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7 November 2019

S5M-19743 Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-19743, in the name of Michael Russell, on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill at stage 1.

14:21
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16:23

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I will pick up on what were almost the last words that we heard from Donald Cameron about there being no oversight or scrutiny of secondary legislation. That is unmitigated tosh, if such a word is allowed to be used in the chamber. That can be illustrated by the current activities of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in looking at the deposit return scheme, which is being introduced by secondary legislation. The committee and Parliament have decided that there will be an extended period of consideration and the committee will produce a report. There will therefore be evidence. That is exactly the process that we would have in scrutiny terms—

Mike Rumbles: What tosh!

Stewart Stevenson: I say to Mr Rumbles that that is exactly the process that we would have for scrutiny of primary legislation.

Adam Tomkins: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: Adam Tomkins refused me three times. I ask him to please sit down.

I readily acknowledge that there is a difference between primary and secondary legislation in terms of accepting and rejecting it, but that is a decision-making difference, not a scrutiny difference. Members should take account of that. In that regard, I was very surprised by Adam Tomkins’s opening remarks when he said that Parliament could not debate secondary legislation. Someone of his experience and educational background should know better. Of course, I have been involved in politics a lot longer than him. In fact, I participated in three parliamentary elections before he was born.

I will now draw on some of that experience to consider the detail of what is before us, as this debate is about the detail of the bill.

On the functions of chief counting officer and other counting officers under section 9(4), I suggest to Mr Russell and the Government that it would be useful if we also gave the number of ballot papers that were issued. That is something that political parties know, but the public do not. We might have a wee think about that.

Turning to section 10(3)(d), which identifies

“a person providing goods or services to the counting officer,”

I think that we might also consider whether we should include a person providing services to someone who wishes to vote. If public transport failure means that someone cannot get to the polling station, that would be of a similar character. We should look at those provisions.

Section 13, on campaign rules, is about

“the conduct of campaigning”

and

“restricting the publication of certain material”.

We need to be careful to consider what rules might apply to those who are not directly involved in a referendum but who might be seeking to influence its outcome. I am thinking about newspapers and newspaper articles.

Section 16 is about the destruction, concealment or alteration of documents. I relate that to paragraph 38(1) of schedule 2, under which the ballot papers must be retained for a year. However, there is no such provision in relation to the materials that a campaigner might have, saying how long those materials should be retained for. One of the problems with previous referendums has been that the campaigns fold up and disappear quite rapidly after the result is declared. There is a case for saying that the materials that they produce should be retained for a specified time. I will not say how long but, if it is a year for the ballot papers, that gives us an insight.

On section 20, on the attendance of the Electoral Commission at proceedings, and sections 21 and 22, there is no direct provision for the attendance of international observers at referendums. We would generally accept that that is part of good practice. I am not saying that the bill as introduced prohibits that from being provided for; there are ways in which that can be done, at section 20(4)(c), which specifies

“a person appointed by the Electoral Commission for the purposes of this section.”

However, that kind of conflicts with paragraph 15(2) of schedule 2, under which the presiding officers also have power—and they are the people in the polling stations. Indeed, I turn now to some of the powers that they have under the bill—some of which are slightly odd. The presiding officers may decide who is admitted to a polling station, without restriction. That seems a very broad thing, and different decisions could be made in different polling stations. That is unhelpful for the integrity of any vote, whether on a referendum or on another subject.

On the casting of votes, proposed legislation of this kind might sensibly at least make provision for the future bringing forward, by secondary legislation—being a subject that we could debate—of electronic voting as an additional means of voting. The bill as introduced is silent on that.

According to schedule 2:

“The hours of polling are between 7am and 10pm.”

I think that, for major events such as these, it is time to think about whether polling should take place over three days—a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. If we make big decisions, they should be made by the maximum number of people.

There is also an issue about ballot boxes. We should ensure that a minimum number of votes should go in a ballot box. I know of a ballot box that gets only four votes in it so, when it is tipped out, the secrecy of the ballot is compromised.

I will now conclude—as you are indicating that I should, Presiding Officer—by saying that there have been local authority referendums before, of which Strathclyde water and Edinburgh road charging are examples. Those are referenda—oh dear; I mean referendums—that would have benefited from a structure such as that proposed in the bill, as indeed would the 1934-35 peace referendum, which was on whether the UK should stay in the League of Nations. Even I was not around then, although some might suggest so.

Finally, I counsel my colleagues that “referenda” is not the plural of “referendum”, which is a fourth-declension noun. “Referenda” means something altogether different, and is a plural gerundive.

16:30

Stewart Stevenson
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