In his speech to the SNP conference in Perth (available here), Alex Salmond has suggested that there will be a ‘paving bill’ for the independence referendum. The principal reason for this is the need for a separate electoral registration process to enable 16 and 17 year olds to vote, as they are would not be included in the register produced by the usual electoral registration process. That bill, the First Minister says, will be introduced ‘in the next few weeks’. (I pointed out some of the practical problems with producing a register of under-18s so they could vote in the referendum HERE.)
The idea of a paving bill is a shift in the proposed timetable and programme for the referendum, which has only ever talked of a single referendum bill and not a preliminary paving measure. It’s a practical step, as otherwise work on this difficult area would have to be postponed until the main referendum bill is passed. As that is planned to be October 2014, only 12 months before the planned referendum date, that is about when the register would need to be compiled. Similarly, if those aged 16 and over are to be eligible to vote at the referendum, the register will need to include not only those aged 15 at the date it is compiled, but also some 14 year olds in order to catch those who qualify immediately before the day of the vote. All this is a task of some administrative complexity – and some cost.
The important legislative point is how soon the paving bill is to be introduced. At the moment, powers to create a register including those aged 16 and 17 years old in October 2014 would have no purpose in law. As the purpose of creating that register relates to the holding of the independence referendum, it is beyond the legal powers of the Scottish Parliament at present, and will be until those powers are extended by the section 30 order. Until the order has been made – that is, laid by the Secretary of State and approved by the Commons and the Lords at Westminster and by Holyrood, those powers do not exist. Coverage of the Edinburgh Agreement suggested that the order would be laid on Monday and passed in February. (That seems very slow, as the order needs 40 days for approval and that will expire in early December if the order is laid on Monday 22 October.) Until the section 30 order is made, Holyrood would not have power to consider a ‘paving bill’. That proposal adds to the urgency, for the Scottish Government, of getting that order made.
In that context, it is worth noting the suggestion made by Lord Forsyth in a Lords question last Thursday (available here) that Parliamentary consideration of the section 30 order be deferred until the Referendum Bill could be considered alongside it. That would delay not just Holyrood’s consideration of the referendum bill, but also the preparatory work that the UK Government has now accepted the Scottish Government should be able to undertake. Deferring consideration of the section 30 order would in fact hugely impede the referendum preparations; it is something only those who actually want to block the holding of the referendum outright should consider.