All referendums should, and referendums on constitutional issues must require primary legislation, Holyrood’s Finance & Constitution Committee states in a report published today.
In its unanimous stage 1 report on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill, the committee supports the policy objectives of the bill – provided it is amended to reflect the weight of evidence the committee received.
The bill would put in place a generic framework for referendums. The report supports this, reflecting evidence that this would be in accordance with international good practice, but does not accept the bill's provisions that ministers would then be able to make regulations under the affirmative procedure to provide for the holding of a referendum throughout Scotland, subject to consultation with the Electoral Commission.
There are no equivalent powers for UK ministers, and the committee accepts the criticisms that this would unnecessarily curtail scrutiny. It therefore recommends that the bill be amended "so that referendums on constitutional issues must require primary legislation and that all other referendums will ordinarily require primary legislation".
It adds that if the Cabinet Secretary wishes to identify specific criteria for other referendums which would not ordinarily require primary legislation, he should lodge the necessary amendments at stage 2.
The MSPs also believe the bill should be amended to include a minimum campaign period of 10 weeks, and that the Electoral Commission should have to test a question even if it has been previously used – though ministers argued that this should not be necessary with the 2014 independence referendum question – but comes down against the use of thresholds other than a simple majority, though some witnesses argued for special majorities for fundamental constitutional change.
Among other points, they further record their concern about the decline in the completeness and accuracy of Scottish local government registers as recently reported by the Electoral Commission, and invite the Scottish Government to respond to the view "that there is clear evidence that a sizeable number of young Scots do not receive appropriate political education and, if that is the case, what action it is taking to respond especially in light of the possibility of more referendums in the future".
Committee convener Bruce Crawford MSP commented: "We welcome the approach taken by the Cabinet Secretary in his oral evidence to our committee where he indicated that he is 'open to alternative approaches to all aspects of the bill' and how it can be improved.
"Our recommendations are intentionally framed to inform an open discussion on how the bill can be improved, based on the substantial evidence received."