The Scottish Government was last night forced to agree it would bring forward separate legislation to get approval for a second vote on independence, after MSPs raised concerns about how Holyrood’s new Referendums Bill would be used.
The Referendums (Scotland) Bill, which creates a framework for any future referendums in Scotland, passed stage one of its progress through the Scottish Parliament yesterday, with MSPs voting 65 to 55 for the legislation.
However, the government’s constitutional relations secretary Mike Russell agreed that if there was to be another independence referendum, it would need a second, short bill to be introduced first.
He also agreed to hold talks with the Electoral Commission over whether or not the question used in the 2014 referendum could be used again if there was another vote. The commission has argued that despite the yes/no question used in 2014 being tested at the time, it must be allowed to test it again – a view backed by Holyrood’s constitution committee.
While Mr Russell did not make any commitment to agree to that, he did accept questions would have a “shelf life” of how long they could be used for, suggesting this could be two Holyrood terms.
The Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats all voted against the bill, accusing SNP ministers of using the legislation to try to “rig” a future second independence referendum.
But Mr Russell insisted the bill was about a seeking to “establish a high quality set of rules, developed specifically for Scotland, which will ensure the conduct of future referendums is robust, transparent and in the interests of the voters”.
He also said changes would be made so any future vote on constitutional issues would require the government to bring forward primary legislation.
Mr Russell said: “I agree that normally a short bill should be the way to trigger a referendum and for the avoidance of doubt I can confirm that any proposal for, for example, a Scottish independence referendum should now require a short bill.”
He said he would consider if it would be appropriate for “less contentious” referendums to be held without the need for a separate piece for legislation.
Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Adam Tomkins said: “Not only are the SNP trying to steamroller us into a second independence referendum, they are trying to rig that referendum by playing fast and loose with its rules. This bill is designed with only one purpose in mind, to pave the way for an unwanted second independence referendum.”
Labour’s Alex Rowley said while ministers portrayed the legislation as “simply being an administrative procedure to facilitate future referendums”, it was “the SNP indyref2 bill” and it should be halted.