I want to make a statement about the referendum on independence for Scotland. The House will appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is unable to deliver the statement because he attended the meeting between the Prime Minister and the First Minister in Edinburgh to secure agreement on an independence referendum for Scotland.
In January this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland delivered to the House a statement about the referendum. At that time, we acknowledged the Scottish National Party’s victory in the May 2012 Scottish parliamentary election and its manifesto pledge to hold an independence referendum. The Government also made clear their view that the Scottish Parliament did not have the legal power to legislate for an independence referendum. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an offer that the UK Government would bring forward an order to give the Scottish Parliament that legal power.
Since January, the UK and Scottish Governments have held consultations, there has been considerable public debate, and numerous discussions between Ministers have taken place. Many of those discussions took place between me and Bruce Crawford MSP, the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Government Strategy in the Scottish Government, and I acknowledge his contribution to today’s agreement. Following 10 months of deliberation and four weeks of direct negotiations between the Scottish Government’s Deputy First Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am pleased to report to the House that today in Edinburgh the Prime Minister and the First Minister have made an agreement that will allow a legal, fair and decisive referendum to take place.
This is a significant agreement. The two Governments have agreed that there should be a referendum. We have agreed that the referendum will consist of a single question. It will offer a choice between remaining within the United Kingdom and independence. We have agreed that it must be held before the end of 2014. The referendum will be based on the normal legal framework for UK referendums, with oversight from the Electoral Commission. That includes the key issues of how the referendum question will be determined, and how the rules governing spending and campaigning will be established.
Following today’s agreement, the Government will bring forward an Order in Council under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998. I have today placed a copy of the agreement and the draft order in the Library of the House. The agreement and draft order are also available to Members from the Vote Office. The order will be laid before Parliament on 22 October and will be debated by both Houses of this Parliament and by the Scottish Parliament. All Members of this House will have the opportunity to consider and vote on the order. If both Parliaments approve the order, and after it is approved by Her Majesty in Council, the Scottish Parliament will have the legal competence to legislate for the referendum. We hope that the order will be passed by February 2013. Once that has happened, the Scottish Government will introduce a referendum Bill, setting out the wording of the question, the date of the referendum and the rules for the campaign for the Scottish Parliament to consider.
As part of today’s agreement, the two Governments have agreed that the rules for the referendum will be based on the rules set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Those rules were used successfully in the two referendums that took place last year. The two Governments have also confirmed that the Electoral Commission will review the proposed referendum question and that its report will be laid before the Scottish Parliament. That is the same process as applies to other UK referendums. Interested parties will be able to submit their views on the question to the Electoral Commission in the usual way. The Scottish Government will then respond to the Electoral Commission’s report.
Both Governments agree on the need for maximum transparency in this process and for a level playing field. Therefore, as part of today’s agreement, the Scottish Government will consult the two campaign organisations that have been established for their views before proposing spending limits for the referendum campaign to the Scottish Parliament. The Electoral Commission will also provide the Scottish Government with advice on the appropriate spending limits for the two campaigns in the referendum, as has happened in previous referendums, such as the 2011 referendum in Wales on further powers for the Welsh Assembly. In that referendum, the Electoral Commission recommended that the spending limit for designated campaign organisations should be set by reference to the expenditure limits that apply to elections to the relevant legislature. In its response to both Governments’ consultation documents, the Electoral Commission provided its view that that model remains appropriate for the Scottish independence referendum.
Both Governments agree that all those who were entitled to vote in the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2011 should be able to vote in the referendum. As with all referendums held in any part of the UK, it will be the legislation that establishes the referendum that sets the franchise. It will therefore be for the Scottish Parliament to define the franchise in the referendum Bill, as would be the case for any other referendum—or indeed election—on matters within its devolved competence.
