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On 15 October 2012 the UK and Scottish Governments signed an agreement under which the Scottish Parliament could organise a referendum on independence for Scotland. The question of a referendum on future constitutional arrangements arose after the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2011. The UK Government issued a consultation paper on 10 January 2012, and the Scottish Government produced proposals on 25 January 2012, in its own consultation document.

There were differences of view as to how a referendum could be organised lawfully, but agreement was reached that there will be secondary legislation under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 to devolve the power to hold a single-question referendum by the end of 2014. The Scottish Government will promote legislation in the Scottish Parliament to set out the details, including the question and the franchise, which it intends to extend for this vote to cover 16 and 17 year-olds. The referendum rules will be based on the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, with modification for Scottish circumstances. There will be a role for the Electoral Commission in reviewing the proposed question and in certain other aspects of administering the referendum. It will be for the Scottish Parliament to approve the detailed arrangements for the referendum.

The section 30 Order is subject to the affirmative procedure in both Houses of Parliament and in the Scottish Parliament. It was laid before the UK Parliament on 22 October 2012; it will be debated in the Commons on 15 January 2013 and in the Lords on 16 January 2013. The Scottish Parliament approved the Order on 5 December 2012.

On 9 November 2012 the Scottish Government confirmed that its proposed question is “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” to which voters will be asked to respond “yes” or “no”. This will be assessed by the Electoral Commission to see if it is fair and easily understood.

The debate over an independence referendum, and the conduct of referendums in the UK in general, are covered in Standard Note 5142, Regulation of Referendums, 16 October 2012.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee published The Agreement on a referendum on independence for Scotland on 13 November 2012. The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee published The Referendum on separation for Scotland: the proposed section 30 Order – can a player also be the referee? on 11 January 2013.

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