CIVIL service chiefs have come under fire for allowing the SNP government to “waste” thousands of pounds in taxpayers’ cash fighting a court battle during the row over an independent Scotland’s place in the European Union.
The Scottish Government spent £12,000 to defy an order from the Information Commissioner to reveal whether it had taken legal advice on the issue, but it was revealed last week no such advice existed.
First Minister Alex Salmond has faced criticism after he appeared to indicate legal advice had been sought in a TV interview.
But Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, insisted yesterday that impartial civil servants should have stepped in to halt the court case.
Mr Alexander said the Edinburgh Agreement secured the role of the commission in the referendum process. But he added: “I think there are more immediate questions for Alex Salmond to answer. I think he has to answer the question why it was that he allowed thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money to be invested in paying lawyers to prepare a court case to prevent him releasing legal advice, which it turned out didn’t exist.
“I think his accounting officer has questions to answer too. There are rules about public finance in this country which mean that you shouldn’t waste taxpayers’ money on politicians’ vanity projects. This is one of the most extraordinary projects we’ve seen so far.”
Meanwhile Prime Minister David Cameron said voters had lost trust in the SNP and called on the Nationalists to back the recommendations of the Electoral Commission in staging the referendum.
Mr Cameron insisted that public trust has plummeted in the SNP administration.
“The SNP’s lack of transparency over whether or not Scottish ministers had sought specific legal advice on which to base their assertions on EU membership makes it all the more important for the First Minister and his deputy to now state clearly whether or not they will follow the independent expert advice of the Electoral Commission in setting the referendum rules,” Mr Cameron wrote in a newspaper article.
“A categorical assurance from the First Minister would start to restore trust in the process, since trust has been the main casualty of this recent row.”
Former Whitehall civil service chief Sir David Bell, the principal of Reading University, has been called in to lead an inquiry after Mr Salmond referred himself to the panel of independent advisers on the ministerial code.
But it emerged that former Lord Advocate Lord Fraser has been dropped from the inquiry. The peer said the inquiry into Mr Salmond should go further than the ministerial code.
A Scottish Government spokesman said yesterday that the legal case concerned the interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act,
He added: “By longstanding convention, successive Scottish and UK governments have not disclosed the fact of content of legal advice except in exceptional circumstances.
“The Deputy First Minister announced on 23 October that, following the Edinburgh Agreement, ministers are now in a position to seek specific legal advice from the law officers on the basis of an agreed framework for the process for independence.
“When the Deputy First Minister confirmed that such advice would be sought, she was able to do so because she had the prior permission of the Lord Advocate under the ministerial code.”