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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


I do not speak for the DPLR Committee in this debate, but when we had Mr Russell before the committee, I opened the questioning. He and I danced around the subject of what a referendum might be used for. I suggested, perhaps rather cheekily, that there might be a vote on bin collections—which is not such a bad idea, given the state of the service in some parts of the country. The cabinet secretary was, to be fair, less combative than usual, and when we discussed where primary legislation might be appropriate, he proffered moral issues such as end-of-life questions.

However, we all know that this bill is not about bin collections or moral questions. It is about one thing and one thing only: independence. To suggest that the details of another vote on Scotland’s constitutional future, which we decided on in 2014, should be rammed through Parliament by subordinate legislation is an outrage.

The stage 1 report notes that the DPLR Committee said that

“there may be times where using delegated powers is appropriate but that different referendums may require a different level of parliamentary scrutiny—either primary or secondary legislation.”

The committee concluded that a question that is put in a referendum that requires an order to be made under the delegated power in section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, as well as questions about significant moral issues, should require primary legislation, and the Finance and Constitution Committee agreed with that.

We now come to the issue of who sets a question. Again, let us be honest: this is about independence. Section 3(7) excludes consideration of a question by the Electoral Commission when it has previously published a report on that question or has previously recommended the wording of the question.

The cabinet secretary was rather bullish—to put it politely—about that in committee. Somewhat bizarrely, he claimed that because we had asked one question in 2014, the same question should be set in stone, because, he said,

“it is a current question”.

He went on to say:

“I cannot see why we would suddenly decide, ‘We’d better brush this one down and have it tested again.’ It is still there. It is still being asked. It is current.”—[

Official Report


Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee

, 10 September 2019; c 24.]

In effect, he wanted to cut out the Electoral Commission, but that antidemocratic ruse was seen through straight away. Mr Russell was rumbled. That led to Mr Crawford’s committee saying that the evidence was in favour of the Electoral Commission testing a previously used referendum question and that Mr Russell should come to an agreement with the commission prior to stage 2. I am pleased to hear that Mr Russell has reined back on his rhetoric.

In an intervention on Mr Rumbles, I said that the bill is being rushed through. That is my view. The Government wants to push it through before the end of the year. It is a serious bill, to which there might be a number of amendments. In my view, there simply is not time for that. If we are to put through such legislation, it needs to be done properly and not rushed.