Election 2021

The final results of the election are now in.  Find out which MSPs have been elected and what happens next in Parliament.

Current MSPs and parliamentary timeline

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Loading…

Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill

Overview

The Bill as introduced allows arrangements to be put in place for the Scottish general election in response to Covid-19. The election is planned for 6 May 2021. The Bill will:



  • change the deadline for postal vote applications to give more time to process an expected high level of requests to vote by post

  • make “dissolution” (the time before the election when MSPs no longer hold office) last 1 day, allowing the Parliament to make decisions if the election needs to be postponed

  • give the Scottish Ministers power to hold an all-postal election and to hold polling over multiple days, if appropriate

  • allow flexible timing for the first meeting of the new Parliament and the election of a new Presiding Officer

  • give a reserve power to the current Presiding Officer to postpone the 2021 election by up to 6 months in certain circumstances



You can find out more in the Explanatory Notes that explains the Bill.

Why the Bill was created

The next Scottish general election is scheduled to be held on 6 May 2021.  It’s expected Scotland will remain under Covid-19 restrictions into 2021.  This Bill was created to make sure the election is held on 6 May 2021 as planned and to provide options if it looks like this is not possible closer to the time.

You can find out more in the Policy Memorandum that explains the Bill.

Where do laws come from?

The Scottish Parliament can make decisions about many things like:



  • agriculture and fisheries

  • education and training

  • environment

  • health and social services

  • housing

  • justice and policing

  • local government

  • some aspects of tax and social security


These are 'devolved matters'.


Laws that are decided by the Scottish Parliament come from:



Government Bills


These are Bills that have been introduced by the Scottish Government. They are sometimes called 'Executive Bills'.


Most of the laws that the Scottish Parliament looks at are Government Bills.


Hybrid Bill


These Bills are suggested by the Scottish Government.


As well as having an impact on a general (public) law, they could also have an impact on organisations' or the public's private interests.


The first Hybrid Bill was the Forth Crossing Bill.


Members' Bill


These are Bills suggested by MSPs. Every MSP can try to get two laws passed in the time between elections. This 5-year period is called a 'Parliamentary session'.


To do this they need other MSPs from different political parties to support their proposed law.


Committee Bill


These are Bills suggested by a group of MSPs called a committee.


These are Public Bills because they will change general law.


Private Bill


These are Bills suggested by a person, group or company. They usually:



  • add to an existing law

  • change an existing law


A committee would be created to work on a Private Bill.

Becomes an Act

The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill passed by a vote of 117 for, 0 against and 0 abstentions. The Bill became law on 31 January 2021.

Introduced

The Scottish Government sends the Bill and related documents to the Parliament.

Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill

Scottish Parliament research on the Bill 

Financial Resolution

The Presiding Officer has decided under Rule 9.12 of Standing Orders that a financial resolution is required for this Bill.

Stage 1 - General principles

Committees examine the Bill. Then MSPs vote on whether it should continue to Stage 2.

Who examined the Bill

Each Bill is examined by a 'lead committee'. This is the committee that has the subject of the Bill in its remit.


It looks at everything to do with the Bill.


Other committees may look at certain parts of the Bill if it covers subjects they deal with.

Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee report

What is secondary legislation?

Secondary legislation is sometimes called 'subordinate' or 'delegated' legislation. It can be used to:



  • bring a section or sections of a law that’s already been passed, into force

  • give details of how a law will be applied

  • make changes to the law without a new Act having to be passed


An Act is a Bill that’s been approved by Parliament and given Royal Assent (formally approved).

Debate on the Bill

A debate for MSPs to discuss what the Bill aims to do and how it'll do it.

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

Stage 1 debate on the Bill transcript

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-23648, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

14:56  



The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Although the bill is on an accelerated timetable, it is a result of extensive consultation and has been developed with electoral professionals and representatives of all the parties in the Parliament. I am extremely grateful for the constructive approach of everyone involved. I also sincerely thank the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for its scrutiny of the bill and stage 1 report. The staging of the committee’s evidence-taking sessions was impressive to say the least.

Clearly, the pandemic has impacted all aspects of life. We must assume that it might have significant implications for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. Although the progress on vaccines is encouraging, in truth, no one can be certain what the public health situation will be in May, and nor can we be sure of the attitude of the public to voting in a traditional manner. However, our electoral community has already successfully delivered eight local government by-elections this autumn, assisted by guidance that has been regularly updated by the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and informed by discussions with Public Health Scotland.

It is important that we now complement those practical steps with appropriate legislation, for two reasons: first, to ensure that voters can vote safely in person and have the option to vote by post or proxy if they wish; and, secondly, to take responsible action for a worst-case scenario in which it would not be possible to hold the election on 6 May.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I have a question before the minister gets into all the detail. Does he think that, in general in Scotland, we are good at engaging the electorate in the democratic process?

Graeme Dey

I am sure that we could do better, but, in general, I think that we are good at that.

The bill is a dedicated response to the pandemic and does not make any permanent changes to electoral law. Having heard evidence from a range of electoral professionals, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has welcomed the proposals in the bill, but has rightly sought to explore some aspects further. I welcome this debate as an opportunity to do that.

I will summarise the key components of the bill. We must ensure that Parliament is able to meet to postpone next May’s election if the risk to public health makes that course of action necessary. Dissolution is currently due on 25 March and, after that point, Parliament could not be recalled for any reason. The bill therefore seeks to modify the dissolution period for the Parliament so that it commences on 5 May, which is the day before the planned date of the election. That will permit Parliament to meet to legislate for a new polling date if that is required and it will ensure that Parliament can continue to meet if a postponement were to occur.

The change would mean that we would all retain our status as members of the Scottish Parliament until the day before the election. As a result, new guidance will be issued by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to cover conduct issues. I thank Scottish Parliament officials for that on-going work.

The change to the dissolution arrangements means that the Parliament can meet to postpone the election if that is required. However, as a further contingency measure, the bill gives the Presiding Officer a power to postpone the election by up to six months. I stress that that is intended only as a last resort. For the Presiding Officer to postpone the election for a reason related to coronavirus, he must be satisfied that Parliament could not meet safely to legislate to change the date of the poll. The power also covers things such as catastrophic information technology failure or a terror attack.

I turn to polling day itself. Physical distancing in polling stations means that in-person voting could take longer than normal. The bill empowers ministers to provide for polling to occur over more than one day and allows any additional polling days to be within the period of eight days following 6 May. If extra days were needed, electoral professionals advise that the best approach would be for voting to take place on Thursday and then Friday.

This week, Malcolm Burr, the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, has provided—at my request—advice on the merits of a second day of polling. The EMB has analysed projected voter numbers and the impact of physical distancing in the light of the experience of recent Government by-elections. Mr Burr has concluded that it would be preferable to proceed on the basis of one day of polling, albeit that some additional measures should be taken alongside that. My intention is to follow that advice and to continue to heed the EMB’s expertise as we proceed.

However, in the light of concerns that were raised at stage 1, I am minded to lodge an amendment so that provision for any additional days of polling would be dependent on the EMB making such a recommendation. I will also lodge an amendment that would require ministers to provide a statement of reasons for any such move.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

Does the minister not think that it would be appropriate for Parliament to be consulted about that and that, therefore, an affirmative instrument should have to be laid if there was a need for a second day of polling?

Graeme Dey

As Mr Scott will appreciate, this is a fast-evolving situation. The advice was provided yesterday. At this stage, I am not minded to take the course of action that Mr Scott suggests, but as he knows, my door is always open, and I am happy to engage with him in today’s debate and beyond.

It is expected that there will be a substantial increase in applications for postal votes as a result of the pandemic. To understand voter intentions, the Scottish Government asked the Electoral Commission to conduct two opinion polls on attitudes to voting, in August and November. Interestingly, both surveys found that around 77 per cent of eligible electors would feel safe voting in person at a polling place, provided that appropriate hygiene measures and physical distancing were in place.

However, the surveys also found that 38 per cent of respondents would apply to vote by post if they were encouraged to do so. Currently, only 18 per cent of the electorate are registered for a postal vote. Increasing that figure to around 40 per cent will involve the processing of around 900,000 postal vote applications. Although the roll-out of vaccines may result in fewer applications, we must still prepare for a significant increase. That will place substantial pressure on electoral registration officers and their staff, so the bill will bring forward the deadline for postal vote applications to 6 April.

I accept that that is not ideal and appears to run counter to maximising the uptake of postal votes, but it is a pragmatic and necessary step that has been taken on the basis of clear advice from the electoral professionals, and I think that the committee recognised that in its report. Making that change will help to ensure that increased numbers of postal votes can be processed in time for the election. Of course, such a substantial increase needs to be properly resourced, and the Scottish Government will provide £3 million of additional resource to EROs to support that work. EROs have developed contingency plans to manage higher numbers, and further resource is also under consideration to enable them to cope with the anticipated surge in applications that are received close to the deadline.

An all-postal election could not be held until late 2021 at the earliest. The bill allows ministers to provide for a rearranged election to be held on an all-postal basis, but although postal voting is valuable, it has downsides. The Electoral Management Board considers it likely that a large number of people would simply not engage with an all-postal election and therefore would, in effect, be disenfranchised. That being the case, an all-postal vote is a contingency that is only to be deployed in the event that the public health situation is significantly worse than it is at the moment.

The committee recommended that the power for ministers to legislate on an all-postal vote should be subject to a higher degree of parliamentary scrutiny. I agree, and I intend to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to make the use of that power subject to the affirmative procedure.

Alongside all that, we intend to have a full public awareness-raising campaign on postal voting. We think that it is essential for people to have a better understanding of the process of applying for a postal vote and to have confidence in the nature of the process, because there is a lot of misunderstanding of how postal votes work.

The commission’s public awareness campaign will run across television, digital and radio, and it will also include the delivery of an information booklet to all households in Scotland. In addition, we must direct specific activity towards voters who might feel that they are at a higher risk of the effects of Covid-19. In doing that, we will engage with relevant public health expertise. As the committee heard, the Government will write directly to the 169,000 people of voting age who are in the shielding category to draw their attention to their options.

My hope, and indeed my expectation, is that much of the content of the bill will not be needed. The people of Scotland continue to make daily sacrifices to suppress the virus, and the news of vaccines has given us all cause for optimism. However, the bill provides important measures that we will be able to use if the virus poses significant risks in May next year. I thank the committee for its engagement and I look forward to this afternoon’s debate.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am going to change the normal order of speakers on this occasion.

15:06  



Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

The coronavirus public health emergency has impacted on every part of our lives; the democratic life of the nation is no exception. The ability to hold a safe Scottish Parliament election next year while social distancing restrictions might still be in place, and voters’ ability to participate safely and confidently, are extremely important.

Although it is clear that the planned election in May is unlikely to be like any previous election, especially for campaigning purposes, it is important that we ensure that we can hold a safe election, that we can count the results and that Parliament can meet as soon as possible afterwards. That includes ensuring that voters have clear and comprehensive information in advance about the options that are available to help them, so that they can plan how to vote safely.

We welcome the news this week of the commencement of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign. It is a huge step forward that—as we heard at First Minister’s question time—5,330 of our fellow Scots have already received the vaccine. Let us hope that, come March, we will be in a much more positive place and can remove the social distancing measures that have been needed to date.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that, during the pandemic, elections have taken place in Canada, New Zealand and the US, and there have been eight council by-elections across the country. I believe that there is a considerable amount to be learned from countries that have held national elections on how Scotland can assure voters that we will conduct a safe election and count.

As we all know, the pandemic has placed significant pressures on our local authorities. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to and thank all those in local government who have worked incredibly hard to support our communities throughout the pandemic, especially in the councils that I represent across the Lothian region.

The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill is important, because it will help us to achieve a safe election and to plan for eventualities. We have engaged positively across the parties to ensure that we can do just that.

Sections 5 and 8 of the bill present us with a number of concerns relating to the powers that they will provide to ministers. My colleagues will say more about those later in the debate. However, I welcome the positive signal that the minister has given in his letter to the committee today that the Scottish Government accepts the committee’s reasoning and will prepare a stage 2 amendment to apply affirmative procedure to use of the powers that are outlined in section 5.

We believe that that should also be done in relation to section 8, on which, I note, the minister has responded, saying in his speech that the Government is considering the matter and that it is possible that an amendment will be lodged. I also note the advice today from the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, which is a positive contribution in the interests of ensuring that we all agree on how that should be taken forward. Scottish Conservatives believe that such an amendment is important to ensure that no order-making power may be exercised other than with Parliament’s assent under affirmative procedure.

As we progress to stage 2, we will seek assurances in order to strengthen the Parliament’s position and increase Government accountability. As the Electoral Commission says in its useful briefing for today’s debate, there are still a number of concerns about the bill. For example, the proposal to provide for an earlier deadline for applications to vote by post would reduce the time available for electors to make applications to vote by post. In particular, it would mean that anyone who applied to register to vote after 6 April but before the 19 April registration deadline would not be able to access that method of voting in the May election. I believe that that risks running contrary to what we are all trying to achieve, and that the objective of applying to vote by post should be simple and accessible for all voters.

We have a number of concerns about the postal vote administration process, as it is currently outlined. I believe that a public information campaign and application process for a postal vote should be independent of the Scottish Government, and should be administered by local authorities. I hope that we can get assurances on that, as we progress to stage 2.

If it is likely that the Scottish Parliament election that is scheduled for May 2021 will be delivered against the backdrop of evolving public health restrictions, we must work to guarantee that no one is disenfranchised. I note the change in voter behaviour that is outlined in the Electoral Management Board’s response. We know that many citizens, especially those who have been asked to shield during the pandemic, might be concerned about voting, which means that we must ensure that potential changes do not also cause confusion for them.

During recent council by-elections, we have also seen evidence of a change in voter behaviour. With more people working from home, the pinch points that we have previously seen at polling stations—queues in the morning and after work, for example—will potentially be replaced by a lunch-time peak in voting. Such potential changes in voter behaviour in the Scottish Parliament election are important. All such issues should be considered as we go forward.

We all hope that the provisions in the bill will not be needed and that, by the end of March, we will be able to say that the election can proceed on the expected date in May and as normally as possible.

Taking steps to ensure that democratic elections can take place safely, and that Parliament can be recalled if that is needed, is the responsible thing to do. Scottish Conservatives will support the bill at stage 1 this evening, and we look forward to stage 2, when we can find consensus on all the issues that I have outlined.

15:11  



Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Next year’s elections will take place in circumstances that nobody could have imagined and which, certainly, nobody would want. Our first and top priority must be to ensure that the election is safe for voters and poll workers.

However, we also have an opportunity to drive up turnout, which is something that we have seen elsewhere. I am not saying that there are perfect lessons to learn from the USA’s election process, but one of the positives that came out of the most recent presidential election was the extraordinary turnout, despite the election’s having been in the midst of a pandemic. We must aspire to that in Scotland.

On that basis, I think that it is important that the bill be passed by consensus. From my discussions in private with the minister, I know that that is his intention, so I am sure that we will see that in engagement during the parliamentary process.

At the outset, I would like to clarify two points. First, I hope that we can avoid the need for an all-postal ballot, and we all want to avoid the need to delay the election. As part of that, we should set out a clear framework for what would need to happen if such decisions were to be taken, so that there is some certainty for the electorate and the people who administer the election.

Secondly, on costs, I welcome what the minister said about the extra £3 million for EROs. However, within the financial framework that has been published today, there is a suggestion that the additional cost to EROs of a hybrid election could be £5 million. I would like some clarification about whether the full £5 million will be given to them.

As I said, there is, largely, consensus on the bill, but I would like to pick up with the minister four or five issues on which I hope we can get agreement in the next two stages of the bill. First, I welcome the public information campaign; I think that it is important. However, the need for it to start early is also important, because that, in itself, could negate some of the challenges that exist around bringing forward the postal vote deadline.

On that point, I think that it is counterintuitive for us to bring the postal vote application deadline forward if we are trying to encourage more people to apply. If we have a fully functional public information campaign—if we get the booklets out early enough—and if we make it easy for people to apply early enough, we could negate the risk of a massive flow of applications in the final two weeks. If we do that, we can keep the deadline as it is. I asked the minister to reconsider his position on that, because there are concerns about bringing forward the deadline. If what I suggest means that additional resources would be required for EROs, we should think about providing those resources.

On postal votes, there should be freepost applications. No one should have to pay to vote, so there should be universal freepost applications for a postal vote. I know that it has been suggested that political parties could offer freepost applications. We should resist that—they should be available for all. In closing, will the minister clarify whether his party is planning to do freepost applications for postal votes? They should be universal, because cost should never be a barrier to a person’s being able to apply to vote.

I am also concerned about the number of polling days. We hope that vaccination will be suitably spread across the population so that we do not need a socially distanced election. However, if we need a socially distanced election, we should have the option to have additional voter days. My preference would be for at least two days, rather than just one, but I accept that that decision could be made closer to the time. It should also be a decision for the Parliament, rather than the Government, to make. I do not think that the political parties that are represented here would want to do something that they thought was against advice, so it should be primarily for the Parliament to make that decision—not for the Government.

I welcome what the minister said about letters going out—in particular, to the shielded group. However, those letters should not come from the Scottish Government, which will be a participant and will not be neutral in the election.

Graeme Dey

I will offer a bit of clarity. I intend that that correspondence would come, subject to his agreement, from the chief medical officer, and not from Scottish Government officials or whoever. That is because the chief medical officer has been the point of contact for the shielding group throughout the process. By way of further clarification, I note that the wording of any such letter would be agreed in advance with the Electoral Commission.

Anas Sarwar

I welcome that, but there is contention about the branding of the correspondence: an NHS Scotland letter is very different from a Scottish Government letter. We should be very clear that it will not be a Scottish Government letter and that it should include a freepost application. As I have said, the Scottish Government will be a participant in the election, not a neutral body.

The key point that I want to make in closing is that we need collective trust in the electoral process, so it is really important that the bill be passed with consensus and no contention. On the basis of that principle, I am happy to work with the minister and, indeed, with every other political party in the chamber to ensure that we can achieve that consensus.

15:17  



Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

Others have already said that, in these extraordinary circumstances, we should all be seized of the priority of ensuring that our election can be carried out in a safe manner and in a way in which people can have confidence in the process. None of us would welcome the idea of a delay, but we need to be conscious of the fact that there would have been a pretty clear scenario if our election had fallen to be due in May this year instead of May next year. We would have had to delay it in those circumstances. We all hope that, in May 2021, we will be in a much better position in respect of the Covid outbreak than we were in May this year or, indeed, than we have been since. However, we simply do not know what situation we will face in May. That is why we need legislation that is open to a range of different scenarios, and that is able to ensure that our election can take place safely and that we can have confidence in it.

That is one of the reasons why I am cautious about the projection on postal voting uptake of 40 per cent at the upper end. It might be that we all feel as a society that we are moving beyond the most dangerous period of the Covid outbreak and that postal voting uptake might not be significantly higher, but that is not guaranteed. We need to be willing to prepare for the possibility that postal voting demand might not only reach 40 per cent but exceed it.

I am still concerned about what will happen if the Government decides, even on the advice of independent electoral administrators, that it is necessary to bring the postal voting deadline even further forward. We could be in the position of turning people away from a postal vote simply because they did not register early enough. I am concerned about that possibility.

We should do everything that we can between now and then to ensure that we maximise the capacity for postal voting, so that we can meet whatever demand will be created. The public opinion polling that led to that 40 per cent estimate was done at a different time and we do not know what the circumstances will be between now and the election in May.

There has been some discussion about one and two-day elections. I do not think that my party has a formal policy, but I will say openly that my personal view is that I am open to the idea of holding elections on multiple days, regardless of the current circumstances with the pandemic. There is a good argument that we should be open to looking at a wide range of options for increasing voter turnout, and holding voting on multiple days is one option that should be tried. I am reluctant to see that being taken out of the bill, even if the bill is specifically designed for the current circumstances.

I appreciate the minister’s position in saying that a decision on multiple-day voting in the May election should be based on advice, and that we should not use the upcoming election as an opportunity to experiment. I think that the case for multiple-day elections should be revisited in the longer term. Generally, elections ought to be able to take place on multiple days.

Lastly, as both Miles Briggs and Anas Sarwar reflected, there are bad lessons to be learned from around the world: none of us should want changes to our election arrangements to lead to the kind of fearmongering and conspiracy theories that we saw in the United States. We all have a responsibility—not just in passing the legislation, but in the way in which we conduct our debates between now and the election—to demonstrate to the Scottish people that they can have confidence in their election system, and to never lean into the kind of fearmongering that we have seen being used for such unpleasant political ends by the Trump campaign.

15:22  



Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I thank committee members for their efforts in getting witnesses before them and providing us with a report in such a short space of time, and the minister and his officials for the consensual way in which he appears to be approaching the task.

As previous speakers have said, the legislation addresses some of the important technical changes that will be needed to hold elections in the midst of a pandemic, although Patrick Harvie makes a valid point about broader lessons that we might learn about holding elections. The priority is to keep people safe, but to do so in ways that also safeguard our democracy. The Parliament has already extended its term by a year, so it is right that we commit to ensuring that elections go ahead in May, if at all possible.

I will focus on a couple of areas in the bill that have been picked up by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. The committee expressed concern about the enormous powers that the bill gives to ministers to make regulations and trigger changes to the elections. I have spoken before and in the context of another bill that is currently before us about how we should be concerned when ministers in a minority Government gain monopoly powers to change the rules. That is especially true when the rules relate to elections.

Many of us have watched aghast in recent weeks and months as people in the United States have been told that their election was being rigged. That is an astonishing state of affairs, which is designed to undermine public confidence in the election process and the acceptance of election results. We may be confident that that could never happen here, but the bill provides opportunities to make sure of that—and those opportunities should be seized.

