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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 Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

The Finance and Constitution Committee has produced a balanced and fair analysis of the bill and issued a set of reasonable recommendations. It is now for the Parliament to decide whether the bill is desirable.

I agree with Bruce Crawford that we should aim for consensus in our politics. However, as we have seen over the past few years, presenting a binary choice as the solution to complex problems can cause real difficulty in a modern parliamentary democracy. It can feed a political reductionism that polarises and drives people apart, instead of establishing consensus around a solution.

I have no hesitation in saying that I support a final say referendum on the issue of Brexit. however, I only support a confirmatory EU referendum because it is a vehicle to confront the problems created by the last one.

A referendum is a relatively rare part of the democratic process, especially in this country. Referendums have a role, but as I have said, we must learn the lessons of recent times and consider the fractious politics that referendums have created. Enhancing and reinvigorating the political process in a parliamentary democracy and giving people a real say over their future is about so much more than a single event. It can be about electoral reform of the House of Commons and replacing the unelected House of Lords to make our representative democracy more representative, or an end to the creeping centralisation that undermines and marginalises local government.

As others have said, committee witnesses recognised that there is a place for a generic framework governing referendums. However, in key areas—particularly question testing—the committee found no support for the Government whatsoever. The testing of referendum questions by the independent Electoral Commission should be automatic in every case as a matter of principle. If that does not happen, it will undermine public confidence and the legitimacy of any potential referendum process. The Electoral Commission provides objectivity and impartiality. It should be the safeguard that gives the public reassurance that elections and referendums are fair and properly conducted and that the results can be trusted.

Professor Fisher, Professor Chris Carman, Dr Renwick, Dr Andrew Mycock and Dr Toby James all supported the testing of any question. The cabinet secretary argued that because the Electoral Commission once approved the wording of a particular question in a particular referendum, the same question should be used for evermore, and that the Electoral Commission’s testing is somehow irrelevant in that case. I am pleased that the cabinet secretary is moving away from that position today.

Dr Alan Renwick said that lack of testing would be “a retrograde step”. Dr Andrew Mycock said that testing is

“appropriate for every referendum—if it is repeating an issue or if the material circumstances have changed—to go through that process”.—[

Official Report

,

Finance and Constitution Committee

, 11 September 2019; c 30.]

The Scottish Government tells us that it supports a second independence referendum now precisely because material circumstances have changed. The Government cannot have it both ways.

The Scottish Government tells us that the bill is about any referendum that the Parliament wants to put to the people. Let us not kid ourselves. There is only one referendum that the SNP wants us to agree to and it is the second independence referendum, which the bill in its current form does not cover and cannot cover without a section 30 agreement. In the same way that David Cameron called a Brexit referendum to deal with divisions in the Tory party, Nicola Sturgeon is using the bill to keep the nationalist grass roots happy.

For the record, I do not support a second independence referendum. The Labour Party voted against a second independence referendum in the Parliament and, as Richard Leonard has made clear, we will do so again, if necessary. However, whether the bill is about independence or not, it is flawed.

Throughout the committee scrutiny, witnesses raised concerns about how any future referendum would be scrutinised. The use of regulations would minimise public participation and weaken the ability of the Parliament to interrogate issues and hold ministers to account. In his evidence, Dr Renwick said:

“A decision to hold a referendum is a major decision, so it should be subject to the greatest level of scrutiny in the representative system.”—[

Official Report

,

Finance and Constitution Committee

, 4 September 2019; c 11.]

Using regulations instead of primary legislation, as proposed, weakens scrutiny. The committee heard from no one outside the Scottish Government who was prepared to justify that use of regulations. The nearest that anyone came to offering support was the Law Society of Scotland, which said that scrutiny should

“take the form of an act or, at the very least, a Scottish statutory instrument that is subject to the super-affirmative procedure, but that would be a very sub-optimal position.”—[

Official Report

,

Finance and Constitution Committee

, 4 September 2019; c 32.]

When it comes to a referendum, I believe that primary legislation should be used in all cases.

There are other areas that need to be addressed, such as imprints on digital campaign material, the Electoral Commission’s powers to obtain information and better reporting of campaign spending and assets. Patrick Harvie made a number of good points on that.

As Alex Rowley said, the people of Scotland and the people of the UK have not been well served by years of constant constitutional wrangling. They are fed up with it. They are tired of the UK Parliament being consumed with debates about nothing but Brexit. They are tired of the Scottish Parliament’s—and specifically the SNP Government’s—obsession with independence.

Today is a perfect example of why we should be debating other issues. As Neil Findlay said, the bill does nothing to improve people’s lives. Education standards are falling, the national health service faces a workforce crisis and local services are suffering from chronic underfunding. It is time for the Government to get back to what really matters.

Brexit is a big mistake. It is a warning about the profound challenges, costs and complexities of breaking up institutions that are so fundamental to how we are governed. Scotland should avoid making the same mistake by leaving the UK. Independence is not an alternative to Brexit—it is an equivalent and one that would be even worse for the Scottish economy.

The concept of a generic framework for referendums may be sound, but what this is really about is one referendum and one referendum only. There are fundamental flaws in the bill. We will not support another independence referendum, we will not support a rigged process and we do not believe that the Referendums (Scotland) Bill should proceed.