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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 Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I thank the clerks and my colleagues on the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee and the Finance and Constitution Committee. I associate myself with the remarks of Bruce Crawford, who spoke in his capacity as convener of the Finance and Constitution Committee. The work that both committees undertook was serious and rigorous. All committee members played an important part, and the bill will be strengthened as a consequence.

I encourage anyone who reads the

Official Report of today’s proceedings or who watches the debate at home or in the public gallery to look at the Finance and Constitution Committee’s report and at the work of committees. Although a rather partisan and political debate is taking place in the chamber in the shadow of a general election campaign, the work that the committees undertook was serious and considered, and it reflects the best of the Parliament. I hope that, as the debate progresses, more of that ethos and spirit will come into members’ contributions.

I welcome the bill and the cabinet secretary’s response, which takes cognisance of the recommendations of the DPLR Committee and the Finance and Constitution Committee. The proposal to increase the minimum fine from £10,000 to £500,000 is welcome and will, I believe, command support across the committee. The principle for a default 10-week regulated period is to be welcomed, too. I also welcome the cabinet secretary’s willingness to consider the use of regulation-making powers, as provided for in section 1, and how they can be more clearly defined. I welcome the fact that matters such as a future independence referendum would be dealt with through primary legislation. That is a sensible way to approach any future referendum.

The bill and our deliberations on it offer us the opportunity to consider the operational matters and the mechanics of any future referendum in as close to a sterile political environment as possible, meaning that any future bill that paves the way for a referendum on Scottish independence can focus primarily on the merits of whether that question should be asked, on which we all have strong views.

I have a degree of sympathy for all positions that have been expressed on question testing. As the committee’s report makes clear, the committee was unanimous in recognising the weight of evidence that was submitted.

I note that, to my knowledge, there have been six national referendums in Scotland. Three have been specific to Scotland and three have been UK-wide referendums. The first three referendums took place in 1975, 1979 and 1997—three referendums over 22 years—with two being on devolution and one concerning membership of the European Union. However, in the space of five years, we have had three more referendums.

There is a trend for more and increasingly frequent referendums. They are a useful tool for taking decisions that perhaps go beyond those that it would normally be considered appropriate for MSPs to take. In the committee, certain examples were highlighted. The idea that questions might be referred from a citizens assembly requires further investigation. In the scenario that a question was referred from a citizens assembly, after considerable deliberation and much public discussion, the vehicle of a statutory instrument might be a more appropriate means of initiating a referendum.

I note from the Finance and Constitution Committee’s report that reference was made by the DPLR Committee to using a super-affirmative procedure. That would give the opportunity for any aspects of a referendum question that was proposed in such a scenario to be amended and discussed in some detail. Although it should be the norm for referendum questions to be considered via primary legislation, there is a case for retaining the power to create referendums through secondary legislation. That should be considered at stage 2 and I look forward to having discussions with colleagues on the Finance and Constitution Committee and, potentially, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee.

I note that the Finance and Constitution Committee was unanimous in supporting the policy objectives of the bill. I appreciate that today’s vote is on the bill’s general principles and that some Opposition members will feel that they are unable to vote for them but, given the unanimity of support for the policy objectives, I urge Opposition members to abstain and allow the bill to progress to stage 2 so that it can be amended and their concerns can be addressed. The cabinet secretary has recognised those concerns and shown a willingness to engage constructively with all members and committees in taking the bill forward.