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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, in our earlier debate on referendums, in response to an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I said that it is the Government's view that the Electoral Commission should fulfil the same role as it has in relation to UK Parliament referendums, as set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Its role would be the same in reviewing the question. My noble friend Lord Caithness raised this. The Electoral Commission's role is to advise and to oversee referendums. It is not appropriate for it to set the question and current legislation does not provide for it to do that. It is my understanding that the Electoral Commission would itself have concerns about doing that. The PPER Act 2000 sets out a clear role for the Electoral Commission that we believe should be respected for a referendum on independence: to review and report on the question. We believe that that is the right approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked about a possible amendment on Report to provide for the Electoral Commission to have a role now in relation to the question. We should recognise that the Electoral Commission already has the power to,

"provide advice and assistance to", certain bodies under Section 10 of the 2000 Act. However, we share the noble Lord's view that the Electoral Commission should have full powers to review and report on any question, and we have set this view out in the consultation paper. I hope that makes it clear. It might be worth exploring-I can go no further than this-whether that Section 10 power to offer advice would allow a preliminary review. Without further research and a legal consideration of that, I would not want to express an opinion on whether Section 10 is wide enough to allow that, but it certainly gives the Electoral Commission power to,

"provide advice and assistance to", certain bodies. I will certainly look at whether that offers an opportunity for the Electoral Commission to become engaged, because clearly until a Section 30 order is in place it would not have the power in relation to a Scottish referendum.

The area where we have had some difference of view relates to the franchise. I thank my noble friend Lord Selsdon-when he gave us his full name, I do not think that anyone would doubt his Scottishness-and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. I have learnt some things about her this evening which I had not previously appreciated: about her support for Motherwell Football Club and her own Scottish roots. It is the Government's view that the devolved legislature and local government franchise is the most suitable to use in the referendum. I do not doubt for one minute, and not just from the contributions we have heard this evening, that many Scots in the Scots diaspora wish to become involved. One can readily understand that.

I am sure that as a Leader of the House of Commons, the noble Baroness would not have been a rebel. However, as I think she said, the reason set out in the 1997 referendum for that franchise, which we seek to replicate, was its relative simplicity compared to the more complex ones to which she refers. Her amendment would provide that a franchise for an independence referendum would be for those who are eligible to vote in the Scottish Parliament elections, and for UK Parliament elections, if their birth was registered in Scotland. As I have indicated, we believe that it should be those who are on the register for local government and Scottish parliamentary elections.

My noble friend Lord Selsdon gave an interesting definition. No doubt that very fact would set up a lot of dispute and debate as to what constitutes Scottish nationality. There would be administrative difficulties; let us not pretend that it would not be otherwise. Importantly, we do not consider it appropriate to make changes to the franchise specifically for a one-off referendum, however important it would be-and there is no getting away from that. Changing the franchise may make some people feel that it has been changed to favour one outcome over another and, as I have said on several occasions in the debate, at the end of the day we want an outcome where, whichever way it falls, no one can cry foul. I obviously hope that it falls for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Those who would be complaining would say that the franchise had been manipulated but, if there was some suggestion that it had been changed in some way that was not consistent with a franchise that we already had, the losing side might well feel that there had been some attempt made to get one outcome rather than another. That would not be the basis for a decisive referendum.