Minister refuses to budge on testing 'current question' for any second indyref

The Scottish Government's constitution secretary Michael Russell has doubled down on his refusal to accept the testing of the question in any second independence referendum by the Electoral Commission.

Constitutional Secretary Michael Russell has again refused to agree that the question in a second independence referendum should be tested by the Electoral Commission.
Constitutional Secretary Michael Russell has again refused to agree that the question in a second independence referendum should be tested by the Electoral Commission.

Mr Russell told MSPs today that the question used in an independence referendum would be the same as that used in 2014, and as a result need not be "re-tested".

And he said that the Referendums Bill was framework legislation which would allow any type of referendum to take place, including those on "moral issues" such as abortion and assisted dying.

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Mr Russell, was being quizzed by Holyrood's finance and constitution committee about the Bill, which is being put in place to lay the groundwork for the Scottish Government's plans to hold a second independence referendum next year.

Last week, in what was seen as a rebuke to the government minister, the Electoral Commission said that no one "individual" should say that the question used in the 2014 referendum was "clear in 2019".

The Commission's chief executive, Bob Posner said the question was "so core to the function of a referendum" that it was "prudent" it should be assessed, adding that although the 2014 question was tested at the time, "one shouldn’t draw any conclusions about what we would be saying now."

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However, today when asked about the Electoral Commission's view, Mr Russell said: "I'm not against testing questions, I believe in testing questions. What I'm against is retesting in circumstances that don't require it."

He said the Electoral Commission tested the question in 2012 and 2013, and changed it from the Scottish Government proposed question of 'do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?' to 'should Scotland be an independent country?' and the reasoning given was that it was a more "neutral formulation" as well as being "direct, short and simple".

"It has been used in opinion polls 56 times since then. It is in our view, a question in current use. So it has been tested so any allegation that I'm not in favour of testing is not true - any new question should be tested, but this is an existing question in current use."

Asked if he knew better than the Electoral Commission, and was ignoring their expert advice, Mr Russell reiterated: "I'm entirely in favour of testing the question but it has been tested and is in continuous use which is an important fact. This is the question that is understood and should be carefully considered in that regard and not tossed aside.

"It has been used again and again and I would want to know why people think it shouldn't be used. I'm not in favour of confusing people and it would be a serious step if you were trying to throw it out."

Scottish Labour's Alex Rowley asked if testing was not vital to ensure people had confidence in the referendum as "circumstances have changed significantly since 2014".

Mr Russell responded: "I repeat, far from being against testing I'm devoted to the principle, what I'm against is retesting in circumstances where the question is current. Far from saying this would lack confidence I think those challenging this question are, in some circumstances, attempting to muddy the waters."

Scottish Conservative, Murdo Fraser pushed Mr Russell again, asking that if a second referendum was to reflect best practice, then the Electoral Commission recommendation that it be required to assess any question, "regardless of whether the commission has previously published views on the question" should be adopted.

Michael Russell said: "I disagree with one element of that, the way that is phrased, you might have a report one day and then change the question the next day and have to retest it. It also doesn't' recognise the current question which is still being asked."

Earlier in the meeting Mr Russell was also asked how the Referendums Bill would be used, and whether it was necessary given the context of its introduction was solely to deal with the potential of a second independence vote.

Mr Russell said an independence was not the "only thing" the Bill could be used for, though the Scottish Government was "committed to an independence referendum and this was the means by which it could happen."

Asked by Scottish Conservative Adam Tomkins what other referendums were being considered by the government, Mr Russell said: "I can only speak for my portfolio and I am dealing with a constitutional issue, but there are other colleagues who might have views but none are government policy and have not been brought forward.

"There isn't any one type of referendum, that's really clear - if you look at how referenda exist in other parts of the world you see that.

"There are some referenda on moral issues...on abortion... may well be in Scotland there might be an issue subject to it on assisted dying."

He added that the aim of the Bill was to build "a framework in which to hold any referendum to plug into it a specific referendum when required."

Later, Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said that the Scottish Government was wasting "precious parliamentary time" on the Bill, and that "MSPs should be able to focus instead on improving public services."

She said: “Barely a quarter of people in Scotland support the SNP’s plans for a divisive second independence referendum before 2021. But if there ever is to be another unwanted referendum, the SNP must stop trying to rig it.

“Mike Russell’s comments are in direct opposition to what is being said by the independent Electoral Commission. The last thing Scotland needs is another referendum, but if it were to happen it must be fair and beyond reproach.

“This cannot be achieved without the involvement of the Electoral Commission in writing the question.”

And Scottish Liberal Democrats' constitutional affairs spokesperson Wendy Chamberlain said: “It is disappointing that the SNP have abandoned the Edinburgh Agreement, which they signed in 2012 and which made sure there was a legal, fair and decisive vote.

“This wriggling from the SNP is a big step down from standards set out by that agreement. The country has had enough division and damage with Brexit and independence. Scottish Liberal Democrats are determined to make it stop.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson later said that Mr Russell's remarks on moral issues, were in reference to referendums such as that in Ireland on the subject of abortion, and added: “The Scottish Government would not support any proposals to reduce in any way women’s access to clinically safe abortion services within the limits of the law as part of standard healthcare, and we would oppose any suggestion of a referendum in Scotland on this issue.

"Mr Russell’s reference related to the referendum on abortion rights in Ireland and the committee’s consideration of referenda on moral issues such as assisted dying.”