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Holyrood Committee calls for changes to Referendums Bill to ensure proper scrutiny of future referendums

Bruce Crawford MSP - Image credit: Scottish Parliament

Holyrood Committee calls for changes to Referendums Bill to ensure proper scrutiny of future referendums

A Holyrood committee has called for changes to the Scottish Government’s Referendums Bill to ensure proper scrutiny of future referendums.

MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee demanded that the Scottish Government reach an agreement with the Electoral Commission on its role in testing future referendum questions before the bill continues to the next stage.

As it stands the bill would also allow the Scottish Government to set the referendum question without consulting the Electoral Commission if the commission has previously published a report on the wording or recommended that wording in the past.

However, the Electoral Commission told the committee it “strongly believe[s]” that it should be asked to test a question even if that question had been used before.

Committee members also unanimously recommended that any future referendums on constitutional issues must be backed by primary, rather than secondary, legislation.

Primary legislation is a full three-stage bill that can be debated and amended by MSPs before becoming an act, whereas the Scottish Government is currently proposing using secondary legislation to set the date, the question and the notice period of future referendums.

Secondary legislation is subject to much less scrutiny by MSPs and can only be approved or rejected, not amended.

Finance and Constitution Committee convener Bruce Crawford said: “Our committee supports the policy objective of the bill – to put in place a generic framework for referendums – on the basis that the bill is amended to reflect the weight of evidence we received and have set out in our report.”

He added: “We welcome the approach taken by the cabinet secretary in his oral evidence to our committee where he indicated that he is ‘open to alternative approaches to all aspects of the bill’ and how it can be improved.

“Our recommendations are intentionally framed to inform an open discussion on how the bill can be improved based on the substantial evidence received.”

Responding to the committee’s report, Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “It’s clear that we need to be ready for future referendums – including one on independence, as a majority of MSPs agree, in the light of the destructive chaos of Brexit.

“But we also need to learn from the experiences of 2014 and 2016 so we can improve the law on how referendums work, for example, the cheating, data scandals and dark money deployed by the Leave campaign represent profound threats to our democracy, and we must update the law to prevent such attempts to undermine any referendum in Scotland in the future.

“There are clearly changes which are needed to this bill before it’s ready to be passed.”

SNP MSP Tom Arthur, who sits on the committee, said: “It’s clear that it is now widely accepted that a referendum on becoming an independent country must happen.
"We welcome the fact that all parties who sit on the committee have joined to endorse the principles of the Referendums Bill, and to progress the debate on Scotland’s future in light of the Brexit mess.
“Introducing a framework to set out the way that future referendums will be run provides clarity about what the process will be for voters, campaigners, and administrators – to ensure that any referendum can proceed in a transparent and democratic matter.”

However, the Scottish Conservatives called the committee’s comments a “devastating blow” for the First Minister’s referendum plans.

Adam Tomkins, Scottish Conservative shadow constitution secretary, said: “The Scottish Conservatives are clear, we will oppose the SNP’s relentless pursuit of Indyref2 every step of the way.

“The evidence is overwhelming that Sturgeon’s unwanted and divisive obsession with referendums is a power grab.

“The nationalists want powers to set up referendums by order; but MSPs have said no.

“MSPs have been equally damning of Sturgeon’s arrogant efforts to by-pass the Electoral Commission.

“Nicola Sturgeon has been stopped in her tracks.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Rumbles said: “Nicola Sturgeon wants to rush this bill through and cut the electoral commission out of the loop because she is afraid of independent scrutiny.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats are clear that the last thing we need is a bitter and divisive independence referendum when we should be focused on stopping Brexit and building a brighter future.”

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