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Scotland: Referendum

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Scottish Government regarding the arrangements for the referendum on independence.

The United Kingdom Government had a number of discussions during 2012 regarding the arrangements for the referendum on independence. These discussions led to the details set out in the referendum agreement on 15 October. As with the agreement, we continue to work constructively with the Scottish Government to ensure that there is a legal, fair and decisive referendum on Thursday 18 September 2014.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Have the Minister and his colleagues had time to consider the request from the First Minister of Scotland for the Prime Minister to appear in face-to-face debates on television in the run-up to the referendum? Will he confirm that this request will be completely rejected and that the United Kingdom Government will make it clear that if anyone from the UK Government takes part it should be the Secretary of State for Scotland, his deputy or the Advocate-General?

My Lords, I have indeed heard the First Minister’s call for a head-to-head debate with the Prime Minister. I also recall the First Minister warning London-based politicians such as the Prime Minister to keep out of the referendum campaign, so he cannot have it both ways. While I accept the challenge and would be delighted to take part, one might also ask whether the First Minister will go head-to-head with the leader of the Better Together campaign, Mr Alistair Darling, who at least has a vote in the referendum, unlike the Prime Minister. However, let me make this clear: the Prime Minister will argue very vigorously for Scotland’s continuing place in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend acknowledge that the Prime Minister is not a London-based politician? He is Prime Minister of the whole of the United Kingdom. Will he not agree that the referendum on independence for Scotland is clearly a matter for Scotland? However, if we were to move to devo-max or some form of federalism, that would be a matter for the whole of the United Kingdom, which would need to be settled by a referendum that involved everyone in the United Kingdom.

I certainly agree with my noble friend, and I think I made it clear that the Prime Minister believes in the integrity of the United Kingdom. I believe it was others who suggested that he was a London-based politician. I also hear what he says about so-called devo-max, which is a brand without a product at the moment. I also recognise that that has implications for the other parts of the United Kingdom and that, were we to go down such a road, it would be very important to secure buy-in from those other parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, will the Minister please confirm that the conduct of the referendum in Scotland is now entirely a matter for the Scottish Parliament, and one for which this place has no responsibility?

My Lords, as noble Lords will recall, we agreed to a Section 30 order under the Scotland Act in January of this year, which transferred powers to the Scottish Parliament to determine the nature of the referendum. A Bill has been brought in for a referendum; indeed, another Bill has been brought in to determine the franchise for that referendum.

My Lords, it is not the first time that ballot papers have not been made available in good time for those entitled to a postal vote. Could the Minister, when he next meets the First Minister, ensure that the printer gets the ballot papers to the returning officers so that those who are entitled to postal votes get them?

The noble Lord makes an important point. That would be overseen by the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. Unlike elections, where candidates are often not nominated until the last minute, we now know what the question is, so there is no reason why these ballot papers should not be prepared well ahead of time.

Will my noble and learned friend indicate how the Scotland analysis programme is progressing, particularly with respect to monetary arrangements and the employment of citizens from either country, to enable the facts to be assimilated by the whole country and to inform the pre-referendum debate?

My Lords, the Government have made it clear that they wish the referendum debate to be well informed. That is why we have embarked on the Scotland analysis programme. The first paper on the legal implications and the legal basis of independence was published last month. There will be future papers, including one on currency and financial regulation, which we hope will be published in the near future. It is important that we have a well informed debate, and certainly the United Kingdom Government, through these papers, are determined that we should have just that.

My Lords, the SNP Government have claimed that there will be an increase in oil tax revenues post-independence. However, today we hear from the Centre for Public Policy for Regions that, contrary to what the Scottish SNP Government claim,

“to suggest some sort of new oil-tax revenue boom is about to emerge is not readily supported by the evidence”.

Does the Minister agree that the Scottish SNP Government need to be straight with the people of Scotland about the facts of the decision that they have been asked to make in 2014, so that we can get on with making the case for why Scotland is “better together”?

My Lords, I entirely endorse what the noble Lord has said about the importance of getting clear facts. He is right. I have seen the report published today by the Centre for Public Policy for Regions, which makes the point about the uncertainty of the oil revenue. That uncertainty was underlined by the Office for Budget Responsibility in its report last week. We hear representatives of the Scottish Government telling us that we are on the cusp of another oil boom, but in the Cabinet paper that the Finance Secretary presented to the Scottish Government last year, he said that there is a,

“high degree of uncertainty around future North Sea revenues, reflecting considerable volatility in production and oil prices”.

It would be useful if they said in public what they say in private.

On the question of eligibility to vote, can my noble and learned friend the Minister inform this House whether the millions of Scottish-born and Scottish people who presently live in England will be permitted to vote?

My Lords, as I indicated, the franchise is being determined by the Scottish Parliament. However, there was agreement that it should be based on the local government franchise, which means that it would include those registered for local elections in Scotland. Therefore, it would exclude people of Scottish origin living in other parts of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government’s legislation would also seek to extend it to 16 and 17 year-olds residing in Scotland.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the date of the referendum coincides with the centenary of the Battle of Loos, where many brave Scottish soldiers gave their lives—my great-uncle, Matthew Lawrie, included—for every part of the United Kingdom? What reassurance can the noble and learned Lord give this House that Scottish men and women currently serving in the British Armed Forces will have the ability to vote in the referendum?

My Lords, that is an important issue, which we considered and reflected on during our debates on the Section 30 order. There are a number of ways in which service personnel can register to vote; many Scottish servicemen and servicewomen who are posted outside Scotland will remain entitled to be registered at an address in Scotland, either because they are resident there or because they have a service declaration for such an address. I understand that the Ministry of Defence does an annual advertisement of the service declaration, but I can assure your Lordships’ House that we will encourage the ministry to redouble its efforts in that advertisement in the run-up to, and for registration for, the referendum.