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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 Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

It is good to be able to speak in this debate on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill—and I will speak about the bill, Presiding Officer.

On the face of it, the bill looks perfectly innocent. It states that it is:

“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”. and it comes complete with sections on the franchise, conduct, campaign rules, agents, registration and so on. That does not ring any alarm bells. However, there are all kinds of bear traps lurking in there for the unwary, and some sharp-eyed souls out there spotted them immediately. For accuracy purposes, this bill should be renamed the independence referendum (preparedness for) (cranking up grievance) (Scotland) bill, because that is what it is.

Two committees of this Parliament have raised serious concerns on the back of the evidence that has been received. The DPLR Committee, which I convene, and the lead committee, the Finance and Constitution Committee, have both done an admirable job of scrutiny. They listened to the evidence on the preposterous idea that any future referendum on any subject would be set up using subordinate legislation.

The Law Society of Scotland said:

“We have reservations about the use of subordinate legislation for the most important questions relating to the Constitution.”

What could it mean? It added:

“Such issues require full and proper scrutiny which subordinate legislation does not provide.”

The Faculty of Advocates said:

“Disregarding the issues about legislative competence, it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which the holding of such a referendum and the framing of the question to be put would be more appropriately initiated under secondary legislation than by the Scottish Parliament considering and debating a Bill.”

Dr Alan Renwick of University College London, who has already been quoted, said:

“A power to call a referendum on any subject by regulations would be highly unusual. In fact, I have found no well-functioning parliamentary democracy that gives Ministers blanket authority to call a referendum by secondary legislation.”

I did some research on that and I can find no examples anywhere—not just in well-functioning parliamentary democracies.

It would be a world first, and not one to be proud of.