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Scotland: Referendum

Volume 739: debated on Wednesday 10 October 2012

Private Notice Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, before the Prime Minister meets the First Minister of Scotland on Monday 15 October, they will clarify whether it is proposed to extend the franchise in any referendum on Scottish independence to 16 and 17 year-olds and, if so, by what legislative means; and what are the implications for UK electoral law.

My Lords, people in Scotland deserve a referendum on Scottish independence that is legal, fair and decisive. There has been substantial progress made towards an agreement, but details are still under negotiation between the two Governments. The Government will ensure that both Houses of Parliament are kept fully informed, and the order required to provide legal competence to the Scottish Parliament will require the approval not only of the Scottish Parliament but of both Houses, as well as Her Majesty in Council.

Perhaps I may respectfully suggest to my noble and learned friend that he has not answered my Question. Matters of electoral importance and the extension of the franchise are not matters to be carried out in hole-in-the-corner negotiations, however senior the parties. If the franchise is to be extended in Scotland for a referendum, is it not inevitable that we will have to extend it to 16 year-olds for all elections throughout the United Kingdom? This matter has huge implications, not least that it will bring politics into our schools. If the Government are proposing to do that, would it not be proper for them to issue a paper for consultation, to consult widely and to make no commitments whatever until they have done so?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that there is nothing inevitable about what he says. I will make clear the position. The franchise for all parliamentary elections to the United Kingdom Parliament and to the devolved Parliaments has been set by Westminster. There are no plans to change this. The franchise for referendums is set out in the legislation that enables each referendum to take place. Noble Lords will recall the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act and our debates on the franchise for the AV referendum last year. If we agree to transfer power to the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum, it is they who will determine the franchise—as is the case for elections and referendums on matters that are already devolved. It is no secret that this has been one of the issues in substantive discussions that have taken place between the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments. However, any decision—should it ever happen—by the Scottish Parliament to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in an independence referendum would not affect the franchise for parliamentary elections.

My Lords, I hoped to welcome the fact that negotiations between the two Governments on the terms of the referendum would soon be complete—but it seems that they are not. Even at this late stage, it seems that the Minister is not able to give the answers that noble Lords sought. The Government should realise that they need to make sure that there is a clear process for extending the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds, given that the law will need to be changed to allow this to happen. The UK and Scottish Governments need to set out as soon as possible the detail and timetable of how the legislation will be changed to ensure that all 16 year-olds are eligible to apply to have their names included on the electoral register. The time has long passed for the process to be concluded so that we can move on to a real debate on the future of Scotland.

My Lords, I will make clear what both Governments said last night. Following further discussions between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, further substantial progress was made towards an agreement. They are on track for full agreement but, as I indicated, there are still details to be sorted out. The position of both Governments is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, but we are very hopeful that full agreement will be reached. As my noble friend said in his Question, and as the Prime Minister indicated in his speech to the Conservative Party conference today, he hopes to be able to reach full agreement with the First Minister next week.

I should make clear that there is no set franchise for referendums. Each referendum passed by these Houses of Parliament has had its franchise determined by the Bill setting up the referendum itself. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, to the Dispatch Box for, I think, his first time leading for the Opposition on Scottish matters, and I look forward to many more such times, not least—if we ever get there, as we hope to—on the Section 30 order. I entirely endorse his final comment that the sooner we can determine the process and get on with arguing the case as to why Scotland benefits from being in the United Kingdom and why the United Kingdom benefits from having Scotland in it, and hold up to scrutiny the rather threadbare arguments for independence put forward by the Scottish National Party, the better.

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend at least reassure your Lordships’ House that if the franchise is extended to 16 and 17 year-old Scottish citizens for the referendum that is now under consideration, it would also be ridiculous not to extend it to English, Welsh and Northern Irish 16 and 17 year-olds for any following referendum on the European Union?

My Lords, my noble friend and I have a party manifesto commitment to votes for 16 and 17 year-olds but that is not the policy of the Government. Obviously, if there was a referendum on the European Union it would be for Parliament to determine the franchise for that. I can rather hear, if that does not happen, an amendment coming on from my noble friend.

My Lords, this has not really been thought through. If there is going to be a separate register for the referendum, who is going to draw up that register, who is going to go round the houses finding out the 16 and 17 year-olds, who is going to publish the register, and who is going to bear the cost of it, the Scottish Government or the United Kingdom Government?

My Lords, giving the example of the AV referendum last year, it was not a case of someone having to go round and draw up a separate register for that referendum. There was a register there and we indicated what the franchise was by specifically adding Peers. As I have indicated, if that agreement is reached, it would not be this Parliament passing the legislation, as already happens with elections on devolved matters; for example, the Scottish Parliament has already passed an extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds for elections to health boards, so there is already a precedent for it having happened in Scotland.

My Lords, surely the noble and learned Lord will accept, even if he does not want to, that a reduction in the voting age to 16 and 17 would be a major constitutional change, and that normally major constitutional changes are produced and proposed only after clear consultation and very often with a Speaker’s Conference? Would he accept that, in the view of very many people, to produce this like a rabbit out of the hat next Monday is quite unacceptable?

My Lords, I hear and take on board what my noble friend says. I have made it clear that the position of the UK Government has been that in terms of extending the franchise to parliamentary elections, there ought to be a consensus. We have not yet identified that consensus. Although some parties have commitments to it, a consensus has not been identified for the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds in parliamentary elections, and we have no plans to legislate on extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds.

My Lords, one or two reasonable points may well have been made by the noble and learned Lord, but one of the premises on which many of us were prepared to support the transfer of legal authority for a referendum to the Scottish Parliament was that it would be part of the negotiations that no one could say after a referendum that the rules for that referendum had been fixed, whether by the Scottish Government or anybody else. Given that the Scottish Government command an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament, these negotiations are therefore very important indeed. Not just on the issue of the franchise but on the issues of the timing and the financing of the different sides in a referendum, it is vital that the Government secure commitments from the Scottish Government that the rules for the referendum will be fair enough to ensure that all of us can accept the result afterwards. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the Government still have that as an objective in these final days of the negotiations.

I give the noble Lord the absolute assurance that our objective throughout has been to achieve a referendum which is fair, decisive and legal. As the noble Lord said, it should be a referendum where, at the end of the day and when the votes are counted, no one can claim foul play. I underline to the House the importance which we attach, and which I think the Scottish Government now attach, to the Electoral Commission having a very important part to play in the conduct of any referendum.