I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement to Parliament on the Edinburgh agreement, which was signed by the First Minister and the Prime Minister on 15 October. The Edinburgh agreement is a watershed moment in Scotland’s home rule journey. It paves the way for the most important decision that our country will make in more than 300 years and—crucially—it ensures that Scotland’s referendum is designed and delivered by this Parliament.
The elements of the agreement between the two Governments are set out in the memorandum published on 15 October. The Governments are agreed that the referendum should have a clear legal base; be legislated for by this Parliament; be conducted so as to command the confidence of the Parliaments, the Governments and the people; and deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of the Scottish people, and a result that everyone will respect.
To put beyond doubt this Parliament’s competence to legislate, the Governments have agreed to promote an order under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, which will require the agreement of both this Parliament and Westminster. The proposed order will allow a single-question referendum on Scottish independence to be held before the end of 2014. Once the order is agreed by both Parliaments, the Scottish Government will introduce legislation that sets out the date of the referendum; the franchise; the wording of the question; the rules on campaign financing; and other rules for the conduct of the referendum.
As the First Minister announced on Saturday, the Scottish Government will also introduce a paving bill to ensure that all 16 and 17-year-olds can register for and vote in the referendum, should that be the franchise agreed by this Parliament.
The Government’s proposals on those issues will be informed by our consultation on a draft bill, which took place earlier this year. Today, we are publishing the 26,000-plus responses to that consultation—the third largest consultation response in the history of this Parliament—and the independent analysis of those responses. The Government is grateful to all those who took part, and to the independent researchers for their analysis.
The analysis indicates broad support for the Government’s proposals on the question, the timing of the referendum, votes for 16 and 17-year olds, and spending limits. Opinion is split on the issue of voting on Saturdays. Quantitative analysis indicates a majority against a second question on the ballot paper—an option that has, in any event, been foreclosed to this Parliament by the United Kingdom Government’s position on the section 30 order.
Additional issues were raised in the responses about, for example, the impartiality of broadcasters. In the Edinburgh agreement, the Governments have agreed that broadcast coverage of the referendum must be impartial. That issue will be considered further by broadcasters, the Office of Communications and the Electoral Commission.
I emphasise that the report provides both qualitative and quantitative analysis of the responses, and it is not merely the weight of opinion, but the arguments behind those opinions that are important in reaching final decisions. The Government will consider carefully the responses and the analysis, which will influence and inform the final bill that we present to Parliament for consideration.
As set out in the Edinburgh agreement, the Electoral Commission will play an important role in formulating the question for the referendum. The Government will refer our proposed referendum question to the commission for review of its intelligibility. The commission will take views from others on the proposed wording and then report on the question. The final decision on the question will, of course, be for this Parliament, taking account of the commission’s views.
I am meeting the Electoral Commission tomorrow to discuss the next steps in its involvement, and to ensure that the process of reviewing the question takes place in good time. I will confirm to the commission that we seek its advice on setting spending limits that ensure a fair contest and a level playing field.
Both the section 30 order and the Government’s referendum bill will be considered and scrutinised by this Parliament in the normal way. The timetable for the section 30 order—here, and at Westminster—is intended to lead to the order being agreed early next year. That will enable the Government to introduce its referendum bill shortly thereafter. We would then expect Parliament’s consideration of the bill to take place through the summer and autumn, which will allow royal assent by November 2013, approximately one year before the vote. The Government looks forward to that process, to the scrutiny that members will bring and to the debates in this chamber that lie ahead.
Throughout the negotiation, the Government’s central objective has been to ensure that the referendum on our nation’s future is made here in this Parliament. That approach is consistent with the 1989 claim of right for Scotland and with the clear mandate that the Scottish Government won in last year’s election; it is also consistent with the consultations by both Governments that saw Scots—by a margin of almost 10 to one—choose this Parliament to legislate for the referendum. Although we regret that those who favour a third option cannot press that case as their Parliament considers the bill, we are pleased that the other constraints that were originally proposed by the UK Government have now been dropped.
