Scottish Independence: asking the wrong question?

Following last month’s agreement between David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond,  the Scottish Government has now rubber-stamped the SNP’s proposed question for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

The proposed question has yet to be approved by the Electoral Commission. The  Commission’s role in determining the intelligibility of proposed referendum questions is, strictly, merely consultative. However it would be at best embarrassing for the SNP to ignore the Commission’s recommendation. 

 Dr Matt Qvortrup, a member of The Constitution Society’s Working party on Scottish Independence and a leading authority on referendums, said last week that in his view the Electoral Commission are unlikely to endorse the proposed question on the grounds that the word ‘agree’ biaised the question towards an affirmative answer.

 Earlier this year a group of academics including Dr Qvortrup proposed an alternative, neutral, phrasing of the question which is broadly supported by the opposition parties: ‘Scotland should become an independent state: I agree/I do not agree

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Salmond and Cameron agree on independence referendum

The British and Scottish governments have largely agreed on the details of a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. Though some issues remain to be ironed out, it is understood that there will be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question with no third option on the devolution of more powers. It also appears that agreement has been reached on allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote on Scotland’s future.

With general agreement reached it seems clear that a referendum on Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom will now be taking place in 2014. The legal consequences of this will be paramount to the Scottish electorate making an informed decision. The Constitution Society will be looking in-depth at these consequences as well as continuing to monitor developments on this important topic.   

The Constitution Society welcomes Chloe Smith

Further to the last post, The Constitution Society has finally been informed that Chloe Smith is to be the minister replacing Mark Harper in the Cabinet Office. Unlike Mr Harper, Ms Smith’s brief appears to incorporate a far wider portfolio – “public sector efficiency and reform, political and constitutional reform and a range of other topics” according to her official website.

Previously Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Ms Smith will take on the newly constituted position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office. 

We welcome Ms Smith to her new role and look forward to engaging with her in the future. Issues surrounding party funding, lobbying and the ongoing debates over Scotland and Europe will require her full attention.

20th September 2012

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No replacement for Mark Harper

Despite the government’s re-shuffle taking place almost two weeks ago, the Cabinet Office is yet to announce a replacement for Mark Harper, former Parliamentary Under Secretary for Constitutional and Political Reform.

During the re-shuffle Mr Harper was appointed to the position of Minister of State for Immigration in the Home Office. However, the Cabinet Office has kept his photograph and biography on their website and continue to describe him as being in his former role. Upon phoning the Cabinet Office and House of Commons Information Office neither could shed any light on who his replacement was – both suggesting the other should know. 

The recent withdrawal of the bill pushing for an elected House of Lords and the effective concession of maintaining current constituency boundaries seems to indicate that the majority of this government’s constitutional agenda is over. The lack of a replacement for Mr Harper indicates the low priority the Coalition is now placing on these issues. 

Nevertheless it is unusual that so far after a re-shuffle no appointment has been made to replace Mr Harper. With issues surrounding Scottish independence and ‘devo max’ as well as continued debate on Europe it seems odd not to have found a suitable replacement.

The Constitution Society wishes Mr Harper all the best for his new portfolio and thanks him for his contribution to the constitutional debates of this parliament. We look forward to working with his successor, as and when he or she is announced.

17th September 2012

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9th August 2012

A summary of this term’s constitutional affairs: bringing together debates and questions in Parliament, Select Committee activity and online comment.

As the House of Lords Reform Bill is abandoned and Nick Clegg withdraws the Liberal Democrats’ support for boundary change, two major constitutional reforms are halted by disagreement within the coalition. The argument over political funding continues, as Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are criticized for using a legal loophole to conceal the identities of donors who funded their mayoral election campaigns. In news on Scottish independence, David Cameron is said to be ready to give the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum but urges the need for a single question. A recent Democratic Audit report voices serious concerns over ‘the increasingly unstable nature of the UK constitution’, and suggests we cannot move past the current crossroads without reaching agreement on a set of democratic values.

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How not to ‘do’ constitutional reform – by James Hallwood

The latest Coaltion fall-out over Lord’s reform has highlighted the way in which constitutional issues can easily turn into a game of political football. Booted between the Coalition partners, a decision of crucial importance on how we run our democracy has descended into short-term politicking.

A turnaround from a principled stand in favour of boundary changes to opposition marks a new low in how constitutional issues are addressed. The debate on whether AV or Lord’s reform was the price of reducing the size of the Commons misses the point entirely – constitutional changes require scrutiny and well-thought out legislation, not horse-trading and tit-for-tat.

While there are principled reasons for and against specific changes on either side of constitutional debates it is frankly depressing how these have often been quieter than discussion of partisan advantage. From arguments within Labour as to whether AV would benefit them or not to the quid pro quo agreement in the Coalition that AV would benefit the Liberal Democrats and boundary changes would benefit the Tories. 

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Footage of Shadow Chancellor referring to our report in Parliament

As previously reported the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls MP, referred to our groundbreaking report; ‘Select Committees and Coercive Powers – Clarity or Confusion?’ written by Richard Gordon QC and Amy Street. Below is footage from the Parliamentary debate on ‘Professional Standards in the Banking Industry’ in which Mr. Balls cited our ‘very important’ report while calling for a judge-led inquiry into Libor rate-fixing scandal.

 

Clerk of the Commons hails our select committees report

Robert Rogers, Clerk of the Commons, has published a new paper on the powers of select committees. Much of what he writes agrees with the key points of our own report, Select Committees and Coercive Powers – Clarity or Confusion a copy of which can be downloaded here.

Mr Rogers says of our report, “…The Constitution Society’s recent study by Robert Gordon QC and Amy Street, [is] one of the best considerations of the issues I have seen.” This follows on from its citation in the Commons by the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, who described the report as “very important”.

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Ed Balls references our “very important” Power of Select Committees Report amidst Libor scandal

In a Parliamentary session on standards in the banking industry the Shadow Chancellor, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP, called for a judge-led inquiry into the Libor rate-fixing scandal citing The Constitution Society’s groundbreaking research into the power of Select Committees. 

Highlighting some of the key findings of report authors, Richard Gordon QC and Amy Street, the Shadow Chancellor said:

“We should consider the recent experience of the phone hacking scandal and all the deliberations we see in, for example, the very important report on the details and reality of Select Committees and coercive powers, entitled “Select Committees and Coercive Powers—Clarity or Confusion?”, from The Constitution Society.”

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House of Lords Bill Published

The government’s House of Lords Bill has been formally published amidst discontent on the Conservative backbench. 

The Bill is having its Second Reading on 9th July which will then be followed by the Committee Stage assuming the Bill passes this first hurdle. After this there would be a Report Stage followed by the Third Reading and movement of the Bill to the Lords where the process is repeated. 

Labour has already committed to voting against a timetable motion, designed to limit the time spent debating the Bill, and is likely to table an amendment for a referendum on this constitutional change. It is widely believed that many Conservative backbench MPs are considering voting with Labour on this.

The main details of the government’s proposals are as follows:

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