Scottish independence: UK government lays down referendum law

Michael Moore told MPs there will be no referendum without a single question
Michael Moore told MPs there will be no referendum without a single question
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THE Scottish Government will only be given the power to hold the independence referendum if it agrees to a legally binding clause that it will ask a single question on whether Scotland leaves the United Kingdom.

• Michael Moore: ‘I don’t think we can have a referendum on independence unless we have a single question’

• Deal expected to be in place by October 22 to fit in with Scottish Government’s timetable for a referendum bill by Spring 2013

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore told the Scottish affairs select committee yesterday that many issues under negotiation between the two governments would only be “moral and political” obligations in a memorandum of understanding.

But he insisted that there would be a single question as part of the “Section 30 order”, under which Westminster gives Holyrood the power to hold a legally binding referendum.

Yesterday’s comments from Mr Moore, which appeared to be a hardending of the coaltion’s resolve, drew a sharp

rebuke from SNP ministers, who warned against Westminster dictating the terms “Scotland’s referendum”.

However, asked whether a single question would be part of the Section 30 order, Mr Moore was adamant.

He told the committee: “I think it is pretty essential that in transferring the power, we set out what that power is.

I don’t think we can have a referendum on independence if we don’t we have a single question.”

Mr Moore, who is due to hold formal talks with SNP Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today, told the committee he believed the agreement could be reached by 22 October.

He praised the Scottish Government’s decision to appoint Ms Sturgeon to head the constitutional brief as a sign that the SNP “are getting serious” about the talks. He also told MPs a second document would be produced, along with Section 30, to detail the agreement between the two governments on a range of contentious issues, including the role of the Electoral Commission and voting age.

But he insisted a single question would have to be part of the legal section of the agreement, adding that having more than one question would leave the SNP without a mandate for independence should the electorate support it.

He said: “First of all, the mandate secured by the SNP was for an independence referendum. I don’t accept for a minute that independence and devolution are the same thing. They should not be on the same ballot paper.

“[Secondly], there isn’t a second question to ask. There isn’t a body of opinion out there that has given us a fully-formed question on the next stage of devolution beyond the Scotland Act.

“Lastly, there is a legitimacy point. There are clever ways of trying to formulate a two-question ballot paper, but you end up with the difficulty of how to interpret the answer, particularly when some nationalists’ view is that once you have answered the first question with a majority for independence, it wouldn’t matter if a much bigger majority voted for more powers, that could be disregarded.”

However, in a sharp rejoinder from Edinburgh, a spokesman for Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “This is Scotland’s referendum, and the arrangements for it should be made in Scotland, not dictated by Westminster.”

He added: “All the relevant issues governing the referendum, including that of a second question – which has significant support among the public – must be determined in the interests of the Scottish people, not in the narrow interests of any political party.”

Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to hold informal talks about the referendum tomorrow on the fringes of a joint ministerial council at Westminster. He has made it clear that the one issue he will not negotiate on is that of a single question, but this is the first time the UK government has said it would be a legal obligation as part of the Section 30 order.

This hardening comes as the Scottish Government appears to have pulled back from support for a third, “devo-max” option on the ballot.

During yesterday’s session, Mr Moore also said both parliaments would need to agree to the Section 30 order for the referendum powers to be devolved.

Committee convener Ian Davidson (Labour) asked what would happen if the parliaments could not agree.

Mr Moore replied: “Then the legislation is not devolved. This whole process has to be approved by both parliaments. Without that the law stays as it is at the moment.”

Dundee MP Jim McGovern (Labour) said: “It would appear that almost everything is up for negotiation: the franchise, one question or two questions.”

Mr Moore interrupted: “No. A lot of detail has not come forward yet from the Scottish Government about how they wish to deal with some of the central issues. But a single question is right at the heart of that.”