The committee described the absence of parliamentary scrutiny envisaged by the bill as drafted as

“highly unusual and of particular importance”.

That is a concern that I share. I also agree with the committee’s request about the process for converting the election, as a last resort, to an all-postal election. That seems to be a sensible precaution and I note the minister’s comments on that in his opening speech.

Likewise, a safeguard should be introduced at stage 2 by including in the bill the limited list of possible additional polling days. On a practical level, if we had a two-polling-day election, it would make sense to ensure that candidates could get access to the list of those who had voted at the end of the first day, which would help to reduce unnecessary contact with voters who had already voted. There may even be scope to do that for postal votes that are received by returning officers prior to polling day. I believe that there is precedent for that in the all-postal-vote election trials in the north-east of England and Yorkshire for the regional assembly referendum that was held in the early 2000s.

The committee report and witnesses also drew attention to instances when ministers are given enormous power over their own re-election arrangements—that should have alarm bells ringing. Hopefully, steps can be taken at stage 2 to strengthen members’ scrutiny powers in that area. That must not be left to Government alone, particularly a minority Government, so the committee is right to ask that Parliament be included in those decisions.

We discovered last week that ministers get exclusive access to weekly polling numbers, which no doubt guide their decisions. In the interests of public confidence, we need to make sure that those decisions do not extend to arrangements around elections.

As others have said, this is a bill that none of us would have wished to see, but it is entirely right and appropriate that Parliament takes these precautionary steps.

I look forward to the work that will be done at stage 2 and again thank the committee, witnesses and the minister for their efforts to date.

15:26  



Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

I apologise for hurtling in as late as I did—down in the garden lobby, there are still children, puppy dogs and television cameramen crammed against the walls from when I zoomed past them. However, it was very important that I got here.

As convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I am pleased to speak in the debate on behalf of the committee. The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill contains measures that might prove necessary to ensure that the election can go ahead as planned on 6 May next year in the context of restrictions that might be in place due to coronavirus. The bill also contains a backstop measure for delaying the election if circumstances emerge that mean it cannot go ahead.

I am grateful to committee members for working together to produce a unanimous report on the bill and I acknowledge the experts in the field of running elections who generously gave up their time to inform our scrutiny of the bill. I also welcome the rapid response from the Government to the committee’s report. The bill contains a number of provisions, but I will highlight some of the main conclusions that were reached by the committee. As we said in our report,

“The Committee’s first priority is to ensure that no voter is unable to vote at the next election.”

We anticipate that postal voting will play an important role for people who are unable to vote in person due to illness or self-isolation, and postal voting will ensure that those who may not feel comfortable going out can still participate. Given the central importance of postal voting to the coming election, we are keen to ensure that registration for postal votes will not be overwhelmed and that no one misses out. The report makes a number of recommendations on that, including that sufficient contingency must be in place to respond to an unforeseen spike in demand for postal votes and that

“early and widespread promotion of the opportunity to register for a postal vote”

must take place.

I am happy to accept the Government’s reassurance that, if necessary, funds will be made available further to the additional £3 million already allocated to electoral registration officers to increase the capacity to process applications for postal votes. A two-pronged approach of increasing capacity and promoting and encouraging take-up of postal voting will be needed to ensure success. I know that my colleagues will have more to say about postal voting in the debate, so I turn to other matters.

The committee was concerned that the power to run an all-postal vote in section 5 sits with Scottish ministers and that there are no arrangements in the bill for parliamentary scrutiny of such important decisions. We therefore welcome the Government’s indication in its response to our report that it will amend the bill at stage 2 to apply the affirmative procedure to the use of that significant power.

At section 8, the bill allows Scottish ministers to hold polling on multiple days, but our report notes that it is the preference of the electoral community to hold polling over a single day, and the committee shares that view. However, we recognise that preparations for the election are a moving picture and will be dependent on prevailing virus conditions at the time of the poll. Evaluation by the Electoral Management Board for Scotland on the merits of going down that route will feed into any final decision.

We will continue our consideration of that as more information and expert advice become available. We welcome the Government’s willingness to consider an amendment to the bill to provide certainty over arrangements for the poll. The committee had some concerns about the alteration of the date of dissolution to just one day before the election, because it will mean that MSPs who are running for re-election will have a dual role of candidate and MSP during the campaign. We have seen the initial guidance emerging from the SPCB to support MSPs during that period, and the final suite of guidance will be crucial in maintaining as far as possible a level playing field between all candidates, regardless of their status, and to ensure that public resources cannot be used to confer an advantage for some candidates over others.

However, we recognise that there is no perfect solution during such a campaign in exceptional circumstances. The committee is particularly concerned that the pre-election recess period should mirror a normal pre-election dissolution period, which means that, as far as possible, the Government would be subject to normal purdah restrictions. Within that context, we recognise that there will be a need for the Government to make announcements in relation to coronavirus and that scrutiny of those must continue. We note that the current arrangements for enhanced scrutiny of Covid regulations will continue as they are up to the Christmas recess, at which point they will be subject to further review by Parliament.

The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill proposes measures that should allow the election to go ahead on 6 May next year, while we are still living with the virus. The overwhelming concern that we heard from those who contributed to our inquiry was that providing certainty and clarity at the earliest possible point to the electoral community, electorate and political parties is essential to ensure the smooth running of the election and to ensure that those who wish to vote can do so. We welcome the Government’s commitment to keep us informed as we approach the campaign period, and we note the extensive and detailed work with the electoral community and political parties that took place during the bill’s preparation. The provisions in the bill had been broadly welcomed and, on that basis, the committee was content to recommend to Parliament that the general principles of the bill be agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate. Speeches should be no more than four minutes long, because I have no time in hand.

15:32  



Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I welcome the bill and the collective way in which it has been created.

As others have said, because of the circumstances, next year’s election will be like no other. If anyone thinks that postal voting is not that important, they just have to look at the recent events across the pond and how postal voting changed the result of that election. Every vote matters, as Bill Kidd MSP would tell you: his first majority was seven votes. The number of postal votes will undoubtedly increase next year, so being prepared for that is essential and the correct thing to do.

The fact that we are having this debate and introducing this bill seems normal and the right thing to do, and so it should. The Parliament did not always have responsibility for our elections, and the farce of the 2007 election—when Westminster still controlled it and the UK ministers refused to listen to the many voices that indicated that problems were going to happen because of the new system—spoke volumes. Therefore, I am glad that a different and more collegiate approach has been taken by the Government and, crucially, by this Parliament to dealing with some of the potential problems.

We had a wide-ranging discussion about the bill and its delegated powers in the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, and I welcome the stage 1 report, which is in front of us today, from the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

We all want every election to run as smoothly as possible. The organising of any election is a mammoth task, and certainty is just as important for the organisers as it is for the electorate.

In particular, I welcome these three points: first, the earlier deadline for postal vote applications of 6 April rather than 20 April, to give more time for those to be processed, given the expected increase in demand; secondly, the power for ministers to allow polling to take place over more than one day, if needed, in order to support physical distancing at polling stations—I also note the recommendation in the committee’s report; thirdly, the measures to defer the election if that is required. Moving the dissolution of Parliament to 5 May from 25 March ensures that MSPs can pass emergency legislation to delay the election.

The earlier deadline for postal ballot applications is crucial, in my opinion. The Electoral Commission’s evidence suggests that 20 per cent of people who usually vote on polling day are now more likely to vote by post. If that figure is correct and 350,000 additional applications are made, that earlier date will prove to be a wise decision. [Interruption.] I am sorry—I have only four minutes.

I would be grateful if the minister could confirm that, if the application is at the ERO before the closing time on the final date on which applications are accepted, it must be processed. There is a particular reason for my asking that, and I would be happy to talk to the minister about it after the debate.

Section 8 is important and deals with something quite different for elections in Scotland. Traditionally, as we know, elections take place on a Thursday. There are a variety of challenges in using particular days for elections. I welcome the provisions that increase the number of days on which the election can be held, but I strongly suggest that, if that happens, the elections should be run on consecutive days and not on days with three days in between. I would also ask, if the election is to take place on multiple days, whether polling stations really need to be open from 7 o’clock in the morning to 10 pm. I genuinely do not believe that that is necessary.

Measures to protect ballot boxes overnight will be even more crucial, bearing in mind the amount of fake news that, sadly, rages online on a wide variety of issues.

I welcome the minister’s announcement about his discussions with the EMB. However, they need to be clearly communicated to Parliament and the electorate, to prevent accusations of tampering with the election.

15:36  



Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

As ever, I thank my colleagues on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, and our clerking team, for their work on the stage 1 report.

The pandemic has brought significant changes to how we, as elected politicians, carry out our duties. Members from across the chamber will have had to make difficult decisions about how best to represent their constituents while ensuring safety. There have been public meetings and constituency surgeries over video call, and a greater dependence on written communication. For those who are candidates in next year’s election, campaigning has clearly changed, too.

Although it is difficult to foresee where we will be in May, it is clear that the election will be impacted. In many ways, it already has been—after all, an election is far more than a single-day event. The regulated period begins on 6 January, just as this Parliament returns from the Christmas recess.

When we consider safety, it is not only about a limited number of people who are involved in campaigns or electoral administration; it is about the millions of activists, count staff, poll staff and electors themselves.

The Parliament finds itself in an unenviable position. A pandemic is unpredictable, but for the election to function effectively, we need as much certainty as possible in advance. The Electoral Commission has been clear about the problems that can be caused by last-minute changes, and we must be mindful of those.

The bill creates wide powers to make alterations to the electoral process. Many of them, used sensibly, will find agreement across the chamber. We all recognise the gravity of the situation that we face. That said, it is not for Parliament to pass wide-ranging powers to the Executive on the basis of trust and the hope that good sense will always prevail.

I approve of the broad principles of the bill, and it is essential that a bill of this nature is passed. However, I share the concern of other members of my party that significant powers, such as powers to implement an all-postal ballot or a two-day voting period, are too broad to be reasonably handed to ministers. Those steps would be unprecedented, and it is important that we get the legislative underpinning right. I welcome the minister’s comments on that issue today and the tone that the ministers have taken so far.

The stage 1 report highlights some of the practical issues that we face. There are serious concerns about the assumptions around postal voting, expected uptake, capacity and relevant deadlines. We all, rightly, start from the position that no one who is legally entitled to vote should be denied the opportunity to have their vote recorded.

One issue that we have raised is the need for proper resourcing of the election. As the minister has recognised, it will cost more than usual. At all levels, the resource needs to be available to allow for flexibility.

The committee has requested that ministers provide it with regular updates of their work, and I hope that that takes place.

We should need no reminding that confidence in our electoral system is as important as its effective functioning. We have seen—sadly, too often—that a lack of confidence or confusion has caused significant problems for the recognition and legitimacy of elections and referendums.

More than ever, we need a well-considered approach and as much consensus as possible. There will be questions at later stages of the bill, and I am confident that the existing issues can be addressed. As the committee acknowledged, opportunities for scrutiny of the bill have been limited by time. Similarly, the choices that the bill provides might be pressured by the circumstances that we face. I therefore urge ministers to be flexible and to ensure that, by stage 3, we have a watertight bill and are best placed to address any problems that the pandemic might throw at us along the road.

15:40  



Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Democracy is precious, and elections at regular intervals underpin democracy. Democracy does not just happen or endure; it has to be active and protected. Holding regular, open and free elections—in our case, every five years—is one way in which that is done.

I wish that we did not need the bill, but the present worldwide pandemic requires the Government and the Parliament to take precautionary measures. I hope that the advent of a vaccine will negate the need to use the power to postpone the election, for example. However, the roll-out of the vaccine will probably not have covered everyone by the beginning of May, so extra measures must be in place to cover every eventuality prior to the election.

I have the privilege of sitting on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, which took evidence on the bill and published the stage 1 report, and I hope that the Parliament will support the bill at decision time.

For many politicians and party activists, the issue of postal votes and all-postal voting must now be pretty high on the agenda. Some months ago, we heard from electoral registration officers that their offices would not be able to deal with an all-postal voting election. I understand that. However, like Patrick Harvie, I think that they are somewhat unambitious in saying that they can cope with only 40 per cent of votes being postal votes.

That said, the evidence from recent by-elections is interesting. In my constituency, there was a by-election in the Kincorth, Nigg and Cove ward a few weeks ago. The turnout was 27 per cent, which is not unusual for recent council by-elections, but it is interesting that, as far as I can gather, the majority of ballots cast were postal votes. It is also interesting that there was not a great surge in the number of postal vote applications; people who had already registered for a postal vote must have just been more likely to vote.

It is incumbent on all politicians and their parties to always work for the maximum possible turnout and, therefore, to give the opportunity to vote by post to all those who want it. I hope that the Government will promote, through media campaigns, the opportunity that people have to vote by post.

I completely understand why EROs want postal vote applications to be with them three weeks out from the election. They will have to check the validity of the postal vote, send out the ballots and then conduct rigorous checks on them—particularly the signatures—when they are returned. The confidence of the electorate in that process is vital. As others have mentioned, the potential to make mischief and mayhem that we have seen across the pond has not been lost on us on this side of the pond.

I hope that sufficient guidelines will be given on emergency postal and proxy votes due to illness, work commitments abroad or other events. Perhaps the minister could say more about that subject in his closing remarks.

I hope that as many electors as possible opt to apply for a postal vote and that there is no need for in-person polling to take place over two days. I understand that election managers are prepared to introduce more polling stations in polling places, but I hope that that is thought through in each polling place so that there are no queues in corridors or outside, given the vagaries of the Scottish weather.

15:44  



Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill is a vitally important piece of legislation in these difficult and unpredictable times. It will ensure that, in all circumstances, our democratic processes are protected and next year’s elections are fair and seen to be fair. In my view, the bill is quite comprehensive, addresses most eventualities and makes sensible provision for unexpected events and issues that will be raised by the pandemic as we—hopefully—progress through the disease’s final stages.

I am particularly pleased by how responsive the Scottish Government has been to issues that have been raised by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, and by how everyone has been galvanised to ensure that the legislation is in place on time. The minister has been responsive to calls from the committee.

As a result of our experiences of the coronavirus pandemic so far, many aspects of our lives will have changed dramatically and the way things were done in the past may not be appropriate any more.

I have no doubt that the rate of postal voting will increase markedly during next year’s Scottish general election, and it is gratifying that issues surrounding uptake, funding, voter registration, adequate timeframes, service voters and the advertisement of postal voting procedures have been investigated with those who are responsible for conducting the election. With expert opinion suggesting that 38 per cent of the electorate might choose to use a postal vote in next year’s election, the bill’s provision of 50 per cent seems to adequately provide contingency should the surge be greater than anticipated. We should keep a watching brief on that as matters progress.

Although it is unlikely to be used, section 5, which provides ministers with the power to call an all-postal ballot, will be amended to allow parliamentary scrutiny at stage 2; that is the proper thing to do.

As pre-election period timeframes will be different next year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, in that dissolution of Parliament will not now take place until 5 May 2021, it is hugely important that sitting MSPs who are also candidates—I will not be—do not get an unfair advantage over other candidates in the run-up to the election. It is gratifying that the Government supports the committee’s recommendations on that democratic issue, as it does those on observing normal purdah restrictions during the pre-election period.

The committee raised the question of polling being held over more than one day should the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic dictate that it would be safer to do that, and the Scottish Government is considering the logistical issues and amendments concerning parliamentary scrutiny. The committee is grateful for that.

Concerns have also been raised about scrutiny time for the passage of the bill. However, the necessity to have the legislation in place on time prevails over my concerns, and I accept the Scottish Government’s response as reasonable where it acknowledges the limited amount of time that is available to scrutinise the bill and says that it will work with members on any proposals. The minister has already proved that to be the case.

I am pleased that the committee is satisfied that the policy memorandum accurately describes the policy objectives of the bill and that the Scottish Government acknowledges concerns expressed by Sight Scotland and Age Scotland about the memorandum’s section on equal opportunities and human rights.

All in all, I support the passage of the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill to stage 2 in these extremely challenging times.

15:49  



Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I have serious concerns about our democracy. If we look at the past 20 years of Scottish politics, it is easy to swallow some of the mythology that surrounds our democracy and the elections to this Parliament. There is a myth that the creation of the Parliament brought about democratic renewal and a political reawakening in the Scottish electorate and that people became more engaged with politics, Parliament and our political system. We often hear references to the Scottish Parliament being more relevant and in touch with the people than the Westminster one. We are told that we are somehow better and that we are morally and democratically superior and more relevant to the daily lives of the people we claim to represent.

We should ask whether that is true. If we look at turnout in elections to the Parliament we see that, in 2016, only 55 per cent of voters turned out to vote. Almost half of our citizens felt so ambivalent that they could not bring themselves to vote for anyone. Turnout at Scottish elections has never been higher than 58 per cent. The local government elections had turnouts of 39 per cent in 2012 and 46 per cent in 2017, far behind the 68 per cent who voted in the 2019 UK general election. The irony is that the closer politics comes to the people, the less engagement there seems to be. Many of my constituents who sleep out there on the streets and in the doorways of the Royal Mile feel just as remote from democracy in this Parliament as someone in the Shetlands does from the Westminster Parliament.

That is not a good state of affairs or evidence of a healthy democracy. However, we are in unprecedented times and we will go through an election during a national crisis. It is therefore more essential than ever that systems are in place to ensure not only that the election is run in a fair and transparent way but that we engage the maximum number of voters to take part, using systems and procedures that can engage public confidence.

Other members of the committee have raised many of the issues that we discussed in our evidence sessions. The assumption that the election planners made that there would be a 40 per cent postal vote was evidence of a conservatism in their ambitions. I see that the minister has increased the budget so that we can try to take that figure up to 50 per cent. That is welcome, but it should not be the end of our ambition.

One way to increase the capacity for postal voting would be to have a national freepost address, so that anyone could write “Postal vote. Freepost” on an envelope and it would get there. That would make applications free, simple, easy and without barriers, especially for the groups that we know are hard to engage or are disenfranchised. That should be promoted through multiple platforms in a concerted effort to reach those groups and constituencies that we know have very low levels of participation. That would be a way to get those very poor voting figures to go up.

We should consider running the election over more than one day, but that should be a choice made by Parliament, not ministers. There should also be no limitations on the postal voting period that might restrict people’s ability to vote.

Any communications about elections must come from a neutral body. I suggest that they should come from electoral registration offices or from the chief returning officer. If they cannot come from those people, perhaps the minister can explain that. I may be ignorant of that, and I apologise if I am. I would consider such communications coming from the NHS, but we must recognise that the chief medical officer is a political appointment. I am not saying that as a criticism, but that is the reality. We should not, in even the smallest way, bring such people into the electoral process.

15:54  



Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights that we have as citizens. As we prepare for an election in the context of the pandemic, it is imperative that we ensure the safety of everyone who exercises their right to vote next May. At the start of 2020, most of us would not have predicted that, by the end of March, we would be under a national lockdown. The Covid-19 outbreak has impacted almost all areas of public life and it is now obvious that we must take innovative measures to safeguard our electoral processes.

The Scottish Government has been clear about its expectation that the election will be held on 6 May 2021 as scheduled, but I am pleased that the Government has also been clear about why the election might be postponed. If we find ourselves facing a lockdown whereby voting at polling places would be unsafe, that would require the Scottish Government to postpone the election.

Although it is highly unlikely that the election would need to be postponed, it is critical that the necessary legislation is in place so that we can be prepared. That is why the bill will move the dissolution of Parliament to 5 May 2021, which will allow MSPs to pass emergency legislation to defer the election, if necessary. That is a logical change, as there is the potential for a spike in coronavirus cases that could make it unsafe for us to cast our ballots on 6 May. By shortening the dissolution period to just one day, we will avoid a potential situation in which the Parliament would be unable to make the vital decision to protect voters and minimise transmission of the virus.

The bill will also give ministers the power to make regulations to allow polling to take place over several days to support social distancing and additional hygiene measures at polling stations, as in-person voting might ultimately take longer. Under that provision, voting must commence on election day, but it could be extended in the eight days immediately following.

The bill sets out to bring the deadline for postal vote applications forward by two weeks. In my view, that is another logical step that we should be taking. According to research that was conducted by the Electoral Commission in August 2020, an additional 350,000 people could opt to vote by post in the election. Postal voting applications require thorough checking and verification, which takes time, so it makes sense to bring the deadline forward to ensure that there is enough time for the applications to be processed.

Next year’s election will be of monumental importance to Scotland’s political history. At its heart, it will be an election about democracy and self-determination. The administrative challenge of running any election is significant, but the pandemic has made it all the more challenging, which is why we must do everything that we can to ensure that our parliamentary election next year is as safe and fair as possible.

15:57  



John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

I welcome the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme that started on Tuesday, which represents a paradigm shift in the need for the bill. We still need to plan for the worst-case scenarios and not drop our guard until the vaccination programme is complete, but we can approach the bill in a slightly more relaxed way than when the need for it was first recognised.

We welcome the Government’s offer to increase the capacity to deal with postal vote applications to 50 per cent, although it now seems less likely that that will be required. We agree with the Scottish Government’s approach, outlined by the minister in his opening remarks and his letter about how the cost of postal votes should be covered by political parties. That more people will use postal votes than before is certain, but I would expect the total to be between 30 and 40 per cent, or less, in light of the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

Turning to section 5 of the bill, I again welcome the Government agreeing that an affirmative instrument would be required in the now unlikely event that an all-postal ballot will be required. I welcome the fact that, in the minister’s response to the stage 1 report, he proposes that Parliament, through an affirmative instrument, would have a vote on such a dramatic change to a voting system—which an all-postal ballot would be—and I welcome the recognition that using the significant power to move to an all-postal ballot should not be a decision that rests entirely with the Scottish Government.

