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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, June 9, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, NHS Staff Recruitment and Retention, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Census, Covid-19 Inquiry, Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Ukrainian Refugees (Trafficking)


Contents


Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill: Stage 3

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a stage 3 debate on motion S6M-04818, in the name of George Adam, on the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill.

The Presiding Officer is required under the standing orders to decide whether any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter—that is, whether it would modify the electoral system and franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. In the Presiding Officer’s view, no provision of the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill relates to a protected subject matter. Therefore, the bill does not require a supermajority to be passed at stage 3.

16:11  

The Minister for Parliamentary Business (George Adam)

As the Minister for Parliamentary Business, I will probably use the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill as an example to colleagues of how to manage a bill through the Parliament. There were no amendments at stage 2, everything has been done with consensus, and there have been no amendments at stage 3. I welcome the conveners of both committees that I have worked with, as we have managed to find consensus, which is often lacking in the chamber. It is good that I am the person who is bringing consensus to the chamber. As we all know, I am all about consensus in general.

Will the minister take an intervention?

It never lasts.

Martin Whitfield

We will see whether it will.

Does the minister concur that, among the reasons for the straightforward nature of the process were the preparation that was done, the investigation that was undertaken in the committees and, indeed, the minister’s undertakings, given in evidence to the committees, to resolve some outstanding matters?

George Adam

I agree with Martin Whitfield. In the spirit of the debate, it is all about ensuring that we all feel that we have delivered something in the bill by working together to ensure that it works.

I notice that Martin Whitfield is wearing ReTweed’s bow tie in the Spirit of Ukraine tartan. ReTweed is a women’s social enterprise. We are not starting a new fashion trend; we were given those earlier today.

More seriously, the bill seeks to make a small but important change in relation to the law governing those who can stand as candidates in our local government elections. Before I turn to discussion of the bill, I put on record my appreciation of all those involved in the successful running of last month’s local government elections. The Electoral Commission and others are still taking stock of how the election went, but it is clear that, for the second time since the pandemic started, a major nationwide poll has been held safely and securely. I thank all those involved.

The election on 5 May was also the second national election held since changes were made in 2020 to extend voting and candidacy rights in Scottish devolved elections to foreign nationals. Voting rights were extended to virtually all persons aged 16 or over living in Scotland who either have leave to remain in the United Kingdom or who do not require such leave. The Parliament did not go quite as far in relation to candidacy rights. Foreign nationals with indefinite leave to remain in the UK were given the right to stand in Scottish Parliament and local government elections, and the new law made it clear that European Union nationals with settled status or pre-settled status could stand as MSPs or councillors, despite Brexit. However, foreign nationals with limited leave to remain—for example, the right to remain in the UK for a 30-month period—were not given the right to stand as candidates in Scottish devolved elections.

The bill is therefore needed to fully implement the four treaties that the UK Government has agreed with Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain in relation to voting and candidacy rights in local government elections. By agreeing those treaties, the UK Government has opened the door to allowing people with limited leave to remain to stand as candidates. As a result of the bill that we are debating, nationals of Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain and Poland will be able to stand for election as a councillor in Scotland, even if they have only limited leave to remain, and even if that leave is set to expire during their term of office.

The new Elections Act 2022 makes corresponding provision for other parts of the UK. However, the Scottish Government has ambitions to go further in that area. I am currently considering topics for a consultation on electoral reform to be held later in the year. My intention is for the consultation to examine issues surrounding a wider expansion of candidacy rights—for example, to 16 and 17-year-olds—and to explore what would be involved in an extension to other foreign nationals who have limited leave to remain. That will implement the shared policy programme undertaking to

“promote legislation on electoral reform that enables more people to stand as candidates at Scottish Parliament and local government elections”.

I am pleased by the extent of the cross-party support for the bill’s proposals. No amendments were lodged at either stage 2 or stage 3. Both the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee called for further consideration on only one issue, which was the process for removing a country from the list of countries by virtue of which candidacy rights are provided under the bill. Both committees highlighted that the bill appeared to give the Scottish ministers discretion on whether to remove a country from the list when an agreed candidacy rights treaty comes to an end. It is not the Government’s intention to create a broad power in that area, and I have made clear my view that ministers would not be able to use the power conferred by the bill as a means of extending candidacy rights unilaterally should a treaty be cancelled.

