Monday, February 27, 2012

Only 12 days left to have your say on UK Government independence referendum consultation

In January, you might remember Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland (never get tired of hearing that one) launched the UK Government's consultation on the proposed independence referendum. That was the night that Alex Salmond turned diva and marched onto the evening news programmes to give away the date he'd been keeping to himself.

Michael Moore's consultation seized the initiative from Alex Salmond and forced him to start coming up with some answers. Hopefully we'll get the process sorted out soon and then go on to have a positive and passionate debate about the actual issues.

There are 9 questions in the document. I haven't answered any of them yet, and if I don't do it soon, it'll get forgotten amid all the excitement of Scottish and Federal Conferences over the next two weekends.I would be very annoyed if I missed the chance to have my say. This post is a good excuse for me just to get on with it. So, here we go:

1. What are your views on using the order making power provided in the Scotland Act 1998
to allow the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a legal referendum in an Act of the Scottish Parliament?

I think it's essential to do this. The Scottish Government clearly has a mandate to hold a referendum but I know, and I think they know too, that if they just went ahead and did it themselves, it would be open to legal challenge. Frankly, in these challenging economic times, I don't want to see my household's taxes being blown on a costly, protracted legal battle over the legality of a referendum that is completely unnecessary. I expect the UK and Scottish Governments to agree on the outstanding questions about the process so that we can just get on with discussing the issues.

2. What are your views on the UK Parliament legislating to deliver a referendum on

For me, it's really important that the actual legislation for a referendum should be introduced by the Scottish Parliament. The UK Government should not take control over something that it doesn't want to happen. It should devolve to the Scottish Government, in recognition of the mandate it achieved last May, the powers to hold the referendum. However, the Scottish Government should also listen to concerns of the UK Government with regard to legality and fairness and the two sides should come to a mutually agreed solution in a mature way.

3. What are your views on whether the Scotland Bill should be used either to:
i) give the Scottish Parliament the power to legislate for a referendum; or
ii) directly deliver a referendum?

The purpose of the Scotland Bill is to devolve more powers to Scotland and it should be left at that. The referendum issue is completely separate and I think for it to be tagged on as an afterthought to the Bill would be a mistake. 

The Section 30 Order seems to me to be the most sensible mechanism to use to achieve the end of a fair, legal and decisive referendum.

4. What are your views on the oversight arrangements for a referendum on Scottish

I think that the independence referendum should be treated like any other election and should be overseen by the usual, independent, impartial authorities.

The very idea that the Scottish Government could appoint its own Referendum Commission feels intrinsically wrong to me. The neutrality of this body could be called into question and it would also be expensive to set up when there's imply no need.

5. Do you think the Electoral Commission should have a role in overseeing a referendum on
Scottish independence?

The Electoral Commission is good enough to oversee every other election in the UK. I don't see why this one should be any different. They have the knowledge, experience, reputation and credibility to do the job. I would want them to be directed to report to the Scottish Parliament, though. 

6. What are your views on which people should be entitled to vote in a Scottish
independence referendum?

The franchise should be the same as for a Scottish Parliamentary Election.

My ideal scenario would be for the UK Government to legislate for votes at 16 for all elections in time for the next UK wide election in June 2014, for the European Parliament. 

I do not believe that there should be a unilateral inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds as a one off for the referendum for two reasons. Firstly, how awful would it be to be able to vote on Scotland's future in the Autumn of 2014 and then to have that vote taken off them in the Westminster election of 2015, just a few months later. 

The  Scottish Government also don't intend to canvass 14 and 15 year olds in the Autumn of 2013, so we would be in the bizarre situation where some 16 year olds, who were 16 at the time of that Canvass would get a vote yet younger 16 year olds would not. That would be extremely unfair and wrong. 

7. What are your views on the timing of a referendum?

I'm relaxed about timing. I'm more concerned about the atmosphere of the campaign rather than the timescale. If there was actual hard, independent, compelling evidence that the uncertainty over Scotland's future was causing harm to the economy, then I would expect the Scottish Government to move their plans forward. I don't think, however, that they should be compelled to do so. The UK Government is concerned with making the referendum decisive, legal and fair. Timing does not seem to me to be relevant to any of these three criteria. If the Scottish Government fails to act if there was such evidence, then that would be up to them and they’d have to take the consequences.It is, however, their mistake to make, not the UK Government's to prevent.

If the UK Government was to legislate for votes at 16, then a later date would be required for this to be implemented in time.

8. What are your views on the question or questions to be asked in a referendum?

My personal views like with neither independence nor the status quo, so I might be expected to want more than one question to give me greater choice. However, having looked into this in greater detail, I believe that anything other than a single yes or no to independence question could produce an inconclusive result. Professor Matt Qvortrup recently gave examples in the Times newspaper of multi-option referenda which had done just that. The day after the Referendum, Scotland needs to be very clear what it has voted for. If you have three options, it's clear that two could attract more than 50%.

As a fervent supporter of additional powers to Scotland, I reluctantly accept that this referendum on independence is not the appropriate forum to explore that further devolution. However, I would like to see a defined process in place to give the Scottish people a say on what sort of further powers they want. I would prefer this process to be set up in advance of the referendum as I do not believe that vague promises will carry much weight without being underpinned with legislation.

9. What are your views on the draft section 30 Order?

The Draft Order delivers a referendum on Independence on the same franchise as any other election with a single yes or no to independence question supervised by the Electoral Commission.

I note that it has an expiry date by which time the Referendum must take place. I am not convinced that this is necessary. I can understand why some people might want an end date for fear of a "neverendum" if independence is rejected but if the people of Scotland elected a majority of MSPs who had pledged to hold further referenda, then it's important to respect that choice. I think a devolution of the power permanently with the caveats about the franchise, question and supervision is sufficient to ensure fair play in the future.

So there you have it. What do you think? You need to send completed responses to or by post to Referendum Consultation, Scotland Office, 1 Melville Crescent, Edinburgh, EH3 7HW by Friday 9th March.

Whatever you do, make sure you have your say.

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