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Scotland: Referendum

Volume 731: debated on Monday 31 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions the Prime Minister has had with the First Minister of Scotland regarding a referendum on Scottish independence since the Scottish Parliamentary elections.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for his Answer—I think. Does he agree with me that one thing is now certain; there will be a referendum in Scotland on the issue of separation at some point in the future? The Government seem lost for a definitive policy on this issue. Does he agree that it is essential that such a referendum on separation be conducted in a fair and impartial manner, with everyone entitled to put their point of view without being attacked for holding a point of view? Finally, does he also agree that it was totally reprehensible for a First Minister of Scotland to use public resources to attempt to undermine an eminent professor who had expressed doubts about the principle of separation?

My Lords, I understand that the First Minister of Scotland had to apologise to the Scottish Parliament last week for making that error. More fully, I totally agree with the noble Lord that if there were to be a referendum it should be fair and impartial. To that I would add another word—clarity. There is no purpose in having a referendum in Scotland unless the question is very clearly understood by the people of Scotland so that the result can equally be interpreted with clarity.

My Lords, could my noble friend confirm that privately the First Minister has been threatening government Ministers that if we constitute a legally conducted referendum campaign in Scotland, he will make it his business to boycott that referendum and to prevent the police and other services from seeing that it is carried out? Is the First Minister not getting a bit too big for his boots?

My Lords, I cannot confirm to my noble friend Lord Forsyth that the First Minister of Scotland has been threatening UK government Minsters. If it were true, however, that he would seek to frustrate a referendum in Scotland that had been legally and rightly established by the Westminster Parliament, it would be the most extraordinary event. Surely the first person who should whoop for joy if there were to be a referendum on the issue of separation in Scotland should be the First Minister.

Can the Government confirm whether they have conducted any research into the year-on-year implications for jobs in Scotland of investment decisions that might be affected by the prospect of a referendum and the prospect of independence? The First Minister talks of an independence referendum perhaps in 2015, with no certain date or timescale. Will the Government consider making representations to ensure that the uncertainty that that creates is minimised by bringing forward the date to as soon as possible?

The noble Lord brings a lot of experience to this whole subject. I am glad to say that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland himself has laid six—there could be many more—questions to the First Minister for Scotland on the whole issue of what independence means, so that we can have the clarity that I alluded to in the first Answer.

If a referendum on Scottish independence produced a yes vote, would it not then follow that the size of the House of Commons would be reduced and that the House of Commons would be weakened? What bearing does the noble Lord the Leader of the House think that that would have upon the relationship between these two Houses of Parliament, especially if there were to be an elected second Chamber?

My Lords, I admire the way the noble Lord gets the question of an elected second Chamber into virtually every question he poses, but even for me that is far too hypothetical for me to join him.

Does my noble friend accept that it is in the interests neither of Scotland nor of the United Kingdom for this issue to drift on unresolved throughout the rest of this Parliament? Is it not now time for the Government to take a decision not only on the future calling of a referendum—their proper role in this union—but on the proper information for the electors about what the consequences would be?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend on the question of information. As far as timing is concerned, it is true that doubts about Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom create uncertainty not just for the people of Scotland but for those who wish to invest, to trade, to do business and to live in Scotland. All these things need to be taken into account before a decision is taken on a referendum.

My Lords, in the spirit of clarity, will the Leader of the House indicate whether the Government have a view on whether the Scottish Parliament can competently call a referendum on constitutional change in Scotland, and if so, what that view is?

My Lords, the fundamental principle that we believe applies is that matters concerning the union of the kingdom are a reserved matter.

My Lords, in the tragic event that there was a referendum and the people of Scotland voted for a separate state, what is the Government’s view on what currency they should adopt? Is it a possibility that it might have to be the euro instead of sterling?

My Lords, certainly one of the questions that will be raised—and is continually raised—with the First Minister of Scotland, is what currency would exist within the British Isles if Scotland were no longer part of the United Kingdom. At this stage is it is very difficult to answer.

My Lords, I am not going to follow my noble friend down that route. However, these are important matters. Ultimately the people of Scotland will need to decide whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to break up one of the most enduring partnerships and one that has suited the people of Scotland economically and culturally more than anything else I can think of.