Scottish independence: SNP can bypass election watchdog on referendum question

SNP Government ministers would be able to set the question in a future referendum on independence without consulting election watchdogs, MSPs have been told.

A repeat of the 2014 independence referendum is being planned for next year

Scottish Government officials also said that the outcome of a future referendum on leaving the UK would not be "binding".

Holyrood's Constitution committee was today taking evidence on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill which has been published by the Scottish Government to pave the way for a vote on leaving the UK in response to the Brexit chaos.

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Penny Curtis, deputy director at the Scottish Government, told MSPs that the legislation would allow ministers to stick with the straight Yes/No question which was used in 2014: Should Scotland Be an Independent Country.

"The framework wouldn't require ministers to get the (Electoral) Commission to test the question again if they were seeking to use the same question again," she said.

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This has been controversial as the Electoral Commission has since rejected the idea of a Yes/No question being used in the 2016 EU referendum as it is seen to be biased in favour of the positive "Yes" option. It has prompted speculation that the watchdog could rule a Leave/Remain question should instead be used in a future Scottish independence referendum.

Ms Curtis insisted that the aim was to avoid confusion among voters.

She added: "The policy intention there is that there where questions have already been tested, have been used and are familiar with voters and are understandable to voters, is not to put a requirement in there to test again.

"Partly the process of question testing is quite an expensive one, it could be in excess of £100,000 to do that, but our main policy intention in there is not to do anything that gets in the way of voter intelligibility around that questions.

Labour's James Kelly, who raised the issue, warned it will provoked a backlash.

"I think there will be an issue about that but it's a political issue," he added.

Scottish Government solicitor Graham Fisher also admitted that the outcome of the referendum would only be advisory, although this was the case with the last vote in 2014 and the 2016 EU referendum.

"There's certainly no provision in the framework for making a referendum binding legally," he told MSPs."But a referendum might have significant political and moral force behind the decision of the people."