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Elections: AV Referendum and Scottish Parliament

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the representations made by the Convener of the Interim Electoral Management Board for Scotland stating that any referendum on introducing the alternative vote could not be combined in Scotland with elections to the Scottish Parliament under that Parliament's current rules.

My Lords, the letter that my right honourable friend received from the convener of the board made no such representations. Specifically, there are no rules of the Scottish Parliament which deal with these matters as responsibility for election administration remains with the United Kingdom Parliament.

My Lords, that then begs the question of exactly who arranges and legislates for the specific date. What the Minister has said contradicts what the election board convener has said and needs further clarification. When the Deputy Prime Minister made a Statement in the other place on the proposed referendum he made no mention of the position in Scotland regarding the date. The suspicion there is that in the rush to satisfy the Liberals, no proper consideration was given to ascertaining the correct position regarding the date. How does it meet with the Government’s policy of respect for the Scottish Parliament and for this House if we are asked to rush through legislation based not on the needs of the country but on the needs of a shabby collaboration between two political parties?

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify the position, because I have had the benefit of seeing the letter from Mr Tom Aitchison, the board convener, and have not had to rely just on press reports. In that letter Mr Aitchison indicates that he would encourage the UK Government to amend the order for the Scottish Parliament elections to allow a combined poll to be held. Under the current rules, under the order of 2007, it is not possible for that to happen. However, he goes on to say:

“Allowing a formal combination of polls, for the referendum and parliamentary elections, would have many advantages both for the voter and the electoral administrators”.

We were already seized of that, and it will be addressed in the forthcoming legislation to pave the way for the referendum and the alternative vote. I would only add that the noble Lord—whom I welcome to this House, having served with him in the other place—whipped the Scotland Act, which makes provision for the Scottish election polls to be combined with a poll for another election. It does not allow them to be combined with a poll for a referendum, but that is what the forthcoming legislation will seek to do.

My Lords, has my noble friend had an opportunity to consider the possible coincidence in timing of the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the general election to the United Kingdom Parliament in 1915? Would that require some alteration of our legislation?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend meant 2015—1915 is beyond my abilities. He makes a very important point. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has already written to the First Minister, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, the other political leaders in Scotland, the Electoral Commission and election administrators to say that he is prepared to discuss this issue with them. I can assure my noble friend and the House that my right honourable friend will listen constructively to what they have to say on the coincidence of elections, as a result of fixed-term Parliaments, in 2015 and every 20 years thereafter.

My Lords, in addition to the issue of a number of votes taking place on the same day next May, including potentially three votes in Wales, is there not also the issue of a differential turnout? Parts of this country, particularly London, will not have any vote at all except the potential referendum vote. There will be a differential turnout. Will that not call into question the very fairness of a referendum?

No, I do not think that it should. Indeed, I make no secret of the fact that there is a combination of polls in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and many parts of England where there are local elections. One of the advantages will be increased turnouts for both the respective elections and the referendum. It will be up to the respective yes or no campaigns in places where there are no other elections to try to ensure that there is a good turnout for a referendum on a very important issue facing the country—how its elected House should be elected. It is an issue on which the noble Lord’s party brought forward legislation when it was in government. I look forward to receiving its support when we debate these matters when the Bill comes to this House.

Further to the answer that he has just given, does the noble and learned Lord not recall, as I do, that for years and years the Deputy Prime Minister and others have been assuring us that the British public are desperate to get rid of the first past the post system and will queue at the polling stations at the first opportunity to do so? Now we are being told that it is essential that we have the referendum on the same day as some other elections because it is the only way that you can guarantee that anyone at all will be bothered to turn out. Who is right?

The answer is the one that I just gave to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who is concerned that there might not be a good turnout in places such as London. It is an important issue, and these issues will be well debated. However, I think that those who are suggesting that, somehow or other, people in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of England cannot cope with dealing with two issues on the one day are totally underestimating them. It is an insult for them to suggest that it is not possible to vote on both matters on the same day.

Will my noble friend confirm whether there is a precedent for holding a referendum on the same day as local elections? I have been informed that the voters of London were able to vote in a referendum about the future governance of the city at the same time as local elections were taking place. Will he confirm that the people of Scotland are quite as intelligent as the people of London?

I am certainly happy to give that confirmation. I think—I will need to check, but I think—that my noble friend is right that the referendum on the mayoral system for London was on the same day as the London local elections. I think that I was registered in London at that time, when I was a Member of the other place. I remember going to the same polling station as my noble friend Lord Ashdown and, as we entered it, the then leader of my party asked, “Which way do we vote?”.

My Lords, it is in no way connected with the lack of intelligence or otherwise of the electorate in Scotland. However, can the Minister confirm that should the Scottish Parliament make a decision that it does not wish the referendum in Scotland to be held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections, the United Kingdom Government will honour its wishes? In asking that, I declare an interest as a Member of the Scottish Parliament.

I recognise the noble Lord’s interest. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has made clear what we wish to do. There are many examples from many places around the world of elections and referendums taking place on the same day. With the first Scottish election taking place in the shadow of the Kosovo engagement and the second Scottish election coinciding with the Iraq war, I do not believe that there will be any question of the Scottish elections being overshadowed by the referendum.

Can my noble friend give an assurance that if voters are queuing to vote in large numbers, there is some chance of their being able to vote and having their votes counted, after the shambles under the previous Government?

I think that all sides of the House would agree that that it is very important that anyone who wishes to vote and turns up in time to vote should be allowed to vote.

My Lords, what will the Government advise people who believe that a referendum on an alternative voting system for the House of Commons ought to be considered in the context of proposals from the Government for elections to this place? Surely it is logical for people to be able to view things in the round rather than having to make a judgment about one-half of the issue.

As my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has indicated, there is no doubt that proposals will be brought forward in a draft Bill to consider the constitution of this House and how part of it, if not all of it, will be elected. However, we should now move forward to determine the mode of election to the other place. That was clear in our coalition agreement, and it was supported by the Labour Party—indeed it was in legislation—at the last election. The sooner we get it done, the better.