Another central feature of the agreement is that both Governments are committed to working together constructively in the light of the outcome of the referendum—whatever that outcome is—in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom. The Edinburgh agreement was negotiated in that spirit and it shows that Governments can work together in everyone’s interests while firmly standing up for what they believe in. That will be as true after independence as it is now and it points to the potential for a positive new partnership among the people of these islands.
In light of the Edinburgh agreement, by which both Governments have agreed the process for Scotland to achieve independence, I can confirm that the Government has now commissioned specific legal advice from our law officers on the position of Scotland within the European Union if independence is achieved through this process. The Scottish Government has previously cited opinions from a number of eminent legal authorities, past and present, in support of its view that an independent Scotland—[Interruption.]
—will continue in membership of the European Union but has not sought specific legal advice. However, as the Edinburgh agreement provides the exact context for the process of obtaining independence, we now have the basis on which specific legal advice can be sought. The views of those other eminent authorities will continue to be highly relevant, but the Government’s position in the independence white paper will be based on and consistent with the advice that we receive.
Given that my statement answers the ruling of the Scottish Information Commissioner on the existence of legal advice, there is now no need for the Government to pursue its appeal against that ruling in this specific case, and I have asked our lawyers to advise the court accordingly and to ask that the appeal be dismissed. [Interruption.]
I should also make it clear that, in confirming that the Government has asked for law officers’ advice, I have sought and received the prior agreement of the Lord Advocate. This statement is therefore consistent with paragraph 2.35 of the ministerial code and the long-standing convention on which that section of the code is based, both of which will continue to be vigorously upheld by ministers. The confirmation that I have given relates to the particular circumstances of the issue and does not set a precedent.
I now look forward to the referendum campaign, which is the most important democratic event in Scotland’s long history as a nation. The Government will set out the positive case for an independent Scotland. We have an ambitious vision for Scotland as a prosperous and successful European country, reflecting Scottish values of fairness and opportunity and promoting equality and social cohesion.
Full home rule will allow us to create an exciting new Scotland that is fit for the 21st century. We will have the responsibility to find our own solutions to the challenges that we face and to build a society that is based on fairness, confidence, innovation and prosperity. We believe that independence is right for Scotland because it is the only way to deliver that vision and to deliver a better and fairer society for the people of our country.
We also believe that a yes vote in the referendum is now the only way to protect the advances that Scotland has made with devolution through the social contract, which has delivered vital universal benefits such as free university education and personal care for our elderly.
Finally, the case for a yes vote is based on a simple but powerful and fundamental premise—the people who are best placed to take decisions about Scotland’s future are those who choose to live and work in Scotland.
The people of Scotland will now consider what kind of nation they want to be. This Government is confident that its vision for Scotland will win the argument and deliver a yes vote in autumn 2014.
The Presiding Officer:
The Deputy First Minister will take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. It would be helpful if members who wish to ask a question of the cabinet secretary would press the request-to-speak button now.
I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. I also welcome the publication of the analysis of the consultation—some 165 days after the consultation ended.
Today an editorial in The Times said:
“The Electoral Commission is not, however, just some arm of the Westminster Government, to be treated as a butt of SNP abuse. It is an independent legal entity, answerable to Parliament, there to guarantee the fair running of elections in Britain. To cast aside its judgment would not only be irresponsible, it would be unprecedented”.
Does the cabinet secretary agree with that assessment? If she does, will she take the opportunity to allay the fears concerning funding that her speech to her party conference created and indicate to Parliament that the Electoral Commission will be entrusted with the setting of spending limits for the referendum campaign? If that is not her position will she explain to Parliament why it is not?
I gave Patricia Ferguson an advance copy of my statement, as she graciously mentioned. I also saw her listening to my statement, so she will have heard me say that I will be confirming to the Electoral Commission—tomorrow, when I meet it—that we will seek its advice on setting spending limits that ensure a fair contest and a level playing field.