Turning now to the role of candidates who are still MSPs, given the new dissolution date of 4 May, I welcome the SPCB’s detailed guidance that was published on 1 December, and look forward to seeing it being further developed and updated in the run-up to the election.

We do not believe that section 8 on polling and additional days is necessary, and note that the Electoral Management Board for Scotland does not believe so either. The helpful note that it issued today states:

“On the basis of this analysis, it is the view of the EMB that polling over a single day should be sufficient provided that returning officers review and limit the numbers of voters allocated to each polling station, communicate that voters should be prepared to plan their visit and be prepared for a short wait, and put in place measures within polling stations such as the employment of additional staff to advise and reassure voters and to maintain the flow of voters through the polling station.”

The EMB also reports that polling over multiple days introduces additional risk, cost and potential confusion for the voter. The likely effect of vaccination against Covid-19 and the expected uptake of postal votes will be to significantly reduce the number of voters attending polling stations. Given those aspects, our view remains that polling should be over one day. Furthermore, we do not believe that that power should be vested in the Scottish ministers alone. We consider that, as provided for in section 5, such a power should be taken only through an affirmative instrument, thereby giving the Parliament a vote on that decision.

Section 11 gives the Presiding Officer the power to postpone an election. I note that there is no obligation on him to consult the Parliament on the decision. Again, I consider that such an obligation should exist in law, always accepting that the power given to the PO as proposed would be used only as a position of last resort.

We will support the bill at stage 1, subject to amendments being introduced to sections 5 and 8 as discussed. I look forward to hearing the minister’s comments in that regard.

16:01  



Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

As others have said, the right to vote is a key part of our democracy, and it is important that we safeguard it, despite the obvious challenges of the pandemic that have been mentioned.

I welcome the minister’s comments and announcements, not least that there will be a public awareness campaign on postal votes. That is welcome, indeed.

As other members have said, one of the key issues is the potential significant increase in the proportion of registered voters who choose to apply to vote by post as they are unable or do not wish to vote in person.

Research that the Electoral Commission carried out in August found that 20 per cent of those who generally vote at a polling place would prefer to vote by post if an election were to take place, which is understandable, given concerns about the pandemic. That indicates the potential for about 350,000 people who would normally have voted at a polling station to opt instead to vote by post. That is a lot of people, and it clearly presents a logistical challenge.

Such a significant increase in the volume of applications would need to be managed by electoral registration officers at an already busy time in the electoral timetable. In order to mitigate that, one of the main provisions of the bill is for an earlier deadline for applications to vote by post, which would help the officers by giving them more time to process any surge in applications, thereby ensuring that voters who apply by the deadline have their application processed in time to be issued with a postal ballot pack. Returning officers would also have more time to prepare for the issuing of postal ballot packs as soon as practicable after the close of nominations, maximising the time available for voters to complete and return them before the close of poll.

Given the anticipated increase in postal votes, that is one aspect of the legislation that we need to get right. The bill proposes to bring forward the postal vote application date to 6 April 2021, which is 21 working days prior to the election.

An important point is that voting options must be the same for everyone, and the discrepancy in dates between registration and application for postal voting is obviously an issue. I hope that that will be clarified, because it could have an impact on young and first-time voters. We want to encourage those people to become involved in the democratic process and avoid any possibility of turning them off it—as the mum of a 17-year-old who has a very passing interest in politics, I think that it is important that that does not happen.

One suggestion that the Government and the committee might wish to consider is providing an exemption from or extension to the proposed 6 April deadline for postal votes for voters who are registering for the first time.

I understand that electors who miss the earlier deadline for applications for postal votes would have the option of applying to appoint a proxy up to the deadline of 27 April. Although that has the potential to shift the stress on administration to a different point in the timetable, and closer to the poll, it still raises the issues of creating different criteria for voting and of not providing equal choice for all.

The main objective, however, must be to ensure that voters have early and clear information about the postal vote application deadline, to ensure that they can make informed choices about their voting methods and to help them to plan how to vote safely.

I welcome the consensus that has been expressed in the debate, and I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to closing speeches.

16:05  



Anas Sarwar

I will start on the note on which Shona Robison finished her contribution, which is about the importance of consensus in the debate. If we are to gain public trust in elections, the process cannot be contentious—it must be consensual, as I am sure all members would want to commit to achieving. As John Scott, Miles Briggs, Liam McArthur and several others said, the decision must ultimately be one for the Parliament rather than the Government to take. I hope that all the parties represented in the Parliament will share in that spirit of partnership with the Government.

I will summarise a few points that have emerged from the debate, on which it would be good if the minister could provide clarification. In his opening remarks he mentioned a budget gap of £3 million and a gap of £5 million in the financial framework. I would be pleased if he could confirm that no such gap exists. I see that he is nodding, but it would be good if he could confirm that in his closing remarks.

On the deadline for postal votes, Patrick Harvie, Miles Briggs and others made the point—but it bears repeating—that it feels counterintuitive for us to change the postal vote deadline to make it earlier if we also want to increase and expand people’s access to voting. I therefore ask the minister to think again about the relevant part of the bill, to see whether we could mitigate the fears about a late flow of applications associated with the booklet process and the public information campaign, and try to get early applications into that process.

Alongside that, the suggestion of providing free postage is important. I note that the minister said that a booklet would go to every household to let people know about their right to apply for postal votes. There is no reason why, as part of that process, we could not include an application form for every household and, indeed, a freepost response mechanism. It would be good to hear the minister’s response to that suggestion.

As Bill Kidd touched on, it is important that we have an effective public information campaign. It would be good to know when such a campaign could begin and in whose name it would run. [Interruption.] I am sorry to see that the minister is rolling his eyes at that suggestion. It is important that any communication on the administration of the election or any application process for it—

Graeme Dey rose—

Anas Sarwar

If I could finish my point, I will then be happy to take an intervention from the minister.

It is important that any such communication—whether it be an advert, a booklet or a letter—should come from a neutral source and not a participant in the election.

Graeme Dey

If I can offer some alleviation of Mr Sarwar’s paranoia, I point out that we are working extremely closely with the Electoral Commission, which will be the source of the information campaign on accessing postal votes. That should also calm people’s concerns about the process of voting in that way and address some of the nonsense that is out there about the security of the system.

Anas Sarwar

I agree that we do not want anyone to be paranoid, which is why it is important to have clarification from the Government that any such publication would come from a neutral source. If any paranoia exists, perhaps it is on the part of the minister. I do not think that it should be difficult for him to confirm that any public information campaign, booklet or letter would come from such a source.

I recall that the minister suggested that the CMO would write to people in the shielding category. I am open to that suggestion, but again urge that such a communication should come from NHS Scotland if we are to achieve the same aim of it not coming directly from, or carrying the branding of, the Scottish Government.

The final issue around that is in relation to having one election day. Patrick Harvie made the good point that there is an argument fort extending the number of days regardless of whether we have a pandemic, if we want to maximise turnout and participation. In many ways, that could be a good trial.

Liam McArthur

Like Anas Sarwar, I was very interested in Patrick Harvie’s suggestion. That is an area in which we can probably learn from what happens in other countries that already have elections that span at least a couple of days.

Anas Sarwar

We should explore that. I am fine with where we end up on the final wording of the bill in relation to there being one election day, but we should keep open the option of additional days. The fundamental principle that we want to go on is that it should be for the Parliament rather than the Government to decide.

Stuart McMillan’s point about hours is also an interesting point that is worthy of exploration. I hope that we can find some consensus on all those issues in the coming week or two, and get a bill that has unanimous support in Parliament.

16:11  



Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

The bill is fine, sensible and pragmatic, with two exceptions. I shall focus on those exceptions, leaving the remainder of the bill to one side.

Two provisions of the bill are unacceptable in their present form—sections 5 and 8—each for the same reason: both give ministers far too much power. Under section 5, ministers could provide for the next election to this Parliament to be an all-postal ballot. Under section 8, ministers could provide for polling at the next election to take place on a variety of different days within a specified eight-day period.

Let me say straight away that, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, it is sensible to build into our electoral law flexibility about postal ballots and about the day or days of polling. However, on no account is it fair, reasonable, proportionate or necessary to place all that flexibility, unchecked, into the hands of ministers. Ministers are participants in the election; they cannot at the same time be its referees. Substantive and procedural checks need to be added to both section 5 and section 8 during the bill’s amending stages in order to make the provisions acceptable. I will set out exactly what I have in mind.

As regards section 5, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee notes in its stage 1 report that the power to provide for an all-postal ballot is a contingent measure in the event that an in-person vote proves impossible because of Covid. The minister said the same in his opening speech. That is fine—but, if that is the case, why does the bill not so provide? As it stands, the power to provide for an all-postal ballot can be exercised for any reason—or indeed for no reason at all—and at any time. There is no requirement that the power be exercised only because otherwise no election to the Scottish Parliament could safely be held. If it is a contingent power to be used only as a last resort, the bill needs to say so, in terms.

The SPPA Committee also notes that an all-postal ballot cannot be organised in time for an election in May; the committee refers to the statement in the bill’s policy memorandum that such a move would necessitate at least a six-month delay to the election. It is, for those reasons, highly unlikely to happen, but lots of highly unlikely things have happened this year, and the argument that the exercise of the power is unlikely is, I am afraid, simply not good enough. The bill must be amended to set out clearly the extremely limited circumstances in which it would be lawful for ministers, by order, to require the election to become an all-postal ballot.

Even then, concerns remain. No provision is made in section 5 for any parliamentary input into the matter. Ministers are given a blank cheque. I am sorry, but no self-respecting Parliament should ever sign such an instrument. Section 5 provides that the Presiding Officer, the Electoral Commission, the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and the chief medical officer are consulted, but that is it—it does not state that their consent is required, still less that the Parliament’s consent is required. That will not do. The power in section 5 must be amended so that it may be exercised only after the Presiding Officer, the Electoral Commission and the convener of the EMB have consented to its being exercised.

In addition, that order-making power must be further amended to ensure that no such power can be exercised other than with the assent of the Parliament—that is, it must be subject to the affirmative procedure.

What goes for section 5 must go also for section 8. As with the power to provide for an all-postal ballot, so too must the power to provide for polling on multiple days be constrained, both substantively and procedurally. The power should be exercisable only where it is shown to be necessary because polling cannot safely take place on a single day. Further, the power should be exercisable only with the Presiding Officer’s consent, and with the consent of the Electoral Commission and the convener of the Electoral Management Board. Finally, the power must be subject to the affirmative procedure.

Those checks on ministerial rule making are essential. They are fair, reasonable, proportionate and necessary checks that we require to see in place to satisfy not only ourselves but, which is much more important, the voting public that the next election to the Parliament meets the highest standards of fairness and voting integrity. Nothing should allow us to compromise those standards—not even Covid.

We will support the general principles of the bill at decision time tonight, but our support is conditional. Sections 5 and 8 will need to be amended, as I have set out. The integrity of the voting system is too precious to risk. I know that Graeme Dey agrees with that, and I look forward to working with him, and with all the parties in the Parliament, to fix the bill’s defects at stage 2.

16:16  



Graeme Dey

The debate has been a thoughtful one, and I thank members for their contributions. I have a lot of ground to cover, so I will move straight on to responding to as many of the points as possible.

I will start with Adam Tomkins. I am happy to consider his ask for clarity around the circumstances in which the power in section 5 would be used, but I am disappointed that he seemed to miss my earlier comments that I am prepared to lodge an amendment that goes beyond the ask of the DPLR Committee and which takes account of the affirmative procedure.

Mr Tomkins talked about taking a similar approach to section 8. Earlier, I indicated to John Scott that I am happy to discuss that with him. However, I caution that the circumstances under which the power in section 8 might have to be used might be more pressing and the measures might be more immediately needed, so, if we did that, we would have to be careful about the nature of the procedure that was to be followed.

A number of members talked about the need to communicate change to the electors. I agree with them on that, so I will outline what we are doing on that in a bit of detail. We are currently working with partners—the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Management Board and, within that, electoral registration officers—to provide consistent and co-ordinated communications to electors. That will include informing vulnerable or higher-risk groups about how to apply for alternative voting methods. The Electoral Commission has partnered with the Care Inspectorate to send out communications to all registered care providers in Scotland about supporting residents to register and to apply for a postal vote.

The commission is also working with Age Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland and other voluntary sector organisations to reach out to groups such as older people’s forums and to get the information to them. However, I do not accept the premise, which I think Anas Sarwar advanced, that if we do all that work early enough, we might be able to restore the existing deadline for postal votes. I want to be clear that the action that we are proposing is based on firm advice from the electoral professionals. We can talk about their being unambitious or conservative, but we need to be guided by them. The measures are all about smoothing a peak and avoiding a situation in which we get too close—[Interruption.] I will not take an intervention. I would rather press on, if I may, because I have a lot to cover.

The measures are about avoiding a situation where there is a surge so close to the election that it becomes difficult or impossible for the electoral authorities to process the ballot packs and get them out. We want to ensure that people do not miss out on their vote if they have applied for a postal vote. The answer is not about simply throwing more resource at the issue—we have had conversations about that with the electoral authorities. [Interruption.] If the member does not mind, I need to press on.

As I said, we cannot risk a situation in which postal votes become problematic. As Neil Findlay acknowledged, we have talked a lot about doubling the number of postal votes, but he is right that the resourcing will be for between 40 and 50 per cent of votes being postal ones. If, as we progress, we get to a situation in which it becomes apparent that those numbers will be exceeded, as some people have indicated might happen, of course we will consider providing additional resource earlier on, where that is appropriate.

Neil Findlay

Will the minister take an intervention on that point?

Graeme Dey

I am sorry, but I want to be fair to everybody in the points that I cover.

On the subject of postal vote costs, a substantial degree of assistance is already provided to people who vote by post. Each postal vote is already cast at no cost to the voter, through the use of a first-class addressed envelope that is supplied by the returning officer. In relation to electoral registration, EROs currently enclose a prepaid envelope with any invitation to register and with subsequent reminders. In addition, EROs issue prepaid envelopes with all postal vote application forms that they send out. Therefore, every voter who engages with a local ERO is covered. The only time that a voter would face such costs would be if they downloaded a form from the Electoral Commission’s website, completed it and sent it in, or if a political party issued a postal vote form to them.

The interaction between the local ERO and the local voter is key. That is where we come to the suggestion—which I know is well intended—about a national freepost address. I have some questions about that. Who would handle the applications? Who would get the postal vote forms out to the relevant ERO? The last thing that we can afford is to have a centralised system in which it would be possible—I say “possible”—for someone who has sought a postal vote to miss out, because the request does not get passed on in time or to the right place. As we know, such things can happen.

With regard to Anas Sarwar’s point about £3 million for EROs, I am pleased to say that there is no budget gap. The £3 million is the sum that the EROs originally asked for up front. The remaining money is there to match any actual spend. Beyond that, we have committed that if further evidenced costs arise, we will engage on those.

Patrick Harvie made a plea about not bringing forward the postal vote deadline any further. In fact, the provision in the bill would allow it only to be moved closer to polling day. As I said earlier, we have the ambition to raise the postal vote element of the election up to around 50 per cent. As others have pointed out, in 2016 the actual turnout was 55 per cent. We are showing ambition by catering for the hope that there will be a bigger-than-usual turnout in May’s election.

Stuart McMillan touched on the issue of the plea for the election, if it needs to be held on more than one day, to be held on successive days. That is the ask of the EMB—it has been very clear on that—and I am very sympathetic to it.

Bill Kidd talked about the purdah period. The Scottish Government will be subject to the usual purdah restrictions; in the same way, MSPs will operate in the way that they would normally have done. Just because the period is termed an “election recess”, it is, in effect, a dissolution period, save for the ability to come back and vote, if necessary. However, I make it clear to members that the Parliamentary Bureau has been considering how, if the pandemic heightens and the Scottish Government still has to make significant decisions about levels, the Parliament will scrutinise those. That conversation is continuing, but that is the only dispensation—Miles Briggs is aware of this—from the approach that we are talking about.

I sincerely apologise to members whose points I have not responded to.

I am pleased that, even though the bill has had to be introduced and dealt with at an accelerated pace, it has attracted wide-ranging support from stakeholders and, generally, from the chamber today. I hope that members will join me in supporting the principles of this important and necessary bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the debate on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill. I ask anyone who is moving about or leaving the chamber to take care to maintain social distancing.

Vote at Stage 1

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

Vote at Stage 1 transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The first question is, that motion S5M-23648, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill at stage 1, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

The Presiding Officer

The next question is, that motion S5M-23646, in the name of Jeane Freeman, on the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill, be agreed to. As the motion is on a bill, we must move to a vote.

I ask members to refresh their voting screens. The question is—[Interruption.] I will give members a few more seconds. If members refresh their screens, we will wait a moment. When I put the vote, that might change the screens, so we will try that.

The question is, that motion S5M-23646, in the name of Jeane Freeman, on the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill, be agreed to. I ask members to vote now. If they have any difficulty at this stage, I ask them to raise their hand to attract the attention of the information technology team, or raise an inquiry online.

The vote is closed. If any member thinks that they were not able to exercise their vote, please let me know.

For

Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)
Adamson, Clare (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Allan, Dr Alasdair (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Baillie, Jackie (Dumbarton) (Lab)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Balfour, Jeremy (Lothian) (Con)
Ballantyne, Michelle (South Scotland) (Ind)
Beamish, Claudia (South Scotland) (Lab)
Beattie, Colin (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)
Bibby, Neil (West Scotland) (Lab)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Cameron, Donald (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Campbell, Aileen (Clydesdale) (SNP)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Carson, Finlay (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)
Chapman, Peter (North East Scotland) (Con)
Coffey, Willie (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)
Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Crawford, Bruce (Stirling) (SNP)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Denham, Ash (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dornan, James (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Fee, Mary (West Scotland) (Lab)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Finnie, John (Highlands and Islands) (Green)
FitzPatrick, Joe (Dundee City West) (SNP)
Forbes, Kate (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)
Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Freeman, Jeane (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)
Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Golden, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Grahame, Christine (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)
Grant, Rhoda (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Greer, Ross (West Scotland) (Green)
Griffin, Mark (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Hamilton, Rachael (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)
Harper, Emma (South Scotland) (SNP)
Harris, Alison (Central Scotland) (Con)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Hyslop, Fiona (Linlithgow) (SNP)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Lamont, Johann (Glasgow) (Lab)
Lennon, Monica (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)
Lockhart, Dean (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
MacDonald, Gordon (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)
Macdonald, Lewis (North East Scotland) (Lab)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
Macpherson, Ben (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Marra, Jenny (North East Scotland) (Lab)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Mason, Tom (North East Scotland) (Con)
Matheson, Michael (Falkirk West) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
McArthur, Liam (Orkney Islands) (LD)
McDonald, Mark (Aberdeen Donside) (Ind)
McKee, Ivan (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow) (Lab)
Mitchell, Margaret (Central Scotland) (Con)
Mountain, Edward (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
Neil, Alex (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)
Paterson, Gil (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)
Robison, Shona (Dundee City East) (SNP)
Ross, Gail (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)
Rowley, Alex (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Ruskell, Mark (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)
Russell, Michael (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Scott, John (Ayr) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Smith, Elaine (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Somerville, Shirley-Anne (Dunfermline) (SNP)
Stevenson, Stewart (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Stewart, Kevin (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)
Swinney, John (Perthshire North) (SNP)
Todd, Maree (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Wells, Annie (Glasgow) (Con)
Wheelhouse, Paul (South Scotland) (SNP)
White, Sandra (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)
Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
Wishart, Beatrice (Shetland Islands) (LD)
Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)

The Presiding Officer

The result of the division on motion S5M-23646, in the name of Jeane Freeman, on the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill, is: For 122, Against 0, Abstentions 0.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill be passed.

The Presiding Officer

The Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill is passed. [Applause.]

The final question is, that motion S5M-23466, in the name of Kate Forbes, on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill financial resolution, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament, for the purposes of any Act of the Scottish Parliament resulting from the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, agrees to any expenditure of a kind referred to in Rule 9.12.3(b) of the Parliament’s Standing Orders arising in consequence of the Act.

Meeting closed at 18:56.  



Stage 2 - Changes to detail 

MSPs can propose changes to the Bill. The changes are considered and then voted on by the committee.

Changes to the Bill

MSPs can propose changes to a Bill  these are called 'amendments'. The changes are considered then voted on by the lead committee.


The lists of proposed changes are known as a 'marshalled list'. There's a separate list for each week that the committee is looking at proposed changes.


The 'groupings' document groups amendments together based on their subject matter. It shows the order in which the amendments will be debated by the committee and in the Chamber. This is to avoid repetition in the debates.

How is it decided whether the changes go into the Bill?

When MSPs want to make a change to a Bill, they propose an 'amendment'. This sets out the changes they want to make to a specific part of the Bill.


The group of MSPs that is examining the Bill (lead committee) votes on whether it thinks each amendment should be accepted or not.


Depending on the number of amendments, this can be done during one or more meetings.

First meeting on amendments

Documents with the amendments considered at the meeting held on 17 December 2020.

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

First meeting on amendments transcript

The Convener (Bill Kidd)

I welcome members to the 25th meeting of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee in 2020. Our first item is stage 2 proceedings on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

I welcome Graeme Dey, Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, and his accompanying officials. I highlight the fact that officials are not permitted to speak on record during the formal proceedings. I also welcome Anas Sarwar and Adam Tomkins, who have lodged amendments to the bill and are attending the meeting remotely.