I also explained that the level of discretion provided by the bill was necessary to afford flexibility in the event of a candidacy rights treaty being suspended rather than cancelled. Accordingly, the bill ensures that the Scottish ministers will have the same discretion as UK ministers have to deal with any suspension of candidacy rights in the most effective way possible.

I hope that that explanation has reassured members, and I remain grateful to both committees for their consideration of the bill.

The bill is required in order to implement treaties agreed by the UK Government. Although its scope is limited, it is an important part of our continuing conversation on candidacy rights and the question of who should be empowered to stand in our elections. I commend the bill to the Parliament and encourage all members to engage in the Government’s consultation on electoral reform when it is launched.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill be passed.

I call Stephen Kerr, for around six minutes.

16:17  

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I congratulate the minister on piloting this important piece of legislation through the Parliament in such a smooth way. I put it on the record that even though he and I have regular differences in our points of view, I am always grateful for the good humour with which he approaches the tasks that the Parliament presents before him.

I will make a very short speech. I am sure that that will come as a relief to you, Presiding Officer, my own colleagues and indeed the minister. [Laughter.] There has been an outbreak of consensus, of which I am the central focus. I am overwhelmed that that is how my colleagues feel.

I wish to say something in connection with this important piece of legislation. I am, of course, delighted that the UK is forging treaty relationships with the countries to which the minister referred. I hope that there will be many more such treaties, because that is an important part of the role that the United Kingdom plays in the wider world. The citizens of the wider world play an important part in the life of our country, both in Scotland and in the United Kingdom.

During the stage 1 debate I raised issues about the importance of councillors’ powers and the need to protect them from an overbearing Standards Commission for Scotland. I was a little surprised that my comments, which were probably not without controversy, were not picked up by anyone. I repeat them now just in case someone wishes to refer to them at a later date.

I would also like to mention the importance of helping and supporting people to become candidates for election, including the citizens who will be impacted by the bill and others. It is important that we facilitate that so that people—our friends and neighbours and others in our communities, including those who are from other countries—feel that they can stand for election. It is incumbent on us, who enjoy the privilege of elected office, particularly in this place, to make that possible.

We all know that being a candidate can sometimes be quite a lonely thing to do. Frankly, it can be understood only by those who have done it and who have lived experience. The fact is that in our politics in Scotland, as soon as someone puts their head above the parapet, they can sometimes become a target. I think that that is a shame. The example that we are probably showing a little of this afternoon in the chamber should be the example that we try to shine a brighter light on for the rest of the country: that is, that we can disagree with each other quite strongly—and I do not think that I can be absolved from responsibility for disagreeing strongly—but it is important that we learn how to do that without being personally disagreeable.

Just last night, I was on “Debate Night” on the BBC. We had a very civil debate among the audience and with the panellists. However, on opening my Twitter account this morning, I realised that mentioning that I have children and grandchildren who live in England has meant that people have responded by saying, “Well, why don’t you go off to England and live in England?”. That kind of unnecessary personal abuse—and that is low-level abuse compared with some of the stuff that people can read on my Twitter account—does not have a place in our politics and I hope that all of us in the chamber can readily agree on that.

We need to treat each other with civility; we need to avoid personal invective; and we need to support and respect each other. That can happen here and it can happen in the broader community of those who are engaged in the political life of our country. That way, we will get more and better people coming forward for election. I do not think that it does politics any service if we are seen to be personally bitter and abusive towards one another. I would hate to think that we would eventually limit the pool of those who stand for political office to a very small group of hardened party stalwarts. That would certainly not be good for Scotland or for our politics.

Sometimes, I think that politicians can create a persona that they intend to maybe intimidate or maybe scare the opposition. I do not think that we need to do that on a personal level. I think that the battle of ideas that is politics is a rich place to spend one’s life and energy in and I hope that that in itself gives us sufficient reason to want to be engaged.

We need good people to stand; we should not be doing anything to put people off. I say again—I feel that it bears repetition—that we do not want to limit the pool of people who will stand as candidates for any of our parties to the desperate and the obsessive. We want people who are living their lives and feel that they can make a contribution from wherever they come in society, to feel that being involved in politics and putting themselves forward to be a candidate is a good thing to do. There are many sensitive and complex issues that we need to deal with as politicians.

I recognise that I am probably running out of time and no one will intervene so that you can give me more time, Presiding Officer, and I know that we are up against the clock.

