'Disrespect' row flares over vote referendum

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A NATIONAL referendum on voting reform on the same day as the Scottish Parliamentary elections will overshadow the Holyrood poll, First Minister Alex Salmond warned yesterday.

Mr Salmond called for the situation to be "clarified very quickly" after it emerged that deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is to announce next week that a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) system will be held on 5 May next year, the date when Scotland goes to the polls.

In what is likely to be regarded as the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government dividing on party lines, Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will campaign to keep the existing first-past-the-post system and against AV.

The referendum on the preferential voting system was part of the deal the Conservatives offered their coalition partners the Lib Dems, who campaigned for proportional representation at the General Election. But Mr Salmond criticised the move to combine the Holyrood poll and referendum as "disrespectful" to the Scottish electorate and called on the UK Government to move the date of the planned referendum on AV.

He said: "It should be clarified very quickly as what's been suggested looks pretty disrespectful."

Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald also expressed concern about the UK Government's plan, which she said was "probably not wise" as it would see votes held on "two completely different things" on the same day.

However, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition believes the move will save public funds as the spending squeeze continues and that any delay on the AV referendum could make it harder for the administration to push ahead with the plans.

Ministers also believe that the poll will not lead to confusion among Scottish voters, as happened when the 2007 Holyrood and local government elections were held on the same day.

Under the plans, voters would be issued with three ballot papers, for their constituency MSP, party regional lists, and AV vote, with all votes made by marking a cross instead of using a numerical preference as happened in the 2007 local council poll.

However Scotland's external affairs minister Fiona Hyslop predicted the move would still lead to "chaos", as during the 2007 debacle when a large number of ballot papers were spoilt amid confusion over the two elections being held at the same time.

Ms Hyslop went on to claim that the SNP government had not been consulted by the Tory-Lib Dem administration at Westminster about the plan.

She said: "It would be an extraordinary act of disrespect for a referendum on a voting system which none of the mainstream parties in the UK actually support to be held on the same day as the Scottish elections without any consultation with the Scottish Government."

Ms Hyslop said that the move by the UK Government put a question mark over its "respect" agenda for the devolved administration in Scotland, along with those in Wales and Northern Ireland which are also due to be elected on 5 May 2011.

She said: "It's important that we see action and not just warm words on respect.

"And in terms of what this is saying in terms of how the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Government and the Scottish people are being treated, I think this is an example of the British Government just not working for Scotland.

"I think this announcement shows a bit of coalition chaos, where the parties in London seem quite prepared to have a referendum on a voting system that they don't really support but not have a referendum on independence to decide the powers that the Scottish people could have."

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray backed the stance of the SNP and said the Gould report into the 2007 elections debacle had stated no more than one poll should be held on the same day.

He said: "This is a bad idea and an extraordinary example of disrespect to the Scottish Parliament.

"It exposes as a sham David Cameron's supposed respect agenda. The Tory Lib-Dem government has not consulted the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Government.

"They have behaved in a high-handed fashion. The substantive issue here is the lack of consultation. The Gould report also recommended we should not hold more than one set of elections on the same day after problems in 2007."

Tory deputy leader at Holyrood, Murdo Fraser, said that he saw a "great deal of logic" in the plans due to possible savings to the public purse and because it could help encourage people to vote in the referendum.

Mr Fraser said: "The voter interest in a referendum on AV might not be that great, but if it's on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections, there could be a much higher turnout.

"I can also see a great deal of logic in doing this as it would save costs in terms of running polling stations and the associated security. I have an open mind on the issue, but I can see a lot of merit in it."

Lib Dem chief whip at Holyrood Mike Rumbles said: "I don't see what the fuss is about. Scottish people are not stupid and are more than capable of filling out more than one voting form.

"There seems to be a lot of politics behind the calls from opponents of this."

But the Green MSP for Glasgow, Patrick Harvie, accused the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of having a low regard for Scotland and also hit out at the Government over its separate plans to hold the 2015 UK General Election on the same day as the Holyrood poll that year.

He said: "Whenever two elections of different sorts coincide, one gets squeezed out: in 2007 it was the polls for Scotland's councils that lost out.

"The Tories and the Lib Dems are already trying to dump a Westminster election on top of the 2015 Scottish election, and now next May's crunch vote will be competing for attention with the referendum on the voting system.

"There could hardly be a clearer way of demonstrating how low the coalition's regard is for Scotland's democratic systems."

The plans have also caused controversy in Wales, where the devolved government wants next May's assembly election to be put back by one month if the referendum goes ahead.

However Scotland's external affairs minister Fiona Hyslop predicted the move would still lead to "chaos", as during the 2007 debacle when a large number of ballot papers were spoilt amid confusion over the two elections being held at the same time.

Ms Hyslop went on to claim that the SNP government had not been consulted by the Tory-Lib Dem administration at Westminster about the plan.

She said: "It would be an extraordinary act of disrespect for a referendum on a voting system which none of the mainstream parties in the UK actually support to be held on the same day as the Scottish elections without any consultation with the Scottish Government."

Ms Hyslop said that the move by the UK Government put a question mark over its "respect" agenda for the devolved administration in Scotland, along with those in Wales and Northern Ireland which are also due to be elected on 5 May 2011.

She said: "It's important that we see action and not just warm words on respect.

"And in terms of what this is saying in terms of how the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Government and the Scottish people are being treated, I think this is an example of the British Government just not working for Scotland.

"I think this announcement shows a bit of coalition chaos, where the parties in London seem quite prepared to have a referendum on a voting system that they don't really support but not have a referendum on independence to decide the powers that the Scottish people could have."

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray backed the stance of the SNP and said the Gould report into the 2007 elections debacle had stated no more than one poll should be held on the same day.

He said: "This is a bad idea and an extraordinary example of disrespect to the Scottish Parliament.

"It exposes as a sham David Cameron's supposed respect agenda. The Tory Lib-Dem government has not consulted the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Government.

"They have behaved in a high-handed fashion. The substantive issue here is the lack of consultation. The Gould report also recommended we should not hold more than one set of elections on the same day after problems in 2007."

Tory deputy leader at Holyrood, Murdo Fraser, said that he saw a "great deal of logic" in the plans due to possible savings to the public purse and because it could help encourage people to vote in the referendum.

Mr Fraser said: "The voter interest in a referendum on AV might not be that great, but if it's on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections, there could be a much higher turnout.

"I can also see a great deal of logic in doing this as it would save costs in terms of running polling stations and the associated security. I have an open mind on the issue, but I can see a lot of merit in it."

Lib Dem chief whip at Holyrood Mike Rumbles said: "I don't see what the fuss is about. Scottish people are not stupid and are more than capable of filling out more than one voting form.

"There seems to be a lot of politics behind the calls from opponents of this."

But the Green MSP for Glasgow, Patrick Harvie, accused the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of having a low regard for Scotland and also hit out at the Government over its separate plans to hold the 2015 UK General Election on the same day as the Holyrood poll that year.

He said: "Whenever two elections of different sorts coincide, one gets squeezed out: in 2007 it was the polls for Scotland's councils that lost out.

"The Tories and the Lib Dems are already trying to dump a Westminster election on top of the 2015 Scottish election, and now next May's crunch vote will be competing for attention with the referendum on the voting system.

"There could hardly be a clearer way of demonstrating how low the coalition's regard is for Scotland's democratic systems."

The plans have also caused controversy in Wales, where the devolved government wants next May's assembly election to be put back by one month if the referendum goes ahead.

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The implication of the SNP stance is that people are stupid and will forget there is a Scottish election campaign because of the voting reform campaigns. Page 32