Oral Answers to Questions — Health
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Labour)
I have sat through the debate and listened intently. I have resisted the temptation—I have not risen to the bait—to jump up and intervene, although my patience was tested by Pete Wishart. To start off with an attack on Labour Members and then complain about people heckling is not the kind of behaviour that those looking from outside want to see. I think that the majority of people in Scotland—who would have been watching this debate had they not been following the Twitter feeds about, and taking more of an interest in, our new Scotland football manager—would have wanted to hear the much more positive tone that they would have expected when we in this House actually agree on a way forward.
As someone who campaigned for a Scottish Parliament, I was and am proud to be part of the party that delivered the devolution settlement and the Scottish Parliament, and, indeed, to have served in it for some 12 years. During that time, I always believed that I had a responsibility not only to my own political party and, of course, to my constituents first and foremost, but to stand up for the interests of Scotland.
In the context of some of the things that are going on in the Scottish Parliament under an SNP majority Government—something most of us thought we would never see—I must point out that it is rather ironic to see the legal and educational establishments in Scotland beginning to feel that the fundamental principle of the uniqueness of the Scottish legal and educational systems is being undermined by that Government. I do not want to dwell on that point, but I want to place the debate in context.
This is an important debate, and it is right and proper that we should give the Scottish Parliament this responsibility to deal with the referendum. That is why I regret the tone adopted by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. The people on the Labour side in the Scottish Parliament will take that responsibility seriously, but they have some concerns, as do the wider public. That is why it is important that the role of the Electoral Commission should be respected.
I can understand that individual SNP Members might not agree with everything that the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Davidson, says. Irrespective of their personal feelings, however, he has an important role in chairing that Committee on behalf of everyone in the House, and it would have been courteous of them to listen to his speech and take up their points with him, rather than simply absenting themselves from that part of the debate.
Just in case SNP Members missed it, I want to refer to one thing that the Chair of the Select Committee raised. He quoted from the Select Committee report, which said of the Scottish Government:
“Despite agreeing to the impartial oversight of the Electoral Commission, it has itself refused to commit to be bound by the
decisions of this neutral referee. It is hard to escape the suspicion that it is following the mantra of British cycling of the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’.”
When the Chair of a Select Committee makes such a point about the importance of having a level playing field and having an independent referee from outside the political process to advise on the wording and the funding and to ensure fair play, it is incumbent on the Scottish Government not only to listen and “probably” consider the matter—as we have heard—but to give a clear commitment that they will abide by the Electoral Commission’s advice.
In the past, I have been supportive of the idea of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, notwithstanding the difficulties involved. I understand the concerns that have been expressed by people in my own party and others, but we now have the opportunity to allow young people in Scotland to vote on a matter of fundamental importance to their present situation as well as to their future. In order to do that, however, we must deal with all the technical aspects involved in drawing up the register and ensuring that everyone aged 16 and 17 is able to participate without any arbitrary cut-off points or problems. That needs to be done properly. When the section 30 order was first announced, I asked what work had been done on this aspect of the process. This will be a matter for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to take forward. It would have been helpful if we had been able to hear a bit more today about that positive work, rather than simply listening to attacks on Labour Members, especially those of us who have been supportive of that proposal.
A number of Members have mentioned the need to build consensus. One reason why we were able to move so quickly between the general election in 1997 and the referendum on the Scottish Parliament in September of that year was that political consensus was built. I hope that, as we take this debate forward following the passing of the section 30 order, we will see another attempt to build such political consensus, rather than having to listen to more of the rather unfortunate language that has been used by some SNP Members this afternoon.
This is not simply about a majority SNP Government pushing through what they want; it is about representing the people of Scotland. The SNP Government have to recognise that, although they won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, that does not mean that they can state categorically that there is a majority in Scotland in favour of independence.
Many people in my local area tell me that they voted SNP, which they of course had the right to do, but that they are concerned about the process of the referendum and want to be sure that it is fair and above board. They also tell me that they may not vote for independence because they are worried about the economic circumstances in Scotland and what might happen if Scotland were to separate from the rest of the UK. [Interruption.]
I hear chuntering, to use a word that was used earlier, from many of the SNP Members. I am happy to debate the positive arguments for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom with the SNP in a proper context at any stage. However—and I hope that SNP Members and the Scottish Government take this on board—I find it difficult to take that anyone who is seen to disagree with independence finds themselves subjected to cyber-warfare through the Twitter feeds; or, if they
work in the voluntary or charitable sector, finds that they receive a phone call; or, if they are a business, finds that they do not get invited to the same circle of events. This point is fundamental to the way in which the debate has to be taken forward. I respect the fact that many people believe in an independent Scotland. I disagree with that view and have come to that conclusion after a great deal of consideration throughout my political life, but I do not accept that people who have a different opinion should not be able to voice it for fear of being on the wrong side of the Scottish Government and having to suffer the consequences. I plead with those on the SNP Benches to do what they can to ensure that this debate is taken forward positively.
As I said earlier, it is important to meet what has been described as the “gold standard” in the wording of the question that is put to the Scottish people. I think that the Scottish people who are watching this debate want to know that every one of us is trying to do our best for the future of the country and our communities, and that we are not simply out to seek party political advantage. It is unfortunate that much of the debate has again focused on the misconceptions, misunderstandings, mis-speakings and lack of information—or sometimes the completely contradictory information—around the Scottish Government’s position, for example on the currency and on the EU. People are worried when the Scottish Government are unable to give a straight answer to a straight question. That is why I believe that we must have the Electoral Commission as the independent referee. We need it to ensure that the question is not only fair, but is seen to be fair.
As many Members have said, it is vital that the outcome is accepted. Many people who did not agree with the setting up of the Scottish Parliament expressed their view in the run-up to the referendum, but none the less accepted the outcome and tried to make it work, including many people who sat on the Benches opposite me in Holyrood. That spirit of the different political parties trying to make an institution work has perhaps been lost over the past few years. It would be regrettable if that continued throughout the debate over the referendum.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few points this afternoon on behalf of my constituents, who have concerns about the process and want to see that it is fair, and about the future of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament is a precious institution, for which many of us fought long and hard. We must not see it undermined in this process. We are giving it an important responsibility and I trust that my colleagues there will do their best to live up to the expectations. However, I want to hear from the SNP in particular that it is prepared to play fair and to ensure that there is a level playing field throughout the process.