Although both Governments agree that the basis of the franchise will be that for the Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish Government have proposed to extend the franchise to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. It will be for them to make the case for that change and to deal with the technical issues that may arise. There is, of course, a range of opinions in this House about changes to the voting age. However, having agreed the principle that the Scottish Parliament should have the legal power to legislate for the referendum—that it should be a referendum “made in Scotland”—the Government accept that it should be for the Scottish Parliament to determine the franchise. I fully expect that the Scottish Government’s proposals will be debated robustly in the Scottish Parliament. Any decision taken by the Scottish Parliament for the referendum will not affect the voting age for parliamentary and local government elections anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Today’s agreement is important, as will be the consideration of the agreement and the order by this House. However, I would also like us to reflect on what will come after. Now that the Governments have agreed the process for the referendum, it is vital that we get on with the debate about the most important political decision that people in Scotland will ever take. The UK Government have started to prepare the analysis and evidence for which people in Scotland are calling. Over the next year, the Government will publish thorough, evidence-based information that will set out the key issues in the independence debate. That analysis will be comprehensive, robust and open to external scrutiny. I fully expect it to show that Scotland is better off within the United Kingdom and that the rest of the United Kingdom is better with Scotland in it.
The Government believe passionately in the United Kingdom. We will work tirelessly over the next two years to show the Scottish people and everyone else in this country that together we are stronger, that together we can overcome the challenges confronting us, and that together we can build a better future for Scotland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. The debates ahead will no doubt be long, challenging and, at times, heated. However, I fervently believe that, with the support of colleagues across the House, across Scotland and across the whole of the United Kingdom, in the autumn of 2014, fellow Scots will join me in choosing to stay as part of the United Kingdom. We are indeed better together. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for providing me in advance with a copy of the statement.
This is, without doubt, an historic day for Scotland and the Scottish people. Now is the time for the debate on Scotland’s future to move out of the corridors of power and on to the streets of Scotland. I join the Minister in welcoming the fact that an agreement has been reached. It brings all Scots, me included, one step closer to deciding the future of our country.
The Opposition welcome the fact that the deal has been reached, but will seek guarantees that both parties will adhere to the agreement in spirit and in practice. We also have a number of questions to raise. Our position has always been that the referendum must be fair, legal and decisive. We welcome the fact that there will be a legal referendum with a single question and a regulatory role for the Electoral Commission.
Labour has always been, and will continue to be, the party of devolution. Labour brought devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and we will continue to make the case for our devolution settlement to develop and evolve. We are, and have always been, a party of constitutional renewal, and we know that the best interests of our people are served by binding together, not breaking apart. In the debate about our future over the next two years, we will therefore promote devolution within the Union against those who seek to bring it to an end.
The agreement sets out a framework for how we will move forward to the referendum, but I would welcome clarity on a number of a points, which I hope the Minister will address. First, the Electoral Commission should clearly play a significant role in the process, particularly with regard to the referendum question and the funding of campaigns. Can he assure the House that the memorandum of agreement ensures that the Scottish Government must comply with, not turn their back on, the Electoral Commission’s advice? If they do turn their back on that advice, or seek to do so, what action will be taken? Given that no other Government have ever done that, it would be exceptionally damaging to the conduct and process of the referendum.
Secondly, the terms of the agreement leave significant ambiguity regarding the funding of each campaign and the opportunity for financing or related activity by interested third parties. Does the agreement ensure that the limits set by the Electoral Commission will be binding? Will organisations such as trade unions and businesses be able to participate in the referendum in a way comparable to that in which they participated in the Welsh and alternative vote referendums? Does the Minister agree that it is troubling that even before the agreement was signed stating that the Electoral Commission would have a regulatory role, the First Minister’s aides were briefing the press that they would be willing to ignore the Electoral Commission?
Finally, we must ensure that there is adequate scrutiny of the agreement and the subsequent process in this House. Will the Minister therefore explain what opportunity there will be to debate the detail of the section 30 order on the Floor of the House? Will he assure me that either he or the Secretary of State will provide regular updates to the House as the process continues over the next two years?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s welcome for the agreement and her contribution to the debate that has led to it. It is important that the agreement sets out a clear role for the Electoral Commission in relation to both the question and the funding of the campaigns. It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which the Scottish Government would want to ignore the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. As she said, no Government have ever done so, and there would be not just a procedural problem but a significant political price to pay for any party that sought to do so.