Everyone should have a copy of the bill as introduced, the marshalled list of amendments, which sets out the amendments in the order in which they will be disposed of, and the groupings.

Given that this is a hybrid meeting, I emphasise that voting in divisions will be by show of hands. It is important that members keep their hands clearly raised until the clerks have recorded their votes.

I also wish to say at the outset that, if we have any tied votes on any amendments, I will, as convener, vote as I voted in the division. I will do that consistently throughout the process. I hope that that is all clear to everybody.

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.

Section 3—Closing date for application to vote by post or amend existing absent vote arrangements

The Convener

We come to the first group, on the deadline for application for postal votes. Amendment 18, in the name of Anas Sarwar, is the only amendment in the group.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Good morning, convener, and good morning to the committee. Thank you for your time this morning.

At the outset, I emphasise what I said in the stage 1 debate: I want us to have consensus on this bill. It is important for the public message that the political parties represented in the Parliament are all on the same page regarding the conduct of the election.

I realise that I have a number of amendments this morning, and I can promise you brevity—I will be to the point, as I do not want to hold up the committee for any longer than necessary.

Amendment 18 is a simple one. In the stage 1 debate last week, many colleagues said that it felt counterintuitive that we were encouraging or expecting more people to sign up for postal votes at the same time as bringing the deadline forward by two weeks. My amendment is intended to tease out more detail about the rationale behind bringing that deadline forward, given that that is counterintuitive and that we expect more applications. The danger is that a late surge of applications could have the opposite effect, whereby people are disenfranchised and unable to get their postal vote, rather than having an overrun electoral registration officer service.

Alongside that, it is important to emphasise that there should be adequate resourcing for EROs. I recognise that that comes under a separate amendment, so I will come to that in more detail later.

I come to my final point on this amendment before we open it up for discussion. There is a mitigation here: to avoid a late flood we should have an early public information campaign. I am keen to hear from the minister how early we can have such a campaign and what the scope of it may be. I realise that some of that detail is contained in a later amendment, but I think it is connected to this amendment. How early will that public information campaign be, and how soon will the booklets go out to households? Those things could mitigate the earlier deadline. In an ideal world, the campaign should start if not at the end of January then at least at the beginning of February, so that there can be an early onset. I look forward to the discussion.

I move amendment 18.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

Anas Sarwar is raising issues on which many of us have expressed concern. However, it would be more consistent with the evidence that we took at stage 1 for such concerns to be addressed by scaling up capacity for postal vote registration.

The evidence at stage 1 did not necessarily tend towards the removal of section 3. In closing the debate on the amendment, perhaps Anas Sarwar could reflect on whether the way to address the concerns is to continue to put pressure on all relevant organisations by saying that even an upper estimate of a 40 per cent take-up of postal voting might not be enough and that we need to prepare for greater capacity, rather than removing the provision from the bill.

Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

I have a similar concern. We are told that we are looking at a take-up of under 40 per cent and that we are preparing for take-up of 50 per cent. My concern is that, if we overpublicise postal voting, we might put fear in people’s minds that there are dangers involved in turning up to vote. What is the critical mass? We are told that it would take six months to plan and put in place the mechanisms for an all-postal ballot. I understand that that is why we will remain as MSPs until the day before the election—so that the Parliament can vote in the case of an emergency. I ask the Government to tell us what the critical number is. Does it become unmanageable at 55 per cent or at 60 per cent? I do not know, and I have not asked that question before, but I have been looking for that information and I cannot find it.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I have real concerns about that. I recognise some of the points that have been made, and I appreciate, to some extent, where Anas Sarwar is coming from. The resource issues have come up repeatedly during our evidence taking. However, the concern was also expressed that there will be applications right up to the deadline, whatever the deadline is, and it is a question of whether that volume is manageable. If section 3 were removed, would we simply create a situation where there was a huge volume of applications coming in at a late stage and a shorter period in which to process and verify them? I would be interested to hear Anas Sarwar and the minister address that in their contributions, because the potential to cause a backlog at a very late stage, which could cause delays or disenfranchise people, is a concern.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I understand why we have a deadline for postal vote applications. It is not just about checking that the postal vote application is correct but ensuring that ballots are returned as early as possible, because more verification and scrutiny is done when the ballots are returned, and we do not want to have to wait for results because we are waiting for postal ballots. During the stage 1 debate, I asked the minister—he did not have time to give me an answer—whether we can ensure in the advice that is sent out that, as far as possible, people can get votes right up to the normal deadline and that nobody is disenfranchised by that two-week period. I know that people can arrange a proxy vote until later anyway.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

Thank you, convener. I agree with Patrick Harvie on this. Two issues are being conflated, and section 3 should remain, for the reasons that we heard in evidence from experts about the need for the early deadline..

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

The conservative nature of what is being said—that we simply cannot organise this, it is all so difficult and we do not have the resources—is depressing. A couple of years ago, the Greeks organised two referendums in a fortnight. We knew that an election was coming and that Covid would potentially pose these problems, yet we are sitting here at the very last gasp still debating how we can maximise the number of people participating in the election.

Gil Paterson suggests that if we overpromote postal voting people will be afraid to turn out, but people will be afraid to turn out anyway because we are in the middle of a Covid crisis. We are not promoting people not participating in the normal way of voting at any other time; we are not in normal times, but in extraordinary times. More people than ever will want to exercise postal votes and we should do everything possible to ensure that we enable them to do that as effectively as we can.

The Convener

Jamie Halcro Johnston can come in quickly—I was prompted by hearing Neil Findlay say that people were being conservative at the moment.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I am not sure whether we can intervene at this stage. I am sure that the member will recognise that there will be potential bumps along the road, whatever resources are in place. For example, there could be outbreaks of coronavirus or a large number of proxy votes could be needed.

The idea of bringing the deadline forward is to allow there to be capacity in the system. I am sure that the member would agree that we do not want to get into a situation where the same people are having to administer postal votes and deal with late proxies, as well as a number of other things that always come up during elections. We ought to be concerned about that when we are deciding on amendment 18.

The Convener

Would the minister like to respond?

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Yes. There is a lot to respond to.

What we have heard is an illustration of why amendment 18 is useful in so far as it provokes discussion. As you might imagine, we are opposed to the amendment. I will go through our reasons for that and I will then respond to the points that members have made.

I understand why reducing the amount of time in which people can apply for a postal vote has attracted attention. It is counterintuitive when we are talking about aiming to significantly increase postal voting from 18 per cent of the electorate to 40 or even 50 per cent. I say to Mr Findlay that that figure is worth reflecting on—I would contend that we are hardly being conservative in our ambitions with that planned increase.

However, by moving the deadline from 20 April to 6 April, section 3 of the bill makes a change that was directly requested by electoral professionals. Indeed, it is probably one of the key changes in the bill from their perspective, given that electoral registration officers will have to process around 900,000 new applications to achieve that increase to 40 per cent. Processing postal vote applications poses a challenge for EROs ahead of any polling day, with many people choosing to apply on or close to the application deadline.

Amendment 18 risks it not being possible to process the expected increase in applications. Electoral professionals have been clear that that would risk some people effectively losing their vote. While in-person voting would remain an option for those individuals, if voters have chosen to apply to vote by post, it is safe to assume that they either cannot or do not want to vote in person.

From my perspective, it would be unacceptable if those who have applied for a postal vote by the application deadline were denied their vote because it could not be processed in time. It would impinge on the legitimacy of the election. Rather than increasing participation, amendment 18 could end up depriving people of their vote if they cannot vote in person or by proxy, which I know is not what Mr Sarwar wants.

Electoral professionals have also made it clear that that is not a problem that can be resolved by resources alone, and the committee took evidence to that effect. We have already agreed an initial allocation of £3 million to assist EROs with that and further funding will be made available as actual costs are incurred. I will expand on that in a second, if I may.

It is a question of training, managing systems and having the necessary expertise in place. That takes time; we need to give the experts in our electoral community the time that they need to do their jobs. That means building in resilience to ensure that all the postal vote applications can be processed and postal votes issued in time.

Supporting amendment 18 would ignore the expert advice that we have received and open us up to a risky course of action that could prevent some voters from voting, which is unthinkable.

09:45  



I will respond to some of the points that have been made. Mr Sarwar is correct that the mitigation that he seeks is to be found in early information campaigns. From my perspective, those need to be delivered locally, so that the interaction is between local EROs and electors.

As members appreciate, this is an expedited bill and we are moving through it quickly. We are looking to have a meeting at the beginning of next week with the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland to tease out exactly what is happening on the ground with regard to those campaigns, although, obviously, we have a broad idea. At the moment, in some constituencies, there is already a higher than average uptake of postal votes. In some constituencies, within the £3 million that is available to them, the EROs have already committed to localised campaigns. We will actively encourage others among the 15 EROs to do just that, using whatever means they feel appropriate. A £2 million budget is sitting there and the Government is committed to putting more money into that if it is needed. That interaction between the EROs and the local electorate is pivotal, with campaigns tailored to local circumstances. I will be happy to report back to members at stage 3 about how we have progressed that.

Maureen Watt talked about processing close to the deadline. In 2016, 3 per cent of postal votes were not counted because of issues that were identified in the ratification process. Therefore, there is an issue there, which is one of the things that has fed into the bill. We need to give maximum opportunity to the electoral authorities to maximise the chance of postal votes being deemed valid.

With regard to Patrick Harvie’s point about capacity, the capacity that is provided for at the moment is not just for 40 per cent; it allows for a surge to 50 per cent. I think that the committee received evidence from Pete Wildman about that. We have a capacity to handle 40 per cent, with a bit of leeway in the final couple of weeks up to the deadline, in case of a significant surge, such as 40 per cent going up to 50 per cent.

Therefore, I give the assurance that Anas Sarwar was seeking. We can counter the downside of an earlier deadline by getting that information out earlier and encouraging a smooth but significant uptake of postal votes if people feel that they need them.

The Convener

I call Anas Sarwar to wind up and press or withdraw amendment 18.

Anas Sarwar

I will pick up on a few points. I think that Neil Findlay is right that it seems as if we have a “can’t do” attitude to some of that, rather than a “can do” attitude. It is important that we increase the awareness that people can use their postal vote but we should also make it easier to vote. There are examples from other parts of the world where they make their processes easier and smoother and increase the time for the electorate to vote rather than decreasing the time. Again, I emphasise the counterintuitive nature of what we are discussing.

I have a few things to add. One is that we need much clearer reassurance about when the public information campaign will start. If it is to be successful, it has to start very early. I do not think that there is any risk of overpublicising the ability to use a postal vote. If we are asking people to think twice, three, four or five times before they go to a local shop, restaurant or supermarket, people will naturally think three, four or five times about whether they go to the local polling station, so that argument does not hold water.

It is important that the EROs have the necessary scale and capacity. We should not be saying that there is a risk of disenfranchising the electorate because EROs might not be adequately trained or resourced. We have a responsibility to protect our democracy by ensuring that they are adequately resourced. We must also ensure that we process applications early.

In the spirit of consensus, I will not press the amendment. However, we need clarification ahead of stage 3 about when, specifically, the public information campaign will start, what it will include and what additional resources will be provided to local EROs for them to process the applications. If we cannot get that ahead of stage 3, I may well have to lodge an amendment similar to amendment 18 again at stage 3. I hope that, in a spirit of consensus, we can work together to reach a reasonable resolution.

Amendment 18, by agreement, withdrawn.

Section 3 agreed to.

Section 4—Report on uptake of postal voting at closing date

The Convener

Amendment 1, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 2, 3, 19 and 20.

Graeme Dey

Section 4 sets out the requirements for the report that the Scottish ministers are obliged to publish after the new deadline for postal vote applications. The report is intended to outline the numbers of voters in Scotland who have registered for a postal vote or who have an application for a postal vote pending. The report will be made at a time when registration officers will be extremely busy processing the expected increase in postal vote applications. Although it is vital that we have data on progress with postal voting levels, we need to ensure that collating data for the report under section 4 does not distract registration officers from that processing task. The Government amendments in the group seek to achieve that by responding to concerns raised by registration officers.

Amendment 1 changes the reference to 7 April in section 4(1) to reflect that the figures used in the preparation of the report will be the most current information available, but not necessarily the exact figures as at that date.

The purpose of the report is to indicate the number of voters who are likely to be registered for postal votes at the election. Amendment 2 makes some changes to the information that is required to be set out in the report, to ensure that the picture is as clear as possible. Requiring that the report state the total number of voters registered to vote at the election provides context to the other figures. That detail, alongside the number of postal votes granted, allows for the calculation of the percentage of postal votes already granted and the maximum number that could be granted. Some pending applications will be duplicates or will be rejected for other reasons.

Amendment 3 is a minor change to reflect the fact that the report will be based on the information that is available at 7 April—preparation of the report cannot begin until after that date.

Turning to the other amendments in this group, I note that Mr Sarwar and Mr Findlay also seek to amend the report that is outlined in section 4. Although I sympathise with their intentions, I am afraid that I cannot support amendments 19 and 20.

The principle behind amendment 19 is laudable, but the idea requires further refinement. It is not clear from the amendment whether the intention is for the report to contain detail on the additional resources provided by the Scottish Government, and it is rather confusing to be focused on resources that are provided specifically as at 7 April 2021, rather than more generally. However, I recognise the merit of having clear information on resourcing, and in the spirit of co-operation and consensus that Mr Sarwar has emphasised, I ask him not to move amendment 19 on the understanding that I will prepare or work with him on a similar amendment for stage 3.

Mr Findlay’s amendment 20 is more problematic. Electoral professionals advise that the number of people “entitled” to vote at the election would be extremely difficult to determine accurately. My amendment 2 responds to that, by referring to “registered” persons instead. Although the Government would compile the report, gathering the data would have to be undertaken by EROs. For example, they would have to investigate instances of people who have not yet been registered to vote. I am sure that members will agree that placing additional demands on EROs’ time would not be a welcome move for the May 2021 election. They must be allowed to focus on registering voters, especially given the expected increase in postal vote applications.

I understand Mr Findlay’s intent, but we have already collaborated with stakeholders to carefully craft amendment 2, which will give us valuable illustrative data on voter numbers without causing unnecessary additional work. That will include sufficient data to allow the calculation of numbers of registered voters who have not applied for a postal vote. Conversely, amendment 20 would require EROs to down tools at a time when they should be allowed to get on with the task of registration.

I hope that colleagues will support amendments 1, 2 and 3. I ask Mr Sarwar not to move amendment 19, and to work with me on a suitable stage 3 alternative. I ask Mr Findlay not to move amendment 20. I urge members not to support either of those amendments if they are moved.

I move amendment 1.

Anas Sarwar

I am happy to work with the minister on his suggested reworking of amendment 19 for stage 3. I think—and hope—that we both want the same outcome from the amendment.

Amendment 19 was designed purely to seek that a plan be published and made available on the amount of resource and funding that will be available to EROs for the costs of additional postal voting, including the costs of public information about and the processing of postal votes. However, I take the minister’s point. I am happy not to move amendment 19 and to work with him on a suitable amendment for stage 3.

Neil Findlay

Amendment 20 would require ministers to report on the number of electors who have not applied for a postal vote by 7 April 2021, which is a month before the election. It would mean that ministers must report on the number of persons who are entitled to vote at the election; the number of those who have been granted a postal vote for that election; the number of pending applications for a postal vote; and the number who have not applied for a postal vote. That would allow electoral registration officers to plan for safe voting, including the safe provision of personal protective equipment and any other health and safety materials and, if there were concerns about turnout, further promotion of the election and of the reasons why voting will be safe.

The inclusion of the number of voters who have not applied for a postal vote would show the number of potential voters on the day. That would give organisers an idea of the capacity issues that they might face. The amendment involves the straightforward provision of a number and should not be onerous in any way.

Patrick Harvie

I am pleased that the Government seems willing to work with Anas Sarwar on a replacement for his amendment 19. When I read the amendment, its intention seemed reasonable, although I was not clear about what resources it referred to. Greater definition might be beneficial at stage 3.

On Neil Findlay’s amendment 20, I am still a little unclear as to why information on the number of electors who have not applied for a postal vote would be relevant and needed. Electoral administrators will never be able to know in advance precisely how many people are going to turn up to vote in person. Turnout is a far bigger variable—a far bigger unknown—than the number of people who have not applied for a postal vote. There will always be that level of uncertainty about how many people are going to turn up to vote in person, and I am not entirely clear why the information sought by amendment 20 would be relevant and of use.

The Convener

I ask the minister to wind up.

Graeme Dey

First, I thank Anas Sarwar for his constructive approach on amendment 19.

The point has been made that the number of electors—the people who are registered to vote—is a bit of a movable feast. Patrick Harvie is correct about that.

To summarise, my amendments will deliver pretty similar outcomes to those that Neil Findlay is seeking, but in a way that is more practical and pragmatic and is in keeping with what is being asked of the electoral professionals.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendment 2 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

10:00  



Amendment 19 not moved.

Amendment 20 moved—[Neil Findlay].

The Convener

The question is, that amendment 20 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Convener

There will be a division.

For

Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)

Against

Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Paterson, Gil (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)
Scott, John (Ayr) (Con)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The Convener

The result of the division is: For 1, Against 6, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 20 disagreed to.

Amendment 3 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 4, as amended, agreed to.

After section 4

The Convener

Amendment 21, on the return of postal vote to be free of charge, is in a group on its own.

Anas Sarwar

Amendment 21 is simple. It connects to what I said at the outset of our discussion this morning. The bill cannot simply be about raising awareness of the ability of people to vote by post; it also needs to be about making it easier for people to apply to vote by post.

I recognise and accept that, when an ERO sends out an application form, it includes a freepost return mechanism. However, my understanding from the Government and the minister is that the Electoral Commission will be sending a booklet to every household in the country that tells people about their ability to vote by post. Again, I think that it is counterintuitive that we would send that booklet to every household but not provide them in that mailing with the ability to vote directly. If we are sending every household a booklet, surely we should also be sending every household, with that booklet, an application to vote by post, a link to where they can get more applications and a free return mechanism for the application. If we fail to do that, we will be adding a layer of process instead of reducing layers of process.

I will tell you what I mean by that. In political campaigns, we have probably all had a response mechanism built into the communications that we have had with the electorate, but there will be no response mechanism built in with the booklets. When someone gets a booklet, instead of them reading it, recognising that they can vote by post, completing the form and sending it straight back in, we will have to hope that they, one, open the envelope; two, read the booklet; three, get to the bit where it tells them the information about their local ERO; four, go to the website of the ERO’s office, if they have access to the internet at the time; five, find on that website how they can email the ERO; six, send the email to the ERO; seven, receive a mailing from the ERO; eight, open the mailing from the ERO; nine, read the mailing from the ERO; and ten, return the postal application to the ERO. All that adds complication and adds to process, instead of making it easier.

Conversely, people can go to the website and find the ERO’s phone number and phone it. If they do so, they have to hope that the ERO answers the call—that might be difficult for the ERO to do, given the number of people we think might be trying to make contact. They might be on hold for a long time and then they will have to go through the process of the ERO responding to them with the application.

The third option that someone has when they go to the ERO’s website involves printing off the form themselves, going out to get a stamp and an envelope, putting the application form in the envelope and posting it off, which means that they have to pay to get the right to vote in the election.

All that is, simply, counterintuitive when we are trying to make it easier for people to vote. If they are getting a booklet through the post anyway, why not include an application form in that booklet, as well as a mechanism for them to respond? I accept that that means that applications will be sent much earlier to one central place, if we decide to do one national mailing, along with the booklets, rather than going by local authority areas. However, it could be argued that that is why we are bringing the deadline forward by two weeks, because that gives us the ability to take the required actions early enough to sort out the postal votes.

Again, we can talk up the awareness campaign, but the issue is not just about making people more aware; it is about making it easier for people to exercise their democratic right, too. That is why I hope that we can get reassurance on those points from the minister and get support for my proposals.

The freepost mechanism that I am talking about does not represent a massive cost to the electorate. I understand the dangers of a freepost mechanism. I have a freepost mechanism and, sometimes, I get unpopular things through it. However, that is not a reason to disenfranchise the entire electorate.

Minister, I encourage you to consider my proposal carefully, and to ensure that that booklet goes out as early as possible. We are relying on every member of the electorate being fully informed. We must be honest: most of the electorate are not fully informed most of the time, and they are certainly not fully informed about the process that we are going through right now. We must make things as easy as possible for people. When they get that booklet, they must be encouraged to open it and it must then be easy for them to take the action that is required in order for them to exercise their democratic rights.

I move amendment 21.

Patrick Harvie

I feel a little bit the same about this amendment as I felt about Anas Sarwar’s amendment 19, in that it raises important issues and is addressing something that we should address, but I am not entirely clear that it provides the way to achieve that.

We should be looking to reduce as much as possible any barriers in terms of cost and difficulty to people being able to exercise their vote, including a postal vote. The Government therefore needs to respond in a constructive way to the amendment. I do not know whether that means agreeing to the amendment or responding in a different way. I am interested to hear what the minister has to say about that.

Anas Sarwar’s argument that the booklet from the Electoral Commission is the way to deliver the mechanism by which people can exercise their democratic rights, whether that involves an application form, a freepost envelope or something else, is a good one. However, the amendment is about the Scottish ministers making provision, so I am not entirely sure that it would achieve the solution that he has sketched out.

I want us to achieve what Anas Sarwar is asking us to achieve, but I am not quite clear that this amendment is the way to do that. I would like to hear something substantial from the minister about what he intends to do either by way of an alternative amendment at stage 3 or by way of other action that does not require a change in the bill.