There are many things that we could say about the importance of candidates and the importance of people serving in their communities—particularly as local councillors. We touched on that the last time that we met. Therefore, I support the bill and I want to see people encouraged by our example to become involved in politics as candidates. I am delighted to have played a very small part in supporting the minister to bring the bill safely and smoothly through the processes of this Parliament, so that we can build a country and a political system that exemplify the civility, the patience, the kindness and the good humour that have been on exhibition in the chamber this afternoon.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Kerr. I note that, in embracing the consensus, you perhaps strayed a little from the substance of the bill and that your short speech exceeded your time allocation by exactly 30 seconds, but nevertheless, you embraced the spirit of the debate.

16:24  

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill.

It is a non-contentious bill, to which, unusually, no amendments have been lodged at either stage 2 or stage 3, as the minister said. The whole Parliament is behind this small but important measure to ensure compliance with treaties in relation to candidacy rights. It is limited to extending local government candidacy rights to any nationals of Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain or Poland who have a limited form of leave to remain in the UK. It is important to stress that only a small number of people are affected, as EU nationals who have settled and pre-settled status already have candidacy rights in our elections.

There is another side to the matter that we should not forget: the treaties give similar rights to UK citizens who live in Portugal, Luxembourg, Poland and Spain. Given the disastrous loss of rights that has been inflicted on UK citizens since the UK left the EU, it is a small comfort that the ability to participate in the democratic process in those four countries will be afforded to UK citizens who live there. It is a small symbol of continuing links between those countries and the United Kingdom.

Although there have been some concerns about the bill, the minister has largely addressed them, as Martin Whitfield said. However, I hope that the question of any additional financial burdens on councils will not be forgotten, particularly as the Scottish Government has announced substantial cuts to council budgets.

In my speech during the stage 1 debate, I praised the contribution to Scottish society of people who were born in other countries. It is important to keep repeating that, particularly when we read of racist incidents, which, although small in number, are nonetheless abhorrent and unacceptable.

I pay tribute to people who come to this country and want to enhance our communities. For a tiny few, that might mean taking the opportunity to stand for election when the law permits them to do so. The vast majority of the welcome new members of our society will contribute by working in essential jobs, volunteering in local communities, building friendships and helping to broaden understanding between people of different cultures. I am sure that there are numerous examples of the contributions that have been made by people who have come from Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland, and I extend my heartfelt thanks to them.

I make special mention of the contribution that is made to life in Scotland by the substantial Polish community that is now resident here. People who have come from Poland have become essential to our service industries; Polish tradespeople have made their mark on our building services industry; Polish worshippers have boosted the congregations in many of our churches; and Polish-speaking children have enhanced many of our schools. Shops selling Polish goods are now a common feature in many of our towns. In my West Scotland region, there are many examples of the contribution that is being made by people who were born in Poland. I am sure that the minister will join me in recognising the contribution of the Polish community in Renfrewshire, in particular.

It is only right that, as well as praising people who have come from Poland, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg for their contribution to Scottish society, we use the treaties as a way of extending their rights to participate more fully in the democratic process of Scotland, if that is what they wish to do. The bill will take the necessary steps to plug small gaps, and I commend it to the Parliament.

We now move to the open debate.

16:27  

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

In many respects, the bill has been a fait accompli since it was drafted, and I welcome it. Put simply, the UK Government has signed treaties with Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain and Poland that offer reciprocal candidacy rights to nationals who are resident in each other’s countries.

Our Scottish Parliament needed to take steps to ensure that our legislative framework took account of the provisions in those international treaties, or the UK Government would have legislated directly on those matters. Either way, it was a fait accompli. Some might say—although not me, given the consensus that has been reached in the debate—that that is a good indicator that power that has been devolved by the UK Government is power that it has retained to use when it suits it. I say to Mr Kerr that he should not worry. I am not going to talk about the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which is a power grab, or the Brexit freedoms bill, which is another power grab. Instead, I will talk about the happy instance of the absolute policy alignment between the Parliament, the Scottish Government and the provisions within said UK treaties.

The bill will ensure that those reciprocal rights can be exercised in Scotland at council elections, as they should be. We all support that. People from EU countries who have indefinite leave to remain or pre-settled status already have such rights, and the number of people who are impacted is likely to be small.

