HL Deb 30 April 2001 vol 625 cc510-3

7.52 p.m.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvalerose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd April be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order amends the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 1999, which makes provision for the conduct of elections and the return of Members to the Scottish Parliament. The Electoral Commission has been consulted, as required by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

The changes amend the timetable for proceedings to fill a vacancy in a constituency seat of the Scottish Parliament and align it with the minimum notice required for an election to the UK Parliament. That will mean that an election to fill a vacancy in a constituency seat in the Scottish Parliament can be held more easily on the same day as a UK Parliament general election or by-election.

It makes sense for by-elections to the Scottish Parliament to be held at the same time as the general election, whenever that may be called. As shown by evidence on voter turnout, we know that, when faced with a number of elections, electors prefer to vote on the same day.

However, the present provisions in the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order would not permit polls on the same day if a general election were called, as it could be, at notice which is less than the shortest period required for notification of a Scottish Parliament by-election. At present, the relevant returning officer must publish notice of an election to the Scottish Parliament not sooner than the 28th working day and not later than the 21st working day before the date of the poll. That is the same timetable as for Scottish local government elections.

However, the writ for a general election to the UK Parliament can be issued up to 17 working days before the poll and only 14 working days in the case of a by-election. That means that, if there is need for an election to fill a constituency vacancy in the Scottish Parliament at approximately the same time as an election is to be held for the UK Parliament, voters in Scotland may be faced with two elections held within a very short time of each other.

The changes brought about by the new order will not apply to the timetable for general elections to the Scottish Parliament, thereby retaining the significant link with local government elections in Scotland; nor will they alter the returning officer's earliest date for publication of the notice of election. However, the latest date for publication will now match the last date possible for calling a UK Parliament election.

Similarly, for the delivery of nomination papers, the same earliest date has been retained within the timetable, but the latest possible date for delivery will now match that within the timetable for an election to the UK Parliament. Therefore, that will allow the returning officer maximum flexibility. I ask the House to support the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd April be approved [14th Report from the Joint Conimittee].—(Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale.)

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, for explaining this Scottish parliamentary order. It was not long ago that we had before us the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order—a substantial document extending to 19 pages. Tonight, we are adding amendments to that order. Those seem to be benign in character and probably correct hidden and unintended omissions from the original amendment order. I presume that the references to the No. 2 and the previous No. 3 amendment orders presuppose that the earlier order was No. 1.

It would be uncharacteristic of me not to comment on the Explanatory Notes. While I recognise that this order originates from the Secretary of State for Scotland, I understand why there is no ultra-clear Executive Note from the Scottish Parliament—it is not consulted on this reserved matter. However, I am pleased to say that the Explanatory Notes given tonight deserve a plaudit rather than a brickbat. May clarity remain a virtue at Meridian Court in Glasgow.

This No. 2 order introduces a new timetable for a by-election for a constituency seat. Both the notice of election and the return of nomination papers are given a wider period within which to operate, and they are brought closer to the actual poll. Presumably, that is aimed at increasing the participation of candidates. If so, that is good. I note the possibility of combining a by-election with a UK general election.

It should be noted that thus far there have been two by-elections for the Scottish Parliament—both constituency by-elections in Ayr and in the seat of the late and much respected First Minister, Donald Dewar. Another is, of course, pending following the resignation of Dr Sam Galbraith. Perhaps that by-election will be covered by these new rules.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I, too, have looked at the Explanatory Notes. The last paragraph states that the 1999 order was also amended by the Scots Parliament. However, the amendments made by that order were not relevant to the purposes of this order. Can the noble Baroness explain that so we all understand everything we are doing? The order appears to be an excellent idea.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given to this order. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, has been very kind about the Explanatory Notes. We have taken on board his comments and, indeed, the comments from the Front Bench opposite about the differences in the quality of the Executive Notes which the Scottish Parliament produces. But, as we explained previously, they are intended for slightly different purposes.

However, we have taken on board comments made consistently in this House about the various orders and legislation taken through by the Scottish Office here that the Explanatory Notes should be more enlightening than sometimes they have been in the past. We are very glad to hear that, in this case, they have met with approval. The noble Earl is right that there is not an Executive Note. This order does not require the Scottish Parliament to act. It is very much a reserved matter.

The noble Earl suggested that the order might increase the participation of candidates; in fact, it is intended to increase the participation of voters. The idea is that having two elections within a very short time of one another is not the way in which to encourage people to go to the polls. We are trying to make it possible, when the timings fit, to have votes on the same day.

Two elections would be affected by the order. The first, as the noble Earl said, is that resulting from the vacancy at Strathkelvin and Bearsden; the other, I understand, is the election at Banff and Buchan, where there could be a constituency election to the Scottish Parliament on the same day as the UK general election, whenever that might be.

The noble Earl rightly suggested that the first order was the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) Order 2001. I have moved the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2001. It is referred to as "No. 2" because it was tabled in this Parliament before the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) (No. 3) Order 2001, which was correctly grouped with the other regulations that we recently considered because they all relate to the register of voters.

I turn to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy. I am advised that the earlier amendment order, which dealt with a completely different matter, was not at all concerned with the election timetable. That is why it was amended by the Scottish Parliament. The subject matter of the orders is a reserved matter.

I hope that, with those elucidations, the House will agree to the order.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, that means that the same order was amended by the Scots Parliament in relation to a devolved matter and is now being amended in this Parliament as a reserved matter. Is that what the Minister is saying? It is rather interesting that the two Parliaments can both amend the same order.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, that is my understanding; if I am wrong, I shall write to the noble Baroness and put a copy of that letter in the Library. The Explanatory Notes state that the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 1999 was amended by the Scottish Parliament. My advice is that that amendment dealt with a completely different matter and was not concerned with the election timetable. My understanding, from my advice, is that what the noble Baroness said is correct.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.35 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.3 to 8.35 p.m.]