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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 Alexander Burnett Alexander Burnett Conservative

I thank the committee clerks for their considerable efforts in producing the report. I also thank those who gave evidence on the bill, both written and in person. As ever, their time and effort are much appreciated.

Like most committee members during multiple evidence sessions, I focused on a particular theme.

My area of focus was the role of the Electoral Commission and the testing of any referendum question, and it came as little surprise that there was unanimous agreement among those who gave evidence. I hope that the cabinet secretary has taken that on board and ensures that the bill that he is seeking to take forward meets the level of credibility to which I hope he aspires.

The fact that ministers will be able to set referendum timing and questions in secondary legislation is cause for concern. That is not a party-political point, but a democratic one. Would the cabinet secretary be happy when the shoe is on the other foot and such important details are at the discretion of a Scottish Conservative minister?

The truth is that the whole bill is a political point, from the speed at which it is being rushed through Parliament at the expense of existing responsibilities, to the pretence that it is not a foundation stone for a second independence referendum. That hypocrisy can even be seen in the bill, otherwise why would a bill that will cover only devolved issues include a specific provision to approve a previously asked question when that question is a reserved issue? The only question that has been asked before is the one on independence, and it is the only one in relation to which the SNP seeks to legislate against scrutiny.

The scrutiny that is required is very clear. That has been set out by the Electoral Commission and it covers requirements for clear timescales, focus groups, interviews, geographical testing, accessibility and more.

I asked Dame Sue Bruce, the Electoral Commission’s commissioner with responsibility for Scotland, what her position is on the fact that panels from whom we had taken evidence had been very clear about not only the need to test the referendum question but the Electoral Commission’s role in that, including when the question has been asked before. Her response could not have been more clear. She said that she strongly believes

“that the Electoral Commission should be asked to test the question.

I refer again to putting the voter at the centre of the process. We think that formal testing of the question helps to provide confidence and assurance to the voter and to the Parliament that is posing the question and, with regard to the integrity of the process, to establish that the question is clear, transparent and neutral in its setting.”—[

Official Report, Finance and Constitution Committee,

18 September 2019; c 37.]

Based on the evidence, it was not surprising that the committee recommended in its stage 1 report

“that the Cabinet Secretary recognises the weight of evidence ... in favour of the Electoral Commission testing a previously used referendum question and must come to an agreement, based on this evidence, with the Electoral Commission, prior to Stage 2.”

However, we must wait to see whether that will happen.

In committee, when I asked the cabinet secretary repeatedly about his view of testing a referendum question, his response—despite the evidence that we had heard—was that the question had already been tested. When probed on why the matter was beyond question, he said,

“I am not in favour of confusing people. If a question has been used again and again and it continues to be in use, it would be a serious step to try to throw it out.”—[

Official Report, Finance and Constitution Committee,

25 September 2019; c 11.]

As an aside, I do not think that the cabinet secretary has much regard for the intelligence of the electorate if he thinks that they would be confused

I believe that it is a grave mistake to simply accept a question because it has been used previously. There is an unfortunate arrogance in the cabinet secretary’s position. What he is really saying is that he knows best and that he is afraid to seek and trust the Electoral Commission’s endorsement. Arrogance and fear—that is no way to legislate.

The cabinet secretary’s rejection of the Electoral Commission’s wish to be involved demonstrates scant support for the protectors of our democracy. We need to ensure that the question is as fair to the electorate as possible. As ever, the Scottish Conservatives think that it is important that every question is tested and created using an evidence-based approach.

All of us—the Electoral Commission, MSPs and the electorate—are learning on a daily basis. The only person who appears to have given up on learning—possibly in line with his party’s education record—is the cabinet secretary. Many lessons need to be reflected in the bill, not least the fact that Scotland wants to move on from repeating referenda. The Scottish people rejected separation in 2014 and see this constant constitutional posturing as nothing more than disrespect for their vote. I say to the cabinet secretary that it is never too late to start learning.