Of course, I take the view that all people who have made their home in Scotland should have the opportunity to both vote in and stand for elections that take place in Scotland. In effect, I wish that this afternoon we were confirming the rights that are outlined in the bill on a consistent basis across the EU’s 27 countries and nations. Why should someone from Spain, Portugal, Italy or any other EU country have varying rights when it comes to living, working, standing for election or voting in elections?

The Scottish Government has a strong track record of seeking to maximise the democratic rights of all those who have made their home in this country. Parliament passed the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020, section 1 of which extended the franchise to include those with the legal right to live in Scotland, including refugees, as the minister mentioned. However, only those with indefinite leave to remain can have candidacy rights. We must return to that and address it.

Martin Whitfield

Does the member agree that, although outside the strict ambit of the bill, one of the challenges that we found related to the availability of accurate data on how many people would be affected by various aspects of legislation that has been passed here and at Westminster?

Bob Doris

As convener of our committee, which led on the bill, Mr Whitfield is absolutely right that we found getting robust data in that regard a challenge. We will have to return to that matter in due course.

As I said in the stage 1 debate, more generally, the Scottish Government’s consultations and legislation on electoral reform have enabled more people to stand as candidates in the Scottish Parliament and local government elections.

The minister, George Adam, will not be particularly enamoured by this proposal. In relation to wider election rules, we perhaps have to look again at the alphabetisation bias, where candidates with names that begin with A rather than Z are more likely to succeed in local council elections. I see that the minister is delighted by my suggestion. There are opportunities to look at not just candidacy rights but how we run those elections.

I look forward to the bill becoming an act this afternoon. I finish by responding to something that Mr Bibby said, because the bill is also about making sure that we send a clear message to all those who have built their lives in Scotland and contributed to our society. You are welcome, and we want you here. You have backed our society, so we want to back you with your basic human right to be involved in the democratic process in Scotland—not just to live and work here but to vote and to stand for election. In some small way, the bill does that.

16:32  

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on behalf of Labour. As Neil Bibby and Bob Doris said, if passed, the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill will ensure that nationals from Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain can stand as candidates in local government elections in Scotland. The UK Government has already agreed those terms with the countries that I mentioned through treaties that, in a mutual way, allow nationals of our respective countries to stand as candidates in elections, and the bill puts those treaties into law.

Furthermore, the bill will allow Scottish ministers to add additional countries to the list, in the event that those countries enter into treaties with the UK, and to remove countries from the list if they are no longer party to a treaty with the UK.

Labour supports the bill, which extends candidacy rights to nationals of any country that signs a treaty with the UK and ensures compliance with UK Government treaties that have already been established. There is little opposition to the bill, because it largely serves to enshrine in law what has already been agreed by treaty.

The bill does not appear to create any additional management burdens for local government elections. Indeed, in its written submission to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee on 22 February this year, the Electoral Management Board for Scotland stated:

“In submitting nomination papers at a local government election in Scotland the candidate must satisfy themselves that they are qualified to stand, taking their own legal advice if necessary. Candidates must sign a declaration that they are qualified to stand. The Returning Officer will not seek any further evidence in support of that declaration. Practically therefore this Bill adds no further duties to the work of the Returning Officer in the operation of the local elections.”

However, although the bill might not add additional burdens to the management of local government elections, there are minor issues with it that should be highlighted before its implementation.

One issue is the increased risk of local authorities having to conduct by-elections in instances in which a sitting councillor’s immigration status changes. Although there is only a small potential risk in that regard, it is important that it is considered, because local authorities must be aware of the potential for a situation to arise in which they would be required to fund an unexpected by-election due to the election of an individual with limited leave to remain in the country. Therefore, Labour called on the Scottish Government to ensure that local authorities are clearly made aware of the potential need, no matter how small the risk, for additional funding to cover those election costs. We are content with the cabinet secretary’s commitment to work with local government to avoid such issues.

A further issue was raised by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, which pointed out that a future Government may not consider itself

“bound to remove a country”

as a result of a treaty change, and that Scottish ministers might

“exercise discretion in relation to the timing of removing a country from the list.”

To answer that concern, Labour supported the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee’s call for the Scottish Government to lodge an amendment to address the issue and remove any elements of discretion from such decisions. I note that a Government amendment on the issue was not forthcoming. Despite that outstanding issue, Scottish Labour supports the proposal that is set out in the bill.