We should never underestimate the Scottish people. It is wrong to suggest that they could somehow be duped into supporting independence by any form of chicanery or trickery that might come from either side of the debate. They are much too sensible for that, and I have every confidence that when the referendum comes, whatever the form of the question and however the campaign has been funded, they will make the right decision.
As an Anglo-Scot, like my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Prime Minister, I believe passionately in the Union and believe that the campaign to remove Scotland must fail.
The Electoral Commission’s involvement is much to be commended, and I commend my right hon. Friend for what he said about it. However, the proposal to extend the franchise to 16-year-olds, who cannot lawfully buy alcohol, drive a motor car or be called to fight on the front line, but who will now be invited to opine on one of the greatest constitutional issues of our time, is surely a nonsense that will create a dangerous precedent.
I can assure my hon. Friend that it will not create a precedent. The franchise for parliamentary and local government elections throughout the United Kingdom will be determined by opinions in this House. At the moment, the Government have no proposals to change the voting age, and I do not believe there is a majority in the House to do so.
I say to my hon. Friend and others who share his views that they must now take their arguments to Scotland and the Scottish Parliament, so that the Scottish Government can be held to account when they bring forward their proposals. This is a moment for the Scottish Parliament to demonstrate its own robust ability to scrutinise legislation. When it identifies complexities with enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds, of which there are many, it can hold the Scottish Government to account and argue against the proposal.
I thank the Minister for his statement, although he will forgive me if I do not welcome the final two or three paragraphs. However, I thank him for very early sight of it.
This decision is historic, and I agree with the Minister that it is the most important that we will ever take. It also has the potential to be exciting and transformative for Scotland when the Scottish people vote yes. I very much welcome the 2014 timeline, which was of course the Scottish Government’s favoured position, and the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds—also a Scottish Government position.
Does the Minister agree that the most exciting part of this is that, as he said, the Scottish Parliament will be the final determiner of the question? It has the only mandate of any Parliament in the UK to set a question on independence for Scotland.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not tell us that the Scottish National party wanted only one question, as well.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, because his question reveals his party’s obsession with process. What is important, ultimately, is not who legislates on the referendum but the decision that the people of Scotland take. They will have the opportunity to end the uncertainty and vote to remain part of the United Kingdom.
May I offer my unqualified endorsement of the statement made so eloquently, if I may say so, by my right hon. Friend?
Does my right hon. Friend hope, like me, that the shadow boxing will now come to an end, along with the Scottish National party’s uncharacteristic reticence, demonstrated again this afternoon, to tell the people of Scotland precisely what its proposals for independence are? May I offer him a crumb or two of comfort? If he will forgive a second sporting metaphor, the Scottish Liberal Democrats will be first off their marks on Wednesday, when we publish our proposals for home rule for Scotland within the United Kingdom.
I had understood that the Liberals brought forward proposals for home rule for Scotland 100 years ago, but I am sure that we look forward to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s contribution to the debate. He has made a distinguished contribution to the discussion of Scotland’s constitutional future over the years. I think the people of Scotland will indeed be pleased that we can move on from a debate and discussion that have been purely about process to ones on the real issues. The Prime Minister and those campaigning in the Better Together organisation have committed to setting out a positive vision for the United Kingdom, with Scotland playing a part in it. It is incumbent on those arguing for independence for Scotland finally to answer the questions and set out what independence would really mean.
The last time the Electoral Commission considered whether 16 and 17-year-olds should vote, it found that 78% of the British public, including the Scots, were against the change. Whatever opinion Members and the public may hold on the issue, why does not the Minister acknowledge that the question of the franchise, for referendums as well as for elections, is plainly a matter reserved by law to the United Kingdom Parliament, not to any devolved Administration? Given the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) asked about the need for further scrutiny in the House, how will the House be able to have a prior vote on whether there can be votes at 16 or 17 in any type of poll across the whole Union?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that previous legislation setting out referendums has set the franchise, and that the procedure will be no different in the Scottish Parliament setting out the terms of this referendum and the franchise. All Members of the House will have an opportunity to vote on the section 30 order that will pass powers for holding the referendum to the Scottish Parliament, and the opportunity for a robust debate. All those who are concerned about 16 and 17-year-olds being give the vote in Scotland should make that argument now, and demonstrate the complexities and difficulties of the proposals brought forward by the SNP.