Neil Findlay

This is a test of how serious we are about opening up voting to as many people as possible. Anas Sarwar eloquently explained all the steps that someone must go through to get a postal vote, and all the barriers that there are to that. His proposal would give us a cost-effective way of giving every voter the material that they need to register for a vote. It would be straightforward and simple, with no financial barrier. For the life of me, I do not know why anyone would oppose such a move.

The amendment is a genuine test. We can offer up a lot of warm words and rhetoric about our desire to see more people voting at elections and taking up the option of a postal vote, or we can take the opportunity to do something practical and pragmatic about it. I appeal to members to support the amendment.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I recognise some of the points that Anas Sarwar made, but I am still slightly unconvinced. He highlighted quite a long list of barriers, but I am not sure how the amendment would change things, certainly in some of those cases.

I am concerned that the amendment would put the onus on the Scottish ministers. To some extent, I agree with what Patrick Harvie said. It would be interesting to hear from the minister whether he can do some more work with Anas Sarwar to bring back an amendment that is more suitable or will have slightly more of an impact. As I said, I have concerns about the amendment at this stage.

Graeme Dey

Amendment 21, in the name of Anas Sarwar, seeks to create a new section that would place a duty on the Scottish ministers to

“make ... provision ... to ensure that postal voting in relation to the 2021 election is conducted at no ... cost to the voter.”

That would include

“in particular ... the provision of freepost envelopes”.

The Scottish Government does not support the amendment; it is a solution in search of a problem. As I explained to the committee in my letter of 26 November,

“Each postal vote is already cast at no cost to the individual voter, using a first class”

addressed

“Envelope ... supplied by the Returning Officer.”

The parliamentary election rules require that the returning officer includes such an envelope in each voting pack unless it is sent outside the United Kingdom.

I appreciate that Mr Sarwar may be seeking to make the application process free in every case, but that is not the effect of the amendment. In any event, electoral registration officers have already committed to issuing first-class addressed envelopes with all postal vote application forms that they send out ahead of the May election. The cost of that will be met from the £3 million of additional funding that has been allocated—

Neil Findlay

Will the minister take an intervention?

The Convener

I do not think that we have time. Everybody has had a chance to speak. I am sorry, but we have to press on.

Neil Findlay

I will be very quick, convener.

The Convener

Okay—make it very short, please.

Neil Findlay

Does the minister accept that, in order to contact the electoral registration officer, many people write to them, and that requires money?

Graeme Dey

I do not accept at all that people would write to the ERO, Mr Findlay. There are various means of contact. I will come on to that issue, because I think that you slightly misunderstand the processes that are followed.

As I said, the cost will be met from the £3 million of additional funding that is allocated to address the anticipated increase in postal voting. As a result, all those who obtain an application form directly from an ERO will avoid postage costs.

It should also be noted that, as a result of the recent reforms to the annual canvassing process, voters can now send in their applications by email. They can download the form and complete it, and then scan or photograph it and send it in with their signature on it.

I consider that encouraging members of the public to apply for a postal vote via a registration officer is the best option. It would certainly be preferable to establishing separate freepost addresses for each individual registration office.

I want to pick up on a couple of points that have been made. A number of members highlighted the fact that the booklet comes from the Electoral Commission. We are seeking to engage with the Electoral Commission on the timing of the booklet, and to request that the commission provides in the booklet the contact details for local EROs, including details of the opportunity to download a form or whatever. That dialogue is on-going.

I do not want to get into the territory, as Anas Sarwar did, of listing a whole range of difficulties, but a number of difficulties would arise from the approach that he proposes. This may seem to be a small difficulty, but it is an example. If we were to send out a postal vote form in the booklet, we would be dependent largely on when the booklet went out. We would not want to create a surge late in the day; we are currently in discussions with the Electoral Commission on the timing of the booklet. Another point is that, if only one form was sent out, other members of a household would then be required to get in touch with the ERO.

There is also a risk of duplication. People might have applied for a form and not heard back from their local EROs. They might then think that they might as well send it in again, which creates further challenges for EROs in the process.

I therefore ask Anas Sarwar not to press amendment 21 and, if he does press it, I urge the committee not to support it.

10:15  



The Convener

I think that we gave that a good run. I call Anas Sarwar to wind up and say whether he wishes to press or withdraw amendment 21.

Anas Sarwar

I am disappointed by the minister’s response. It is unfortunate that he talked about a solution in search of a problem; in fact, there is a problem, and I am in search of a solution. I would have hoped that the minister would be helpful in trying to find that solution rather than simply come with a snappy soundbite.

I think that other members perhaps get the point that I am trying to make. I am happy to accept the point that Patrick Harvie made that the amendment as drafted may not be the solution to the problem that I am raising. I would have hoped that the minister would have agreed to work with us to try and find an amendment that would work at stage 3.

Before I make a decision on whether to press the amendment, if the minister is not willing to find common ground about how we can come together on either a stage 3 amendment or a practical solution that does not a require an amendment, I urge Patrick Harvie and Jamie Halcro Johnston to work with us on behalf of the other parties to find a solution to what I think is a problem.

Although we are sending out a booklet to every household, how many of us read the booklets that come through our household doors? How many of the electorate are going to read that booklet page for page and go and find out which of the 32 local authorities and 32 listed phone numbers and email addresses in a wider booklet relate to them?

That goes back to Neil Findlay’s point about whether we are serious about this. If we are, we have to find out how we make it easier for people to apply to vote by post and not simply how we make them more aware of how they apply to vote by post. If we are spending the money to post a booklet to every single household in the country, why would we not take the opportunity, in that very mailing, to give people the application form?

I do not buy the argument about duplicate applications. People will know if they have a postal vote. If there is the odd duplicate application, people can be informed of that fact. There might be duplicate applications from people phoning the EROs to double check whether they have a postal vote.

I also do not accept the point about single-person households. For example, more than 40 per cent of households in Glasgow are single-person households. Someone can apply and then also go on to see whether they want additional application forms.

As I said, before I decide whether to press the amendment, Patrick Harvie and Jamie Halcro Johnston should feel free to intervene to say whether they are willing to work with us to find a solution to the problem, in the form of either an amendment or a practical exercise, because I would hope that we want the same thing here.

The Convener

As Patrick Harvie is willing to intervene, I invite him to speak. However, it will have to be quite a short intervention.

Patrick Harvie

Very briefly, I am happy to reflect on the whole discussion, including the comments of Anas Sarwar and the minister, to see whether there are other opportunities to address the issue, either at stage 3 or in another way. There are substantial issues here, and we should all be open to discussing them and trying to find a solution.

The Convener

As we have allowed Patrick in, we had better let Jamie in as well, as he was also mentioned.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Very briefly, I take the points that have been made during the discussion, but I cannot support the amendment as it is at the moment. We will review our position at stage 3 if there is further discussion between Anas Sarwar and the minister and something comes back then. However, I am afraid that I cannot support the amendment.

The Convener

I call Anas Sarwar to press or withdraw amendment 21.

Anas Sarwar

I was not asking whether Jamie Halcro Johnston was going to support the amendment, because I took it from his earlier comments that he was not going to support it. I was more looking for an encouraging response about whether we can try and make it easier for people to vote by post.

I am happy to have that conversation with Mr Harvie and to try again with the minister, separate to the committee. At this stage, I therefore will not press the amendment. However, I intend to come back at stage 3 with something along those lines, or modified along those lines, to make sure that we are being serious about encouraging the electorate to vote and to exercise their democratic rights.

Amendment 21, by agreement, withdrawn.

Section 5—Power to provide for all-postal votes

The Convener

Amendment 22, in the name of Neil Findlay, is grouped with amendments 4 to 7 and 23.

Neil Findlay

Amendment 22 would restrict the regulatory powers of ministers to provide for an all-postal ballot, and ensure that such a decision would be taken only when necessary for Covid-related reasons. In my view, parliamentary scrutiny and approval are essential in that regard, so I am interested to hear what the Government proposes in relation to ensuring that Parliament would be involved in such a move. My amendment seeks to restrict the powers to ensure that they are used only for Covid measures.

I move amendment 22.

Graeme Dey

I think that there is broad agreement that an all-postal election is undesirable and should be viewed as a measure of last resort. That has certainly been the Government’s view throughout the process. We have also stressed that the power in section 5 is a contingency measure, given that an all-postal election could be delivered only if the election were to be postponed.

Mr Findlay’s amendment 22, and an aspect of Mr Tomkins’s amendment 7, propose that there must be a coronavirus-related reason for making regulations for an all-postal vote. I have to say that I cannot envisage any circumstances that were not tied to coronavirus in which the power to arrange an all-postal vote next year would be used. However, as amendment 22 reinforces that position, I am happy to accept it.

Government amendments 4 and 6 will make the delegated power to make provision for an all-postal election subject to affirmative procedure. That provision will implement—indeed, It will go further than—the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee in its stage 1 report on the bill. On reflection, we agree with the DPLRC that the power’s significance, if it were to be used, is such that there should be appropriate parliamentary scrutiny.

Amendment 5 provides an additional safeguard in the exercise of the power of Scottish ministers to provide for an all-postal vote. The amendment is a response to concerns regarding the width of the power that were expressed by the DPLRC in its stage 1 report. The effect of amendment 5 will be that ministers must lay a statement of reasons for making any regulations under section 5, which must include

“information on the responses received from the persons”

whom ministers are required to consult before making the regulations—those being the Presiding Officer, the Electoral Commission, the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and the chief medical officer.

Mr Tomkins’s amendment 7 overlaps the other amendments in the group; it, too, seeks to make use of the power subject to affirmative procedure, but imposes different restrictions. Overall, the Government amendments and Mr Findlay’s amendment cover two thirds of amendment 7.

The remaining aspect of amendment 7 sets out that the regulations can be made only “with the consent of” the Presiding Officer, the Electoral Commission and the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. I am not persuaded that such a limitation is required. The proposed change—to apply affirmative procedure—should be a sufficient check. Parliament should decide, having had the opportunity to consider views that those persons and bodies put forward.

As a result, I ask Mr Tomkins not to move amendment 7, and I ask the committee not to support it, if he does.

Mr Sarwar’s amendment 23 would require ministers to publicise arrangements for an all-postal ballot. An all-postal ballot is an emergency contingency measure, but the amendment treats it as a certainty. Furthermore, the reference to “adequate” resourcing is too vague for inclusion in legislation. Amendment 23 contrasts with Mr Sarwar’s amendment 25 in group 7, which seeks to prevent the Government from issuing information in relation to the 2021 election.

However, I do not disagree with the idea that an all-postal vote would need to be clearly publicised. Much of that would be done by the Electoral Commission; therefore, I do not think that the focus on Scottish ministers in amendment 23 is appropriate.

I invite Mr Tomkins and Mr Sarwar not to move their amendments in the group. I invite the committee not to support them, if they are moved, and to support the amendments in my name in the group.

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

Thank you for accommodating me.

Having a power in the bill to provide for the eventuality of an all-postal ballot in next year’s election—where that election is delayed due to the coronavirus—is sensible. However, That power should not be in the hands of ministers, or of ministers alone, and should be exercisable only for reasons relating to the coronavirus. We are therefore pleased that the Government supports Neil Findlay’s amendment 22, which we also support. The power should be subject to affirmative procedure, so for that reason we are also pleased to support Graham Dey’s amendments 4, 5 and 6.

As the minister said, the amendments cover the substantial ground that I sought to cover with amendment 7. Therefore, if amendments 22, 4, 5 and 6 are accepted by the committee, I will not move amendment 7.

The question that I put to Anas Sarwar regarding his amendment 23 is the same as the question that the minister has put to him. Why is there an apparent conflict between what he is requiring Scottish ministers to do in his amendment 23 and what he says in his amendment 25, which provides that any information relating to the 2021 election must be provided by the Electoral Commission, the convener of the EMB or EROs, and not the Scottish ministers?

Mr Sarwar spoke forcefully in last week’s stage 1 debate. I agreed with him when he said that Scottish ministers must understand that they are participants in an election and cannot therefore be its referees. Why then should there be a duty on Scottish ministers to promote public awareness of the election when that is already a statutory responsibility of the Electoral Commission? For that reason, I ask Mr Sarwar not to move amendment 23, which conflicts with the laudable aims that he seeks to achieve elsewhere.

I will not press amendment 7 if amendments 22, 4, 5 and 6 are accepted.

Anas Sarwar

I agree with all the comments that have been made about amendments 22, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Amendment 23 is a probing amendment to provoke a discussion or comment about something else. It is not an amendment that I plan to press. The matter relates to use of radio, television, postal and online communications. I am not asking the Government to conduct those communications; rather, I want to find out from the minister whether, for the benefit of Parliament, the Government will publish a schedule of activity for the public information campaign that the Electoral Commission will conduct. That campaign will be funded by the Scottish Government. I want Parliament to know what the schedule of activity would look like, what its scope would be, when it would begin and whether it would include radio, television, postal and online communications. I am making a request to have that schedule of information published.

I will not move amendment 23.

Neil Findlay

I have nothing to add. I thank the minister for accepting amendment 22.

The Convener

So, you are pressing amendment 22.

I did not give the minister an opportunity to come back in.

Graeme Dey

To pick up on Anas Sarwar’s point, I accept that it is not unreasonable to ask for publication of the planned schedule. I am happy to give a commitment that we will do that, in due course.

The Convener

Neil Findlay will wind up and press or seek to withdraw amendment 22.

Neil Findlay

I have nothing to add. I press amendment 22.

Amendment 22 agreed to.

Amendments 4 to 6 moved—[Graeme Dey].

10:30  



The Convener

We now move on to amendment 7, in the name of Adam Tomkins. [Interruption.] I am being told that I am jumping ahead.

The question is, that amendments 4 to 6 be agreed to. Are we agreed? Thank you very much.

I was circumventing democracy there—sorry about that.

I call amendment 7, in the name of Adam Tomkins, which has already been debated with amendment 22. I ask Adam Tomkins to move or not move amendment 7, please.

Adam Tomkins

I am sorry, convener, but you need to say what the result of the previous question was. I do not know what the result was, because I am not in the room. Were amendments 4, 5 and 6 agreed to?

The Convener

Yes, they were. I beg your pardon.

Amendments 4 to 6 agreed to.

The Convener

I am sorry. That was to do with the external visuals. I had not picked up that people cannot see that amendments have been agreed to.

Adam Tomkins

As amendments 22, 4, 5 and 6 have been agreed to, I will not press amendment 7.

Amendment 7 not moved.

The Convener

I apologise, Mr Tomkins. That was my fault.

Section 5, as amended, agreed to.

After section 5

Amendment 23 not moved.

Section 6 agreed to.

Section 7—Dissolution of current Parliament: consequential modifications

The Convener

The next group is called “Dissolution of the current Parliament: consequential modifications”. Amendment 8, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendment 9.

Graeme Dey

Amendments 8 and 9 are technical amendments to ensure the correct policy intention, in line with normal electoral arrangements. The amendments concern, first, the date when a person becomes a candidate for the 2021 election and, secondly, the timing of the duty on electoral registration officers to supply electoral registers to local authority returning officers.

The rules are usually calculated by reference to dissolution of the Parliament. However, given the planned dissolution of only one day, section 7 instead ties the rules to the expected start of the campaign recess. The policy intention is for both rules to kick in 28 days before the poll takes place, but under the Scotland Act 1998, the day of the poll itself must be included in the calculation of that 28 days. Therefore, the number of days stated in section 7 of the bill at introduction has to be reduced by one.

The effect of amendment 8 is consequently that a person’s legal status as a candidate will begin on 25 March 2021, not 24 March 2021, in line with the usual arrangements.

Amendment 9 will make the same change as regards the timing of the duty to supply electoral registers.

I move amendment 8.

Amendment 8 agreed to.

Amendment 9 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

Section 7, as amended, agreed to.

Section 8—Power to provide for polling on additional days

The Convener

The next group is on multiple days for polling. Amendment 24, in the name of Anas Sarwar, is grouped with amendments 10 to 15.

Anas Sarwar

Amendment 24 is a probing amendment in order to provide an opportunity to discuss the rights and wrongs of multiple days of voting. During the stage 1 debate last week, several members referred to multiple polling days. Patrick Harvie and I suggested that we should think about multiple polling days for not just this but future elections and that we could take advantage of the circumstances of the pandemic in order to test the impact of multiple voting days.

I will make a couple of additional points. First, we are assuming that we will have a massive influx of postal vote applications, but what if we do not have that massive influx? If we have a minimal number of applications for postal votes, the polling stations will be busier than we expect. What would be the impact of that and how would we react?

I note from what the minister said last week and from the private discussion that we want to limit numbers to around 800 electors per polling box. The minister is right, but that does not take into account individual polling stations, particularly in urban areas. For example, in Glasgow there is a polling place in the First Minister’s constituency that has more than 4,500 electors at one polling place, despite having multiple boxes. That is a high level of footfall going into one polling place but, technically, it looks like multiple polling boxes with a spread of 800 electors per box. We need a clearer understanding of the arrangements on the day and whether we should have a fuller discussion about the impact of one or two polling days.

My second point relates to Mr Dey’s amendments 10 to 14. Who should decide whether we have multiple polling days? Fundamentally, it should be for the Parliament to decide, because the Parliament is responsible to the people. I accept that the Electoral Management Board for Scotland has a duty and a role in that, but it is not directly answerable to the Parliament. The Scottish ministers are answerable to the Parliament and it should be for the Parliament to decide whether there are multiple polling days. Having the caveat that the recommendation will come from the Electoral Management Board is perhaps trickier. What happens if the Electoral Management Board says that it neither recommends nor does not recommend multiple polling days, but the Parliament decides that we should have a poll on multiple days? We should be able to do that. I do not wish to disparage anyone’s character, but multiple polling days means more work for some people, so it should be for the Parliament to decide whether we have more than one day or not, rather than it being conditional on a recommendation from the Electoral Management Board or the Electoral Commission. I do not think that the Parliament would want to make that decision without having thought about all the implications, so I do not think that we need that condition. We might not be in that situation anyway. However, I do not think that that condition should be there and I lodged amendment 24 in order to have these wider discussions.

I move amendment 24.

The Convener

The minister will speak to amendment 10 and the other amendments in the group.

Graeme Dey

The question whether and how additional days of polling should be arranged is difficult and that is reflected in the amendments that have been lodged. As with most aspects of the bill, many complex questions arise as to how we ensure the smooth running of the election, whatever the conditions on polling day.

As the committee heard at stage 1, those who run elections need to know the date of the poll well in advance, so that they can plan and issue clear communications; crucially, that allows them to book venues and recruit staff. A late decision to switch to multiple days of polling could appear an understandable reaction to a sudden surge in the virus, but it would be expensive and, worse, confusing for voters.

It seems likely that physical distancing will still be a feature of our lives in May. That could mean that it will take longer to cast each vote, which could result in small queues at polling stations, although postal vote uptake would alleviate that. Therefore, at face value, there is something to be said for the approach of Mr Sarwar’s amendment 24 in committing today to a second day of polling.

However, throughout the process, we have worked closely with our electoral community. In my stage 1 evidence, I indicated that I had asked Malcolm Burr, the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, to consider in detail the question of multiple days of polling. He delivered his assessment last week, concluding that only one day should be required. Mr Burr’s advice is careful and considered and reflects experience and analysis of, and reflection on, the by-elections held this autumn. It also takes account of the vast experience of returning officers in running Scottish Parliament elections and their plans for the number of polling stations in May 2021. In parallel with the legislative process, considerable work is being done at a local level on the practical challenges and the measures that will be in play for the election.

We have been balancing our approach between uncertainty about virus conditions and the requirements for planning, and I remain convinced that the flexible approach in the bill is the right one and that opting for rigidity now might result in the need for more legislation in spring. I hear what Mr Sarwar says about the probing nature of his amendment and that he is looking to promote a discussion about the merits of taking more than one day to stage an election. I am not unsympathetic to that, but I feel that now is not the time to experiment with new approaches to voting and that there are enough uncertainties around elections in the current climate. Between that position and, more importantly, the advice that we have received from electoral professionals, our approach is the right one.

We have the advice of electoral professionals, but I want to retain the flexibility in the bill. We do not know what might happen in the next couple of months, so it is important that we have that power, just in case it is needed. However, I listened to the concerns expressed at stage 1 regarding the breadth of the power of the Scottish ministers to provide for polling over additional days. Amendments 10 and 11 narrow the exercise of that power. Amendment 10 relates to the power of ministers to provide for polling on additional days, and it prevents use of the power without a recommendation by the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. Again, I stress that it is about listening to electoral professionals and being guided by them, but with the Parliament having the final say.

The effect is that ministers may decide whether to provide for polling to take place on one or more specified days only if polling on those days is recommended to ministers by the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. The requirement to consult the persons and bodies listed in section 8(5) before laying draft regulations remains as an additional safeguard. That will allow ministers the flexibility to respond swiftly, but only if electoral administrators feel that there is a need.

Amendment 11 adjusts section 8(2), to clarify which days may be specified as additional polling days. In any recommendation made to ministers, the convener of the EMB may specify as additional polling days only those days that are consecutive to the day of the poll, unless they consider that there is reason to depart from that presumption, and, in any event, they may specify only one of the eight days falling immediately after the day of the poll.

Amendments 12 and 14 make the delegated power to provide for polling over multiple days subject to the affirmative procedure, going further than the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee in its stage 1 report. As I made clear to the committee, this is a contingency power, but, on reflection, we agree with the DPLR Committee that, if that power were to be used, its significance is such that parliamentary scrutiny would be appropriate.

Amendment 13 requires ministers to lay before the Parliament a statement of the reasons in support of the change, including information on the responses received from the Presiding Officer, the Electoral Commission, the convener of the EMB and the chief medical officer.

