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Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2019.

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Photo of Adam Tomkins Adam Tomkins Conservative

How does it enhance democracy for this Parliament not to be allowed to debate whether there should be any future referendum? That is the question before us today.

I will move on to the role of the Electoral Commission. It has become a much-valued, widely respected and absolutely core aspect of referendums in the United Kingdom that a proposed referendum question must be tested for its intelligibility by the independent Electoral Commission. Referendum questions are proposed by ministers, tested by the Electoral Commission, and, ultimately, set by Parliament. Section 3(7)—a provision every bit as egregious as section 1—would allow Scottish ministers to bypass altogether the Electoral Commission’s role in question setting in the event that a proposed referendum question has been tested at some point in the past. I can find nobody—other than Mike Russell—who thinks that that is anything other than a terrible idea.

The Electoral Commission was robust in the evidence that it supplied to the committee. It stated:

“The Electoral Commission must be required to assess any referendum question proposed in legislation ... regardless of whether the Commission has previously published views on the question proposed.”

That is the Electoral Commission’s view and it is absolutely correct. It was supported by all the witnesses that the committee heard from, including the constitution unit, the Institute for Government and the Law Society of Scotland.

Referendums require the fullest public confidence if their results are to be respected. The Electoral Commission’s expert and independent testing of the question is key to establishing and maintaining that confidence. It should never be bypassed. Ministers have given no good reason for wanting to oust the jurisdiction of the Electoral Commission. It is nothing other than another ill-conceived power grab by a minister desperate to have indyref 2 and to ensure that his side can campaign under flags and banners for “Yes”, as Nicola Sturgeon did in George Square at the weekend and as they all did in 2014.

We need to learn from the experience of previous referendums. We know much more about referendums, referendum campaigns and the impact of referendum results than we did before the 2014 and 2016 constitutional referendums that have left such a mark on Scottish and British politics. It is vital that the Electoral Commission is not merely permitted, but is required by law, to assess all referendum questions, whether novel or recycled, in order that we learn all appropriate lessons from past experience. The Electoral Commission’s full role must be restored and the minister’s attempts to bypass it in section 3(7) must be removed from the bill.

In legislating for electoral events, whether elections or referendums, the paramount principle is surely to put the interests of voters first. The bill fails that test. The Institute for Government said:

“it is imperative that the Scottish government avoid the perception that it is seeking to avoid full scrutiny of any future referendum proposal by intention, or as a consequence of a desire to fast-track the process.”

I hope that the minister is listening and takes heed of that advice. Seeking to sideline the independent expertise of the Electoral Commission is not a good look—the minister should change course while he still can.

As it stands, the Referendums (Scotland) Bill is a bad bill. It seeks to pave the way for a second independence referendum that Scotland does not want, in clear breach of the promises to the Scottish people that Nicola Sturgeon made when campaigning in the 2014 referendum. It is also a bad bill because it purports to give to Scottish ministers powers that no Government minister should have in a well-functioning democracy—powers that no minister who respects the democratic process should want. The bill seeks not only to hold an unwanted second independence referendum but to rig the rules of that referendum. To both of those propositions, the Scottish Conservatives say, “No thanks”. For all those reasons, the Scottish Conservatives will vote against the bill at decision time tonight.