As I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware, the Government have established a commission that is looking at the so-called West Lothian question and will deal with the issue he raises about the governance of England within a range of devolved settlements for the other nations of the United Kingdom.
Has anyone the responsibility—if so, who?—of ensuring that when this debate is reported over two years, people in Scotland can expect impartiality, particularly in broadcasting? That has not always been the case.
I am aware from contributions to debates about television in Scotland that people feel strongly about bias in some elements of the media. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the normal rules he would expect to apply within an election period will apply during the referendum process.
Does the Minister appreciate that although most Members of this House have grave reservations about the peculiarities of the proposed franchise, there is also wide agreement that the most important thing about the compromise reached by the Prime Minister is for there to be one decisive question on the ballot paper? The future of Scotland as part of the United Kingdom—to the benefit of everyone in every part of the United Kingdom—should be decided once and for all.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Throughout these discussions, the Government’s position has been that there should be a single question—in or out of the United Kingdom—and that in the course of that debate, independence and devolution should not be conflated.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. On the coming debate, and particularly the scope of the Electoral Commission, we have seen in the First Minister’s press conference and televised statements from his Ministers, that they are already rowing back from the role of the Electoral Commission. Let us not be naive about the role of the Scottish Parliament. We are talking about a man who thinks he is Scotland and speaks for everyone in Scotland. What processes will ensure that the recommendations of the Electoral Commission are put into force?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that Mr Salmond does not speak for Scotland, no matter how much he seeks to hold himself out as doing so. I do not, however, agree that Mr Salmond or the Scottish Parliament can blithely ignore the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. The commission’s recommendations have never previously been ignored by a Government, and it would be a serious political matter were that to happen. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, and others on his side of the House, would waste no time in drawing that to the attention of the Scottish people.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. The exchanges we have already heard demonstrate that Members of this House and the Scottish Parliament have a responsibility to ensure that the outcome of the referendum commands the full confidence of the people of Scotland, and that involves responsibility on both sides. Does the Minister agree that all parts of the United Kingdom have a distinctive contribution to make, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that we would all be diminished were we to break up this 300-year Union?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that we are better together and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that will be a significant part of the debate as we proceed. I expect people from all parts of the United Kingdom—not just within Scotland although the campaign will be led by Scots within Scotland—to make the case for the continuance of the United Kingdom.
Although there are obviously differing views about extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, I hope the Minister will agree that, as this matter proceeds, it is important that young people in Scotland are treated with respect and not cynically. What assurances does he have that those 16 and 17-year-olds will be equally as able to register as any other adult, and to vote in this important poll that will determine their future?
As the hon. Lady knows, that is one of the significant complexities that the Scottish Government will face if they bring forward their proposals to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. If they use the current electoral register, they will essentially allow only those who are16 years and 10 months old to vote. If they wish all 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, they will have to create their own register, and that carries with it significant complexities.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister, as well as the Prime Minister, on reaching this agreement with the First Minister in Scotland? Does the Minister agree that we are far better together as the United Kingdom, and that it is now time to determine the real debate in full and look at the dubious suggestions from the SNP about defence, EU membership and currency?
My hon. Friend does the SNP extra credit by suggesting that its members have views on the issues she has set out. In recent weeks and months it has become apparent that despite campaigning for independence over many years—indeed decades—the SNP has no clear idea what an independent Scotland would look like. Now that the process issues are out of the way, it will be incumbent on the SNP to come forward with specific proposals for what an independent Scotland would look like.
I wholeheartedly concur with comments made by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). By yoking together two issues, we are causing ourselves a huge difficulty. Some of us may feel that voting for a section 30 order means that we are endorsing the vote for 16 to 17-year-olds. Should we ever vote on a referendum about the EU, for example, it would be impossible to imagine that we could deny the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK. We must insist that 16 and 17-year-olds either have the vote wholeheartedly, or—as I believe—that they should not have the vote on this major constitutional issue.
