Parliamentary Parties Panel minutes: 1 June 2021

Who was at the meeting

Scottish National Party:        

  • Scott Martin (SM), chair of meeting

Conservative Party:            

  • Alan Mabbutt OBE (AM)
  • Catherine Latham (CL) 

Liberal Democrats:          

  • Kerry Buist (KB)

Labour Party:

  • Andrew Whyte (AW)

Alba Party:           

  •  Chris McEleny (CM)

Electoral Commission:    

  • Ailsa Irvine, Director of Electoral Administration and Guidance (AI)
  • Craig Westwood, Director of Communications, Policy and Research (CW)
  • Laura McLeod, Public Affairs Manager (LM)
  • Alex White, Senior Communications Officer (AMW)

Cabinet Office:             

  • James Hairsnape (JH)
  • Guy Daws (GD)

Post-election review – May 2021 elections


SM asked when all the Commission’s guidance would be moving to the new format. AI explained that this had now been completed for guidance for Electoral Registration Officers, and guidance for parties, campaigners and candidates, as well as Returning Officers, would follow from next summer ahead of the May 2023 elections. 

CL requested that when the Commission issues new guidance under the new format, old versions are left on the website for reference until the new format is complete. SM asked if users would be alerted to guidance changes under the new format. AI explained guidance pages would show when they were last updated. She undertook to discuss with regulation colleagues how the Commission could update parties on guidance changes as it currently does through its electoral administrator bulletin.

SM noted there had previously been issues with version control, highlighting guidance on commonly used names in Scotland as an example. AI explained the Commission has quality assurance processes in place, but noted that one of the benefits of the new guidance format would be that it will make version control easier. 


SM said that pre-checking nominations by email was helpful and should be retained for future elections. CM agreed, but suggested moving to an all-electronic system for handing in nominations in future. AW agreed with the importance of not losing some of the Covid-secure changes which worked well in the recent elections, including pre-checks for nominations. He noted there had been frustration with some Returning Officers not taking BACS transfers for deposits.

Absent voting

KB and AW both noted problems with some local authorities which had been affected by issues with third-party printers, resulting in delays to the despatch of some postal votes. AI explained the Commission was picking this up with local authorities as part of its post-poll work, but noted that affected Returning Officers had made efforts to mitigate the impact. GD noted the Cabinet Office was also looking at this issue.

SM explained the Scottish PPP had discussed whether absent voter files could be supplied earlier or by a set date as some local authorities delayed providing the files in case of cancellations. He also suggested the possibility of allowing postal voters to cancel their postal vote and apply for an emergency proxy, should they find themselves away from their home and unable to hand in a postal vote in time. 

Campaigning and polling day

KB noted there had been problems with polling agents not being given access to polling stations in a couple of areas. CM highlighted that it had been hard for campaigners to override wider public health guidance, where campaigning guidance was more permissive, suggesting that for any future elections under Covid restrictions, guidance on campaigning should set out a clear number of campaigners allowed in a group. 

Verification and count

AM explained that generally, Returning Officers had allowed good access to counts, but it took negotiations in some situations, while in others there were insufficient people to observe counts fully, and noted the importance of candidates and agents having visibility of the process. 

AM also raised the forthcoming Chesham and Amersham by-election, suggesting allowing access to counting agents should be a priority over any press access. KB agreed and noted the Liberal Democrats had been told they could only have three people at the by-election count. 

AW agreed that most ROs had been helpful, but some appeared to have used Covid restrictions to make things harder for parties and candidates, and that it would be helpful to make clear that these elections were unique given the circumstances, and that access should be allowed as normal in future. SM also suggested updating RO guidance to allow more counting agents to be appointed than expected, in case an allocation isn’t taken up. He noted this was particularly important for list elections, where not all candidates take up their allocation. 

KB noted there was an issue with consistency across count venues, with some requiring lateral flow Covid tests, and others not, despite being in the same region, which made it difficult to brief activists. CM also noted inconsistency across venues, with the example of mobile phone use being allowed at some counts but not others. 

AI thanked the parties for their feedback on the May elections, explaining it would be helpful for the Commission’s post-poll reporting work and also in highlighting areas for consideration in relation to future guidance updates.