Adam Tomkins’s amendment 15 also seeks to limit the discretion of ministers in this area. As the Government amendments do, it seeks to apply the affirmative procedure. However, it also applies a number of other restrictions along the lines of those that we discussed in relation to group 4 and an all-postal election. As I said then, it seems excessive to grant a power of veto to each of the Presiding Officer, the Electoral Commission and the EMB convener. The Government’s amendments are much more in accord with the committee’s call for enhanced parliamentary scrutiny of a decision to opt for multiple days of polling. They place the initiation of a change to the days of polling in the hands of the convener of the EMB, but they also enhance parliamentary scrutiny of any change. They are to be preferred to amendment 15. That said, I see no difficulty in restricting the use of section 8 to circumstances where the Scottish ministers consider it necessary for reasons relating to the coronavirus. If Mr Tomkins does not press his amendment 15, I propose to prepare a stage 3 amendment on that point along the lines of Mr Findlay’s amendment 22, which we discussed earlier.

10:45  



To avoid any doubt, I repeat that, at present, neither I nor the electoral administrators expect the use of the power to be necessary, but the bill is designed for worst-case scenarios. Consequently, I contend that, in those circumstances, further restriction beyond that set out in the Government amendments is not needed and nor should we commit to a second polling day at this time.

I therefore invite Mr Sarwar and Mr Tomkins not to press their amendments in the group; if they do so, I invite the committee not to support them. I ask the committee to support the amendments in the group in my name.

The Convener

I call Adam Tomkins.

Adam Tomkins

Something very bizarre is happening on BlueJeans, convener, because I can see Michael Russell talking to a different committee, rather than what is going on in the committee that I am addressing. I hope that that is not reciprocated and that Michael Russell cannot hear or see me.

I fear that this will do the minister absolutely no favours whatsoever, but I agree with everything that he has just said. It is important that we have a degree of flexibility in the bill in relation to the power to provide for polling on additional days. However, that flexibility should not be in the hands of ministers to the extent that it would be if the bill were passed in its original form. I therefore welcome all the minister’s amendments in the group, which are amendments 10 to 14. As with section 5, which we discussed a few minutes ago, so too with section 8. I will not press my amendment 15 if the amendments in the name of the minister are agreed to.

I have nothing to say in addition to that, except that I am still seeing on my screen the proceedings of another committee and not the proceedings of this one, so it would be helpful if somebody in the IT or broadcasting departments could fix that.

The Convener

It would indeed. That is a wee bit strange, but there you go.

I call Anas Sarwar to wind up. [Interruption.] I am told that other members may wish to speak first. I apologise. I am just being democratic again.

Patrick Harvie

The Government amendments in the group will make welcome changes in relation to the advice of the convener of the EMB, the affirmative procedure and the statement of reasons. I am pleased to hear that Adam Tomkins welcomes those amendments as they will end the situation in which the power is solely in the hands of ministers. That is the appropriate approach.

On Anas Sarwar’s amendment 24, we should be open to wider reform in the area. I said during the stage 1 debate—in a purely personal capacity, because my party does not have a formal position on this—that there is a case for having not only more than one day of polling, but an early voting period, as happens in some other countries. That debate should be in the context of consideration of a wider range of measures that we should take to maximise democratic participation and to maximise registration, turnout and political engagement during the election process.

Over the years, we have lost elements of the participative nature of and theatre around elections. I am thinking about things such as placards. Ten years ago, if you walked round the kind of areas that Anas Sarwar talked about in the week or fortnight before an election, it would have been abundantly clear visually that an election was happening, but we do not have that now. There are good reasons why we do not have that particular type of activity, but we need to reflect on the fact that we have lost some of the ways in which people are encouraged to engage with elections.

Having an early voting period is only one way of encouraging that, and it should be considered alongside issues such as where polling places are. Should they be in or next to supermarkets and shopping centres rather than in schools? Should there be a wider range of options for how we deal with those challenges? Those issues deserve debate in their own right.

At one level, the argument is that an election during a pandemic might be an opportunity to trial something like that. The flip side of that argument, though, is that if we make changes because of the coronavirus, at our next election, that reason would have disappeared. The people who recognised that coronavirus was the reason for any changes would say, “Well, there isn’t a pandemic on now, so we should go back to the way it was done before.” We would not have advanced the deeper argument about which changes we should contemplate for the longer term.

There has been electoral innovation in recent years. For example the franchise has been extended to 16 and 17-year-olds and there have been limited changes on prisoner voting and on extending the franchise to base it on residence rather than citizenship. Such innovations have been debated on their own terms, instead of simply being seen as an immediate change for a temporary circumstance. I would like us to continue to debate the wider range of measures, including an early voting period, that might have long-term, permanent value in our electoral system. At the moment, though, I am cautious about committing to that by supporting amendment 24, particularly in the light of the evidence that we have taken that, in the current circumstances, electoral administrators are advising a single day’s polling.

I am grateful that we have had this debate. We need to debate more widely and over the longer term the approach that we should take to elections in general. I am not convinced that we should do it specifically in the context of an election during a pandemic.

Maureen Watt

I dare not comment on whether the minister or Mike Russell is easier on the eye for Adam Tomkins, but I hope that Mr Tomkins has got the situation sorted out.

Patrick Harvie and Anas Sarwar said very much what I would have said. We have had lots of extensions to the franchise and changes to the way in which we run elections. I agree that we should keep looking at that and be innovative, but in the midst of a pandemic is not the time to consider making such changes. However, I hope that Parliament looks at that in future sessions.

Neil Findlay

I do not know who is easier on the eye, but I know who is easier on the ear. [Interruption.] I will give you the benefit of that one, Mr Dey.

If we had the problem on polling day that we saw in the first South African election after apartheid, with queues miles long and people waiting ages to vote, I could understand why we were taking such a conservative stance on all these issues. It is about opening up voting and participation. However, at best, 55 per cent of people vote in elections. That number is pathetic, and yet we are seeing real conservatism regarding increasing that figure. I would have thought that people would be up for that during this crisis; I would have hoped that people would have been up for it at any time, but it seems not. That is a pretty depressing situation.

The Convener

As soon as Neil Findlay mentioned conservatism, John Scott’s hand went up.

John Scott

I agree with the minister’s position—there is no need for amendment 24. Anas Sarwar expects—or hopes—that 50 per cent of the electorate will vote by post and thinks that there might not be the capacity for that. If that number did vote by post, it would vastly reduce the number going to polling stations, and there is therefore no need for an election over two days.

If Neil Findlay is correct that only 55 per cent of the electorate will vote, that means that the number of people who will go through polling stations will go down to half of 55 per cent, which is only 27.5 per cent, so I do not think that there is a need for polling over two days. I agree with others that we can look at the issue in the future if we want to, but I do not think that a compelling argument has been made for the change just now, especially given that the EMB is content. We have to accept that people will do their job and that, when the EMB says that it will be able to carry out the election in one day, it will be able to do so. Mr Burr’s letter, which was cited by the minister, also gives us that confidence. I am not saying that we should not make changes or look at the matter in the future, but I do not think that now is the time to make the change.

Anas Sarwar

I find some of the responses from members a little depressing, given the lack of ambition in opening up and encouraging our democracy. There is a risk here. I have certainly not set the ambition at 50 per cent of the electorate applying for a postal vote; I am open minded about how people eventually vote. However, there is a disconnect between raising awareness and the ease of applying to vote by post, and what that means will happen at polling stations. What will happen if we do not make it easier for people to apply to vote by post? If fewer people than we expect apply for a postal vote, more people than we expect might go to polling stations in a socially distanced election.

In relation to legacy, Patrick Harvie made lots of important points. One point that struck me was, if the change was made just for a coronavirus election, what reason would there be to make it for future elections? We have the opportunity, because we will have a coronavirus election, to make it easier for people to vote and to drive up turnout to 60, 70 or 80 per cent of the electorate. We could then say to people that, even during a pandemic, we had record levels of turnout, as there have been in other parts of the world. That would show that, when we make it easier for people to vote and increase the options for how they can vote, people will engage in the electoral process. If we do not make the change, it will be a missed opportunity.

If there will be a lot more people at polling places, rather than polling boxes, we still need a response to that. What will be our reaction, late on, to ensure that we do not have long queues but hold an adequately socially distanced election that does not pose a risk to those who are voting or to poll workers?

I do not plan to press amendment 24, but I would like to make a point about the other amendments in the group. I wholly support the principles of the amendments from Graeme Dey and Adam Tomkins. I agree with amendments 11 to 14, but I have a concern about amendment 10. My understanding is that, if amendment 10 is agreed to, Adam Tomkins’s amendment 15 will not be moved.

I say this not as a slight on the convener of the Electoral Management Board—we, of course, have to take its advice very seriously—but I emphasise that I do not think that we should make the change conditional on a direct recommendation from the Electoral Management Board. What if the EMB does not make a recommendation on holding an election over multiple days, but Parliament thinks that it should be held over more than one day and we are able to deliver that? On that basis, I ask to work with the other parties to find suitable wording so that, ultimately, the matter is in the hands of Parliament, not in the hands of the convener of the Electoral Management Board, with Parliament just affirming that position.

On that basis, I will not press amendment 24. I ask that the minister and other parties work together on finding better language than that in amendment 10. If there is a vote on amendment 10, I ask members not to support it at this stage, but to support amendments 11 to 14.

Amendment 24, by agreement, withdrawn.

Amendment 10 moved—[Graeme Dey].

The Convener

The question is, that amendment 10 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Convener

There will be a division.

For

Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Paterson, Gil (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)
Scott, John (Ayr) (Con)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Against

Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)

The Convener

The result of the division is: For 6, Against 1, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 10 agreed to.

Amendments 11 to 14 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

11:00  



The Convener

I call Adam Tomkins to move or not move amendment 15, already debated with amendment 24.

Adam Tomkins

Before I do so, convener, could you please declare the results for amendments 11 to 14?

The Convener

Did you not pick up on that? I beg your pardon. Amendments 11 to 14 were all agreed to.

Adam Tomkins

Thank you, convener. On that basis, and in light of what the minister said about the provision in my amendments about reasons relating to coronavirus, I will not move amendment 15.

Amendment 15 not moved.

Section 8, as amended, agreed to.

After section 8

The Convener

The next group concerns information on elections. Amendment 25, in the name of Anas Sarwar, is the only amendment in the group.

Anas Sarwar

I am sure that the committee will be pleased to learn that this is my final amendment, after which that will be me for the morning.

I raised this issue in the stage 1 debate last week, and there have since been offline discussions with the minister and others. The principle behind the amendment is simple, although there is, obviously, a bit more detail. The principle that it recognises is that the Scottish Government is a participant in the election rather than a spectator. That is why any information in relation to the election that is being communicated should be communicated by what we might think of as a neutral source, by which I mean the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Management Board or the EROs.

For the avoidance of doubt, when the amendment refers to

“information in relation to the 2021 elections”,

that does not include election communications from political parties. I do not want any part of this amendment to have the effect of restricting political parties from communicating with the electorate in any way.

I welcome the fact that we are going to have a public information campaign led by the Electoral Commission, rather than the Scottish Government, and that the information booklet will be sent out by the Electoral Commission, rather than the Scottish Government. I also welcome the commitment from the Scottish Government that it will write to the 169,000 people who are shielding about their ability to vote by post. However, I believe that that communication should come from the Electoral Commission rather than from the Scottish Government. Further, again, I make the plea that, when we write to that shielding group, we include an application form and a freepost mechanism. It would be counterintuitive to encourage people who are shielding—the most vulnerable category in society—to go out to buy a stamp and an envelope to send an application form back or to make them have to navigate an ERO helpline or use the ERO website or email address in order to apply for a postal vote.

Will the Government clarify whether it is planning any other communications with regard to the election process and the ability to vote that we might not have picked up on, and in whose name such communications will be going out?

The minister told me that one of the reasons why the communication to the 169,000 people in the shielding group must be a Scottish Government communication is that it involves Scottish Government data. I remind the minister that we gave the shielding category data to supermarkets, so if it is okay to do that, it is okay to give the data to the Electoral Commission.

I urge the minister to ensure that any communications come from the Electoral Commission. If, as he intimated last week, he wants to include a comment from the chief medical officer, there is no reason why such information could not be on an Electoral Commission communication. Last week, the minister commented on my paranoia, but I think that the paranoia might be on the other side. We all want to make sure that no questions can be asked about the conduct of the election. Using neutral sources—the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Management Board for Scotland or ERO offices—for all communications relating to the conduct of the election is an important principle, which I hope has the unanimous support of the committee and the Parliament.

I move amendment 25.

Patrick Harvie

The point of principle that Anas Sarwar set out is one with which we would all agree. The information about the conduct and process of the election needs to be politically independent. However, I think that the amendment goes significantly further in that regard than we have ever seen for other elections. I do not think that the current circumstances justify a significant departure from our previous expectations. There is a danger that amendment 25, as it is currently drafted, would inhibit the provision of necessary information that is politically independent and comes from sources other than those mentioned in the amendment. In particular, I am not clear why the exemption at subsection (2) refers to communications from “political parties”, rather than candidates.

The arguments around the chief medical officer having been a clear, consistent and politically impartial voice during the pandemic are well made. I do not see a reason to say that it is inappropriate or politically loaded to involve the CMO in election communications—I do not think that it is.

The principle is well understood and agreed, but the amendment goes significantly further than merely maintaining that important principle, and there could be serious unintended consequences.

Graeme Dey

Amendment 25 causes me great concern, and I am afraid that it has not been thought through. It would greatly restrict who can provide information to those who are

“entitled to vote at the 2021 election”.

It would mean that only the Electoral Commission, the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and electoral registration officers could provide information. As returning officers, who are responsible in law for delivering elections, are not listed, they would be prohibited from any form of communication with the voters. They would not be able to publicise the date of the election, or send out poll cards telling people where they are to vote, even though they have a statutory duty to do so.

In the amendment, an exception is made for

“election communications from political parties”,

but under the terms of the amendment as drafted, independent candidates would be excluded from providing information about the election to voters. That is surely not what Anas Sarwar intended, but that would be the consequence, which would create obvious difficulties in the conduct of the election.

The provisions could also prevent the NHS, the chief medical officer and others from issuing information about the election in the context of the virus to shielding persons. As Patrick Harvie identified, the CMO is the impartial source of information on whom people in the shielding category have come to rely. He is credible and established.

I have an update for the committee, because the discussion has been on-going in the lead up to, and after, stage 1. I have had confirmation this morning that the chief medical officer is content to issue a communication to advise those who are on the shielding list about how to apply for a postal vote, should they wish to do so, and of the deadline for applications. The communication will not be issued on behalf of the Scottish ministers, but would be produced in consultation with the Electoral Commission, which would provide the form of words that is to be used.

The point was raised about any intended Scottish Government communication in the context of the election. As we speak, there is no such plan. On Monday, I will meet the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, the Electoral Commission and the EROs, to further discuss, as I identified earlier, what the information campaign will look like in detail—on a very localised level, I hope—and I aim to be in a position to advise Parliament about that in the context of the stage 3 debate next week.

The Convener

I call Anas Sarwar to wind up on amendment 25, and to press or withdraw it.

Anas Sarwar

I take on board the comments that were made by Patrick Harvie and by the minister.

I seek a commitment from the minister that, if any communications were to be decided on by the Scottish Government, there would be full consultation with the Parliament, and that those communications should come from a neutral source unless the Parliament agrees otherwise.

On communication with people who are in the shielding category, I seek clarification on branding. I know that the wording will be approved by the Electoral Commission, but will it have Scottish Government branding or NHS Scotland branding? The CMO is employed by the NHS, so there is no reason why there should be Scottish Government branding on such communications.

I take the point about individual candidates and third-party campaign bodies, but if we can get reassurance and a guarantee from the minister that communications will be neutral, that those to people in the shielding category will also come from a neutral source, and that none of them will have Scottish Government branding, I will be content not to press amendment 25 and will not feel the need to bring it back at stage 3.

The Convener

Minister, do you choose to come back on that?

Graeme Dey

I am happy to come back, convener, and I will resist the temptation to use the word that I used in the stage 1 debate—“paranoia”. I offer some reassurance. As I understand it, the branding will be that of the chief medical officer, as it has been in other communications with the shielding category.

On the point about communications from the Scottish Government, I think that we have demonstrated throughout that the principal source of information on the election has been the Electoral Commission, and, as I have indicated, we are also looking to the EROs for localised information campaigning.

I hesitate very slightly to give a binding commitment of the type that Anas Sarwar is looking for because if, perhaps, the election had to be cancelled at short notice, and consequences were flowing from that, it might be necessary for a communication to go out from the Scottish Government. I stress the words “might be”. I will therefore stop short of giving the member that absolute guarantee, but I point to the direction of travel in the election, whereby the sources of information have been other than from the Scottish Government direct.

Anas Sarwar

I thank the minister and I do not think that he needs to worry about paranoia. I would hope that a Government minister would take every opportunity to say that there will be no political interference in the conduct of an election in our free and fair democratic process. I note the minister’s slight caveat and add one of my own, which is that if the Government intended that the Parliament should cancel an election, I am pretty sure, or at least I would hope, that the Government would consult other political parties before making any such announcement.

I will take the conversation with the minister and other political parties offline. I am content not to press the amendment.

Amendment 25, by agreement, withdrawn.

Section 9—First meeting of new Parliament

11:15  



The Convener

Group 9 is on the nomination of the First Minister following the election. Amendment 16, in the name of Graeme Dey, is the only amendment in the group.

Graeme Dey

I noted earlier that there is an expedited process for the bill, which members are well aware of. Nevertheless, the evidence-taking process has given us cause to reflect on the bill as drafted. As a result, the committee considered earlier a technical amendment that we lodged. Amendment 16, too, is based on our reflection on what came out through the evidence-gathering process.

Amendment 16 is consequential to the power given to the Presiding Officer in section 9 of the bill to fix the day on which the Scottish Parliament is first to meet after the 2021 election.

Under section 46 of the Scotland Act 1998, the new Parliament must nominate one of its members for appointment as the First Minister within 28 days of a general election. As the first meeting of a new Parliament normally takes place within seven days of the election, in practice, the minimum time available to the Parliament for nomination of the First Minister is 21 days. Section 2 of the bill removes the usual period that is allowed for the first meeting of the new Parliament.

Instead, section 9 of the bill requires the Presiding Officer to fix a day for the first meeting of the new Parliament, which must be as soon as reasonably practicable after the poll. That is because we anticipate that the counting of votes will take longer than usual and, if there is a need for additional polling days, as we have discussed, the Parliament might not be able to hold its first meeting for a longer period than usual.

The effect of amendment 16 is that any postponement of the first meeting of the new Parliament beyond a seven-day period is not counted towards the period of 28 days that is allowed for the nomination of a new First Minister. That would apply whether the election goes ahead on 6 May 2021 or is postponed by the Presiding Officer under section 11 of the bill. That is simply to ensure that any delay to the first meeting of the Parliament for public health reasons does not have a knock-on impact on the usual timetable for nominating a First Minister.

I move amendment 16.

The Convener

As members do not have anything to contribute on the amendment, does the minister care to wind up?

Graeme Dey

I have nothing to add.

Amendment 16 agreed to.

Section 9, as amended, agreed to.

Section 10 agreed to.

Section 11—Power of Presiding Officer to postpone election

The Convener

Group 9 is on the power of the Presiding Officer to postpone the election. Amendment 26, in the name of Neil Findlay, is grouped with amendment 27.

Neil Findlay

Amendments 26 and 27 seek to restrict the power of the Presiding Officer to postpone the Scottish general election. The contingency measure of the Presiding Officer being able to take such a decision should come into play only if he considered that it were necessary to do so for a “reason related to coronavirus”. The principle is similar to that of amendment 22, which the Government accepted, so I hope that the Government will also accept amendments 26 and 27.

I move amendment 26.

Patrick Harvie

I can see that, at some level, it might be attractive to remove the word “appropriate” and retain only the word “necessary”. Although it is framed in the bill as whether the Presiding Officer

“considers it necessary or appropriate”,

I worry that the removal of the word “appropriate” would imply that that is more of an objective test than a judgment, and that—in what I hope will be an unlikely circumstance—if the Presiding Officer felt the need to exercise the power, there could be a legal challenge on the basis of whether it could be proved necessary rather than judged appropriate.

I will be interested to hear what the minister says on amendment 26, but I have qualms about it.

The Convener

No other member wishes to speak. I therefore call the minister.

Graeme Dey

As members will be aware, the Presiding Officer has always had a power to advance or postpone the election by one month. For the 2021 poll we have replaced that with a power to defer the poll by whatever period or periods the Presiding Officer thinks necessary or appropriate. However, those periods cannot delay the poll by more than six months in total.

Amendments 26 and 27 would seek to restrict that power so that it could be exercised only for a reason related to the coronavirus, and even then only if the Parliament could not safely meet. However, the power needs to be broader, because it could be required for a reason unrelated to the coronavirus, such as a terrorist attack or the demise of the Crown.

Let me be clear: I do not expect that the Presiding Officer will need to exercise the power. Under section 11(3), he can only exercise it for a coronavirus-related reason if he is satisfied that the Parliament cannot meet. However, other circumstances could arise where reconvening the Parliament is difficult or unachievable, despite the delay to dissolution under the bill. I trust the Presiding Officer to make that judgment; I am sure that other members do, too.

I hope that we will never see that occasion arising. However, in my opinion, it is essential that the Presiding Officer retains what I see as a power in reserve, which can cover issues unrelated to the coronavirus, as he has been able to do since the establishment of the Parliament.

Given the issues that I have outlined, I ask Mr Findlay not to press amendments 26 and 27. However, should he do so, I urge members not to support them.

