Scottish Parliament Political Parties Panel Meeting minutes: 24 October 2023

Attendees and apologies

Scott Martin, Scottish National Party (Chair)

Paul Moat, Scottish Liberal Democrats

James Tweedie, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party

John Hardy, Scottish Green Party

Maria McCann, Scottish Government

Iain Hockenhull, Scottish Government

Fergus Christie, Scottish Government

Kenneth Pentland, Scottish Government

James Newham, Scottish Government

Chris Highcock, Secretary, Electoral Management Board for Scotland

Jim Doig, Scottish Assessors Association/ERO Dumfries & Galloway

Andrei Vitaliev, Scotland Office

Max Graham, Scotland Office

Imogen Harris, DLUHC (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Jenifer Delebarre, DLUHC

Laura Williams, DLUHC

Guy Daws, DLUHC

Lizzie Jacobs, DLUHC

Colin Wilson, Boundary Commissions for Scotland

Roseanna Cunningham, Electoral Commissioner

Andy O'Neill, Head of Electoral Commission Scotland

Sarah Mackie, Manager, Electoral Commission Scotland

Kelsey Gillies, Senior Officer Regulation and Campaigning Scotland

Alison Davidson, Senior Officer, Electoral Practice and Performance Scotland

Lindsey Hamilton, Business Support Officer (Minutes)

Scott Forsyth, Royal Mail; Rachel Winham, Royal Mail; Dame Susan Bruce, Electoral Commissioner; John Paul McHugh, Scottish Labour Party; Matt Edmonds, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party; Isabel Drummond-Murray, Boundary Commissions for Scotland; Malcolm Burr, Convener, Electoral Management Board

Welcome and introductions

Scott Martin welcomed those present and introductions were made.

Minutes of the last meeting

The minutes of 22 February were approved.

Electoral Commission update

Andy O'Neill (AON) said the Commission's Chief Executive, Shaun McNally would be stepping down at the end of November and Rob Vincent (currently an Electoral Commissioner would take on the role of Interim Chief Executive. Rob had held various local government posts including Chief Executive of Kirklees Council.

Sarah Mackie (SMa) said the Electoral Commission had been the subject of a complex cyber-attack. The incident had been identified in October 2022 after it became clear that hostile actors had first accessed the systems in August 2021. The Commission were working with the National Cyber Security Centre to make sure there were no more threats to their systems and had reported itself to the Information Commissioner's Officer (ICO) which was currently investigating the incident.

(SMa) indicated that the Electoral Commission had published their report on the May 2023 local council elections in England in mid-September which focused on the impact of Voter ID in polling stations in England. Awareness of the need to bring ID to vote at a polling station was high (92%), but awareness and take-up of the Voter Authority Certificate was low (57% awareness and only 25,000 VACs used on polling day out of 90,000 applications processed). At least 0.25% of the electorate who tried to vote at a polling station were turned away because of the Voter ID. Public opinion research after the poll found that 4% of those who did not vote at the elections said it was because of voter ID. Out of that 4%, three quarters said it was because they did not have the right ID and one quarter said it was because they objected to the policy in principle. Overall, 3% cited ownership of ID as the reason for non-voting but this was higher for unemployed non-voters (8%) and for disabled non-voters who reported being ‘limited a lot’ by their disability or health condition.

Recommendations from the report were:

  • Review list of accepted ID
  • Improve access to VACs
  • Options for those without ID – including attestation / ‘vouching’

(SMa) said they would like polling staff to continue to collect data on the impact of Voter ID. The Electoral Commission had collected Voter ID data from Rutherglen & Hamilton West recall and by-election, which would be published shortly.

The Electoral Commission’s ‘Accuracy and Completeness’ research recently published found that up to one million people (almost a fifth) across Scotland were either incorrectly registered to vote or missing completely. The demographics were unchanged with young people, private renters and those who have moved home being significantly less likely to be correctly registered. The registers of England, Northern Ireland and Wales were more complete while those of Scotland had stayed the same. (SMa) said the Commission continued to recommend that the Scottish and UK governments enable the introduction of a more automated form of voter registration, built on better use of existing public data.

Code of conduct for campaigners - Kelsey Gillies (KG) summarised the proposed changes to the code, which was currently out for consultation, with a deadline for comments of 27 November. The consultation proposed that parties/candidates:

  • Should not handle postal voting documents (and not just postal ballots)
  • Should not handle completed electoral registration or absent vote applications.

Regarding Postal voting documents (KG) said they had been reviewing the Code of Conduct for Campaigners at reserved elections in Great Britain to ensure it reflected the new offences in the Elections 2022 Act relating to handling postal voting documents and safeguarding the secrecy of postal voting. She said the Commission proposed making the same amendments to the devolved Code.

