THE outcome of the independence referendum will face “serious problems” if SNP ministers ditch the country’s official elections watchdog as a “guarantor” of the process, MSPs have heard.
And the Scottish Government faced fresh criticism at Holyrood yesterday over its position on joining the EU after independence, as constitutional and legal experts claimed the historic Edinburgh Agreement “changes nothing”.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already indicated that SNP ministers will defy the Electoral Commission on campaign spending. Strict limits are to be imposed amid concerns that the independence campaign will be outspent by the pro-union lobby.
But constitutional expert Alan Trench warned a Holyrood committee yesterday that it could damage the credibility of the result if the commission were sidelined.
He said: “If you were to get to the point where parliament didn’t follow that advice, that would raise serious problems for the conduct of the referendum and respect for the outcome.”
Professor Aileen McHarg, of Strathclyde University, said there was a need for an “independent guarantor” to ensure the referendum was conducted fairly.
Ministers have pledged that the commission will be involved in the referendum, but the final decision on issues such as spending and the wording of the question will lie with parliament.
A Holyrood committee was yesterday holding its first evidence session on the Edinburgh Agreement and the accompanying section 30 order which will transfer the legal authority to stage the ballot to Holyrood.
Ms Sturgeon indicated at the recent SNP conference that she was ready to override the Electoral Commission’s guidance on spending in the final months of the campaign.
Nationalists fear it would allow the collective spending of the pro-Union parties to top the independence parties in the crucial closing months of the campaign.
She insisted that Scotland’s future would not be “bought and sold for anyone’s gold”.
The SNP faced stinging criticism recently when it emerged that thousands of pounds in taxpayers’ cash had been spent in a court battle to block the release of legal advice of EU membership – which it later turned out did not exist.
Ms Sturgeon has now officially asked for this and claimed it was only the Edinburgh Agreement that gave her the green light to do this.
But Mr Trench said: “I am rather sceptical about the effect of this agreement in relation to that, because the agreement, in a sense, changes nothing.”
He added: “The legal position will change once the section 30 order is made. I can’t see that the agreement itself meaningfully acts as a change in circumstance.”
Prof McHarg was also sceptical about the impact of the agreement.
“I am not saying it is necessarily wrong, but it seems a strange argument to say that it was impossible to seek legal advice until this point,” she said.
The SNP says Scotland would remain in the EU after independence, but senior figures in Brussels, including EU president José Manuel Barroso, have said it would have to reapply.
This could mean joining the euro currency and the adopting the Schengen “open borders” agreement.
The Scottish Government’s position was defended earlier this week by the Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland.
He said there was a chance the referendum process could have ended in court before the agreement was signed by First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron on 15 October.
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore also told the committee there was no reason why the key issues could not have been explored before the agreement was signed last month.
Mr Moore said: “I’m absolutely clear that the agreement that sits alongside the order sets out the process for this referendum, no more than that.
“I don’t accept that without it you could not have investigated the issues around the central part of independence, namely membership of the European Union or other international bodies.
“I heard the Deputy First Minister say that in the chamber here a couple of weeks ago.
“This document is straightforward. It does what it says there in very clear language. It sets out the process that the two governments have agreed to, and that’s what we’ll focus on.”
Committee convener Bruce Crawford, a former Scottish Government minister who started negotiations on the agreement with Mr Moore, said it was “reasonable” to take the document as the starting point.
“Before the actual agreement was in place, there was no certainty a referendum would take place,” he added.
Mr Moore also said he was “confident” more powers would be devolved to Edinburgh if Scots voted to reject independence in 2014.
He insisted people would look at the record of parties that helped to deliver the Scottish Parliament in the 1990s, as well as the increased powers more recently through the Scotland Act.
Both came about after a “big set of arguments” and “various stooshies” over several years, Mr Moore added. “I think we’ll go through the same process again.”
“We’re already under way with the ideas being talked about. I’m confident that will accelerate over time and people will be able to see more powers will come and this parliament will be further enhanced in its rights and capabilities.”
But he would not confirm if the shape of these new powers would be known before the 2014 referendum, adding: “We’re working very hard on that.”
lFINANCE secretary John Swinney has demanded urgent measures from the UK government to boost economic confidence.
He said the Treasury should “provide an immediate capital stimulus to boost economic activity and support wider investor confidence”.
He made the point to Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Mr Moore at the finance quadrilateral meeting in Edinburgh yesterday adding: “An extra £5 billion in capital investment across the UK would allow us to provide an additional stimulus of more than £400 million to support employment in Scotland now.
Representatives from the devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland were also at the discussions.
Mr Swinney argued: “A swift decision by the UK government to increase capital investment to support jobs, construction and new infrastructure could deliver a real boost to all of our economies.”