16:36  

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I recently spoke on the doorstep with several hundred people in Stirling in the run-up to the council elections. I met people who had come to Scotland to study, as well as people who had now finished studies but had decided to remain to seek work. I met people who had come to Scotland to escape persecution and had been granted refugee status, and people who were still in limbo while seeking asylum. I also met people who had come to Scotland to set up businesses.

When I asked them, the majority of those people had views on many of the local issues that were the subject of debate, from bin collections to the state of housing. Some of them were so engaged on the issues that I would have happily voted for them if they had been standing to be one of my councillors. However, sadly, a large number of those people still believed that they could not vote, let alone stand in elections, and many were not even registered.

The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020 addressed a long-standing democratic deficit whereby thousands of people who had made Scotland their home were unable to vote or stand in elections. However, we are still some distance away from realising that truly residence-based franchise whereby everyone who lives here has the right to vote and stand in Scottish elections and understands their rights.

We also still have the imbalance on age: 16 and 17-year-olds can vote, but they cannot stand for election—although I met a number of young people on the doorstep whom I would have been happy to vote for as well.

The Greens supported the 2020 act but, at the time, I asked the Scottish Government to go further on both voting and candidacy rights, to ensure that people living in Scotland were not prevented from participating in our democracy due to restrictive immigration conditions that had been placed on them by the UK Government. I lodged amendments, and despite some sympathy from across the chamber and from the Government, we were unable to make the changes at that time. Therefore, as it stands, here in Scotland, a person can vote if they have a temporary form of leave to remain, but they cannot stand as a candidate. That falls short of the parity that we want to see in Scotland’s electoral franchise.

The bill goes some way towards fixing the disparity. The legislation will grant expanded candidacy rights to some nationals, but only based on treaties that are agreed by the UK Government with individual states. It is ironic that the expansion of candidacy rights is being triggered by a UK Government that is hellbent on further constricting electoral rights for others by introducing mandatory voter identification and removing the automatic right to voting and candidacy rights that EU nationals enjoyed before Brexit.

Will the member take an intervention?

I will if I can get time back.

You certainly can.

Stephen Kerr

Does Mark Ruskell feel that it is important that there is reciprocation of these voting rights? We have obligations to our citizens who live in other countries to ensure that they also have the privileges that, I agree, we would like the people who he is mentioning in his speech to have in our country.

Mark Ruskell

I think that the best way to ensure reciprocation would be for us to rejoin the European Union as a fully fledged, independent member state, but we will leave that for another year.

When I lodged amendments to the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill to expand voting and candidacy rights, the Government said that there were concerns. However, now more than ever, we need to take down those barriers. Electoral registration is not a real barrier, as people with limited leave to remain are probably the most heavily verified persons living in the country. It is also clear from the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill that it is possible to extend candidacy rights to people with limited leave to remain. Put simply, if we are going to improve candidacy rights for some people, why not improve them for all?

I look forward to the Government’s consultation—it was great to hear the minister announce that today—on expanding rights for all those people whom I met on the doorstep, some of whom I wanted to be able to vote for, so that they not only can vote but potentially stand for election in Scotland. If we continue this process of reform, we will have a better democracy and be a better nation as a result.

Willie Coffey, who is the final speaker in the open debate, joins us remotely.

16:41  

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

Having listened to Stephen Kerr, I was a bit alarmed that I might be speaking in the wrong debate. In the spirit of fairness and generosity, I will say that his comments, although mostly nothing to do with the bill, are very welcome nonetheless.

When the bill came to the chamber at stage 1 on 28 March, we recognised that, although it was pretty short, it provided an important route to participation in the democratic process for people from Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain, as set out in the treaty processes that had been entered into by the UK Government. The bill enables those people to put themselves forward to be local councillors in Scotland, and I still support it, despite the fact that it emerged as a reaction to what is a piecemeal and odd process of extending such democratic rights.

Citizens from other parts of Europe and beyond are still waiting for treaties to be entered into that can allow them to be afforded the same sort of democratic rights—rights that they previously held but were removed by Brexit. At least the bill embraces to a degree the direction of travel that we spoke about last time, in that it widens the goal of democratic engagement in Scotland. That direction of travel is supported by the Scottish Government.

It is worth restating that, under the previous conditions that applied, the right to be a candidate depended on whether the person had indefinite leave to remain in the UK or pre-settled status. If the bill is passed, it will enable people from the countries mentioned who do not have settled or pre-settled status to become candidates, if they wish. That is in line with the agreements in the treaty arrangements. Confirming the rights of those people to be local councillors representing their communities will certainly be welcome, but I say again that this is hardly a satisfactory route to bring about something that existed before Brexit.

