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Scotland Bill — Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 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) 6:45 pm, 21st March 2012

My Lords, it was thought at one stage that it might be helpful if I indicated the Government's position on these points. I shall do that if the House thinks it would be helpful and at the end I will respond to points made in the debate as well as to more specific points made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.

I also wish to thank noble Lords for helping to try to deal with these issues in two discrete groups. The first group concerns how to legislate for a referendum; for instance, whether there should there be one question or two on the ballot paper, the nature of a binding and advisory referendum, and whether it should be held across the United Kingdom. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Caithness has indicated that he wishes to discuss implications for the Scotland Bill of Rockall and, a place dear to my heart, Orkney and Shetland. Subsequently we will have a debate on one of the later groups on more practical but nevertheless very important matters relating to the referendum, including the role of the Electoral Commission, eligibility to vote in a referendum, and oversight of the referendum.

I want to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, when indicating that he supports the Government's view of a referendum that is legal, fair and decisive. I think he said that fairness must be fairness for all, and it is a very important point. We will certainly come to debates on the franchise and the role of the Electoral Commission, but I would want to agree that the referendum must be conducted in a way that is deemed fair to all and that both sides are satisfied and can accept the outcome. There would be nothing worse than to have an outcome where one side or the other was crying foul. In all our views, this means adhering to the well-established rules for referendums, so that neither one side nor the other can claim that there has been a false referendum.

As I set out in my Oral Statement to your Lordships' House on 10 January, the Scottish National Party won a significant victory in May 2011. In that election it campaigned for Scottish independence and its manifesto included a pledge to hold a referendum on independence. But winning an election victory is not sufficient. The SNP did not explain how, in legal terms, it proposed to deliver a referendum either in its manifesto or in the election campaign. Nor indeed did the Scottish Government set out their legal view or their plans for many months. As has been highlighted before in your Lordships' House, this is not a matter that can be avoided. To legislate for a referendum on independence, the Scottish Parliament must have the power to do so, and it is the Government's clear view that the Scottish Parliament does not have that power.

That is why on 10 January we published our consultation paper on how to deliver a legal, fair and decisive referendum. As I indicated earlier, officials are reviewing and analysing the responses and the Government will publish a full report on the consultation, but perhaps I may give some early indications. We received almost 3,000 responses. As I have already indicated, they came from members of the public in Scotland and beyond, and there were contributions from businesses, academics, political parties, trade unions and many others that belong to civic Scotland. I believe this will, and does, provide a sound basis for gauging Scottish opinion on the issues.

The Government's central proposition in the consultation was, as has been said, that the referendum must be legal, fair and decisive. It is important that the responses we received are analysed thoroughly, but I can indicate some of the preliminary results on the key issues. First, on legality, we must turn to the Scotland Act 1998. The Act is clear. The Scottish Parliament cannot legislate on matters reserved to this Parliament, including,

"the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England".

Any Act of the Scottish Parliament is simply not law if it is outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament. An Act of the Scottish Parliament is outside legislative competence if it relates to reserved matters. The question of whether a provision relates to a reserved matter is determined by reference to,

"the purpose of the provision, having regard (among other things) to its effect in all the circumstances".

We are quite clear that the Scottish Government's purpose in bringing forward a referendum is to secure independence. Their intended effect is to secure a mandate for this to happen. Both purpose and effect relate directly to the reserved matter of the Union. Your Lordships' Constitution Committee, in its report published last month, said:

"An authoritative determination of the legal issues analysed in this chapter could be given only by the courts. Having considered the matter in detail, we are of the clear view that the ... analysis offered by the UK Government is correct. Without amendment, the Scotland Act 1998 confers no legislative power on the Scottish Parliament to ... authorise a referendum about independence".

The committee welcomed the Government's proposal that a Section 30 order be made to devolve power on the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence.

In our consultation document, we invited views on devolving powers using other legislation, including the current Scotland Bill, and for opinions on the possibility of running the referendum directly from Westminster. We have been clear throughout this process that it is the UK Government's preference to work with the Scottish Government to secure agreement on the way forward. This is not a question about the mandates of Scotland's two Governments. We believe it is about empowering the people of Scotland to participate in a referendum that is legal, and it is crucial that any referendum is beyond legal challenge. To provide for that legal referendum, we have set out our view that the power to legislate for a referendum should be devolved by the use of a Section 30 order agreed by both Governments and subsequently put to, and agreed by, both Parliaments.

Initial analysis of the responses received demonstrates that a significant majority agreed with that approach. That position was not simply supported by the volume of respondents, but by key academic experts and commentators including Professor Matt Qvortrup from Cranfield University, Professor Adam Tomkins of the University of Glasgow, Alan Trench of the University of Edinburgh, and representatives of organisations such as the Law Society of Scotland, the Electoral Reform Society of Scotland, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy.

Noble Lords will also have noted that, soon after we published our consultation, the Scottish Government published their own document on 25 January. In that document the Scottish Government also acknowledged the legal problem and accepted that a Section 30 order was the best way to remove doubts about the competence of the Scottish Parliament. We welcome this endorsement, which the Secretary of State has discussed with the First Minister, and we look forward to continuing that dialogue over the coming weeks. Against that background, and indications that the Scottish Government want to reach agreement on these critical matters, I can confirm that we will not be tabling any government amendments on a referendum in the Scotland Bill.

In addition to ensuring that the referendum is legal, the Government have been clear that it should also be fair and decisive. That will be discussed when we debate the second group of amendments.