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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 Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lords Spokesperson (Attorney General's Office), Lords Spokesperson (Wales Office), The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Scotland Office) 9:45 pm, 21st March 2012

My Lords, this group of amendments has allowed us to look at a number of the practical, important issues which arise in the context of a referendum. As I indicated earlier, it is an opportunity for your Lordships to express views on this. Although we found consensus on a number of issues in the earlier debate, clearly on the issue of franchise there have been different views, to which I shall try to respond.

On a preliminary matter which I am not quite sure related to the independence referendum, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raised a question on the so-called West Lothian commission, which is to look at the implications for the House of Commons of devolution. Its formal remit is to consider how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales. The noble Lord asked about submitting evidence. I was not aware that it was not receiving evidence-I am not sure whether the noble Lord meant oral evidence or written evidence-but the commission that has been established is independent of government and I would be wary of trying to intervene. The commission should be free to undertake such work as it deems necessary to consider proposals for handling the parliamentary consequences of devolution.

A number of noble Lords-my noble friend Lord Steel and the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Foulkes-raised the question of timing. The United Kingdom Government's firm view is that the question of Scotland's constitutional status should be resolved sooner rather than later. The continuing uncertainty about Scotland's future is damaging to Scotland and until the issue is resolved that uncertainty will remain and, I suspect, grow. In our consultation paper we asked for views on the timing of the referendum and the majority of responses were in favour of holding it sooner than the Scottish Government's proposal to hold it in the autumn of 2014. Recently, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State set out a timetable for a referendum to be held in September 2013. We believe that that is a practicable timetable and see no need to delay. That view has been expressed by others. CBI Scotland said:

"The timetable should certainly provide for sufficient facts and analysis to be made available to business and the wider public and for the issues involved to be fully considered but, on balance, we believe that the referendum can and should be held sooner than currently planned".

By "currently planned", I think it means the preferred date of the Scottish Government. There seems to be a general consensus in your Lordships' House on this.

The amendment of my noble friend Lord Steel would ensure that any referendum on Scottish independence was administered by the Electoral Commission. A number of colleagues and noble Lords expressed their support for this and, again, I think there was widespread support for it. My noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas gave some practical examples of when he believed that the Electoral Commission would have been of considerable benefit. I am sure we are not calling now for a recount of the Lothian regional vote in 1999. History might have been different in so many ways if there had been a different outcome there.

The Government's view is that it is right that the Electoral Commission should oversee the referendum. It is a well-established body, known to be credible, independent and politically impartial. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, pointed out, two referendums in 2011 were overseen by the Electoral Commission without criticism. It has the experience and expertise required to oversee this referendum and can play a key role in ensuring that the referendum and its results are seen to be fair and decisive.

Previously, the Scottish Government suggested that they would create what they called a Scottish referendum commission to oversee the referendum, answerable only to the Scottish Parliament. As my noble friend Lord Steel indicated, it is not a particularly satisfactory position when one of the players nominates the referee. The United Kingdom Government believe it is unnecessary to create a new commission-undoubtedly, that would be done at additional cost-when the Electoral Commission is already in place and has demonstrated its capability. We are pleased that the Scottish Government now agree that the Electoral Commission should lead on the oversight arrangements for the referendum and we will continue to engage with the Scottish Government on this. Again, a number of responses to the consultation concurred with that.