A bid to strip Holyrood of the power over the holding of an independence referendum has been added to the Scotland Bill by former Tory Minister Michael Forsyth and ex Labour MSP George Foulkes, both now Lords.
Amendments inserted by both men would see control over the referendum passed to Westminster with London having the power to determine the date of the ballot as well as the wording of the question itself.
The Bill, currently going through the House of Lords, is the UK coalition government’s implementation of recommendations made by the Calman Commission. The Bill seeks to make changes to the finances of the Scottish Parliament, including a new Scottish rate of income tax and also contains a number of adjustments to devolved responsibilities.
However a controversial amendment inserted by former Conservative Minister Michael Forsyth, now Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, would remove the power to hold an independence referendum from the Scottish parliament.
Instead, the Tory peer wants that power to be reserved to Westminster alone and a further amendment would give London control over the wording of the ballot paper question and the date.
The new clause inserted by Lord Forsyth states:
(1) The holding of a referendum on whether Scotland should become independent from the rest of the United Kingdom is outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament (see subsection (6)).
(2) The Prime Minister may by order cause a referendum to be held throughout Scotland about whether Scotland should become independent of the rest of the United Kingdom.
(3) The order shall contain the question that is to appear on the ballot paper.
The new clause ends:
“The holding of a referendum on whether Scotland should become independent of the rest of the United Kingdom is a reserved matter.”
The revelation brought a stinging rebuke from SNP MSP John Wilson who said:
“Lord Forsyth was more than content during the 1980s and 90s to aid and abet the decimation of the Scottish industrial economic infrastructure, he now wants to wreck the democratic right of the Scottish people to decide their own destiny by the democratic means of a referendum.
“It is clear from the amendments proposed that Lord Forsyth has failed to recognise the legitimacy of the decision by the Scottish people in the referendum in 1997 to have greater control over their own affairs. The right to hold a referendum on independence is the right of the Scottish Government and people.”
Forsyth’s audacious attempt to wrench control of the independence referendum from the Scottish parliament is not the only controversial amendment to the Bill.
Fellow Lord, and ex Labour MSP George Foulkes, has added his own amendments that would restrict the period within which a referendum could be held to 24 months from the day the Act is passed. Lord Foulkes’ changes would also allow the Secretary of State for Scotland to change any referendum date if he felt it “appears inappropriate”.
Lord Foulkes changes also lays down the exact wording that the ballot paper should hold: “Do you want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?”
The Labour peer’s contributions to the draft document also include a rule that would require a two thirds majority in the Scottish parliament before a referendum on Scottish finance could be held.
The Scotland Bill suffered a major setback last week when Sir Kenneth Calman, who chaired the commission on whose recommendations it is based, was forced to admit that the new Scottish tax rate contained in the Bill had no evidence to back it up.
Sir Kenneth’s admission to the Holyrood Committee scrutinising the Bill followed on from an appearance by LibDem Secretary of State Michael Moore who could not explain the mechanism by which the new income tax rate would be implemented and operated.
Writing in the Herald newspaper, SNP MSP Joan McAlpine said: “It is unacceptable that the Scottish Parliament is being asked to consent to a Bill without having had a chance to scrutinise the mechanism through which the income tax will be implemented.”
Ms McAlpine added: “Scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament Committee is even more pertinent where there is concern that Scotland could be worse off by £691m under the Secretary of State’s previous calculations or even £8 billion under the Scottish government’s own”.