The last time that we debated the bill, I mentioned a couple of possible issues that would need to be clarified. I think that my colleague Alex Rowley mentioned one or two of them. What happens if a person becomes a councillor and their immigration status changes? Would that automatically mean that a democratically elected councillor was legally no longer a councillor and there would have to be a by-election? I know that that is fairly unlikely to occur, but the possibility requires some clarification. Similarly, what happens if a treaty comes to an end? Would that legally end a person’s right to legally remain being a councillor, and cause a by-election? Those are very unlikely events, but I imagine that provision would need to be made for such circumstances. I would be obliged to the minister if he would clarify those points.

The very short bill will give effect to the intention and purpose behind the UK Government’s—[Inaudible.]—agreements when they come into force. I hope that our Parliament will re-establish normal arrangements for democratic participation in the not-too-distant future and will not have to play second fiddle to treaties being entered into by other jurisdictions in order to gain what other people—[Inaudible.]—have by rights.

The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee have done a good job for us in considering the bill and have posed a number of questions that may arise as a result of changing circumstances. In moving forward, my hope is that the bill can be amended to extend candidacy rights to all foreign nationals living in and making a valued contribution to Scotland. That will be consulted on later this year.

Let us support the bill at its final stage, thank the committees for their work and look forward to this very short but important bill becoming law in Scotland and affording certain citizens the right to become councillors—a right that all of us have enjoyed for many years.

We move to closing speeches.

16:46  

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

As my colleague Neil Bibby confirmed, we will support the bill, and we are keen to extend candidacy rights to nationals of any country with which the UK signs a treaty for mutual candidacy rights at local elections who have any type of leave to remain.

Local decisions are clearly enriched when real experiences, different ideas and voices from across the local community are involved, and strong voices are occasionally needed not just to stand up for the community but to stand up to central Government. I am pleased that we can ensure compliance with treaties agreed with Portugal, Poland, Spain and Luxembourg, affording people from those countries, and ours, mutual candidacy rights.

Yes, the legislation is a consequence of the UK leaving the EU—a matter that was raised by a number of colleagues in this debate and the stage 1 debate—but it is a necessary and simple piece of legislation. It establishes the rights of people to stand, but it does not set the conditions to maximise the breadth of candidates that we might want to see come forward.

Bob Doris

I absolutely agree about entrenching those rights, but Mr Ruskell and I both suggested in our speeches that those rights should exist irrespective of whether the UK secures a treaty with a European Union country. Someone who is living in, working in and committed to Scotland should have those rights along with their neighbours, irrespective of which European Union country they hail from originally.

Absolutely—we agree with that. I was simply responding to the bill and the treaties that we have in front of us today. The principle that Bob Doris elaborated—

Will the member give way?

Certainly

Stephen Kerr

What I am surprised to hear is that Mark Griffin and the Labour Party do not seem to be in favour of reciprocation. What about our fellow British citizens who are living in countries where they may not enjoy those rights? Surely we have an obligation to help them to have the same privileges as those that we are happily giving to the citizens of those countries who are in Scotland.

Mark Griffin

That is what I have said already in my speech. This is about the reciprocal nature of the treaties. It is just as much about enabling people from those countries to be candidates as it is about giving citizens from here the right to stand elsewhere. Perhaps I did not elaborate fully in my answer to Mr Doris. I would expect that that right would be afforded to citizens from our country in other countries, where we were giving their nationals the right to stand here.

Will the member give way?

I am happy to take another intervention if I have time, Presiding Officer.

Briefly, Mr Kerr.

I am grateful for the clarification, but the point was not obvious from the reply that Mark Griffin gave to Bob Doris.

Mark Griffin

As I was saying, although this piece of legislation establishes the rights of people to stand, it does not set the conditions to maximise the breadth of candidates that we would perhaps like to see representing our local communities. Just a month ago, a new generation of enthusiastic councillors was elected to office to improve their communities and help their neighbours, addressing issues from social care to children’s education, housing and economic development, but also the bread and butter of local roads, cleanliness and bin collections.

Those councillors will now do everything they can to make changes and decisions on services that affect people’s daily lives. That is not without its challenges, as Stephen Kerr said in his opening speech. The people who were elected a month ago will have faced abuse and harassment; will take on more than a full-time job, with long hours and very little pay; and will have to work with a local government workforce that is very demoralised at the moment. Those challenges look set to grow, which puts at risk our opportunity to have the best pool of candidates in future elections.