  • Proposed change: the Electoral Commission proposed that campaigners should never handle anyone else’s postal voting documents. This would cover the entire postal voting pack that voters receive, not just the ballot paper.
  • Reason for change: this change would be in line with the new prohibition on handling postal voting documents in the Elections Act 2022. It would help to ensure that the secrecy of postal voting is as secure at devolved elections as it is at reserved elections.

Handling completed applications: (KG) said that at present, the codes left open the possibility of campaigners collecting completed paper application forms and forwarding them onto the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO). However, they also stated that campaigners should clearly provide the ERO’s address as the preferred return address.

  • Proposed change: they are proposing to amend the codes so they explicitly state that campaigners should not handle paper electoral registration or absent vote application forms and they propose to make the same changes to the reserved code.
  • Reason for change: because of public concern about campaigners encouraging or facilitating voters to return absent vote application forms to a campaigner’s address, rather than directly to the ERO. This proposed change would help to build voters’ confidence in the integrity of the postal voting system and trust in the processing of their personal data.
  • Following consultation, the reviewed codes, agreed with the parties were likely to be published early in 2024.

Paul Moat (PM) said that in relation to postal vote applications while a voter had to find an envelope, stamp, and post the form themselves, parties used Freepost address straight back to the relevant council. He felt a blank form could dramatically reduce the numbers of people applying for a postal vote and James Tweedie agreed. Maria McCann (MMcC) said they would take a good look at this and respond.

Electoral Management Board update

Electoral administration – Chris Highcock (CH) said the electoral administration community were ensuring they were prepared for the UK Parliament election next year and mentioned the EMB/EC conference on 6 October for RO/EROs and staff had been an opportunity to ensure lessons on public awareness and training staff on new and upcoming issues were learnt. They were working closely with UK government around a new funding regime to ensure delivery of the election to required standards. A number of initiatives to help brief and improve election staff had developed out of the conference and would be pursued.

Electoral registration - Jim Doig (JD) said they were in the final stages of the annual canvas and Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) needed to publish the registers to accommodate the old and new constituencies. He said they would have to get any changes to split wards ready for publication in December and out along with the main polling district review with most EROs working to get that published in December. (SXM) said it would be useful to have advance knowledge of the publication dates by mid-November and (JD) agreed to arrange this.

The Elections Act implementation – work continued on the implementation of the act's provisions, in particular with regard to online absent voting applications and postal proxy voting; training and EMS suppliers software updates continued. EROs were keen to embrace online as it would make the process so much quicker but had to ensure those applying online for a UK postal vote did not miss the opportunity to apply for a devolved postal vote. (JD) said it was key to mitigate against confusion for the elector.

(SXM) asked if an elector applied online for a UK postal vote, would they also receive a paper form in respect of devolved elections. (JD) said the front end of the site alerts to the UK application only though there was an option to go and download a Scottish form. (SXM) asked if there were any process maps which (JD) said they could look at.

Maria McCann (MMcC) thanked (JD) for setting out the process of working together and said they would consider how to join the online absent voting portal to see how this could be achieved. (MMcC) said they were actively working through the divergent task group.

Scottish Government update

Scottish Government Update - Iain Hockenhull (IH) said the Scottish    Government was considering options following its electoral reform consultation as part of the process of developing measures for a Bill on electoral reform planned for 2024. The consultation paper and published responses and analysis report are available here. The Government’s response to the consultation provided an overall update on each proposal and picked out a number of specific areas where they would especially welcome input from Panel members.

He said there had been opposition to extending candidacy rights to 16-year-olds and to foreign nationals and welcomed the views of the panel. The Electoral Reform Consultation

Intimidation – (IH) said they were looking at adopting the UK Elections Act disqualification to bar those convicted of an offence involving intimidatory conduct against elected representatives, candidates, and campaigners from standing or serving as an MSP or Councilor and whether this should apply to crimes of intimidation or harassment of electoral administrators in the course of their duties. They were looking at a definition which would cover Returning Officers, Electoral Registration Officers, and the Chief Counting Officer (in relation to referendums), and anyone working under their direction. (SXM) suggested discretion on the courts to fix penalties allowing longer as well as shorter penalties.

Free Mailings in Council Elections - (IH) said it was thought any changes would likely be achieved through secondary legislation rather than the Electoral Reform Bill (i.e., through conduct orders). One proposal would be to enable local authorities to fund free mailings for local government elections and there was also a proposal to limit the free mailings at Scottish Parliament elections to one leaflet per household as opposed to per elector.

