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Scotland Bill — Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 21st March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 9:45 pm, 21st March 2012

My Lords, I have already had my say on the issue of different referendums quite extensively and there are only two aspects of our debate on these amendments that I have not expressed a view on, so I shall concentrate my remarks on them. First, I turn to the role of the Electoral Commission. A number of possible roles for the Electoral Commission are reflected in the amendments that have been proposed by noble Lords. It seems to me that the role of the Electoral Commission in relation to referendums is now settled. We had two referendums in 2011 and the Electoral Commission played a role in respect of them both which your Lordships' House seemed well satisfied with. I have heard no criticism of its role in terms of supervision.

It played a specific role in testing what has become known as the intelligibility of any proposed referendum question in relation to both of the 2011 referendums. I understand that the commission indicated in its response to the Government's consultation that it does not have the legal power to play that role in relation to the proposed referendum on Scottish independence and it has asked the Government to consider, as indeed have other consultees, using this Bill to give it that power so that it can get on with testing the intelligibility of the proposed questions. Of course, it could take all the questions that have been proposed in amendments and test their intelligibility on Scottish voters, focus groups and others. The commission is willing to do that job and I think that the Government should consider amending the Bill on Report to give it that power.

Otherwise, much as the proposals in the amendments before us are attractive and beguiling, I think that we should ask the Electoral Commission to play exactly the same role it has played in previous referendums, particularly the two which were conducted under legislation passed in this House and in the other place for the referendums held in 2011. There was endless debate about its role and agreement was reached before it set off on its work.

I say this for a very good reason: if we want the process that determines how the referendum will be conducted to be seen as legal, fair and decisive-and we expect now that that will be either in the context of a Section 30 order and the preparation for it, or some other option should the Section 30 order not be consented to-we have to avoid creating special processes or, dare I say, a special franchise for the election. The arguments of those who construct emotional, historical or family reasons for everyone who has an interest in the future of Scotland to be included in a franchise are very interesting. If we were to be all-inclusive we could find a way of doing so, but that would leave us open to the accusation that we are creating a special franchise in order to influence the outcome.

If the referendum is to be seen as legal, fair and decisive we should look to a pre-existing franchise, which is what the consultation did. It referred to the two pre-existing franchises in Scotland-the one for the United Kingdom Parliament and the other for the Scottish Parliament and for Scottish local government-and asked for opinions on which of the two those who responded to the consultation preferred. I am content with either of them but I veer towards the one for the Scottish Parliament. However, we can have that debate in the future when we come to look at the matter in the context of a decision, rather than in the context of a proposal, which is where we are at present.

With all due respect to my noble friend Lady Taylor, I know of the difficulties we had not only in persuading members of the Armed Forces to register but in facilitating that registration so that they could vote. I have great sympathy for people, particularly those in the Armed Forces, who are ordered to be somewhere rather than making the choice and thus being denied the franchise. We ought to look more generally at that issue to see whether we can resolve it and make it easier for members of our Armed Forces to exercise their vote. However, I resist the temptation to do that for this particular exercise for the reason I have articulated.