I am afraid I cannot agree with how my hon. Friend has brought those two issues together. The UK Parliament will determine the franchise for any referendum determined by it; the Scottish Parliament will determine the franchise for a referendum devolved to it. The Scottish Parliament already has the power to set the age for any election for which it has devolved responsibility, and has used it for health board and crofting commission elections. The precedent for 16 and 17-year-olds voting has been set.
As a supporter of votes at 16, I welcome the Scottish Parliament extending the franchise to 16-year-olds. Far from seeing that as a dangerous precedent, why will the Government not seize the opportunity to consult, debate and vote on widening the franchise to 16-year-olds in all UK elections, including referendums and local and national elections?
I welcome the agreement, which gives us a single, legally based question that can settle the future for Scotland once and for all. However, will the Minister reinforce the message that any Parliament or Government that chooses to ignore the advice of the Electoral Commission will be judged by the public for what it has done?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I have absolute faith that the people of Scotland will not be duped by chicanery or trickery by the Scottish Government or anybody else in making this most important decision on the future of Scotland. If any Member of Parliament believes that any party in the referendum is guilty of such a charge, it is their job to hold it to account in debate, whether in the UK Parliament or the Scottish Parliament. We can be confident, because I can see no reason why the Scottish Government, whatever their spin doctors say, would ignore the Electoral Commission’s recommendations, given that no other Government have done so before.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. In fetching forward a detailed analysis of what the proposal means for the people of Scotland and England, will the Government commit themselves to an analysis of the volumes of radioactive materials from Scotland that are stored in England? How much it will cost to remove them to Scotland, where in Scotland will they be buried, and who will be responsible for them in the long term? He will be aware that foreign waste cannot be disposed of in Britain.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but it is for those proposing change to say how they would deal with it. The Government do not wish to break up Britain or want a change to the existing arrangements for the storage of nuclear waste. Those who want to break up Britain must set out clearly how that would be done and what it would cost.
Sadly, I am not 16 or 17—I am a little bit older—but as an Anglo-Scot, I feel slightly disfranchised, because the decision on my father’s homeland will be made without me having one bit of say in the matter. I request, please, that we, the Scots of the dispersion, have a say in what happens to our ancient homeland.
I am sure my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to have a say—he can go to Scotland and set forth his passionate views on Scotland remaining in the UK. The issue he raises has been raised legitimately by many Scots in other parts of the UK, who ask why they should not have a vote. The Government’s position has always been that those in the part of the UK that wishes to leave the UK should have a say in determining whether it leaves or not. That is in accordance with international protocol on the separation of nations and was also the franchise that determined devolution to Scotland in 1997.
Today has been an utterly fantastic day. The Edinburgh agreement is the next stage in our nation’s story. I cannot wait to get out and put a compelling and positive case for my nation’s independence. The Minister says he wants a real choice and different visions. In November next year, the Scottish Government will release a full and comprehensive prospectus on what an independent Scotland will look like. The no parties agree on so much now—on anti-universality, means-testing and an austerity programme—but when will they get together and let us know what the no proposition for the referendum will be?
For one moment, I thought the hon. Gentleman said the Scottish Government would announce their proposals this November, but in fact he said that they will do so in November next year. For a party that has campaigned for decades for independence, the fact that you have no proposals on the table on what an independent Scotland would look like reflects the lack of thought you have given to the issue. That is unbecoming of you and unworthy of the people of Scotland.
First, may I say that I have always found you most becoming, Mr Speaker? I apologise for suggesting otherwise.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Very significant additional powers are about to come to Scotland and the Scottish Parliament through the Scotland Act 2012, which will involve the most significant transfer of financial powers since the Acts of Union 300 years ago. The Scottish Government and Parliament focus should be on the implementation of those powers to the benefit of the people of Scotland.
No sooner was the ink on the agreement than Scottish Government Ministers were out dismissing the role of the Electoral Commission in the process. May I urge the Minister against complacency? Anyone involved in Scottish politics knows it is perfectly plausible that President Alex will ignore the Electoral Commission and set his own biased question. Will the Minister therefore look very carefully at the issue of the question?
