips’ Office, including the Whips, and they all thought it was an excellent ballot paper. That is what happens when you show things like that to anoraks, but that was not what happened in the polling stations.

I believe that both statutory instruments are likely to make fraud even more difficult and I welcome that. However, I am not content about the parliamentary process for the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order. It is terrible that these instruments do not go to the Scottish Parliament for it to scrutinise them as a third Chamber—let alone to do so exclusively, as I believe it should.

Will the Minister confirm that the Scottish Constitutional Commission, which was recently developed and is, I believe, a state-funded body, will be allowed to make recommendations about the devolution of the Scottish parliamentary election process? I certainly believe it should. Devolution implies that the national community of Scotland should start to throw off dependency and not in a particularly lengthy process, as a child becomes an adult. At a risk of mixing the metaphors, Scotland is the 35 year-old who needs to leave home. Therefore, I sincerely hope that this is the last time that this type of order for the Scottish parliamentary elections comes exclusively to these two Houses of Parliament.

My Lords, I shall try to be as brief as my noble friend Lord Davies was suggesting.

First, I say to the noble Earl that I think the Scottish Parliament would have powers to do that but has refused to take them so far. Secondly, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, is not suggesting that we return to the bad old days when you had to have a tame doctor on hand to sign a medical certificate to say that somebody should get a postal vote. I know that we had a tame doctor in our own constituency party who did exactly that. Furthermore, the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, is wrong if he thinks that personation takes place only in other countries, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said. Personation in the British electoral system has always been small but has always existed. Perhaps I should not say this, but my mother almost used to boast about how she used to vote for dead people in elections in the 1930s. She is long dead and therefore my admission does not affect her.

My Lords, I am glad about that.

Although I welcome any attempt to stop fraud in the postal system, I think that it is absurd that, in this day and age, we are still debating an electoral system that is based on crosses on pieces of paper instead of moving towards an electoral system based on computers, the internet and voting electronically. The advantages of that are enormous. I agree that it would mean that one would have to have identity cards. If they were compulsory, people would be able to vote in a variety of places, and not just in ballot boxes, and eventually in their own home, on their own computers or even via their own television sets. Such a system would also expand the ability of people to vote. With identity cards, it would become very much safer and more secure. There would therefore be less opportunity for corruption. The final advantage would be that one would press one button at 10 o’clock and know the result in the constituency. As someone who used to sit long hours during the night waiting for the result to come through, I would appreciate the benefit of that.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for the broad welcome accorded to the instruments. I shall endeavour to deal with the various points that were raised. The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, asked why there was a five-year rather than a four-year term, and why one proceeds in that way. The rationale for the five years is simply for providing fresh signatures. The five-year term is consistent with what applies in England and Wales. An attempt to obtain some kind of uniformity throughout the United Kingdom is being made. Over the course of time, signatures will be refreshed. There is therefore no particular virtue in either five or four years, but five years is a prudent way forward.

In response to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, about “wild countries” where different practices arise, I say simply that these regulations for Scotland follow what is happening in England and Wales. That perhaps provides some guidance as to these jurisdictions.

As to whether one would be struck off, I say that the position is that if one does not proceed correctly to fill in the application form, one is notified that one is removed from the register. One can then reapply if one wishes to continue to be an absent voter.

I welcome the noble Lord’s enthusiasm for the attempt to improve the health of our democracy by what he correctly described as “prudent measures”. In answer to his question whether it is easier in person to carry forward one’s electoral obligations, I say that the Government are attempting to improve the way in which voting will proceed. While they know that people lead busy lives and do not always find it convenient to get to a polling station during the week, The Governance of Britain Green Paper set out an intention to investigate how to make voting more accessible, in particular through considering the option of weekend voting.

The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, was concerned about the “chaos”, as he described it, in Scotland, but the measures are merely to reflect what has operated in England and Wales. There is no suggestion that these measures created any difficulties there, but rather improved the position in terms of avoidance of fraud. As to the noble Earl’s wariness of anoraks, I agree with him that that is something of which one should always be wary. He was concerned about whether he may or may not be content about the provisions because of the position regarding the Scottish Parliament. It has been the settled will of the UK Parliament, pre-devolution, that the UK Government reserve the responsibilities for these elections. I would submit that nothing has changed since 1998, suggesting that a change is necessary. The problems that arose in May were not the direct result of the fact that responsibility rested with the UK Government, because the elections in 1999 and 2003 had proceeded smoothly. The Scottish parliamentary review is very much a matter for those who are running it; it is certainly not for me to allow or disallow any such approach that they may wish to take.

My noble friend Lord Maxton was absolutely correct in his concern with fraud. These measures endeavour to reduce the possibility of such fraud. The suggestion that one should look forward to progress is, of course, something that this Government share, and would always seek to do. There is no way that these instruments cut down or curtail the possibility of progress in the future. I trust that I have at least endeavoured to answer the questions raised by noble Lords.

On Question, Motion agreed to.