Last December, Parliament unanimously approved legislation seeking to ensure the safe holding of the Scottish Parliament election on 6 May.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide an update to members on developments since then.
I appreciate that some have expressed genuine concern about the safe holding of the election. I do not wish to minimise or underestimate those concerns. But I do want to provide reassurance that all views are being heard and positive action has been and continues to be taken to ensure the safe delivery of the election.
It is as a result of the hard work of electoral professionals over the course of the winter that I am confident that the election can go ahead on 6 May. This is also the view of Malcolm Burr, convener of the Electoral Management Board.
One of the steps taken - the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Act - was the result of close working between all parties in this Chamber and our electoral community. Amongst its provisions, the Act ensures the ability to postpone the election if required, but I am pleased to say that this does not seem necessary at present.
It is fundamental for a democracy to hold scheduled elections, provided it is safe to do so.
This Parliament has sat for five years, a year longer than originally intended, and many countries have already held elections successfully during the pandemic.
It is also the case that eight local government by-elections were held in Scotland over October and November.
Ahead of these elections the Electoral Management Board issued guidance developed with the assistance of Public Health Scotland. Those elections went well and the Electoral Commission has used the lessons learned in publishing its guidance for the vote in May.
A critical part of our preparations is making sure voters know how they can safely cast their votes. Returning Officers are taking steps to ensure that polling places are safe environments, with physical distancing, face masks, one-way systems and enhanced cleaning arrangements.
Electoral Registration Officers are also working hard so that those who do not wish to vote in person are able to seek and obtain an absent vote. Our legislation last December moved the deadline for applying for a postal vote to 6 April, to enable the expected increase in applications to be processed in time. The government thereafter provided the resources needed for the electoral authorities to write out to every household in Scotland to explain who was registered at the address, who held postal votes there and how anyone not covered could register or access postal voting.
Electoral Commission research suggests that we might see an increase in postal voting from 17% of the electorate up to around 40%, and we have made resources available to allow Electoral Registration Officers to deal with this level of increase and a little beyond that.
It is not yet clear what the actual increase will be. But Electoral Registration Officers are already reporting a significant rise in applications following a recent television advertising campaign and the notification letter from EROs. Additionally the Chief Medical Officer has written to all shielding households to encourage those people and their families to consider obtaining a postal vote.
As of 19 January EROs across Scotland had received around 70,000 requests for postal vote application forms from electors. Completed application forms are now being returned and the initial data from EROs confirms a significant increase in postal vote applications in February. The full figures are not yet available, but indications are that at least 60,000 people were granted a postal vote over the course of February. It is also clear that at least ten local authority areas now have at least 20% of their electorate issued with a postal vote.
We have made it possible for anyone who is unable to vote in person, due to testing positive or having to self-isolate, to apply for a proxy vote, an option which is available until 5pm on the day of poll. In addition, there is legislation before the Parliament at the moment which will now allow someone who has already appointed a proxy to change their appointed proxy if the original is no longer able to vote on their behalf.
These changes to both postal and proxy voting are intended to help anyone who wishes to vote in May’s election to do so, no matter their personal circumstances.
So to summarise: anyone can apply for a postal vote before the 6 April deadline and those who find themselves unable to vote in person due to coronavirus advice can apply for a proxy to be appointed up until 5pm on polling day.
And of course I would emphasise that Returning Officers are carrying out risk assessments and that polling stations will be set up on the basis of advice provided by the Electoral Commission, in conjunction with Public Health Scotland, so it will be safe to vote in person.
In addition to the Electoral Commission’s detailed guidance on running a Covid-secure election, the convener of the Electoral Management Board has been exercising his power to issue directions to Returning Officers – a power that this Parliament bestowed upon him last June in the Scottish Elections (Reform) Act.
He has directed that no more than 800 electors are to be allocated to a single polling station and that counts should occur in the daytime. The convener has also set out a risk assessment approach for Returning Officers to follow. And he has confirmed that the power under the recent Act to allow polling over multiple days is not required.
