10 Jul 2012
The Scottish Parliament’s three main opposition parties today announced the formation of an expert panel to compose a single question for the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future.
The panel will work independently of the parties and the question they produce will then be submitted to the Electoral Commission for rigorous testing and scrutiny to ensure it is simple, clear and neutral.
The Electoral Commission cannot frame questions but tests questions submitted to it, so it is essential the process of constructing such a question is as fair and unbiased as possible.
All parties, including the SNP, agree the Electoral Commission is the proper body to review the referendum question and this move is to ensure the question has the support of both sides of the debate.
It is very much hoped the SNP will join the process.
The panel will be chaired by Lord Sutherland of Houndwood and joining him will be Dr Matt Qvortrup and Mr Ron Gould.
Distinguished academic Lord Sutherland is a former principal of Edinburgh University who in 1997 chaired the Royal Commission on long-term care for older people which laid the foundation for free care for the elderly in Scotland.
Prof Qvortrup is a widely-published referendum expert and is currently senior lecturer of comparative politics at Cranfield University’s Centre for International Security and Resilience.
Ron Gould is the former assistant chief electoral officer of Canada who has participated in over 80 elections in 50 countries and is one of the world’s leading authorities on election organisation.
He produced the critical report on the 2007 Scottish elections.
Welcoming their appointment, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP said: “In his election manifesto, Alex Salmond promised voters he would deliver a referendum on separation and separation only.
“This process will indeed deliver the clear result to which he is committed and putting another option on the ballot paper would produce nothing but confusion and leave the outcome open to years of legal wrangling.
“The people of Scotland face the most important vote in 300 years and deserve a single question that is fair, legal and decisive.
“This eminent panel will produce just that and what reasonable person could object to this approach?”
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont MSP said: “The question to be put to the Scottish people in the referendum is too important to be left in the hands of politicians and I am confident that we have put together a group of experts who are able to draft a question which is balanced and fair.
“This is an opportunity to agree on one of the fundamental parts of the referendum process in a way that is above party politics and partisan views and the door is still open for Alex Salmond to join with us and take this forward on a cross-party basis.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP said: “It’s important the question is not the gift of a single political party. I am very pleased that such an experienced group have agreed to work together to help Scotland have a fair question for the referendum.
“Our original offer to the First Minister to join us still stands. He can help create a question in which the people of Scotland can have confidence.”
The panel will convene in the next few weeks with the aim of presenting a proposed question to the Electoral Commission in the autumn.
The three leaders asked First Minister Alex Salmond to discuss the formation of such a group with them but although he rejected the opportunity, an invitation to join the panel will still be extended to Professor Stephen Tierney, recently appointed as the SNP’s sole advisor on the referendum process.
Lord Sutherland said: “The most important political question for over three centuries which now faces the Scottish people, concerns our constitutional relationship with other parts of the United Kingdom.
“A referendum which proposes such a choice requires a clear, understandable, and unbiased question. To produce and vote upon such a question is the ultimate test of a mature democracy. For this to be done and seen to be done, it is essential to seek the help of the Electoral Commission. I enter this arena with a sense of humility and openness of mind”.
Dr Qvortrup commented: “I am honoured to advise all sides and to be able to bring my knowledge and expertise to bear in this task at such a crucial time for the future of Scotland and the UK. It is essential the question is clear and unbiased and that the outcome reflects the settled will of the Scottish people”.
Mr Gould said: “It is a privilege to be asked to help ensure the Scottish independence referendum produces a definitive result which all Scots can trust”.