Scottish independence: Row over SNP bid to ‘rig’ cash limits for referendum
THE SNP government is set to impose strict limits on spending during the independence referendum campaign, amid fears the Nationalists could be outspent by their pro-Union opponents.
The move has prompted claims that the SNP is already trying to “rig” the referendum and overrule the recommendations of the Electoral Commission a week after a deal was struck to stage the historic vote.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed yesterday that the spending issue was the key stumbling block in the referendum negotiations with UK ministers.
The final decision lies in the hands of the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament under the terms of the “Edinburgh Agreement” signed last week.
First Minister Alex Salmond accepted a straight yes-no question in this deal,ruling out a third option on more powers for Holyrood, but in return he securedcontrol at Holyrood for staging the rest of the vote.
Nationalists are concerned about a proposed £1.5 million limit on official campaign spending, along with additional spending for the pro-Union parties, in the crucial “restricted period” of the last 16 weeks before the vote.
The £1.5m limit is backed by the Electoral Commission, but the SNP is set to slash that figure amid concerns that their pro-Union opponents will be able to outspend them.
Ms Sturgeon said yesterday the SNP government would impose limits that ensured a “level playing field”.
She added: “Scotland’s future will not be bought and sold for anyone’s gold.”
But the pro-Union lobby insisted that the Nationalists were attempting to fix the terms of the referendum to their own advantage, after the agreement signed last Monday by Prime Minister David Cameron and Alex Salmond in Edinburgh. The Better Together Campaign, led by former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, called on the SNP to follow the Electoral Commission’s guidance.
“We have the clearest signal yet that the referendum will be cooked up in Alex Salmond’s front room,” a spokesman said yesterday.
“He cannot be a player as well as referee on the same pitch. People in this country valuefairness, and they know when someone is at it.
“He should make it clear he will accept the advice of the independent Electoral Commission on areas such as the question on campaign funding,” added the spokesman. “It is without question the right thing do.”
The extent of the dispute over funding with Westminster emerged as Ms Sturgeon made the keynote speech to close the SNP’s four-day conference in Perth.
Disagreement over the prospect of a second question on more powers for Holyrood, as well as the timing of the crucial vote and handing the franchise to young people aged 16 and 17, had dominated the public spats between both sides during the build-up to the deal.
But Ms Sturgeon, who negotiated the final terms of the agreement with Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, told delegates: “The issue that most exercised the UK government during the negotiations was campaign funding. They think that the limits proposed in our consultation are too low.
“Let me be clear. We will set the spending limits with care. We will listen to our consultation. We will listen to the Electoral Commission. We will listen to both campaign organisations. Then we will take a decision that is right for Scotland; a decision that guarantees a level playing field and a fair contest.
“Make no mistake, this time round Scotland’s future will not be bought and sold for anyone’s gold.”
The independence campaign has a £2m campaign war chest after a £1m donation by lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir and a similar bequest from late makar Edwin Morgan.
The SNP says there should be just £750,000 for the two main campaign teams and £250,000 for each political party, during the restricted period in the weeks leading up to the vote.
However, the commission, the government agency that ensures fair play in elections, said the two main campaigns should be able to spend “at a level closer to the total spending limit” at a Scottish Parliament election. This is currently set at £1.5m.
The commission argued that tight spending limits could “impair the ability of the lead campaigners to campaign and inform voters effectively”.
And rather than a £250,000 cap on all parties, it recommended that the limits on party spending should be set “based on their share of the vote atthe 2011 Scottish Parliament election”.
SNP figures claim this would give the pro-Union side a large advantage. Based on rules set for the Welsh Assembly referendum on more powers in 2011, this could mean both the SNP and Labour would be able to spend £1.5m each, with the Tories and Lib Dems also able to spend about £900,000 each. That would give the pro-Union parties a big financial advantage.
But shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran said: “It didn’t last even a week before the SNP decided to move the goalposts on the referendum.
“No government has ever gone against the Electoral Commission’s recommendations, and if the SNP don’t accept their decision on spending limits in the referendum, then it will be an insult to Scottish democracy.
“Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have to realise that they cannot be both the player and the referee in the referendum; if they want to have a credible process, then Nicola Sturgeon and the Yes Campaign need to give a clear commitment immediately that they will abide by whatthey are told by the Electoral Commission.”
Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said: “We know that the SNP will attempt to rig this referendum in any way it can. We have already seen this in its shameless play for votes amid its half-hearted Nato U-turn, and the desperation to allow 16- and 17-year-olds the vote.
“Nicola Sturgeon may pay lip service to the Electoral Commission, but they are the ones who should set the rules on this.”
Ms Sturgeon closed the SNP conference yesterday with a pledge of extra cash for housing and money to help 100,000 vulnerable people as she demanded the Chancellor change tack on the economy.
She called on George Osborne to abandon austerity cuts and invest in capital infrastructure, saying: “We must build our way out of recession.”
To help do that in Scotland, she announced that £45mwould be spent building 1,200 homes across Scotland. In addition, she revealed the Scottish Government would commit £9m extra funding to help some of the country’s most needy.
That cash, she told delegates, would provide “essential crisis support in these difficult times for 100,000 more of our most vulnerable people”.
She said: “The answer to Tory cuts is to control our ownresources. Control of our own resources, so we can get our economy growing.”
With figures last week showing the recession in Scotland has deepened and unemployment has risen, Ms Sturgeon said the SNP administration was doing everything it could within its current devolved powers to boost the economy.
But she said that more investment was needed, telling Mr Osborne: “Our economy needs a capital stimulus, and it needs it now.”
The Scottish Government has repeatedly urged Westminster to invest more cash in majorinfrastructure projects.
Ms Sturgeon, also the infrastructure and constitution secretary, urged the Chancellor: “Use the autumn budget statement to increase capital spending and accept, once and for all, that we will not cut our way out of this recession.
“We must build our way out of recession.”
She said that was her message to him “on behalf of every construction firm clinging on by their fingertips, on behalfof every unemployed person desperate for some light at the end of the tunnel”.
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