In relation to the count, it seems inevitable that the results of the election will take longer to arrive. Ensuring physical distancing whilst also allowing the process to be scrutinised means that not all constituencies will be counted simultaneously. It is expected that most counting will occur over the Friday and the Saturday following polling day.
Returning Officers will be talking to candidates locally about arrangements and those discussions are important to achieve a shared understanding of what will happen in practice.
I will now turn to the important topic of campaigning Presiding Officer. I know that parties have not been leafleting or campaigning door-to-door during lockdown. Alternatives to face-to-face campaigning can be employed, but clearly we would all like to know when it will be possible to undertake usual - or as close to usual as possible - campaign activity.
The Electoral Commission is preparing guidance for candidates and campaigners and its guidance will align with what is permitted under the necessary public health restrictions.
I can confirm that under the stay at home regulations it is permitted for candidates and agents to travel to the constituency as necessary – as this is work or volunteering which cannot be done from home. It has also been suggested that the leadership of each party should also be able to travel to any given constituency. That is something we are looking at, although we should bear in mind that the regulations currently prevent all of us from leaving home and travelling between local authorities, for work that can be done from home.
The update to the Strategic Framework that was published last week set out a plan for gradual easing of current measures when the epidemiological conditions allow that to be done safely. The update included a likely phasing of easing of restrictions at intervals of least three weeks to allow assessment of data and of progress in suppression of the virus.
In line with that, I will advise Parliament that leafleting can commence from 15 March, subject to the restrictions on social gatherings in Level 4 areas easing to allow up to 4 people from 2 different households to meet outdoors. Guidance will be issued to keep everyone safe. I am sure that candidates and campaigners will accept the need to strictly observe the need for mitigation measures such as physical distancing; the wearing of face masks where appropriate; ensuring hand hygiene and not car sharing. Guidance will also be issued on safe arrangements for liaising with volunteers and minimising the handling of materials.
Face-to-face campaigning on the doorstep cannot commence at the same time as leafleting. Careful consideration has been given to the role of canvassing during an ongoing pandemic, the risks associated with it, where allowing doorstep campaigning would sit with other non-election restrictions and how the public might react to having political campaigners at their door.
I recognise that there is an appetite for it to be permitted in due course. And in light of discussion with clinical advisers and providing the stay at home restrictions are able to be lifted, face-to-face doorstep campaigning can be permitted from 5 April subject to the virus being sufficiently suppressed.
That decision will be based on whether the infection rate as an average across Scotland has fallen to 50 per 100,000 or less – the number which the WHO considers as evidence that the pandemic is sufficiently under control and, alongside this, test positive numbers sit below 5%.
I should add that if the infection rate in a specific council area were to exceed 100 per 100,000 then canvassing would have to be suspended for safety reasons in that specific local authority until the rate fell below that number.
For information for the Chamber: The cumulative seven day incidence per 100,000 of the population by specimen date to 27 February is 79.6. And the latest 7 day average test positivity rate is 3.9%
Once the restrictions permit, it will be a judgement call for parties as to whether they should pursue such activity, whether it will be welcomed by the public and in what type of specific locality. They also need to be conscious of striking the right balance between ensuring only one person approaches a doorstep, but providing reassurance for canvassers in having a colleague close by for safety. The numbers of people who can be together at any one point must be in line with the broader restrictions on social interaction that are in place at the time.
But this approach I hope balances political engagement with protecting public health.
I am afraid, however, that activities such as street stalls and physical hustings and giving voters a lift to polling stations cannot proceed given the circumstances we find ourselves in.
These limitations have been discussed in recent weeks with the business managers of all parties and I believe all parties are supportive of them.
I hope that this statement has provided reassurance to Members on the enormous amount of work underway across our electoral community to ensure that the election in May can be conducted safely in an adjusted form.
And I would like to conclude by remarks by offering sincere thanks to all those involved in preparations for polling and the counting of votes and also those representatives of the parties which sit in this Parliament and who have engaged entirely constructively both around the shaping of this guidance and more general planning throughout the process we have gone through in recent months.
The approach to those discussions has demonstrated a collective willingness to be responsible in our approach to campaigning and I look forward to seeing that maintained in the heat of the campaign.
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