Key services 'would pay the £9m price of SNP's referendum'

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MONEY from key services would be needed to meet the £9 million cost of the SNP's referendum, it was claimed yesterday.

The accusation came as SNP finance secretary John Swinney was grilled by members of Holyrood's finance committee in Glasgow over his proposals for the budget.

Mr Swinney accepted that he had not put in a budget line for the referendum on independence, estimated to cost 9m, and would have to find money from other sources should the bill get passed.

His admission in response to questioning from Liberal Democrat finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis provoked an angry response from opposition MSPs, who claimed that Mr Swinney would not accept a proposal from another party where the source of funding had not been identified.

And both Labour and the Liberal Democrats gave a broad hint that they might use the technical funding issue as an excuse to vote down a referendum bill, even though both parties are opposed to one anyway.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott claimed the money would have to come from frontline services.

"Money to pay for the referendum will have to come from the existing budget, so funding for schools or hospitals could be at risk," he said. "The SNP cannot say what – all they can do is admit is that something has to go to fund their obsession."

Labour's finance spokesman Andy Kerr added: "It is astonishing that the SNP are still pursuing their referendum when they have not even budgeted for it. It is a mixture of cynicism and incompetence.

"How can they expect to be taken seriously when they have not even allocated money for the cost of their referendum?"

But the Scottish Government said last night that opposition politicians were "talking nonsense" and insisted no public services would be put at risk.

A spokesman for Mr Swinney said: "Our budget is all about protecting public services and investing in economic recovery."

He added: "Having a referendum to gain real economic and financial powers is all about boosting jobs and prosperity, and ensuring that we are not faced with a 100 billion bill for a new generation of weapons of mass destruction, or 5bn for unnecessary ID cards, or get dragged into illegal wars such as Iraq at the cost of billions more pounds."

The white paper for the referendum will be put down on St Andrews day later this month, with the bill formally laid down in parliament on the day of Burns Night.

However, opposition parties have already made it clear that the bill will not get past the first reading, claiming that a period of economic crisis is not the right time to hold a referendum.

The Scotsman recently revealed that the SNP leadership was now looking to hold referendum after the 2011 Holyrood election, when the Liberal Democrats may be willing to back a referendum in exchange for joining a coalition.