The Scottish Government will propose the wording of a question in its referendum Bill. It will then be open to anyone, including the leaders of other political parties in Scotland, who have engaged in an extensive exercise, to allow the Electoral Commission to conduct the sort of scrutiny it has conducted in the past in relation to, for example, the alternative vote UK referendum. I remain confident that the people of Scotland will not simply be duped into breaking Britain up because of trickery or other such behaviour by any party in the debate. It is for anybody who suspects such behaviour or who is dissatisfied with a Scottish Parliament rejection of the Electoral Commission report, which I still consider unlikely, to make that case within the political arena.
I absolutely agree, but I think that the first and overriding consideration is to resolve whether Scotland wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom and put that issue to bed. No doubt in future years there will continue to be a debate about the governance of the whole of the United Kingdom, in which we in this Parliament and those in the Scottish Parliament will be able to play a part.
Harking back to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) and the Minister’s answer, surely the UK Government would bear some responsibility if the Scottish Parliament and Government want all 16 and 17-year-olds to have the vote? It frankly is not good enough for the Minister just to say that it is a complex issue. He should be looking at ways of encouraging the registration of all of those 16-year-olds so that we have registration not by voluntary activity but in the same way as every other voter is registered.
I would encourage everyone to register for this most important vote. The point that I made to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) is that the Scottish Government will have two options: to use the existing register on which those people who are to be 18 within the electoral cycle covered by that register may vote, or to create a new register. Whichever option the Scottish Parliament chooses, we will urge all those eligible to vote to register to do so.
I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister on reaching this important agreement. Before people come to vote in the referendum, it is important that they know what they are voting for. When the SNP eventually, in another 13 months, gets round to working out its proposals for an independent Scotland, will the Government put the proposals to independent scrutiny so that people can vote knowing what the proposals would mean?
As I indicated in my statement, the Government are already objectively carrying out extensive analysis that will clearly set out the benefits of the United Kingdom, and of Scotland playing a part in it. The people of Scotland will be able to contrast that with the lack of clarity and of any substantive proposals, and the uncertainty, coming from the SNP.
I welcome the statement, but may I press the Minister yet again on what mechanism is in place for this House to have a view if the Scottish Government do not take the advice of the Electoral Commission—as they have already indicated will be the case?
The opportunity for Members in relation to the issue as a whole will be in the debate on the Order, and all hon. Members will have a vote on it. If the Electoral Commission’s proposals were to be rejected—and there has been no formal statement from the Scottish Government to that effect—the Scottish Government would have to be held to account for that by the people of Scotland, by politicians in this House and by the hon. Gentleman’s counterparts in the Scottish Parliament. I have faith in the people of Scotland. If they see the Scottish Government flagrantly rejecting proposals from the Electoral Commission, or any suggestion of trickery in the question, they will not look well on the perpetrators.
We seem to have used the piecemeal extension of the franchise as part of a negotiating process. What concerns me is that 16-year-olds will vote on the sovereignty of their country, but six months later they will be unable to vote in council elections. How can that be right or coherent?
The Government do not support the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, and indeed our Conservative colleagues will argue against that proposal when it comes before the Scottish Parliament. It will be for the Scottish Government to make the case for 16 and 17-year-olds voting in the referendum. That debate needs now to go to Scotland, to the people of Scotland and parliamentarians in the Scottish Parliament, so that there can be a full and proper debate. I remain hopeful that the Scottish Parliament will fully scrutinise any such proposals and, if they are defective, reject them.
The suffragettes did not campaign for the vote on a one-off basis or for a particular part of the United Kingdom. This proposal does a disservice to young people throughout the United Kingdom. Is it not irresponsible of the Government to pass responsibility for the franchise on, when they are clearly aware of major technical difficulties? Should not these be sorted out at a UK level? What would the costs be to the Scottish taxpayer if a separate register were set up?
The hon. Lady’s final question is one for the Scottish Government and to be asked within the Scottish Parliament. Her colleagues there must hold the Scottish Government to account in relation to any proposals that they make on this referendum. I happen to agree with her that it is not right that there should be different franchises for different elections, but that is a point to be made in the debate in Scotland.
