Skip to main content


Volume 739: debated on Thursday 18 October 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote the benefits of Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom.

My Lords, this Government firmly believe that Scotland is, and will always remain, better off within the United Kingdom. In June, the Secretary of State for Scotland announced a programme of cross-government work to inform and support the debate on Scotland’s future. This work will report from early 2013 and will produce detailed evidence and analysis to assess the benefits of Scotland remaining in the UK to both Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and welcome the content of his Answer. Does he agree that the campaign for remaining within the union, which the Labour Party supports fully, needs to be a positive case put to the Scottish people, emphasising the social and economic benefits of remaining within the United Kingdom, and not a negative case as that would be counterproductive? Will he accept my assurance that the Labour Party will stand four-square with all unionist parties in Scotland in this referendum campaign?

My Lords, those are very welcome words from the noble Lord, speaking on behalf of the Labour Party. I think it is well understood in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom that while political parties may have many differences on many different issues, we are completely united in our belief that the United Kingdom is the best way to preserve peace and prosperity for all the people of these islands. The noble Lord is also entirely correct when he says that this campaign needs to be a positive one. It should be. There is a very positive case for keeping the United Kingdom together in terms of our position in the world, the protection of our citizens and the economic benefits to all the people of the UK.

My Lords, at the risk of repeating myself, I have a deep concern about whether the Electoral Commission, which will play a big part in this forthcoming referendum, will be up to the job. Will the noble Lord ensure that the appropriate Ministers meet the Electoral Commission to ensure that it is capable of dealing with the problems that this referendum will throw up?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to voice his concern, but I am glad to say that the Electoral Commission has, over the past few years, learnt a lot from both running referendums and overseeing various elections. Both Governments—the UK Government here at Westminster and the Scottish Government—have agreed that the Electoral Commission should play its normal role, as for all other referendums. It is well understood by Ministers that this is a key referendum for the future of this country and it is important that we should get it right.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Leader of the House aware that, although there is very broad cross-party support for the campaign to maintain the United Kingdom—that very much includes the Liberal Democrats—there has been considerable concern about the role of the Electoral Commission and the question that will be put to the people of Scotland? For example, when the question that is currently supported by Alex Salmond and the SNP is tested by opinion poll, it generally gets a significant advantage—some are saying up to a 7% advantage—compared with a more neutral or balanced question. That is of concern to every one of us here. Will the UK Government make sure that the Electoral Commission plays a full and active role in ensuring that the referendum is not rigged or manipulated by the SNP and that the referendum question and all aspects of the running of the referendum are handled and set in a fair, open and transparent way that is published and understood not only by the people of Scotland but by those in the whole of the United Kingdom who have a deep interest in the outcome of this important vote?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. This is extremely well understood by politicians on both sides of the border. The Electoral Commission has an absolute mandate to do precisely as he suggested—to report and to lay that report in the Scottish Parliament, and of course it will be available here as well.

Does the noble Lord agree that independence is a moving feast, as reflected in the concern shown on all sides of the House about the question? I regard Scotland as an independent country at the moment but I am happy to renew my marriage vows with England. The key question is: does Scotland want to leave the UK? The matter must be closely focused on that single issue. Otherwise it will be lost in a mass of spin from Alex Salmond.

My Lords, we have up to two years of debate before we get to a referendum and I am sure that many people and organisations will make the point that the noble Lord has raised. Independence is not for Christmas; it is for life. Of course, the benefits of the United Kingdom need to be well understood before we get to a referendum.

My Lords, can my noble friend deal with the anxiety about the question? It is now going to be decided by the Scottish Parliament, which means Alex Salmond in consultation with the Electoral Commission. Would a way of ensuring that the referendum is fairly conducted be to say that the Section 30 order, which transfers the power to the Scottish Parliament, will not be brought before either House of Parliament until Alex Salmond has published his draft Bill setting out the question and the rules for the conduct of the referendum and the franchise?

My Lords, the Section 30 order will be published next week, and both Houses of Parliament will debate and, it is hoped, pass it in due course. I cannot see that there is any great advantage in seeing Mr Salmond’s Bill before we pass the Section 30 order. After all, it can be amended in the Scottish Parliament. However, we understand that we will get the publication of the Scottish Government’s consultation, which will include their view of what the question should be, and that should be available in the next few weeks.

I understand perfectly that this issue has to be handled sensitively without there appearing to be any attempts at bullying or cajoling the Scottish Parliament in deciding what to do. If the draft Section 30 order is published next week, it will be left entirely up to the Scottish Parliament to decide what to do. That is really going too far. Does the noble Lord agree that there ought to be a period of reflection before the Section 30 order is laid before us so that we have at least some idea of what the Scottish Parliament has in mind?

My Lords, there will be a period of reflection but it will not be very long because we want the Scottish Parliament to get on with it and to set the date and pass the necessary legislation so that we can clear the air in Scotland and get a decisive result at the referendum.

My Lords, the agreement says “intelligibility” when it comes to the question, and that begs a question in itself. Can we please make sure that the question is not merely intelligible but that it is not loaded and is entirely unbiased? I do not think that this House or any other should contemplate passing the order unless we are satisfied in that regard.

My Lords, that is precisely the role of the Electoral Commission—to look at the question, to test the various words in it and then to report to the Scottish Parliament as to its intelligibility.