The position of this Government is exactly the same as the position of the UK Government would be for sub-UK referendums should it be setting the rules. That position is that the Electoral Commission advises, the Government proposes and Parliament decides. However, I would not be asking the Electoral Commission for its advice if I did not think that it was incumbent on this Government to give weight to the advice of the Electoral Commission and to take due account of that advice in coming to its final decisions.
I cannot understand what anybody, on any side of the chamber—regardless of the legitimate differences of opinion that we have on independence—would find to disagree with in my statement that what we want to do is to ensure a fair contest and a level playing field. Surely that is what everybody should want in order that the people of Scotland can take a decision in that context. That is what this Government will seek to achieve and we will do that working with the Electoral Commission.
I look forward to meeting the Electoral Commission to discuss it further and I look forward to receiving its advice. Of course, as is the case with all aspects of the referendum bill, that aspect will be open to scrutiny by this Parliament as the bill passes through the normal process.
I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.
On Friday it was proved beyond all doubt that the Scottish National Party is a party without principle, voting for a policy that it does not believe in, and today the members of that party with principle voted with their feet and walked out. However, NATO is not the only international body that is tying the SNP in knots. We found out today that despite desperate claims of knowing the answers, despite thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent in courtrooms to keep information from the Scottish people, the SNP has never taken advice on a separate Scotland’s place in the European Union. It does not know whether we would be spending pounds or euros. However, it is worse than that—when I and other party leaders tried to exact the truth, we were shouted down.
The Deputy First Minister has told this chamber that she knows that Scotland would continue in the EU. In fact, in June, she said:
“An independent Scotland will be a member of the European Union ... arguing otherwise ... is ... an utterly absurd position”—[Official Report, 21 June 2012; c 10388.]
It is not absurd and the Deputy First Minister does not know. Monetary policy, EU membership—when will she stop trying to hoodwink the public on the big issues? Scotland needs to know, so when the Deputy First Minister eventually gets that advice, will she promise to publish not her interpretation, not SNP spin, but the actual advice, so that Scotland has the information that it needs to make this historic decision?
I respectfully suggest to Ruth Davidson that the word “principle” is one that Tories would be advised to avoid using in any context.
I do not doubt Ruth Davidson’s knowledge of these matters, but the position that the SNP has articulated and believes in with respect to Scotland’s position within the European Union has been backed by—indeed, it is drawn from—the opinion of some of the most eminent legal authorities in Europe. I am referring to people such as Eamonn Gallagher, the former director-general of the European Commission and an EC ambassador to the United Nations; Emile Noël, the first and longest-serving secretary-general of the European Commission; Lord Mackenzie-Stuart, a judge in the European Court of Justice and the President of the European Court of Justice for a period; and Xavier de Roux, the editor of the European legal dictionary—the list of eminent legal authorities goes on and on. That is the basis of the opinion that the SNP has articulated, and we will continue to do so.
I repeat what I said to Ruth Davidson in the chamber previously. The notion that oil-rich, renewable energy-rich, fishing-rich Scotland would not be a member of the European Union—one welcomed with open arms—is patently absurd. It does Ruth Davidson no credit to try to argue such an absurd notion.
I assure her that—as I said in my statement and as the First Minister has also said—the white paper that we will publish covering this and other issues will be entirely consistent with the legal advice that we receive.
The Deputy First Minister said that one of the aims of the Edinburgh agreement was to
“deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of the Scottish people” through the referendum. Does the Deputy First Minister have any information on the most recent indications of what the views of the Scottish people are likely to be in that referendum?
Strangely enough, yes, I do. Jamie Hepburn may have seen an opinion poll that was published in The Times on Thursday, which shows that the gap between support for independence and support for the case against independence has narrowed to 8 per cent. Interestingly, if people believe that there is any prospect of another UK Tory Government, support for independence rises to 52 per cent of the Scottish population. Even more interestingly, perhaps, if people believe that there is the prospect of a Labour Government, that support rises to 44 per cent. That is encouraging.