I said at stage 1 in March that the candidates who go on to be elected will be forced into taking decisions that mean scaling back and cutting services while they struggle to keep up with local demand. Millions have been ring fenced beyond those locally elected candidates’ control, and since 2013, £918 million in real terms has been slashed from council budgets.

When budget after budget cuts local services, taking those decisions is a constant task that grinds down local candidates and local democracy. Do we think that that job would be attractive to people from Spain, Poland, Portugal and Luxembourg who have made Scotland their home? I am not so sure, because that is not what people go into local government to do.

I am pleased that we can widen the candidacy rights today, and we support the bill. However, Parliament has a wider job of considering the best conditions that we can have for the best pool of candidates in 2027.

16:51  

Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

It is not often that the chamber is in agreement, especially when a bill has been introduced at an expedited pace. I am pleased to say that there is consensus today in support of the bill and that there are no changes at the amending stages. That means that there is less to say in our speeches, but I will persevere, albeit less colourfully than my colleague Stephen Kerr.

The legislation completes its parliamentary passage after the local elections in May, when we were reminded of the importance of local democracy and of what an immense privilege it is to represent communities across Scotland.

The bill is required because the UK Government has agreed four treaties with Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain for reciprocal voting and candidacy arrangements in local government elections. Although Scotland’s law on voting rights already complies with the treaties, further legislation is needed to comply on candidacy rights. As such, the bill is necessary and welcome. The Scottish Conservatives would, of course, welcome similar agreements that the UK Government makes with other countries, as we have said.

I note from the policy memorandum that it would have been possible for the bill to go further, for example by extending candidacy rights to all foreign nationals with limited leave to remain. However, the decision was taken to limit the bill’s scope. Given the expedited timeframe of the bill to allow ratification of the treaties with Poland and Spain, that was the right decision.

One point that emerged during the scrutiny of the bill by both the DPLR Committee and the SPPA Committee was in relation to Scottish ministers’ functions when a candidacy rights treaty ceases to apply. Specifically, there was some debate as to whether the Scottish ministers should have a power or a duty to remove a country from schedule 6A in the event of a suspension of treaty rights. That was largely because it is difficult to anticipate the intentions of future Governments and, as parliamentarians, we must be mindful of future-proofing legislation when we can. I understand that, after consulting counterparts in the UK Government, the verdict was that it would be preferable to maintain consistency between the Scottish and the UK bill provisions.

As always, the devil is in the detail, and I am grateful to both committees for their commitment to scrutiny when legislative timelines are very tight. That is how it should be.

Martin Whitfield

I thank Tess White for giving way, which allows me to thank her for the period of time that she spent on the SPPA Committee.

Does Tess White agree that the expedited timetable for the bill, the clear discussions that took place between committees and Government, and the undertakings that were sought and offered allowed the process to pass much more reasonably than might otherwise have been the case?

Tess White

I agree. The way in which processes were conducted by the committees and the minister has been a model. I thank Martin Whitfield for that and for his thanks for my contribution at committee.

Scottish electoral law has been amended quite recently with the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020, which extended the franchise to prisoners with sentences of less than 12 months—a move that I and my party opposed.

The Scottish National Party-Green Government has signalled in the shared policy programme that it again intends to consult on a wider expansion of candidacy rights, alongside other electoral reform proposals. The Scottish Conservatives will carefully consider any future proposals.

During the stage 1 debate, the minister was receptive to ideas that members might have in relation to electoral reform in Scotland. I hope that that spirit of co-operation will continue as the Scottish Parliament looks again at electoral reform in the coming months.

16:56  

George Adam

I thank members for their contributions to the debate. We have all agreed on this small and tightly focused bill, which has been perfect in getting the bill through the process. I remind members that, although the bill is tightly focused on candidacy rights in relation to international treaties, we should not lose sight of the fact that our law on voting rights is already one of the most generous in the world. However, as we have said today, we can still do better.

The issue of who can stand in elections is a fundamental part of democracy. I look forward to further debate over the course of the year on a wider expansion of candidacy rights, among other electoral reform issues.

