The Ticking Timetable

Julie McAnulty

Julie McAnulty

Electoral Commission

We note with interest the article in the National today featuring Ian Blackford, that asserts that we are going to have a referendum in 2021. We lay out, without comment, the timetable that this would have to follow under the PPERA 2000  (Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000) and the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020.

Firstly, there is meant to be an election happening next year in May. Holyrood will dissolve at the end of March and will not re-convene until the 13th May (seven days after the election). We presume that this would be Ian Blackford’s starting point, unless they are proposing to start the referendum bill in the parliamentary time left. But there’s a reason they can’t do that just now, as we will explain later.

Secondly a specific piece of legislation would have to be passed in Holyrood to enable this to happen. This is the referendum bill that has been promised. This legislation would, amongst other things, contain the question to be put in the referendum . Under both PPERA 2000 and the RSA 2020, this question would have to be tested by the Electoral Commission for ‘intelligibility’ –  how clear the question is. This is a process that normally takes 12 weeks, unless the government jumps the gun and decides to pass the bill before verification of the question is given by the EC. Of course, that is also assuming that the bill doesn’t run into significant opposition in the Holyrood chamber. But let’s be optimistic. 12 weeks to cover verification and legislation.

Thirdly, there is a designated 10 week campaign period. This is to allow groups participating in the referendum to sign up with the EC. So 10 weeks for that.

Finally, Holyrood has two recess periods from May; the summer holidays and the Christmas holidays. That’s usually July and August and two weeks from the 24th Dec to 7th/8th Jan. 10 weeks for holidays. Some of the wait on the EC may happen over that period, but the bill has still to be put through while Holyrood is sitting. Let’s split that down the middle and call it another month. The EC will not allow a referendum vote to be held during a holiday period so Christmas/New Year has to be added on as well; another 2 weeks.

That gives us 12 +10+ 4+2 = 28 weeks or seven months.

In other words, given the very best case scenario, the earliest that this referendum could be held with the starting point from mid- May, is mid- January. The referendum is not going to happen next year ; it’s too late.

Now let’s factor in a couple of other things.

The EC recommends a period of six months from the day that the legislation is passed, to the actual referendum. This would take us into March 2022.

This bill is going to run into fierce opposition in Holyrood. It’s going to have a bumpy ride and it’s going to be obstructed at every turn. It is not going to clear the hurdles of legislation easily.

We are in the middle of a pandemic and the Coronavirus Act allows elections to be postponed.

Finally and perhaps the most crucial point of all. The SNP have indicated that they are not going to proceed without a section 30 order. That has not changed as far as we can ascertain.  The problem with taking that stance is that they cannot then even begin the process of legislating for the referendum without that section 30. That is why they have not already started to put the legislation through Holyrood, because they don’t have one. The starting gun for the whole process has been placed in the hands of Westminster and Boris is showing no signs of firing it.

Of course, the Martin Keatings’ case is due to be heard in January 2021. But he could be waiting months for a decision on it and regardless of whether it’s aye or naw from the Court of Session, it will then be appealed by either party to the Supreme Court. That could take until the end of 2021 or even into 2022.

Which brings us all the way back to square one. Of course, the Holyrood 2021 election could be declared a plebiscitary election. Or if there was a majority of two thirds of Indy supporting MSPs in Holyrood, a snap election could be called on the issue after the general one. But if a plebiscite is not declared and if a policy of ‘both votes SNP’ is pursued then none of that is going to be possible.

We lay these facts before you. We leave it to you, the reader to judge whether your particular party has been honest with you and if it has used the parliamentary time it had to pursue the legislative programme for a referendum, in the way that you would have expected. But we can tell you that every party is aware of this schedule and whatever else they might plead, they cannot plead ignorance. That is all.

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8 thoughts on “The Ticking Timetable”

  1. CHRIST! The Referendums Bill HAS BEEN PASSED! Do you lot know anything that is going on, do you research anything anyone? Why are you looking for candidates for a referendum you say is not going to happen?
    https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2020/2/section/2/enacted

    The ECC have made their recommendation.. in AUG last yr- they do not get to dictate-only RECOMMEND! And they have>

    https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/who-we-are-and-what-we-do/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/scottish-independence-referendum/our-advice-proposed-scottish-independence-referendum-question

    1. Thanks for your comment, TenV. Actually we’ve already done the research, and it is irrelevant to the points Julie is making. The Act you refer to is a generic statute relating to any referendum. It is not specific to an independence referendum, nor does it give any details about such a referendum. The closest it comes to relevance on this is being a copy-paste from the 2013 Act which was used for the 2014 referendum.

      The fact that a test question was put to the EC again says nothing about when, or if, an independence referendum will take place. The timetable laid out in the article is unaffected by either of the points you raise.

  2. Julie, there’s quite a few things wrong with this article. Working backwards;

    1). 7 months + mid-May – mid-December not January.
    2). 28 weeks = 6 and a half months, not 7 months, so even by the 28 weeks, Indy ref 2 could be Thursday 25th November 2021
    3). As the somewhat rude poster said, the EC Recommend, they don’t “allow”, they report to Parliament, and it’s parliemant decides wheter to follow their advice – or not.
    4). Some things can be done in parallel, at the same time, as they were for the 2019 General Election, as reported by the EC.
    5). The EC can be asked to test the question quickly, particularly since they have already tested it, as in the link in the posting above which is of the 2013 test, even though the article is dated 2018
    6). The enabling legislation (the legislation in the posting above is the framework NOT the sepcific referndum legistlation) can be treated as an emergency bill by Holyrood same as the EU Continuity (Scotland) Bill was, passing through Holyrood in 3 weeks.
    7). That legislation does NOT have to wait for the question to be tested
    8). The question can be tested prior to the election
    9). The SNP have NOT indicated they are not going to proceed without a section 30 order, they have indicated the legislation will proceed WITHOUT the S30 Order.
    and 10). If it wanted to, the UK Gov Attorney General for Scotland could say “no objection” removing the 28 day wait for Royal Assent, the S30 or other change coule be put in in readiness if the UK Gov wants, and of course the WHY the UK should do that, has nothing to do with any article looking at the theory of the timing.

    Sorry, the article is wrong on a whole load of points, and possibly others as well, like “fierce opposition” is not exactlyu a problem to an overall majority Government, and, dare I say, is exactly a reason for having an overall majority for the Government.

    1. Hi YesIndyRef2,

      Couple of points with regard to what you said. In terms of approval of question/legislation I’ve allowed for those things to happen in parallel in the estimation I’ve given. And I’ve been generous in the time I’ve given for that to happen. I chopped a month off the summer recess. Secondly, even although technically the Scot Gov might choose to proceed without EC approval in reality they’re not going to do that. They want international approval and they’re not going to get that if they go against the advice of the EC and that can be shown to be the case. With regard to legislation, just because one party has a majority, doesn’t mean legislation can’t be slowed down. Amendments can be put in. Objections can be made. It’s not going to take three weeks – there is not the political will to make that happen. Finally, please show me where the SNP have indicated that they will move ahead without a Section 30. We have been sitting on our backsides since 2017 on the premise that we don’t have one. They have also held up Martin Keating’s case by registering as a defender and then dropping out at the last minute. They are showing no signs of proceeding without this, but if there is an indication that they might, I would like to see it. The quickest referendum we have had in the UK was the AV referendum. The process for that took nine months. We are not going to see a 2021 referendum and the other factors I listed are going to put it back further.

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