Opinion polls aside, this Government believes that the case for independence will be won on the strength of our arguments. Over the next two years, we will put forward those arguments with conviction, belief and determination, and we will seek to persuade a majority of our fellow Scots that their best future lies with independence and a new relationship of equals between the countries of these islands. I encourage those who are on the other side of the argument—which is a perfectly legitimate place to be—to be equally positive when they pursue their own cases. If that happens, we will have a debate over the next couple of years that will enhance Scotland and an outcome that will be right for Scotland.
How much taxpayers’ money has the Scottish Government spent on a court case to hide information on legal advice about the European Union—legal advice that was not even commissioned and that does not exist? Could President Barroso, Jim Sillars, Romano Prodi and a number of others be correct in saying that Scotland would not have automatic entry to the European Union? Perhaps the cabinet secretary should seek legal advice on whether joining the eurozone is a requirement for new countries when they join the EU.
Jackie Baillie’s latter point is not the case. I will answer her specific question with a specific answer. To date, the total figure for expenses is £3,960, which is £3,300 plus VAT. That is not absolutely final—it might change—but it is the figure to date.
I say to Jackie Baillie and other members that we took the appeal because we were defending what we considered to be an important principle. In asking for the appeal to be dismissed, we do not concede that principle. The principle is that the Scottish Government’s view is that, under the freedom of information legislation, the Scottish Information Commissioner requires to be satisfied that ministers have considered the public interest, but it is not open to her to substitute her own view of the public interest. The Information Commissioner’s view is that she has the final say on the public interest. We continue to differ on that issue of principle, which I have no doubt will be settled in the future.
I hope that Jackie Baillie is satisfied with the specific answer to her specific question on costs. I would be happy to update Parliament on the final cost as soon as the figure is available.
Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it is outrageous that unelected peers such as Lord Forsyth, who was of course rejected by the Scottish electorate, and Lord Cormack should seek to undermine Scotland’s referendum? Does she agree that it is right that the biggest decision that our country will make for many generations to come should be made here in Scotland, for the benefit of all who live and work here?
Yes, I do. The section 30 order will require to go through this Parliament and Westminster, including the House of Lords. However, it would have been indefensible for Westminster to legislate for our referendum, particularly given the unelected element there. It is right and proper for this most important of decisions to be taken here in the Scottish Parliament.
I thank the Deputy First Minister for the advance copy of her statement. I commend her for managing to ignore the siren voices that urged rejection of a section 30 order. Instead, she sought a mature agreement with the Secretary of State for Scotland, so that the referendum can be decided by the people and not by the courts. From today, it will be based on actual law, rather than imaginary law.
I feel the Deputy First Minister’s embarrassment in relation to the European Union. The First Minister said that his white paper would be consistent with the legal advice, but she has had to tell us that he has none—it was all imaginary. The same issue applied to the second question, but now the position is at least based on actual responses rather than imaginary responses.
All that work was supposed to be informed by Professor Tierney—the First Minister’s expert adviser—but we have heard not one mention of his work today. When will he speak?
I pay tribute to Michael Moore—he and I had a constructive negotiation that led to a good agreement. I also thank my predecessor on the task, Bruce Crawford, who started the Scottish Government’s work and did a sterling job.
I am not entirely sure about the second part of Willie Rennie’s comments. What I said today about the white paper being consistent with the legal advice that we receive is exactly the same as the First Minister’s comment in the Parliament about the white paper being consistent with the legal advice that we receive. There is absolutely no contradiction whatever.
As for Willie Rennie’s point about Professor Tierney, it is clear that we have the consultation responses and the agreement about the section 30 order. It will be for the Government to reflect on the consultation, to reflect generally, to submit a question to the Electoral Commission, to receive the commission’s views and to put its final proposal on the question to the Parliament for a final decision. All the views that we take into account in that process will be openly shared with Parliament.
