HL Deb 24 February 1998 vol 586 cc545-8

2.56 p.m.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the introduction of electronic voting in the Scottish parliament.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

My Lords, it will be for the Scottish parliament to decide on its procedures including its system for voting. However, we expect this matter to be considered by the all-party consultative steering group, which my right honourable friend has established to take forward consideration of how the parliament might operate. The parliament building will have the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the latest technology including, if so decided, electronic voting.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that there is said to be some support for electronic voting? Can he give an assurance that, whatever system is chosen, parliamentarians will have to be present in order to vote? Can he also confirm that the Government will not give support to voting by remote control?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am tempted to speculate that the noble Lord's supplementary question is based on his long experience in another place. Perhaps I may step outside my brief for the moment. I believe I can give an assurance that procedures will be put in place to prevent such obvious cheating.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, will the Minister also bear in mind, first, that even the latest electronic machines can go wrong and, secondly, that it is never certain which finger is on the button?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I take the point that the noble Baroness has made. I understand that we use wands in this House so that the top hats of noble Lords in years past could be lifted to make sure that it was noble Lords who were voting and not their servants. I do not believe that we shall be introducing wands in a Scottish parliament.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, was not the Minister quite correct to remind the House that in fact these decisions will ultimately be taken by the shadow parliament once it is elected in May next year and before the parliament itself takes office, but that it will have the final say in the matter? Will the noble Lord share my expectation, since the shadow parliament will be starting with a clean sheet and a new building, that it may well introduce procedures and practices which will be exciting, innovative and which may eventually find their way to the Palace of Westminster?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I am not greatly attracted by the term "shadow parliament"; it will be the actual parliament, but it will not take over legislative competence at that stage. It will be for that parliament to decide its own procedures. Particularly in the area of pre-legislative scrutiny, I am sure that it will be developing procedures and practices from which we could all learn.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there are some technical possibilities which are undesirable and that this is one of them?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, that will be a matter for the Scottish parliament to decide in the exercise of its wisdom.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, if voting lobbies are to be included in the design specification of the new parliament, surely an early decision will have to be made for that to be done. Can the Minister tell us whether that is to be the case and that voting lobbies will be included, or is that particular option going to be shut off from the new parliament?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, as far as I am aware I do not believe that voting lobbies are part of the design brief for the Scottish parliament, but I will check that. Perhaps I may make the point that the parliament will be relatively small with 129 or so members. Whether the best way of voting in a small parliament is through voting lobbies is a matter for discussion.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, can the Minister enlighten us further on the all-party steering group now operating in Edinburgh, which is a non-elected body making important decisions that will guide the new parliament? I gather that the age at which people will be able to vote in elections for the Scottish parliament is under review, together with a number of other important constitutional matters. Can the Minister bring us up to date and tell us, first, who is on that non-elected body and, secondly, the range of its authority?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I wish to make it absolutely clear that the consultative steering committee, which was established by my right honourable friend, is looking purely and simply at matters relating to the operation of the parliament. It is certainly not considering matters such as the age of voting. That matter is not before the consultative steering committee. The committee has 13 members, including representatives of all the main political parties, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Constitutional Convention. I believe that that is a good forum in which all aspects of Scottish public life can come together and contribute to making suggestions about how the parliament should go forward. It is doing its job well and establishing its work in a framework and spirit of consensus. That has to be applauded.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, the Minister has spoken about the design of the new parliament. Is he yet in a position to answer the question that I put to him some two or three weeks ago about the rules for the architectural quasi-competition? The noble Lord kindly said that he would write to me, but I do not seem to have received his answer.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, the noble Lord rightly takes me to task. In fact, I signed the letter this morning. The answer is that the rules are in accordance with those set down and advocated by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is part of a definition of a parliament that it is sovereign over its own procedure, and that that fact alone could have served as a full and sufficient Answer to this Question?

Lord Sewel

Yes, my Lords, but it may have been a little too brief.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that his initial Answer—that it would be up to the Scottish parliament to determine its own voting procedures—and his subsequent answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, suggest a contradiction and that one will prevent the other? Does my noble friend recognise that contradiction and, if so, will he take it back for further consultation and perhaps provide further information to the House?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, as I said, I gave that Answer on the basis of my best understanding at the moment. If I am right and the design brief at the moment does not include voting lobbies, I do not think that providing voting lobbies in the parliament would be a major obstacle if that is what the parliament so decided.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State, Mr. Donald Dewar, will veto any suggestion that James Bond, alias Sean Connery, will be allowed to have his finger on any of those buttons? Furthermore, and taking a bit further the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, does the Minister agree that the parliament ought to be able to consider how it will vote, which includes having the option of voting lobbies? Perhaps the consultative committee should look at what happens in the European Parliament which can vote hundreds of times in one week because voting takes place electronically. Is not our system here, where we have lobbies where Ministers appear and where they can be got at by Members of Parliament, preferable to an electronic system?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I genuinely believe that this is a matter for the Scottish parliament itself to decide. I do not think that my right honourable friend is in the business of vetoing anything in terms of the way in which the Scottish parliament will proceed. I believe that it was Mr. Connery who was Dr. No. This is where we are and we must look forward. Let the Scottish parliament decide. Let there be consultation within the consultative committee. Let the parties make their suggestions and let the parliament make the decisions.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, is it too much to hope that the Scottish parliament will come into the 21st century by adopting what in a letter to The Times I have called "loaded lobby voting", combining the virtues of both proportional representation and constituency representation by passing a card through a slot?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, that may well turn out to be the case. Perhaps I may return, however, to one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and tell him that during my time as leader of the minority administration on my local authority we introduced electronic voting—and it encouraged members to vote rather too often.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, will the Minister remind those who are consulting on the process that occasionally a party may wish to lose a vote, but that that is extremely difficult with electronic machines?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, it has proved rather difficult in this House from time to time!

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am tempted to say that I understand that question.

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