COMMONS

Current separation referendum question "biased" says Scottish Affairs Committee

08 May 2012

In an interim report from its inquiry into a referendum on Separation for Scotland, the UK Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee says that, based on the evidence it has received, it has "no choice but to conclude that the question currently proposed by the Scottish Government is biased"

The Committee received evidence which showed that the outcome of a referendum can be changed by changes to the wording of the question. When 3,900 Scottish adults were asked three different questions about separation the results varied considerably:

  • The first question was "Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?" The responses were yes - 41 and no - 59
  • When "or disagree" was added, the result moved from 41 /59 to 39 /61
  • Then the question was changed to “Should Scotland become an independent country or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?” and the numbers moved to 33 yes / 67 no.

None of the witnesses to the inquiry thought that the SNP's plan to set the question, the timing and the rules of the referendum was either acceptable or fair. All the witnesses agreed that the Electoral Commission, which is experienced and neutral, is the appropriate body to ensure that this referendum is as fair as possible. The Committee recommends that the Electoral Commission should have that responsibility, and that all sides should take its advice.

No question should be placed before the electorate unless the Electoral Commission is completely satisfied as to the intelligibility and fairness of the wording. The Commission should conduct a very thorough programme of testing of a number of different question options before coming to a view on the wording which is clearest and fairest.

Comment from the Chair

Ian Davidson MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"It is now beyond doubt that the question proposed by the Scottish Government is biased.

A range of witnesses, with different backgrounds and from different sides of past referenda, were unanimous in the opinion that the question, as currently proposed by the Scottish Government, is not fair.

"The evidence we have heard shows clearly that the question as proposed would tend to lead the respondent towards the answer "yes". We even received a GCSE question that asked 16 year olds to explain why a question that began ‘Do you agree’ was biased.

The parties involved should come together to propose an alternative, or alternatives, to the Electoral Commission and accept the result. If agreement is not reached among the parties those who can agree should take their own, and other options with support, to the Electoral Commission.

We cannot have a contest in which Separatists are both player and referee. That goes against every notion of fairness and transparency. It must be for the Electoral Commission, an experienced and neutral body, to oversee the process and, crucially, to test alternative questions and words to make sure that any referendum question will be clearly understood.
 

We cannot accept any attempt to rig the vote. The Scottish people must be shown that this aspect of the Referendum is wholly unbiased, and we can then move on swiftly to seek clarity on the many major issues which are presently known unknowns."

Further Information 

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