We will go through that perfectly acceptable, perfectly robust and absolutely right and proper process. That will take us to a referendum bill in which the Parliament can have confidence and will ensure that everybody can have confidence in and respect the result of the referendum.
What steps will be taken to ensure that the wording of the question on the ballot paper will be fair, will be easy to understand, will gain the Scottish people’s confidence and will produce a result that is beyond challenge?
As I have just said to Willie Rennie, we will now reflect on the consultation’s findings, submit our question to the Electoral Commission and await its feedback and report. We will then submit a final proposal to Parliament in the referendum bill, which Parliament can fully scrutinise and make a decision on.
It is essential that the question is fair. Those members who have in the past criticised the Scottish Government’s proposed referendum question in the chamber should be aware of the consultation’s findings, which show broad support for the question.
We will take all the appropriate steps to ensure that the question is the right one, and that it will facilitate the decision that we want the Scottish people to take.
Why can the Deputy First Minister do what the First Minister has consistently refused to do, which is to reveal the existence or non-existence of legal advice under the ministerial code? Has the advice from law officers changed, or is it just another example of ministers making the rules up as they go along? That is exactly why oversight of the referendum would be best left with the Electoral Commission.
I will answer that question in two parts. We are now seeking specific advice, specifically because of the Edinburgh agreement. Before the agreement, the process by which independence could be achieved was not settled. It is settled now, and that is why we are seeking legal advice.
On why I am telling Parliament, those members who now seem to be complaining have been asking us to tell Parliament about the advice for months, so one would think that they might manage to be a little bit more gracious about it.
I have sought and received the specific permission of the Lord Advocate to share that information with Parliament today. That means that I am giving Parliament the information in a way that is entirely consistent with the relevant paragraph of the ministerial code. The ministers in this Government will continue to uphold that ministerial code and the long-standing convention—not just of this Government, but of other Governments—in that regard. I would have thought that members on all sides of the Parliament could agree on and welcome that.
I am delighted that 16 and 17-year-olds will be given the right to vote on the future of their nation.
Will the cabinet secretary expand on her statement with regard to how the Scottish Government plans to ensure that all 16 and 17-year-olds are able to vote? What role does she see for partners such as schools, colleges and other organisations in encouraging and educating 16 and 17-year-olds in relation to voter registration?
As the First Minister said on Saturday, we intend to introduce paving legislation to ensure that all 16 and 17-year-olds can vote, which I think is right. If we say that it is right in principle for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, it is right that all people in that age group should be allowed to vote.
“I don't see any major concerns with it, as long as we get legislation which is clear and unambiguous and early.”
That is why we intend to introduce paving legislation.
There will be a role for schools and modern studies classes to educate and raise awareness—in a completely impartial way—among young people. That is a thoroughly good thing, and we should all welcome young people becoming engaged and involved in the democratic process.
I have no doubt that all the parties and campaigns in the referendum will vigorously and enthusiastically try to persuade 16 and 17-year-olds that they should go for their side of the debate, and in my case that will mean persuading them to vote yes.
I thank the Deputy First Minister for the advance copy of the statement.
It seems that the Edinburgh agreement provides the process for the referendum, but not the process for the transfer of sovereignty. However, leaving that aside, I wonder why, if the Government thinks that the agreement provides the basis on which legal advice can be sought with regard to whether Scotland would inherit or renegotiate membership of the European Union, does not the exact same argument apply to other international bodies and international treaties such as the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights and indeed NATO? Will the Deputy First Minister seek legal advice on those matters?
I refer Patrick Harvie to what I said in my statement, which I think is worth repeating. This Government will uphold the long-standing convention, which is enshrined in the ministerial code, that ministers do not reveal the fact or the content of legal advice. In this one instance, I have prior permission from the Lord Advocate to tell Parliament that we have now commissioned advice. The permission does not extend any further than that. However, as the First Minister has said, the white paper will in all respects be consistent with any legal advice that this Government has.