The Convener

I call Neil Findlay to wind up and press or withdraw amendment 26.

Neil Findlay

Amendment 26 is important. The bill’s title is the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, therefore it does relate specifically to the virus. Amendment 26 seeks to point out that such interventions should take place only for Covid-related reasons.

I press amendment 26 and I will move amendment 27.

The Convener

The question is, that amendment 26 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Convener

There will be a division.

For

Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)

Against

Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Paterson, Gil (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)
Scott, John (Ayr) (Con)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The Convener

The result of the division is: For 1, Against 6, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 26 disagreed to.

Amendment 27 moved—[Neil Findlay].

The Convener

The question is, that amendment 27 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Convener

There will be a division.

For

Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)

Against

Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Paterson, Gil (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)
Scott, John (Ayr) (Con)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The Convener

The result of the division is: For 1, Against 6, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 27 disagreed to.

Section 11 agreed to.

Sections 12 to 14 agreed to.

Section 15—Commencement

The Convener

Amendment 17, in the name of the minister, is in a group on its own.

Graeme Dey

Amendment 17 deletes section 15(2) from the bill. The effect of that is to remove ministers’ power to make transitional, transitory or saving provisions in connection with the coming into force of any of the provisions of the bill. That fulfils the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee’s recommendation in its stage 1 report that the power was unnecessary.

On reflection, given the power to make similar provision that is already present in section 14 of the bill, we agree with that committee’s recommendation and so have lodged amendment 17, which I ask members to support.

I move amendment 17.

The Convener

No member wishes to raise any points. I therefore invite the minister to wind up.

Graeme Dey

I am content, convener.

Amendment 17 agreed to.

Section 15, as amended, agreed to.

Section 16 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

The Convener

That ends our consideration of the bill at stage 2. The bill will now be reprinted as it has been amended at stage 2 and will be published on the website at 8.30 am tomorrow. Following the Parliament’s approval of motion S5M-23471, consideration of the bill at stage 3 is scheduled for the meeting of the Parliament that will take place on 23 December 2020. The deadline for lodging stage 3 amendments is 12 noon on Monday 21 December. Amendments should be lodged with the legislation team by that time.

I thank Anas Sarwar and Adam Tomkins for their contributions. I also thank the minister and his officials for attending. That ends the public part of our meeting. The committee will now move into private session.

11:26 Meeting continued in private until 11:32.  



Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill with Stage 2 amendments

Stage 3 - Final amendments and vote

MSPs can propose further amendments to the Bill and then vote on each of these. Finally, they vote on whether the Bill should become an Act.

Debate on the proposed amendments

MSPs get the chance to present their proposed amendments to the Chamber. They vote on whether each amendment should be added to the Bill.


Documents with the amendments to be considered at the meeting on 23 December 2020:


Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

Debate on proposed amendments transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Our next item of business is stage 3 proceedings on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill. In dealing with the amendments—of which there are only four—members should have the bill as amended at stage 2, the marshalled list and the groupings of amendments. I remind members that the division bell will sound and there will be a five-minute suspension before the first division, should there be one this afternoon. Each division will last one minute.

Section 4—Report on uptake of postal voting at closing date

The Presiding Officer

Group 1 is on postal voting arrangements for the 2021 election. Amendment 2, in the name of Graeme Dey, is grouped with amendments 3 and 4.

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Section 4 sets out the requirements for a report that Scottish ministers are obliged to publish after the new deadline for postal vote applications. As amended at stage 2, the bill provides that the report will set out the number of persons who are registered to vote at the 2021 election, the number of persons who have been granted a postal vote for the election, and the number of applications still pending.

Amendment 2 seeks to add a requirement to section 4 that the report must contain information on the funding provided by Scottish ministers to ensure that electoral registration officers have adequate resources to deal with any increase in applications for a postal vote for the 2021 election, which is any increase arising as a result of the coronavirus. That responds to Anas Sarwar’s stage 2 amendment 19, which was on a similar theme. I asked Anas Sarwar not to move that amendment on the understanding that I would prepare a similar amendment for stage 3, and amendment 2 delivers on that undertaking. It also permits the report to include such further information relating to postal voting as ministers consider to be appropriate.

Amendment 3 is consequential on amendment 2 and simply applies the usual definition of an electoral registration officer.

Amendment 4, lodged by Anas Sarwar, seeks to oblige the Electoral Commission to include postal vote application forms in its communications to voters. It seems that the intention is to include them in the information booklet that the Electoral Commission will issue to every household in March. The amendment also seeks to ensure that the application form can be returned at no cost to the voter.

I appreciate that the member wants to encourage people who would benefit from a postal vote to make an application. That is a laudable aim, and we are indeed preparing for a massive increase in the amount of postal voting, from around 18 per cent of the electorate to around 40 per cent or even 50 per cent. However, we are not seeking to promote postal ballots ahead of all other forms of voting.

Arrangements will be made in polling places to allow people to vote safely. Indeed, such measures have already been applied in by-elections this autumn. I know that this is not his intention, but there is a risk that the member’s approach would send a signal to electors that voting in person is perceived to be unsafe. It would also result in a large number of people who already have a postal vote receiving a new application form. That could cause confusion and result in duplicate applications, which registration officers cite as a significant problem in processing applications.

A further problem is that around 60 per cent of households in Scotland are comprised of two or more adults, so there would inevitably be problems if only one copy of the form arrived at the household. Because the Electoral Commission booklet is to go to all households, there will be cases in which the application form will be sent to households that have no registered occupants. Finally, applications will have to be returned to a centralised return address, then distributed to local registration officers, adding a further layer of bureaucracy and wasting valuable processing time.

I agree that people need to be made aware of their options, and we are doing that. That is why the chief medical officer will write to those who are shielding in January to highlight the postal vote process. It is also why the Government has agreed to cover the cost of registration officers writing to 2.5 million households in February to highlight their voting options. That correspondence will note who is registered to vote at an address, and who already has a postal vote or a proxy vote. It will provide details of how to register or apply for postal or proxy votes, and it will promote online and telephone options for doing that, so that there are no postage costs to the applicant.

Members have pointed out that there can be a cost in a relatively small number of cases when people apply for a postal vote. The measures will proactively direct voters to the local registration office for postal vote applications to ensure that they do not incur any such costs.

In conclusion, given what I have just said, I do not agree that it is necessary to indiscriminately distribute thousands of postal vote application forms to people who do not need them or who do not want them. Also, given the timing of the Electoral Commission’s booklet, there would be a risk of creating a surge at the very point in the process at which people would not want that. I therefore invite Mr Sarwar not to move his amendment and if he does, I urge members not to support it.

I move amendment 2.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I thank the minister for amendment 2, which we will support. It is a welcome intervention that will make sure that EROs and the process of the election will be fully resourced.

15:15  



Given what the minister has set out today, and the briefing that we have had from the Electoral Commission, I will not push amendment 4 to a vote. However, I want to make what I think is an important point on the principle. To be frank, we have, as a collective, shown a lack of ambition in the bill. What I mean is that I fully accept that we need to make the electorate more aware of their rights and of how they can vote in the election, but we also need to make it easier for them to exercise those rights.

When the minister and I had discussions, including at stage 2, we both had a desire for the booklet to go out as early as possible. My preference was for it to be towards the end of January and his was for some point in February. I would have compromised on the beginning of February, but the booklet will not now go out until 22 March. There will be a very short timeframe from when the booklet goes out until the new deadline, because the deadline is being made two weeks earlier, as well.

Also, as opposed to making people aware of how they can vote and making it easier for them to do so, we have added layers of process for the electorate. We are hoping, first, that they will be aware of a public information campaign. It is claimed that a public information campaign started in October. I would like to think that I am slightly politically aware, and that the minister is too, but I have not seen any campaign about how people can vote by post in the election, so I am surprised to hear the claim that there has been such a campaign. I—we—need that campaign to start as soon as possible.

However, we are also relying on the electorate to receive a booklet or mailing, to open that, read it and get to the relevant page—there will be 32 local authorities and local electoral registration officers listed—to identify their ERO. Then, we hope that they will phone the ERO, that the ERO answers the call—if not, we hope that the ERO will phone them back—that they will stay on the call for what may be a long time, given that everyone will be directed to those ERO offices, and that the ERO posts out an application form with a freepost return. They must then wait for the form to come and we hope that they will open that mailing and post it back. Otherwise, they have to email the ERO and hope to get a response or print out an application form and go out from their homes to buy a stamp for an envelope to post it back in. That does not sound like an easy process.

If we are going to give the resources to the EROs to write to every local household and they are going to say in that mailing whether the person has a postal vote, why not include the application form with that and a freepost return for the person to send it back in, if we are actively trying to encourage more people to use their vote? That is what I am hoping that the minister will see some sense on. He called me paranoid at stage 1 and he is probably going to call me cynical at stage 3, but what I would hate to see—if the EROs and Electoral Commission do not send out application forms with a freepost return—is political parties doing that instead, so that they are the people who are filtering the forms and sending them on to the EROs. That would be really unfortunate and go against the vital principle of what we want for the election, which is for it to be accessible and fair. I hoped that we could work together on that, and I hope that the minister will see sense on it in these final moments.

In saying that, we will support Graeme Dey’s amendments 2 and 3 and I will not move amendment 4.

The Presiding Officer

Patrick Harvie joins us remotely.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I am pleased that Anas Sarwar raised these issues, both at stage 2 and now at stage 3, even if, for reasons that we all discussed, the precise amendment that he lodged at stage 2 was not quite right. I think that the minister has brought the right solution, both in his amendment and in the commitments that he has given verbally in the chamber. We all want the same thing. We want people to be able to register for a postal vote and we want that to be easy and free of cost.

Anas Sarwar slightly overstates the complexity and difficulty involved in registering. The range of options that exist will make it easy and cost free for people to register for, and then exercise, a postal vote, and that is what we should all be seeking to do.

The bill is not simply the result of Government work—it has been shaped by cross-party discussion. I think that, on balance, it reflects all the issues that were brought to that discussion, including by Anas Sarwar’s colleagues in the Labour Party. I hope that we can unite around the fact that we have a bill that addresses the concerns that many of us have raised during the process.

Graeme Dey

I welcome Mr Sarwar’s announcement that he will not move his amendment, but I want to cover a few points.

I do not in any way accept that there is a lack of ambition in the bill. If anything, the actions that I have outlined today make it easier—and free—for voters to register for a postal vote if they wish. I share Mr Sarwar’s desire regarding the Electoral Commission’s post-out date for the booklet but, as he well knows, neither he nor I can instruct the commission.

However, the booklet from the Electoral Commission is not pivotal to the postal vote. We will have already, through the EROs, written to households at a local level, as I said, to make them aware of whether all household occupants are registered and whether they have a postal or proxy vote. It will contain clear instructions as to how to address any situation that requires to be addressed at a local level, not via a third party or by going through the Electoral Commission.

It is very simple. There will be a telephone number so that people can phone the local ERO and a form will be sent out free of charge. Alternatively, they can go online and request the form. I am not sure whether Mr Sarwar is sighted on this but, because of changes that we made earlier this year, people can take a photograph of their completed form and send it back to the ERO, and it will be accepted.

We have come a long way this year in making it easier for people to vote, which was our intention. For the reasons that I have outlined, I do not accept that freepost is necessary, so I welcome Mr Sarwar’s decision not to move amendment 4. I invite members to support the amendments in my name.

Amendment 2 agreed to.

Amendment 3 moved—[Graeme Dey]—and agreed to.

After section 4

Amendment 4 not moved.

Section 8—Power to provide for polling on additional days

The Presiding Officer

Group 2 is on the power to provide for polling on additional days. Amendment 1, in the name of the minister, is the only amendment in the group.

Graeme Dey

The question of whether and how additional days of polling should be arranged is a difficult one, and that is reflected in the amendments to which the committee agreed at stage 2. As I said then, we are not yet at the time when we have to take a decision. I hope that we do not need to use the power, but I am keeping the situation under review with the convener of the Electoral Management Board. The bill now provides that any additional days of polling will depend on the convener recommending that those days are needed. I remind members that the current advice from the convener is that one day will be sufficient.

On that and much else, it is important that we are guided by those who have the relevant expertise in running elections. The bill now provides for the use of the power to be subject to the affirmative procedure and to be accompanied by a statement of reasons. In the stage 2 discussion, I gave Adam Tomkins an undertaking that I would lodge a further amendment to restrict the use of section 8 to circumstances in which the Scottish ministers considered it necessary for reasons relating to the coronavirus. Amendment 1 delivers on that commitment, and I invite members to support it.

To avoid any doubt, I repeat that, at present, neither I nor the electoral administrators expect to need to use the power, but the bill provides for worst-case scenarios.

I move amendment 1.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

The Presiding Officer

That ends consideration of amendments. As members will be aware, at this stage in proceedings, I am required under standing orders to decide whether, in my view, any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter—that is, whether it modifies the electoral system or the franchise for Scottish Parliament elections. The bill, despite the fact that it is called the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, does not relate to a protected subject matter, and therefore it does not require a supermajority to be passed at stage 3.

Final debate on the Bill

Once they've debated the amendments, the MSPs discuss the final version of the Bill.

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

Final debate transcript

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23768, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

15:25  



The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The events of the past few days have underlined the uncertainty that is involved in responding to the virus and the merits of contingency planning. In that time, discussion on the election has quickly moved from debating whether vaccines will reduce the number of people applying to vote by post to talk of postponing the election entirely. I think that such talk is extremely premature at best, not least because the content of the bill renders us well placed to respond to any further problems that are raised by the pandemic.

On the development of the bill, I particularly recognise the work of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee in scrutinising it and that of the many electoral professionals who shared their expertise throughout the process. I also thank MSPs from all parties for their helpful contributions in the development and passage of the bill. Patrick Harvie was right: the bill is a creature of the Parliament; it is not purely a Government production. Just as important, I note the work of the bill team, for whom this was the third significant piece of proposed legislation in little over a year.

Before discussing the bill’s provisions, I will mention a vital feature of our discussions: keeping voters fully informed. As we know, the Electoral Commission will launch its main public awareness campaign for the election in March 2021. The campaign will run across television, digital and radio—it will not simply involve the booklet, albeit that that will be delivered to every household in Scotland. The booklet will contain much more than references to postal and proxy voting; it will be the standard booklet that goes out from the commission for an election.

I know that some members would rather that the booklet was being sent at an earlier point. As I said earlier, I agree with Anas Sarwar on that. I entirely agree that communication on the election before March is essential. However, as I have indicated, the commission’s booklet covers a range of matters. It will help to direct people for physical voting, which will be an important part of the election, and its going out will coincide with the issuing of polling cards. The Electoral Commission considers that March remains the best time for its booklet to be deployed, and it is not budging on that.

I can reassure members, however, that a range of other actions are also being taken. Electoral registration officers are already taking steps to raise awareness locally, and they are exploring having a national television advert. The chief medical officer will write to all those on the shielding list in January on their options for voting. That will be done in consultation with the Electoral Commission and will reach 169,000 people.

As I noted earlier, the Government will fund a letter to be sent by electoral registration officers to all households in early February, advising voters on registration, the postal vote process and the deadline for applications.

Returning officers also have a part to play in encouraging participation in their local areas. They employ a variety of methods, disseminating information through social media, radio and print advertising, as well as via networks such as community councils. Government funding is in place to underpin all that work.

Turning to the provisions of the bill, I am pleased that members from all parties agree that the Parliament must be able to resume at any point before the election in order to legislate for a postponement, if that is necessary. Modifying the dissolution period is a sensible and pragmatic step, which will enable Parliament to sit and legislate for a new polling date. I remind members that that change means that we will all retain our status as MSPs until the day before the election. I again thank Scottish Parliament officials for their work on new guidance to cover conduct issues.

The bill includes a further contingency measure in the event that the Parliament cannot itself legislate for a postponement, despite the delay to dissolution under the bill. That power is based on, and is an expansion of, the existing power of the Presiding Officer to seek to postpone the election by one month. For the 2021 poll, we have replaced that power with a power to delay for up to six months.

Section 3 brings forward the deadline for application for a postal vote to 6 April, which is a change that electoral professionals specifically requested. Indeed, it is an essential change in the bill from their perspective, given that electoral registration officers might have to process an increase in postal voting from the current 18 per cent of the electorate to 40 per cent or possibly 50 per cent.

It is clear that, as well as giving electoral professionals additional time to process the increase in postal votes, they must be properly resourced, so I am pleased that the amendment that sought to provide clearer information on the resourcing that is provided to electoral professionals, which I discussed with Anas Sarwar, has been agreed today.

Section 5 provides a power for an all-postal vote. As I said during the stage 1 debate, the Government does not want, nor expect, to hold an all-postal election, but we are putting in place a contingency measure in case the public health situation significantly deteriorates. It is also agreed that the election would have to be postponed to be made all postal. I listened carefully to the concerns that were raised about the breadth of that power. As a result, I lodged amendments at stage 2 to make the use of the power subject to the affirmative procedure, and to require ministers to lay a statement of reasons, which further increases transparency and accountability to Parliament were that power ever to be used.

Members raised concerns in similar terms about the power in section 8 for ministers to provide for polling to occur over more than one day—potentially over a period of up to nine days. I recognised the concerns that were raised about polling over multiple days and sought at stage 2 to make any use of the power subject to the convener of the Electoral Management Board’s recommendation that polling should take place over additional days. That power was also made subject to the affirmative procedure at stage 2 and I agreed with Adam Tomkins that it should be exercised only for a reason that relates to coronavirus. I am pleased that an amendment to that effect has been agreed today.

The bill reflects our collective duty to ensure that the people of Scotland are able to exercise their democratic rights. I am confident that it provides us with the flexibility to ensure safe delivery of the 2021 Scottish parliamentary election.

I move

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill be passed.

15:32  



Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I am pleased to take part in the stage 3 debate. I thank all those organisations that have provided useful briefings for today’s debate and earlier stages of the bill’s consideration. I also commend all those who have worked on, and contributed to, the bill, including members of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, during what has been a truncated parliamentary process.

As it is the season of good will, I take the opportunity also to thank the minister, who has constructively engaged with all parties on the bill. We got everything on our Christmas wish list for the bill and I welcome the fact that that positive engagement has paid off.

I am pleased that we have largely been able to achieve significant cross-party consensus on the bill as it has advanced its way through the Parliament. As the minister stated, this debate is just a few days after the news that a new variant of Covid-19 has emerged—there is already talk today of a second variant in South Africa. That news has understandably raised further questions about May’s election and emphasised the critical need for the bill and its provisions and contingencies, so that we can protect our democracy and ensure that we can hold a safe election.

From the outset, local authorities and returning officers have expressed concerns at the pressures that an election, and an expected increase in postal votes applications, will present to them. We continue to deal with the fast-evolving public health crisis and it is important—indeed, it is common sense—that the Parliament has the powers and options that are available in the bill in relation to an expected election in May of next year.

We welcome the major change that the appropriate opportunity to scrutinise and approve a number of key decisions in relation to any changes to an upcoming election, should the Covid situation deteriorate any further, will be given to the Parliament as a whole, rather than the decision being down solely to Scottish National Party ministers.

When dealing with the subject, it is right that the Parliament, rather than solely ministers, is involved in decision making and it is appropriate that the bill now ensures that any changes to postal votes and polling over additional days is now subject to the affirmative procedure of the Parliament.

We look forward to ministers working with local authorities and election teams to make the public aware that the deadline for postal vote applications for the election will be brought forward to 6 April, in anticipation of the extra volume of applications. Ministers also need to ensure that our councils and election units have all the support and resources that are required to process the expected increase in the number of those applications.

I welcome the information that the minister outlined about the public information campaign, particularly about television advertising and the additional communications that people will receive and hopefully engage with early on.

We all know the incredible pressures that local authorities in all areas are under, as we speak. In the weeks and months ahead, they are likely to be under even more pressure as we enter higher protection levels. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those who are working over the Christmas period, especially those in local government, for the work that they will be doing on behalf of us all.

All members in the chamber hope that the election in May will go ahead on the scheduled date, that we can ensure that we run a safe election and count, and that the next Parliament can safely sit as soon as possible afterwards. The fact that, during the pandemic, several major national elections have taken place internationally, and several council by-elections have taken place across the country, should reassure us that elections can take place during a public health emergency. Given the situation that we are now seeing in relation to the virus, I hope that, as a Parliament, we will have a discussion early in the new year about whether a delay is needed, and work to provide clarity to allow local authorities to plan for any delay as soon as possible.

I welcome the debate. The Scottish Conservatives will support the bill at decision time.

15:36  



Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I, too, thank everyone who was involved in pulling the bill together, and I am grateful for all the cross-party engagement that took place throughout its progress. I should give a special thank you to my colleagues Alex Rowley and Neil Findlay, who did most of the leg work on the bill. As with the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill yesterday, I just came in at the latter stages for some of the glory at the end—the hard work was done by others, and I thank them for that.

The key point of the bill is to make sure that people feel confident to go out and vote in May, that it is safe for them to do so, and that it is safe for those who are conducting the election. I hope that we can deliver on those aims.

Graeme Dey

At stage 2, Anas Sarwar raised issues around the practicalities of polling stations. I hope that he finds it useful that I have reached agreement with the electoral professionals to provide all members with a briefing and update on the progress around awareness raising regarding the postal vote, social distancing measures and how they are addressing the challenges that Anas Sarwar raised at stage 2.

Anas Sarwar

I thank the minister for his intervention. I was going to raise the issues of polling places. I gave the minister the example of the First Minister’s constituency, in which, although there is one polling box per 800 people to allow social distancing, there are polling places that have more than 2,000 electors, which will be a challenge on any single day. It depends on how many people take up the postal votes. There is a concern that if there are far fewer postal vote applications than predicted, there might be added footfall on the day, so I welcome the minister’s reassurance.

