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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 Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Talk about depressing politics.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill, which, as it says, is for

“An Act of the Scottish Parliament to make provision for the holding of referendums throughout Scotland; to make provision about such referendums and other referendums held under Acts of the Scottish Parliament.”

It is undeniable that the tectonic plates of Scottish politics have shifted somewhat cataclysmically since 2014. Therefore, the importance of getting the legislation right cannot be overestimated.

The two key issues in the Finance and Constitution Committee’s stage 1 report that I would like to focus on are electoral registration and political literacy, with particular reference to sections 4 and 28 of the bill. I declare an interest as a former modern studies teacher and development officer for the national qualifications at Education Scotland, where I contributed to the curriculum for excellence briefing paper on political literacy that was published in August 2013.

The UK-wide introduction of individual electoral registration, or IER, did not happen until after the 2014 referendum. The committee was told that

“It is widely thought that one of the effects of individual electoral registration has been a reduction in the completeness of the electoral register” and that

“research shows that young people and students in particular were negatively affected.”—[

Official Report, Finance and Constitution Committee

, 11 September 2019; c 35.]

According to the Electoral Reform Society, 9.4 million people in the UK are missing from the electoral roll, which is nearly 14 per cent of the population. Although the process of individual electoral registration currently remains a reserved matter, that should not deter discussions on how to improve voter registration in the interests of democracy.

In the run-up to the 2014 referendum, I recall attending a meeting in the City of Edinburgh Council chambers with Mary Pitcaithly, who was the chief counting officer for the Scottish independence referendum. I was there as an employee of Education Scotland. I am sure that I am not breaking any confidences when I say that it became clear that there were varying approaches around the country to section 26 of the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013, which focused on encouraging participation. Adam Tomkins is absolutely right when he says that we need to learn lessons from referendums. Perhaps the Government can reflect on that and strengthen the provisions in section 28 of the bill, which focuses on participation.

The Electoral Management Board for Scotland advised the committee:

“Rationalising existing laws to create a single, consistent framework governing referendums offers many benefits to the voter, to campaigners, the regulator and electoral administrators and to the extent that the draft Referendums (Scotland) Bill contributes to this objective, the EMB see this as a wholly positive policy direction.”

In the interests of democracy, I hope that members agree with that. It is particularly important that young people are encouraged to register, as we know that individual registration has impacted negatively on that cohort.

I take issue with some of the evidence that the committee received from the Stevenson trust for citizenship. It noted

“gaps in the availability of Modern Studies programmes across Scotland, lack of clarity about the aims and acceptable approaches in dealing with political questions and political literacy in the classroom”.

However, modern studies is not a programme. It is a core part of the social studies curriculum area, which every pupil in Scotland should have experience of until the end of their broad general education. They may then choose to study it in more detail at the level of national 4 or 5, higher or advanced higher.

The trust went on to reference its own research, which polled just 21 schools—that is not even 6 per cent of Scotland’s secondary schools.