I was pleased that the cabinet secretary said in her statement that she was going to meet the Electoral Commission this week, and I am sure that they will discuss ways in which we can ensure that the campaigns are equitable and transparent. Therefore, will she join me in condemning the attempts of the anti-independence parties to undermine the fairness of the financing of the independence referendum?
I repeat what I said earlier: it is most important to have a level playing field. It is not and should not be important to either side who has an advantage or a disadvantage; neither side should have an advantage or be at a disadvantage. We must have a level playing field. We will seek advice from the Electoral Commission about how spending limits are to be set to ensure a level playing field, and I hope that every member in the chamber and those on all sides of the debate will support that.
The important thing with any analysis is that it is proper and robust. The consultation received more than 26,000 valid responses. There were 30,000 responses but some of them were discounted because they were anonymous.
The Government received the final draft copy of the analysis on 12 October, I saw it at the end of last week and we have published it on the first day back after the parliamentary recess. That is absolutely right and proper.
I say again that we have concluded the Edinburgh agreement, and I hope that people welcome that, but the consultation will now inform the decisions that Parliament will make. With one exception, which is the issue of whether there should be one or two questions, the Edinburgh agreement does not close down any issue. It simply transfers the legal power from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament will make the final decisions and they will be influenced by the excellent consultation.
I appreciate the Deputy First Minister’s good intentions, but as an old lag from the first referendum on a proposed Scottish Assembly, I tell her that there is no such thing as an even playing field. For example, she said that the campaign will run from now on. When do we start putting the monetary restrictions on? When will the broadcasting restrictions go on? There are two styles of broadcasting: one is knowledgeable and aimed at Scottish viewers; and the other gives the view from the United Kingdom and beyond. I suggest to the Deputy First Minister that it is not all downhill from here. She should tell us now when the monetary restrictions will be put on the campaigns.
That issue was specifically laid out in the consultation. The Scottish Government’s proposal is 16 weeks before the vote, which is longer than has been the case previously. The previous timescale was 12 weeks before the vote and the Electoral Commission has recommended that it be extended to 16 weeks. Those points are laid out in the consultation and Margo MacDonald can read the response and the analysis for herself.
Margo MacDonald is right to raise the wider issue about the period of time between now and the start of the 16 weeks, not just for funding but also for broadcasting impartiality. I am happy to discuss those issues with the Electoral Commission when I meet it tomorrow, and I am happy to discuss those issues further with Parliament after that.
As we move from the negotiations over process to the debate about the future of Scotland, will the cabinet secretary explain how every household in Scotland can receive the balanced information that will be required to allow people to make an informed choice about what independence will mean for them, their families and their communities?
As members are aware, the Scottish Government will publish the white paper on independence next autumn. That will set out the perspective for independence and will be available for everyone who will vote in the referendum to consider and to use to inform their decision.
I cannot speak for the other side of the debate, but I can certainly speak for this side of the debate when I say that we will set out the powerful and overwhelming case for independence in detail, clearly and in a way that I think will convince the majority of Scots to vote yes in the autumn of 2014.
The Presiding Officer:
That ends the statement from the Deputy First Minister on the Edinburgh agreement.
We have a point of order from Willie Rennie. [Interruption.] Excuse me, can we have Mr Rennie’s microphone on? Is your card in, Mr Rennie? I wonder whether you could hop over to Liam McArthur’s seat. Thank you.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am told that the Scottish Information Commissioner has just stated that the figure for the cost of the legal challenge regarding the European Union advice that the Deputy First Minister just gave does not include taxpayer-funded legal costs. Can the Presiding Officer advise me whether the Deputy First Minister can be given the opportunity now or later this afternoon to clarify the cost that she has just outlined?
It is also the cost for the Scottish Government’s legal costs. However, as I said in my statement earlier, I will furnish the full details to Parliament as soon as we have the final figure. I am happy to circulate that to all members.