Another issue is the number of polling days. I welcome where we have got to in the bill, in that the power to determine that is now subject to the affirmative procedure. However, I caveat that by saying that we may have a situation in which the Electoral Management Board for Scotland does not recommend either having or not having multiple polling days, but, as a public health measure, the Parliament decides that we need more than one day. I hope that the matter could be addressed through consultation with the Electoral Management Board for Scotland if that situation did arise. There is a wider debate to be had about the number of polling days that we have, outwith our Covid response, but that is for another time.

On the public information campaign, I know that the minister shares my frustration about how late the booklets will go out. I accept that it is not only the booklets that will be part of the campaign, which needs to have television, radio, mail and social media elements. I urge him and all members, collectively, to say to the Electoral Commission that the campaign must start as early as possible and be as well-resourced and simple as possible if we are to get the message out to people.

Apart from that, we are in a good place with the bill. Obviously, as the Covid response continues and we see where we are come January, February and March, that might mean different considerations for us. Just as we have had good cross-party discussions during the bill process, I hope that that will continue as we get closer to the election.

I thank the minister for his interventions and positive engagement throughout the process. I also thank him for his commitment to there being no impediment to EROs getting the resources that they need, as there should be no price on ensuring that we have a free and fair democracy.

15:41  



Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

Once again, I note my appreciation of the cross-party dialogue that there has been in the production of the bill. I will not go quite as far as Miles Briggs did—perhaps my Christmas wish list is a bit more imaginative than being confined to the measures in the bill—but if he is happy, I am happy for him.

The committee benefited from a great deal of expert evidence, as did the MSPs who discussed the bill with the Government before the bill’s introduction. The one exception to that is the written submission in which the main complaint was that general elections in Scotland should not be called “general elections”, because the United Kingdom also has general elections. I will spare the blushes of the member who submitted that. I am glad that we have reached a bill that, on balance, has broad support.

There is still a huge lack of clarity on what the uptake of postal voting is likely to be and what we need to plan for. That was never going to be a specified target in the bill—it does not work that way—but we need to be conscious that the demand for and uptake of postal voting will be determined not only by its availability or by the objective safety of voting, but by the perceived safety of voting. If more people feel anxious about voting in person, the uptake of postal voting may go beyond the current expectations.

In many ways, there is even less clarity now than there was when we debated the bill at stages 1 and 2, which was a very short time ago. During the stage 1 debate, we all recognised that the situation had been pretty dodgy a few months before, but we felt that, now that the vaccine was coming, we were turning a corner and there was a light at the end of tunnel. Now, in the final days of December, we are again all deeply worried about the virus taking another turn for the worse. We simply do not know where we will be and what the condition will be by the end of April or the beginning of May. I regret that it is necessary to maintain the provision for an option to postpone the election. It is clear that, at this stage, that would not be welcomed by anyone, but the option must be in the bill.

I have a wider concern about participation in elections, which could never have been addressed by the bill, but which needs airing. Elections depend on lively, engaged democratic participation by not just voters, but political parties and, in the current circumstance, no one would welcome door-to-door canvassing, as they would not feel that that was safe. In the next few months, will we get to the point at which that could return? I simply do not know. Again, that is not something to be addressed in the bill.

There have been discussions about innovation and whether the coronavirus should be seen as an opportunity to innovate for the longer term. As I have said before, I am open to the idea of multiple polling days, just as I am open to the growth of postal voting. Not so long ago, people expected to need an excuse to have a postal vote; now, it is an expected right for everyone without having to justify themselves.

I have also supported extensions to the franchise and I would support consideration of where we put polling places. However, taking the opportunity to innovate in a pandemic might, in fact, harm the longer-term objective of having positive innovations that will last. When these immediate circumstances are gone, people will ask why we should maintain them, if the pandemic was the reason for the change in the first place.

We all want the same thing. We want our elections to take place, for them to be safe and secure, for there to be no barriers of cost, for there to be voter trust and confidence in the outcome, and for there to be high levels of participation. Although I do not know how well we will achieve those things in 2021, the bill gives us the opportunity to do our best.

15:45  



Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I, too, thank the minister, members, clerks and officials, who have worked so hard to bring us to this point, at breakneck speed.

Like others, I note that when the bill was first proposed, we could all have been forgiven for thinking that the end was in sight for the pandemic and that we were considering only contingencies. However, as we gather here at stage 3, the landscape has changed dramatically. With the very real prospect of serious lockdowns running to uncertain points into the spring, we can perhaps appreciate rather more how important these precautionary steps are.

At stage 1, I, like others, was concerned about the amount of power that was in the hands of ministers—who are, in this case, in a minority Government—to trigger changes to elections in which they have skin in the game. The sentiment that I expressed was against the backdrop of the US election, which exemplified the need for robust systems of scrutiny. If nothing else, it showed that scrutiny is essential to combat false accusations about the conduct of elections and restore public confidence in them.

I am pleased to see the progress that has been made at stage 2 and today, with amendments having been agreed to that place a limit on the exercise of that ministerial power and make changes that—as others have observed—have had cross-party support. There will now be stronger conditions for additional polling days to be called and a limit to the power to switch the election to be postal only. The bill therefore now gives us the best chance to run a safe and secure election, which is its underlying principle. As I said at stage 1, by May, we will have had our five-year session. It is therefore important that we do everything possible to make the election happen.

I again express my sincere thanks to all the members who have worked diligently and at pace to get the bill to this point. As Patrick Harvie rightly said earlier, and as others have acknowledged, this has been—as it needed to be—a genuinely cross-party effort. I confirm that Scottish Liberal Democrats will be happy to support the bill at decision time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Maureen Watt will be the only speaker in the open debate.

15:48  



Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I am pleased that there has been general consensus around the necessity of this fast-tracked bill. When I spoke in the stage 1 debate a few short weeks ago, we had just heard about the availability of a vaccine against Covid-19 and we hoped that some of the measures proposed in the bill would not be required. However, as the minister said, and as others know, because of the new strains that are emerging and our facing harder tiers of lockdown, we see why the contingencies in the bill are necessary and why it is important to give powers to ministers and the Presiding Officer to act quickly and decisively.

Throughout the drafting and progression of the bill, those most closely involved in ensuring free and fair elections—the Electoral Management Board, the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Parliament and political parties—have been consulted and closely involved, and they all know about the complexities of running elections.

I am pleased that the minister is today ensuring that electoral registration officers will have the resources necessary to cope with an increase in the number of postal ballots, and that those applying for a postal ballot will not need to incur any cost in doing so. Anas Sarwar is trying to make heavy weather of this and he shows little or no confidence in the resourcefulness of electors who want a postal vote or the abilities of the electoral registration officers to deal with applications, which we hope will increase if people prefer to vote in that way in the election.

It is really important that we stress that turning up to vote in person at a polling station will be safe and secure, and that additional measures will be in place to ensure social distancing and the safety of voters. I am pleased that the minister has announced that members will be updated on the measures that are being taken on that.

I sincerely hope that the vote does not have to be postponed or taken over more than one day. As Patrick Harvie said, it is important to review the way in which elections are run, and, over the lifetime of this Parliament, we have already made changes to Scottish Parliament elections. However, the bill is not the way in which to take forward further changes. It is important that we all work for maximum turnout, which might mean increasing the number of postal ballots.

I, too, thank the bill team for its work in drafting the bill so quickly, and the clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre team who have helped take SPPA Committee members such as myself through the bill and its complexities.

Presiding Officer, I could take up my full four minutes, but I am sure that members have other things to do before they leave the building tonight. I hope that all will support the bill at decision time. Happy Christmas to all. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That was a popular contribution. We move to closing speeches.

15:51  



Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

From the outset of our discussions with the Government, I have always been very clear that Labour’s position was that the election must go ahead. The only person who has ever raised the possibility of postponing the election—while seeking to know what other parties were thinking—was Graeme Dey. I am not sure where talk of postponement came from, but we have certainly been clear from day 1 that democracy must go ahead.

However, the election will take place under unique circumstances, and we must seek to take an ambitious approach to ensuring the safety of voters and poll workers, and maximum voter turnout. That has always been our objective, and is why we have said—for example in the point that Anas Sarwar made when he moved his amendment—that there has to be a strong public information campaign that makes it clear that if people have any concerns whatsoever about voting next year, they should apply for a postal vote.

Last week, who would have thought that we would be looking at a virtual close-down for next week? That is what has happened. Looking ahead to May next year, we do not know what position we will be in; that is why we have supported the bringing forward of the legislation. We are absolutely clear that the poll has to take place and has to be safe. Certainly, that is why I have put forward from day 1 the argument that if the election needs to take place over not just one day but two or three, or if measures are needed to ensure the safety of not only voters but the staff who work in election centres, those steps need to be taken.

More than anything, I emphasise that, throughout the discussions, the Government gave a commitment to running a campaign that would support and encourage people, if they felt unsafe, to get a postal vote. That requires the dedication of sufficient resources to meet the possible demand for postal voting. Again, the Government needs to make it clear to the Electoral Commission and to the electoral registration officers that resources will be made available where they are needed.

Graeme Dey

The member has had my assurance on that and, what is more, he has seen that demonstrated. I know that he is a very reasonable man, and I hope that he will accept that committing additional resources in order to fund a letter to 2.5 million households in early February is a clear demonstration of our commitments in that area.

Alex Rowley

That is welcome—it was a demand that I had been putting forward.

Democracy needs to prevail. People need to be able to go and vote, and to be able to do so safely. Let us look forward to the election and to ensuring that democracy in Scotland is not halted and people have their democratic right, regardless of where we are with the virus.

15:55  



Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

When I first saw the bill, I had only two concerns about it. I thought that it was, by and large, a sensible and prudent measure. My concerns were simply that the flexibility about the date and timing and the circumstances of the next election to this place should not lie solely or even mainly in the hands of ministers. As was pointed out forcefully in the stage 1 debate, ministers cannot be the umpires of elections, because they are participants in it. I am grateful for the way in which Graeme Dey has listened to, engaged with and acted on those concerns.

The bill provides that the next election to this Parliament could be held under an all-postal ballot. Were that to prove necessary, it would require a delay to the election of several months. It is a big step. The bill as introduced would have allowed ministers to take that step. As amended, the bill places that power squarely in the hands of Parliament.

Likewise, the bill provides that the next election to this Parliament could be held on more than one polling day. Again, as introduced, the bill would have conferred that power on ministers. Again, we have amended the bill so that that, too, will be for Parliament to decide. Moreover, any such decision will be able to be taken only on the recommendation of the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland.

Finally, the bill as amended makes it clear that those powers may be exercised only if it is necessary to do so by reason of the coronavirus pandemic.

As this is the last-but-one speech in the Parliament before the Christmas recess, I wanted to say a few words, reflecting not just on the bill but more broadly on the year that we have had. My colleagues and I on the Tory benches were elected four and a half years ago to be a strong Opposition. To my mind, that means that our job is to be an effective Opposition. In a Parliament of minorities, we are more likely to be effective—whether in government or in opposition—if we act and behave constructively. Just shouting “No” from the rooftops might appeal to the #SNPbad brigade on Twitter, but it is never likely to be effective, and ineffective opposition is not strong at all—indeed, it is pathetic.

This bill is a good example of effective opposition. By working with other Opposition parties, and indeed by working with the Government, we turned a problematic bill into one that we will happily support at decision time tonight.

This has been a difficult year for Oppositions, as it has been for a lot of people. Public emergencies push Governments centre stage. Not only do they occupy more of the limelight but they wield new, extraordinary and sometimes draconian powers. Holding the exercise of those powers to account is our job, and it has not been easy.

I want to close by paying tribute to all those who helped MSPs, not only in my party but across the chamber, to do that job—to the broadcasting and information technology staff who have worked tirelessly to ensure that our committees can function pretty much as effectively online as they can in Holyrood’s meeting rooms, and to you and your team, Presiding Officer, for the efforts that you have all made to enable this: a member addressing the Scottish Parliament not from the chamber but from his kitchen at home.

This has been a year that none of us will ever forget. As it draws to a close, I wish all my friends and colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, in all parties and in none, a merry—little—Christmas and a happy new year.

15:59  



Graeme Dey

The bill on which we will vote in a few minutes’ time is, as Miles Briggs and other members have said, the result of constructive and collaborative working. There is no doubt about that. From its conception, when all the parties of the Parliament gathered to discuss the contingencies that we might need to put in place for the 2021 election, through to the engagement of the Electoral Management Board, the Electoral Commission, the EROs and the Parliament, it has been—to use a worn cliché—a team effort. That was an absolute necessity, because this piece of legislation needed to be one that everyone concerned in the electoral process could sign up to.

I hope that many aspects of the legislation will not require to be deployed, but the developments of the past few days, as well as the reports that we hear this afternoon, have demonstrated the need to have contingency measures at our disposal.

Between substantial additional resources being put into encouraging postal vote uptake and the planning of social distancing measures to facilitate in-person voting on the day, I believe that we can deliver an election in which those who wish to do so can take part safely and securely. Although campaigning might be different and counting will take longer, I am confident that we will have an election of a kind that we still recognise and a result in whose robustness we can be confident.

I will digress a little for a few moments, because it is fitting that—almost—the last act of this Parliament in 2020 is not just a response to a pandemic that has dominated our work and the lives of all of us for much of the year but a piece of primary legislation. As we all know, this has been a year like no other and, whatever else it has done, it has set the Parliament substantial practical challenges that required commitment and innovation to overcome. The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill is not just the second piece of primary legislation to occupy us here this week; all being well, it will be the 21st to be passed since the year began.

I look around the chamber and see Liz Smith, a former colleague on the Parliamentary Bureau; she will recall the discussions in the bureau about the advisability—in a relatively early stage of the pandemic—of the Parliament processing non-coronavirus legislation. However, collectively, we came to the view that the Parliament had to be seen to function and do its day job as well as respond to the many challenges that the pandemic was setting us. The bureau’s decisions have been vindicated and I pay tribute to Liz Smith and Willie Rennie for the constructive role that they played in that.

A total of 19 Scottish Government bills—covering topics as diverse as social security, agriculture, children, female genital mutilation, civil partnerships, animals and wildlife protections and, of course, Covid-19—have completed their parliamentary passage, alongside a member’s bill and a private bill.

We have also seen the introduction of Government bills covering heat networks, hate crime, redress for survivors of historical child abuse in care, incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, University of St Andrews degrees in medicine and dentistry, and domestic protection orders, alongside 10 more members’ bills and three from committees. Cumulatively, that demonstrated how the Parliament has found a way to get on with the day job.

Presiding Officer, with your indulgence, I will recognise, as Adam Tomkins began to do, some of the people whose dedication and hard work have made that possible. Politicians praising themselves is never a good look, but the conveners of our committees, backed by their clerks, have done incredible work to keep the show on the road. Hybrid or virtual sessions are never easy to put together and run, especially when the subject matter involves gathering evidence on legislation, but our committees have found ways and means, as you know, Presiding Officer.

We have also established hybrid plenary sessions and virtual voting and, although we all recognise how, at times, the latter has tested the patience of members, its deployment has nevertheless been an achievement that we would have struggled without. A year ago, who would have imagined us conducting stage 3 proceedings here, with Patrick Harvie and Liam McArthur contributing remotely?

That brings me to the army of people behind the scenes here and in Government. The MSPs could not have functioned within this place without the Parliament staff—the clerks, the information technology team and the official report, security and catering staff—who have all played their part in this institution overcoming the challenges that I noted earlier.

The same goes for the Scottish Government civil servants, who have gone above and beyond in responding to the pandemic and ensuring that the Administration could deliver Covid and non-Covid-related legislation on that scale. As Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, on a daily basis, I have seen at first hand the extent to which those officials have adapted their working practices, often involving extended days and weeks, to keep the show on the road. As with the Parliament staff, theirs has been a fantastic effort, and we should each thank them for that.

There will be no let-up when we return from the festive break. Brexit impacts will need to be faced, the pandemic, as we know, is not relenting, and there is a stockpile of legislation to be completed ahead of the election, but that is for another day.

I wish all members and staff as peaceful and relaxing a festive break as it is possible to have but, before we rise for the recess, I would appreciate it if colleagues could see their way to passing the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

Final vote on the Bill

After the final discussion of the Bill, MSPs vote on whether they think it should become an Act.

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

Final vote transcript

The Presiding Officer

The next item of business is decision time. The first question is, that motion S5M-23768, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, be agreed to. The motion is on a bill, so I will suspend the meeting to allow members to access the voting app.

16:09 Meeting suspended.  



16:12 On resuming—  



The Presiding Officer

Welcome back. We will go straight to the division. The question is, that motion S5M-23768, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill be agreed to. This will be a one-minute division.

The vote is now closed.

Alex Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The voting app is not working for me. I would have voted yes, had I been able to vote.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Neil. We will record you as having voted for the motion.

For

Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)
Adamson, Clare (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
Allan, Dr Alasdair (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Baillie, Jackie (Dumbarton) (Lab)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Balfour, Jeremy (Lothian) (Con)
Beamish, Claudia (South Scotland) (Lab)
Beattie, Colin (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)
Bibby, Neil (West Scotland) (Lab)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Cameron, Donald (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Campbell, Aileen (Clydesdale) (SNP)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Carson, Finlay (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)
Chapman, Peter (North East Scotland) (Con)
Coffey, Willie (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)
Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Crawford, Bruce (Stirling) (SNP)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Denham, Ash (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dornan, James (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Fee, Mary (West Scotland) (Lab)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Finnie, John (Highlands and Islands) (Green)
FitzPatrick, Joe (Dundee City West) (SNP)
Forbes, Kate (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)
Freeman, Jeane (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)
Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Golden, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Gougeon, Mairi (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)
Grahame, Christine (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)
Grant, Rhoda (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Greer, Ross (West Scotland) (Green)
Hamilton, Rachael (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)
Harper, Emma (South Scotland) (SNP)
Harris, Alison (Central Scotland) (Con)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Hyslop, Fiona (Linlithgow) (SNP)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Lamont, Johann (Glasgow) (Lab)
Lennon, Monica (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Lochhead, Richard (Moray) (SNP)
Lockhart, Dean (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Lyle, Richard (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
MacDonald, Gordon (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)
Macdonald, Lewis (North East Scotland) (Lab)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
Macpherson, Ben (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Marra, Jenny (North East Scotland) (Lab)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Mason, Tom (North East Scotland) (Con)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
McArthur, Liam (Orkney Islands) (LD)
McKee, Ivan (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McNeill, Pauline (Glasgow) (Lab)
Mitchell, Margaret (Central Scotland) (Con)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
Neil, Alex (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)
Paterson, Gil (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)
Rennie, Willie (North East Fife) (LD)
Robison, Shona (Dundee City East) (SNP)
Ross, Gail (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)
Rowley, Alex (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Ruskell, Mark (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)
Russell, Michael (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Scott, John (Ayr) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Smith, Elaine (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Somerville, Shirley-Anne (Dunfermline) (SNP)
Stevenson, Stewart (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Stewart, Kevin (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)
Todd, Maree (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Wells, Annie (Glasgow) (Con)
Wheelhouse, Paul (South Scotland) (SNP)
White, Sandra (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)
Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
Wishart, Beatrice (Shetland Islands) (LD)
Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)

The Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 117, Against 0, Abstentions 0.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill be passed.

The Presiding Officer

The motion is agreed to, and therefore the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill is passed. [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer

The next question is, that motion S5M-23771, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on environmental standards Scotland, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament endorses the Scottish Government’s plans to establish Environmental Standards Scotland on a non-statutory basis, to provide for continuity of environmental governance; notes the evidence given to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee on 8 December 2020 by the Scottish Government’s nominees as members of Environmental Standards Scotland, and approves the Scottish Government’s nominations to Environmental Standards Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

If no member objects, I propose to ask a single question on the 12 Parliamentary Bureau motions.

The question is, that motions S5M-23791 to S5M-23793, motion S5M-23804 and motions S5M-23794 to S5M-23801, in the name of Graeme Dey, on behalf of the Parliamentary Bureau, be agreed to.

Motions agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Amendment (No. 6) Regulations 2020 (SSI 2020/415) be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Amendment (No. 5) Regulations 2020 (SSI 2020/400) be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Amendment (No. 7) Regulations 2020 (SSI 2020/427) be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Amendment (No. 8) Regulations 2020 (SSI 2020/452) be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (International Travel) (Scotland) Amendment (No. 24) Regulations 2020 (SSI 2020/404) be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the Cross-border Health Care (EU Exit) (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 [draft] be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland Social Security Chamber and Upper Tribunal for Scotland (Allocation of Functions, Procedure and Composition) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2020 [draft] be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the Carer’s Allowance Supplement and Young Carer Grants (Residence Requirements and Procedural Provisions) (EU Exit) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 [draft] be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the Rural Development (EU Exit) (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 [draft] be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Child Payment Amendment Regulations 2021 [draft] be approved.

That the Parliament agrees that, under Rule 12.3.3B of Standing Orders, the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints can meet, if necessary, at the same time as a meeting of the Parliament on Tuesday 12 January 2021 from approximately 3.30pm to Decision Time and during Members' Business.

That the Parliament agrees that—

Jamie Halcro Johnston be appointed to replace Oliver Mundell as a member of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee; and

Oliver Mundell be appointed to replace Jamie Halcro Johnston as a member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you for your attendance. I wish you, your families and your constituents a very merry Christmas.

Meeting closed at 16:15.  



Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill as passed

This Bill was passed on 23 December 2020 and became an Act on 29 January 2021

Find the Act on legislation.gov.uk

Share this page