A BREAKTHROUGH in the deadlock between Holyrood and Westminster over the independence referendum has emerged, with the Scottish Government preparing to drop its opposition to the Electoral Commission presiding over the vote.
It follows a concession from the coalition government that would allow the commission, which oversees all UK elections, to report to Holyrood on the referendum, instead of Westminster.
It was welcomed as a “constructive step forward” by Scottish Secretary Michael Moore last night, after a round of public spats in recent weeks.
The UK government’s top law officer in Scotland, Lord Wallace, was “optimistic” a deal could be reached with the SNP on staging a legally binding poll, but he insisted Holyrood had no legal right to hold a referendum as things stood.
The Scottish Government is due to set out its position when it publishes a consultation on the issue next week, but last night’s development will increase the prospect of a deal being struck over how the vote is staged.
Deadlock still remains on the issue of whether a third “devo max” option should appear on the ballot paper. The Nationalists are sympathetic to this idea, but the other main parties want a straight “Yes or No to independence” question.
This, along with concerns over the SNP’s plan for 16- and 17-year-olds to be given a vote, stand in the way of an agreement that would see Westminster effectively hand Holyrood the legal power to hold the referendum through a so-called Section 30 order.
If this is not agreed, the SNP claims it has the legal authority to hold its own consultative poll and will press ahead with it.
Talks will be held between Mr Moore and First Minister Alex Salmond in Edinburgh next Friday.
A spokesman for the Scottish Secretary said last night: “If the reports that the Scottish Government is prepared to allow the Electoral Commission to be involved in an independence referendum are confirmed, this would be a constructive step forward.
“We appear to be making steady progress on these issues since the launch of the UK government’s consultation, with the Scottish Government making positive comments on a single question and the use of a Section 30 order. The Secretary of State will very much hope to build on that when he meets the First Minister in Edinburgh next week.”
Mr Salmond has said his preferred date for the independence referendum is autumn 2014.
A spokesman for the First Minister said last night: “We will set out our detailed proposals for running the referendum in the consultation document we are publishing next Wednesday, which will be entirely fair, and people can judge them and submit their views.”
The SNP has so far rejected the Section 30 order, amid concern over the “strings attached”. The Scottish Government has said the Electoral Commission is accountable to Westminster and not Holyrood and its board was appointed politically.
Instead, Alex Salmond proposed setting up a new body to keep an eye on proceedings.
The coalition concession allowing the Electoral Commission to report to Holyrood for the conduct of the referendum was set out by Mr Moore in an interview with The Scotsman last week.
Lord Wallace, the former Lib Dem deputy first minister and now Advocate General, repeated it in a speech at Glasgow University yesterday. “I should stress that the Section 30 order route would allow us to make any adjustments to the role of the Electoral Commission in this particular referendum,” he said.
“The most obvious example would be to ensure that the commission reports to the Scottish Parliament on this occasion, rather than the UK parliament. It is, after all, the majority in the Scottish Parliament which proposes a referendum on this question.”
Lord Wallace again warned that Holyrood did not have the legal power to hold a referendum on independence because the issue of the constitution is reserved to Westminster.
He added: “If I were the First Minister – and I was acting First Minister a couple of times – and I wanted a legal referendum on independence, then I would be snatching the hand off the person offering me a Section 30 order. No hands have been snatched thus far, but I remain optimistic.”
He stressed it was outwith the powers of the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum, even on a consultative basis. He described the SNP’s “advisory” referendum as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and a “red herring”.
He said: “If, as the law stands, the Scottish Government were to proceed with this legislation, it would be open to challenge in the courts. It is the view of the UK government that such a challenge is likely to be successful.
“That is why this coalition government has offered to do what is required, by an order under Section 30 of the Scotland Act, to ensure that a referendum is conducted by the Scottish Government in a way which is legal, fair and decisive.”
• AN INQUIRY is to be held into controversial SNP plans to generate all of Scotland’s electricity needs from green energy sources, like wind and wave power, by 2020.
The probe by Holyrood’s economy committee was announced after engineering chiefs warned recently the target “cannot be justified”, while financial giant Citigroup said every Scottish household would be forced to pay hundreds of pounds more to support renewables.