Paul Moat (PM) said most would agree with free mailings for council elections but asked how they would be implemented and whether one mailing per household could be delivered. John Hardy (JH) said the party had discussed but not actually taken a position on this. James Tweedie (JT) had questions around how Royal Mail would deliver for local government elections, checking artwork would be an additional burden to be worked through and there was a risk that some local authorities could deliver but others might not. He did not agree with one mailing per household. (SXM) said it would have been useful to have Royal Mail at the meeting. He said it would be up to individual local authorities but there was potential for the majority councils not to give the opposition publicity and in the end, it might come down to expense.

Disqualification from being a councilor – sexual offender register – (IH) drew members’ attention to the recent, separate Scottish Government consultation on this issue.

Ballot Secrecy Act 2023 – (IH) said the Act created a new offence in relation to any intent to influence persons at a polling booth to vote in a particular way, or to refrain from voting at UK Parliament elections. They did not consult on such a measure in relation to Scottish Parliament and local government elections, but Ministers may face calls to take similar action.

Accessibility – (IH) said options in relation to improving the accessibility of elections were being considered including how the relevant provisions in the Elections Act 2022 were working in practice, so far. They were also considering options for piloting accessibility innovations and projects; any changes were expected to involve secondary legislation.

Referring to the Access to Politics Charter (MMcC) asked if parties checked on progress and said that Inclusion Scotland would be happy to come back and talk about this at another meeting. She said the Bute House agreement had made a commitment to improving accessibility, particularly for voters with sight loss and said she would elaborate more at the next meeting on what the possibilities were. She said delivery of electronic ballot papers was prohibitively expensive, the tactile voting device was still a part of NI local elections and made a difference to the look of polling stations and what was on offer. For voters with sight loss, there was a telephone service or other kinds of audio support. She said they were keen to have made significant progress for 2026 and would report further at the next meeting.

Absent voting – (IH) said the UK Government’s online Absent Voting Application due to go online shortly meant that voters would be able to apply online for postal and proxy votes for UK Parliamentary elections but not Scottish Parliament and Council elections and this represented a significant divergence.

Scheduling of elections – A variety of views amongst respondents to the SG consultation paper about the scheduling of elections in emergency situations, such as a pandemic had been received. The need to restrict any power to move elections due to emergency situations was a particular theme.

Campaign finance – (IH) said they were looking at adopting the campaign finance changes made by UK Elections Act in relation to Scottish Parliament and Local Government elections.

Electoral Commission governance – (IH) said they continued to discuss Scottish Parliament oversight of the Commission’s activities in relation to Scottish Parliament and local elections with both parliamentary and Commission officials. While this was ultimately a matter for Parliament, it included the possibility of a greater role for a subject Committee of Parliament.

Reform of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland – (IH) said that building on the success of the EMB, they were exploring how to expand its role including having the ability to enter contacts etc. and proposals to create a statutory role for a Depute Convener(s).

Scotland Office / DLUHC Elections Act Implementation update

Imogen Harris (IH) indicated that the Elections Act 2022 provisions relating to the revised intimidations sanctions would come into effect. In July, the Secretary of State had announced an uprating of the spending limits for UK Parliament general elections, which had not been uprated in some time and would take account of inflation.

Maria McCann (MMcC) said there were considering increases to Scottish Local and Scottish Parliament spending levels and to levels of party spending.

Lizzie Jacobs (LJ) said the online absent vote portal was due to launch on 31 October, that there had been training with administrators across the UK and work with the Divergence Task Group looking at risks and mitigations. She said there was a risk of Parties using paper forms which could be out of date and asked all to note the availability of the new one.

Scottish Boundary Commission update

Boundary Commission for Scotland – Colin Wilson (CW) said that for the 2023 Review of UK Parliament constituencies, an Order would be submitted to the Privy Council by the end of October. The Privy Council would then consider it in November, and the Order would be made 14 days later.

Boundaries Scotland – (CW) said the Second Review of Scottish Parliament boundaries, consultation on constituency boundaries had been conducted earlier in 2023 and following this, the Commission planned to hold Public Hearings in six locations in December 2023 or early January 2024. A news release would be issued in the next couple of weeks with the hearing dates and locations.

The next stage of the review would be to consult on revised constituency boundaries in February/ March next year.

The Commission had still to agree when to consult on its proposals for regional boundaries.

(CW) said the Chair, Prof. Ailsa Henderson, was to give evidence at the Senedd regarding their Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill and would discuss changes to their electoral system and changes to their boundary review arrangements.

He said Boundaries Scotland was also undergoing a recruitment process for a new Deputy Chair and a new Commissioner.

Royal Mail update

The Royal Mail were unable to attend.

Dates of future meetings

It was agreed to hold two meetings next year: late January and early May 2024. Andy O'Neill (AON) said he would circulate a list of dates for agreement.

Any other competent business

(KG) said the Electoral Commission's general election guidance would be updated for candidates and parties at the end of November.