The Minister has made it clear today that it would be unacceptable for the Scottish Government to ignore the advice of the Electoral Commission on the wording of the question. Why then are there no clear consequences for this eventuality in the agreement?
We are following exactly the same process and procedures that were followed in relation to the alternative vote referendum that took place across the United Kingdom, in which the Electoral Commission reported to this Parliament, which then decided whether it would follow that advice.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said that he could not wait to get out there and debate this issue. Of course, SNP Members have waited and waited. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the Prime Minister on the patience and quiet diplomacy that has flushed these people out. Now they can wriggle on the franchise, they can wriggle on the question, and they can even wriggle on the date they hold it, but the Scottish people will finally have a chance to examine their arguments and put them where they belong—in the bin—when they reject this outrageous attempt to split up this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for that robust contribution. He is right. The people of Scotland will see through the lack of detailed policy from the Scottish National party on what an independent Scotland would be like. As I have said in response to other questions, they will also see through any trickery or chicanery attempted in the setting of the question, the franchise or the spending limits.
On the question of 16 and 17-year-olds, if—as is possible—not every single person of that age gets the opportunity to vote, there could be a legal challenge against that decision. What would happen to the referendum in those circumstances?
This is indeed a welcome settling of process issues, and it is very welcome that we can now move back to the real debate. As has already been said, next year marks 100 years since the passing of the Second Reading of the Home Rule Bill in this very place. We on these Benches have been honing our alternative for 100 years: will the Minister join me in urging the other Unionist and independence parties to do the same?
I respect the long record of the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors in pursuing these issues, and no doubt, as we approach the 2015 general election, they will set out a range of proposals for the people of Scotland. It is important now, however, that we settle the question of whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom or becomes a separate nation state, and we can achieve that with a single-question referendum.
The Minister referred to a legal, fair and decisive referendum. From what we have heard today, it might well be legal, but does he not accept that the question of fairness and, therefore, of decisiveness rests on the question? His inability this evening to explain what the consequences would be if the Scottish Government decided, as they indicated today they might, to ignore the advice of the Electoral Commission leaves the whole process in question.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The consequences for the Scottish Government of ignoring the Electoral Commission with the people of Scotland would be significant, and would diminish their argument in the process. I have confidence in the ability of the people of Scotland to see through it.
My daughter, Erin, turned 18 last week, so she will definitely have the vote—and she has already assured me that she will vote to remain in the United Kingdom, because she knows that we are better together. I remind the Minister that the SNP had the opportunity to extend the franchise in the 2012 local government elections, but chose not to do so. Is the Government’s confidence in ceding this territory in the negotiations based on the fact that it will be impossible to implement in the time scale envisaged?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s daughter’s support for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom. She reflects the views of many 16, 17 and, indeed, 18-year-olds, as demonstrated by the polls in Scotland. As the process continues, it will be important that we take forward the issues and debates in the Scottish Parliament and that the people of Scotland are engaged.
I welcome the fact that an agreement has been reached and that I will have the opportunity finally to vote against separation, but why do we have to wait so long? Why the delay, why the dither? Is it not because the coalition Ministers on the one hand and the SNP on the other have been meeting in secret and not taking account of the views of the vast majority of the Scottish people? Our consultation here at Westminster said that we wanted the referendum to be soon, and the Scottish Government’s consultation said—well, we do not know what it said, because they have not published it. The deal has been reached before the consultation has been published. What scrutiny will there be of the detail of the arrangement? For example, will tax exiles have the right to vote? Are we going to have foreign money coming in? Will there be an opportunity to amend not the broad sweep but the detail of these proposals? And what sanctions will there be if somebody breaks an agreement that was reached in good faith?
I have great faith in the Scottish people and in 16 and 17-year-olds—we underestimate them at our peril—but I have absolutely no faith in this coalition or the Executive north of the border. These 16 and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote on Scottish separation, yet, six or seven months later, they will not be allowed to vote in a general election. How would the Minister vote if he was one of these 16 or 17-year-olds? Answer that!