I turn to points that were raised during the debate. Willie Coffey asked what would happen if a councillor’s leave to remain expired. The Home Office is currently considering that. It is expected that a successful candidate would still have to meet the other conditions of their leave to remain, including participation in a job and other things that are tied to their leave to remain. If a councillor’s leave to remain were to expire during their term of office and they were unable to extend it or switch to a different form of leave, the person would cease to be a councillor and a by-election would be called. On by-elections, which many members have mentioned, the Electoral Management Board for Scotland estimated the cost of a local government by-election at £50,000. Because of the limited number of people who might be in that predicament, that would not be burdensome for councils.

On the impact of a treaty coming to an end, the bill ensures that there will be no difficulty in avoiding an adverse impact on a serving councillor or an on-going election at the time of a treaty’s being cancelled. The bill enables the Scottish ministers to make in regulations transitional arrangements removing candidacy rights that are conferred as a right through the bill. Alex Rowley talked about what would happen for local government if there was such an issue.

I want to talk about some of the numbers. The exact population figures are not available, but Office for National Statistics data suggests that there might be around 62,000 Polish, 14,000 Portuguese, 11,000 Spanish and 3,000 Luxembourg nationals resident in Scotland. Most of those people are likely to have settled or pre-settled status, which means that they can stand as candidates, so no significant costs in that respect are expected as a direct result of the bill, if it is passed.

Another issue that came up in the debate is what else we have planned for the future, and many members—including Mark Ruskell and Bob Doris—set out some of their ideas. The programme for government set out an undertaking to prepare legislation to enable more people to stand as candidates in Scottish Parliament and local government elections, and to improve accessibility in elections, with a particular focus on improving accessibility for people with sight loss.

The programme for government also sets out an aspiration to increase voter registration and active participation in elections by underrepresented groups, including non-UK citizens and young people.

I expect the consultation to address a number of issues, including campaign finance and intimidation and harassment, which were raised by the UK Elections Act 2022.

If Mr Doris is still struggling with his ABCs, he can engage with the process that we are having over the summer period.

Will the minister give way?

Yes. I had an idea that this might happen.

Bob Doris

It is not that I have trouble with my ABCs. I just think that the system will disadvantage the XYZs at local government elections, under the single transferable vote. Is the minister open to change, so that that bias is eliminated?

George Adam

Mr Doris will probably find that, as someone whose surname is Adam, I have some skin in the game. [Laughter.] My councillor sister would probably say the same.

As I said to Mr Gibson when he asked me the same question 24 hours ago, if anyone comes to me with a plan that means that we will all be happy with the result of the election at the end of the day, we will look at it. Until that day, the most important thing is to ensure that we all agree with the result. Currently, that is not an issue for my party in respect of local government elections.

I want to mention some other points that were made earlier. Stephen Kerr and I have been unusually polite to each other during the debate, because it has been all about the consultation and the ease with which we have managed the bill. Mr Kerr and I have had a number of rammies in the chamber; I take on board many of his points of view. I also direct him to our electoral reform consultation and I appeal to everyone to look at that. I take his point: who would want to become involved in politics, given some of the toxic things that are happening out there in public life? That is a thing that we, as politicians, need to be wary of, and we need to say that to others who get involved in the process.

Mr Bibby expressed concern about additional financial burdens on councils. I have explained that I do not believe that there will be any. He mentioned in particular the Polish community in areas including Renfrewshire—which I would call “Greater Paisley”, but that is just me. It is important that the bill shows that we are saying to people that when they come to our country, their playing a constructive part in it should include their being able to take part in the democratic process.

I think that I said this at committee, but I am often reminded of Jim Mitchell—an SNP councillor who is no longer with us. He used to say to me that we find ourselves in a funny situation in which only a tiny percentage of people get involved in politics, but we then spend our time falling out with each other. I always try to find a way of not falling out with everyone and to find consensus wherever I can. At the end of the day, that is what our electorate expects of us.

Mark Ruskell made important points about participation in local democracy and engagement with our communities, and said that he wants to extend the right to participate. Again, I would like to listen to Mr Ruskell’s ideas and look at how we could, in the future, work on what he is looking for on top of what we have heard about today.

I am pleased that the bill has attracted wide-ranging support across the parties. I, along with the conveners of the two committees, will take all the glory for that because of the consensual way in which we all worked together to make it happen. I also repeat my thanks to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their consideration of the bill.

The only thing that is left for me to say is that I invite all members to agree to the passing of the bill.

Thank you. That concludes the debate on the Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill.