HL Deb 30 March 2001 vol 624 cc581-4

1.57 p.m.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 27th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the 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 order has been produced following consultation with election administration practitioners, and also with the Electoral Commission as required by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

All the changes being made to the 1999 order are necessary to take account of and reflect changes made by recent primary and subordinate legislation, which has previously been debated and approved by this House. The new order will align the procedures for registration and elections to the Scottish Parliament with those for other elections, including to the United Kingdom Parliament. Electoral registration officers, returning officers, candidates and their agents, and the electorate in Scottish Parliament constituencies would all face difficulties and confusion if the rules for the conduct of elections are not aligned.

The amendments introduced by this order are therefore not in general new ones, but simply apply changes already made elsewhere. No new issues of policy are raised. The amendments are needed as a consequence of changes made by the Representation of the People Act 2000; the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000; the Postal Services Act 2000; and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001.

The main changes concern registration; absent voting; the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers; and election expenses. Other changes are made to take account of the role of the new Electoral Commission and provisions on registration of political parties and the nomination of candidates.

The Representation of the People Act 2000 made two important changes to the law on elections. First, it altered the arrangement for registration of electors, by introducing a system of what is referred to as "rolling registration", by which the register of electors continues in force indefinitely. Additions to and deletions from it are made as and when required.

The other main change made by this Act is in respect of absent voting. In particular, it allows postal voting on request without the need for a special reason to be given; and in most cases applications for a postal vote can be made up to the sixth working day before polling day, instead of the eleventh day as previously. In addition, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 has established the Electoral Commission, whose functions include the review of electoral law, the registration of political parties and controls on national election expenditure by individuals and organisations other than political parties.

As a consequence of the changes introduced by the Representation of the People Act 2000, the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001 were made and came into force on 16th February. Some noble Lords may recall that they were debated and approved in this House on 7th February. These regulations, among other matters, made detailed provision for rolling registration of electors and extended or eased the registration process, eased the requirements for absent voting and improved the provision for disabled voters. The present draft order makes changes to the Scottish Parliament (Elections etc) Order 1999 comparable with the changes which were made by the 2001 regulations for elections to the UK Parliament and also for local government elections in Scotland.

We have made available to the House Explanatory Notes which explain in detail, article by article, the specific changes introduced by this order. I shall, therefore, not take up noble Lords' time by repeating those details here. As I said at the outset, this order is needed to align the procedures for elections to the Scottish Parliament with those for other elections. Basically, it simply takes account of, and reflects, changes previously debated and approved by this House. I ask noble Lords to support the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 27th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale.)

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, this order brings into the Scottish Parliament's own elections substantial chunks of newly enacted UK legislation, primarily the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The order does not appear to create anything new but, rather, transports the procedures under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act into the Scottish Parliament. I have been unable to identify what type of order this is. Because it does not need to be approved by the Scottish Parliament we are deprived of its ever-helpful executive note. However, I was more than impressed by the clarity and comprehensibility of the order's own Explanatory Notes.

I certainly approve of the new rolling register which will do away with the substantial temporary disenfranchisement which was a symptom of the previous annual system, although citizens must still play their part by notifying the compilers of the register of any changes. I am interested in the widening of the scope for voting facilities for the blind, partially sighted and people with disabilities. I believe that this is a liberalisation of the special facilities regime to date, and I approve of it. I am also very interested in the liberalisation of the postal vote. I shall be encouraging people to take up that opportunity. I am impressed by the fact that there is to be even a stamped addressed envelope for a return which will ensure that in effect no one is disenfranchised for want of a stamp.

I have two questions about postal and proxy votes. Perhaps I should refer to it as "absent voting". First, is it the Government's hope and belief that postal voting should be encouraged and increased in scale, and even to become the norm? Secondly, is there an intention to move voters away from the use of proxy votes to postal ballots? I note the cautionary words of my noble friend Lord Greaves about postal votes. I believe that to prove the register of postal voters will be a useful activity in future.

This order brings to the Scottish Parliament elections two new institutions: the Electoral Commission—a substantive change and addition—and the clumsy new description "universal postal service provider", for what has always previously slipped off the tongue as "the Post Office". This order should be approved. The United Kingdom Parliament has reserved elections to itself and so Scotland must accept this order in that context.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I should like to put one brief question to the Minister. Will Scottish members of the Armed Forces be able to enjoy postal or proxy voting?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his welcome for the order and also for his kind words about the memorandum prepared by the Scotland Office. I am sure that that department will welcome and note his complimentary remarks. I believe that they are very well deserved because I also welcome the detailed memorandum.

I share the noble Earl's view that liberalisation of the postal vote will encourage more people to exercise their democratic rights and use their franchise. The noble Earl asked what type of order this is. I am advised that this draft order is type C; that is, it is laid in draft and approved by each House of this Parliament, and it is only for this Parliament to approve it. As to proxy or postal voting for members of the Armed Forces, of which I have experience as someone who was subject to the same rules while in Crown service abroad, they can use both or either.

On Question, Motion agreed to.