First, I refer the hon. Gentleman to polling in Scotland, which indicates that 16 and 17-year-olds do not support independence, and secondly I urge him to take his argument to Scotland—to the Scottish Parliament and his MSP colleagues there—to make that robust case.
The Minister has heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) and my hon. Friends the Members for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) about the issue of some 16 and 17-year-olds being disfranchised as a result of not being on the register. I am positive that, during the discussions that he and his colleagues have had, someone somewhere might have raised the issue of a legal challenge. Does he have any idea how much of a delay there might be, if there is a legal challenge?
First, my experience of the Labour party in Dumfries and Galloway is that it is very good at getting people on to the electoral register—and I am sure it will be so again in getting 16 and 17-year-olds registered. The Scottish Government will have to come forward with legally watertight proposals; otherwise, they will be subject to challenge. As we have heard, they could conduct the referendum on the basis of so-called attainers, by which is meant people who will turn 18 within the cycle of the electoral register. It is clear that that could be done legally, but the downside, from the Scottish Government’s point of view, is that not all 16 and 17-year-olds would be able to vote as not all of them would be on the register, because of that age limitation. The other option for them is to create their own register. But were they to do that they would have to be sure that it was legally watertight.
Trust is good, but verification is always much better, so will the Minister not accept that the only way to ensure that the Electoral Commission’s recommendations will be complied with is to bring the referendum question back to the House for a vote?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s proposition. The Government’s position approaching the discussions on the agreement was that the referendum should be made in Scotland and that the necessary powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government would encounter significant political difficulties, were they to become the first Government in the history of the UK to ignore the views of the Electoral Commission.
Why would it not be possible for the voter registration form in 2013 to ask for the details of anyone who would be over 16 on the date of the referendum? Is that too obvious, or is it a simple solution?
One of the complexities regarding 16 and 17-year-olds concerns young people not put on the register owing to child protection issues. If the Government think that the question or any other aspect of the referendum is unfair, will they take action?
Given the responses to at least three of my hon. Friends’ questions about the question, it would appear that the measures outlined in the memorandum of understanding lead the UK Government to believe that a fair and clear question will be presented to the people of Scotland, but obviously some of us on the Opposition Benches have our doubts. If a dubious question is put, will it be open to legal challenge?
Clearly, all Acts of the Scottish Parliament can be subjected to legal challenge. It is quite clear, however, that were the Scottish Government to reject the views of the Electoral Commission concerning the question—the latter having carried out the thorough scrutiny it has done for previous referendum questions—they would pay a high political price, and the hon. Gentleman and others, in this House and the Scottish Parliament, would waste no time in pointing that out to the Scottish people.
I wish briefly to return to the issue of the franchise. In the detailed discussions that have taken place, was any account taken of the experience in Scotland of the health board elections in relation to under-18s? Does the Minister agree that it is incumbent on the Scottish Government to say exactly what the franchise would be—whether it would include all 16 and 17-year-olds or be done on the basis of the current electoral register?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady: it is now incumbent on the Scottish Government to come forward with their proposals. It is also incumbent on those who have a view on the matter to take the debate to Scotland and the Scottish Parliament. I hope that this issue will show the Scottish Parliament at its best, scrutinising in great detail the proposals that are brought forward and giving a fair and objective assessment of them.
The Electoral Commission is a respected United Kingdom institution. The difficulty is that the Scottish National party does not have a great track record of respecting UK institutions—we think most recently of the attempt to brand our Olympic athletes as “Scolympians”, which I am delighted to say failed dismally. Can the Minister give an example of where the Scottish Government have respected a fully UK institution?
The Scottish Government respect UK institutions in their day-to-day working with the UK Government. They do not always want to acknowledge that publicly, but on a day-to-day basis the Scottish and UK Governments work closely on many aspects of devolved and reserved issues. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. When the First Minister of Scotland tried to designate part of Team GB as “Scolympians”, he was laughed at by the people of Scotland. If he tries in any way to gerrymander the referendum, the people of Scotland will see through it. I trust them to do that.