07 January 2016

S4M-15221 Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): Good afternoon, everyone. The first item of business this afternoon is a debate on motion S4M-15221, in the name of Joe FitzPatrick, on the Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I hope that the Minister for Parliamentary Business did not create a hostage to fortune when he said that this is a “short and straightforward” bill. He should be absolutely aware that my committee and Parliament as a whole will subject the bill to exactly the high standards of scrutiny that he would expect. There being a mere 200 words in the bill, it would be rather difficult for any defects to hide in the detail. We will do the job that we are always required to do. In fact, if one thinks about it, those 200 words are approximately one quarter of the number of words that I would expect to speak in the six minutes that the Presiding Officer has allowed me, which focuses us precisely on how concise the bill is. Its main purpose is to move the elections to the Scottish Parliament to a date that does not clash with other elections.

The committee had a pretty tight schedule to consider the bill. However, given the high degree of consensus in favour of the bill, our being designated as the lead committee on 25 November and completing our report just 19 days later, on 14 December, was a proportionate response. Like the bill itself, our report is quite brief—24 paragraphs and just over 1,000 words. I am told by my clerks that Salvador Dali once told a press conference:

“I shall be so brief that I have already finished.”

Although I am not quite in that category, I will not say too much about the bill.

The committee considered carefully whether to take oral evidence on the bill but, given that the Government had consulted widely—including COSLA and the Electoral Commission, where it established that there was unanimity in favour of the bill—we concluded that there was no need to reconsult. We restricted our oral evidence taking to a light grilling for the minister, which we thought was a proportionate approach. As the minister said, we explored why a five-year term rather than a three-year term was appropriate. I think that we were broadly satisfied with the answers that we heard. Three years would be short and, for any Government of whatever political complexion, that is a relatively limited period in which to develop major policy initiatives and get moving on them. Of course, the other Administrations in these islands have already aligned themselves on a five-year cycle. There is a pretty universal consensus that the timetable is sensible.

The committee was content with the policy memorandum and costs. Moving the election back one year does not, in and of itself, create any new costs, and it postpones the costs that are associated with an election by a year. In financial terms, there is little to say.

We wrote to all MSPs to give them the opportunity to input. The minister has referred to Dr Richard Simpson’s interesting contribution. As politicians, we can get very tied up in the process of politics. It is not as if reform and change of parliamentary process is something new. The great reform act of 1832 perhaps started the reforming motion. As people sometimes forget, that was the act that deprived women of the vote, while purporting to be a great reform of parliamentary procedures. It was quite a long time before women got the vote back. In 1872, which was in the life of all my grandparents, it was the first time that there were secret ballots. In many ways, every few years we will continue to see a reform. This is part of a wide process that is probably not complete with this bill because, I imagine, we are likely to come back to making permanent changes when we have the power to do so. However, that is a matter for another day and not one on which we should dwell today.

The Scottish Elections (Dates) Bill is indeed a short bill. It has very specific objectives. I expect a flood of amendments at stage 2—perhaps not—or even at stage 3. Given the broad consensus that has emerged thus far, I suspect that the bill will make its way through the parliamentary system and that it will do so with proper scrutiny but appropriate rapidity. It is certainly desirable to avoid a clash between the 2020 Scottish Parliament elections currently scheduled and the next UK Parliament elections scheduled for the same year.

We support the approach in the bill that the next Scottish Parliament session should last five years rather than three. We also felt it to be appropriate that a decision on permanent changes should be taken in the next session, once powers on that are given to the Parliament. That will allow time for a fuller discussion about the length of future Scottish parliamentary sessions. In the meantime, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is happy to recommend that Parliament should agree to the general principles of this short but important bill.


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