THE Scottish Government is under pressure to ditch its independence referendum consultation, after it emerged that submissions could be made anonymously.
Constitutional experts, business leaders and opposition parties have questioned the integrity of the process after government strategy minister Bruce Crawford said “all responses will be accepted”, including those from people who keep their identity a secret.
Respondents are asked to leave their contact details, but are free to choose not too, meaning there is nothing to prevent an individual making multiple submissions, a loophole which, it has been claimed, could skew the outcome of the consultation.
The admission has also raised questions over whether the Scottish Government’s claims of receiving more than 10,000 responses were accurate.
The coalition government’s own consultation process did not allow views to be submitted anonymously.
The issue led critics to warn that SNP ministers had left the process open for their anonymous “cybernat” supporters – who already flood online forums and newspaper sites with often vitriolic comments – to weigh into the consultation.
Constitutional expert Alan Trench last night said branded the anonymity “dangerous”, while Labour called for the consultation to be abandoned. There was also criticism from the business group CBI and the Scottish Conservatives.
Last night, the Scottish Government insisted the anonymous consultation process was the same one used for all parliamentary bills.
Mr Trench told The Scotsman: “This is really quite dangerous. We know that there is already a group of cybernats and a smaller number of equally vociferous cyber-unionists who flood newspaper comments.
“The anonymity allows them to make as many submissions as they like, which damages the integrity of the process.”
Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Anas Sarwar led calls for the consultation to be junked and a new one to be set up with cross-party agreement.
Mr Sarwar who said there was “a real danger that the SNP are letting their cybernats loose on the process”.
He said: “Everyone knows that Alex Salmond desperately wants a second question on the ballot and now he has left the door open for his army of cybernats to deliver the response he wants.
“By essentially inviting people to send multiple responses, Alex Salmond has done nothing to dispel the notion that he is trying to rig the referendum.”
He went on: “This flawed consultation should be abandoned now. The First Minister should hold all-party talks so we can have a consultation which is free and fair as quickly as possible.”
CBI Scotland director Iain McMillan said anonymous responses should be excluded from the final reckoning.
He said: “It does seem that there could be some double counting, because of the Scottish Government allowing anonymous responses. What is important, though, is the quality rather than the quantity of responses.”
The UK government last night confirmed that in its consultation, which finished last month, respondents had to give their name or some form of identification such as an e-mail address for verification purposes, although they could subsequently appear as anonymous.
The Scottish Government consultation only has three required areas for completion – whether the respondent is an individual or organisation; if the respondent resides in Scotland, the rest of the UK or rest of the world; and if the respondent wants to be contacted again by the Scottish Government. All other fields including answers to questions, e-mail address and name and address are optional.
The leadership of pro-UK parties in Scotland added their voices for the Scottish Government to think again.
Scottish Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said: “This news gives new meaning to the old cliche ‘vote early and vote often’.
“Claims of thousands now participating have been rendered risible.”
He went on: “Nothing the SNP now asserts on the basis of a rigged consultation to which SNP members can contribute as many times as they like will command confidence or deserve to be taken seriously.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “We have previously warned that Alex Salmond would use his mandate to rig the referendum. This revelation compounds that serious concern. The SNP must either end the consultation and start all over again, or exclude all anonymous submissions.”
But Mr Crawford insisted that Labour had made a gaffe in leading the attack.
He said: “This an embarrassing boomerang attack by Labour – the approach governing the Scottish Government’s consultation is the same as for any other consultation, both by this administration and by the previous Labour/Lib Dem coalition.”
He pointed out that Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson, whose question exposed the acceptance of anonymous respondents, had used the same process for the Tourism Bill when she was a minister in 2006.
He pledged that the Scottish Government would publish a full analysis, including figures for responses submitted anonymously, and would publish the responses themselves wherever respondents agree.
He said that if multiple identical responses – anonymous or otherwise – were received in the consultation, that would also be fully set out in the analysis – as the previous administration did with the Smoking in Public Places consultation in 2004.
He added: “The consultation analysis will be undertaken externally to reinforce the independence of the process.
“It looks as if the same cannot be said of the piecemeal way in which the UK government is highlighting its consultation, which had a vastly smaller response than the Scottish Government’s – which has already reached 10,000 responses.”