HOLYROOD’s referendum bill committee has split over whether the UK government should be bound by rules that would prevent it from making major policy or funding announcements for Scotland in the middle of the referendum campaign next year.
A majority on the committee raised concerns that the purdah and asymmetry rules which prevent major announcements being made in the run up to a vote apply to the Scottish Government but not the UK government.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already said there is “no reason to doubt the good faith of the UK government’s commitment to observe purdah restrictions equivalent to those imposed on the Scottish Government in the bill”.
The committee said: “Nevertheless, there is an asymmetry, and we invite the UK government to indicate whether it would be prepared to put the purdah restrictions to which it is committed on a statutory footing.”
While this was agreed by the majority of the committee, four pro-UK MSPs – Labour’s Patricia Ferguson and James Kelly, former Tory leader Annabel Goldie and former Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott – did not support the call.
The committee “strongly” supported having a four-week period of “purdah” in the run-up to the independence referendum on 18 September next year, with MSPs stating: “We would request that the Scottish and UK governments each issue guidance to those public bodies for which it is responsible on the limits applicable to them during the 28-day period.”
Their report also drew “to the attention of the parliamentary authorities” that, while the “purdah” period is due begin on Thursday, 21 August, Holyrood will not go into recess until two days later, thus creating an “overlap between the purdah period and a period of parliamentary business”.
Convener Bruce Crawford, an SNP MSP, said the committee had “identified some issues that require clarification or amendment”, but added that “the whole committee was able to agree that the bill provides an appropriate foundation for next year’s referendum”.
“Although committee members clearly differ on what the outcome of the referendum should be, there was a high degree of consensus on how it should be conducted – and I am pleased that almost all the report’s conclusions were unanimous,” he said.
The committee said the spending limits proposed by the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, for the referendum were “as good an overall outcome as is likely to be possible”.
These set out that the two main campaign organisations, the pro-independence Yes Scotland and Better Together, which wants Scotland to remain in the UK, be allowed to spend up to £1.5 million in the 16 weeks running up to the vote.
The additional spending limits for the political parties would be linked to the share of the vote they achieved in the 2011 Holyrood elections.
MSPs on the committee said they were “generally satisfied with the rules on donations” although they did question if cash gifts of less than £7,500 should be reported to the Electoral Commission.
A Scotland Office spokesman stressed that the UK government “always abides by purdah rules” but said it saw “no need” to put these on a statutory footing.