Independence referendum: SNP in U-turn on loophole for ‘secret’ responses on vote

ANONYMOUS responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the independence referendum will be rejected, following a U-turn branded a “humiliating climb-down” by opponents.

Strategy minister Bruce Crawford said the government would ensure “no anonymous submissions” were counted in the consultation results after claims that the controversial loophole could skew the outcome.

Mr Crawford’s decision yesterday came just days after the SNP minister insisted “all responses will be accepted” in the consultation, including from people who kept their identity a secret.

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Earlier, First Minister Alex Salmond had come under pressure from Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont to back a recall of MSPs to Holyrood during the Easter recess to debate the issue.

However, publishing details of the consultation ahead of the closing date on 11 May, the Scottish Government revealed just 414, or 3.5 per cent, of the 11,986 responses were anonymous.

Mr Crawford also promised an independent analysis by an external group of the results which a government statement said would ensure that “any duplicate identical responses which appear to be from the same computer will be excluded”.

The Scottish Government said ministers had always intended that anonymous responses would be separately identified in the consultation results, but that to prevent “significant numbers of anonymous responses” and “given the “media coverage generated about the issue” that those taking part would have to identify themselves.

Mr Crawford said yesterday’s decision would “address any conceivable concerns” made about the process.

“As the figures we have published demonstrate, there is absolutely no evidence of anonymous responses skewing the process – quite the reverse – but we can and will make the process stronger still by requiring all submissions to have personal identification details before they are taken into account,” he said.

“While anonymous contributions would always have been separately identified, we will now ensure that no anonymous submissions are included in the analysis at all. 

“And while there is no evidence of duplicate identical responses from the same person, we can and will ensure that any received are also excluded from the independent analysis so that their view is only represented once.”

He said a contract for analysing the results had now been put out to tender.

However, a Labour spokesman said last night: “This is a humiliating climb-down for the SNP government, which appears to have lost control over its own consultation and now appears to be making it up as it goes along.

“Just 24 hours ago, the SNP government was claiming this was identical to previous consultations – this embarrassing U-turn shows they have been caught bang to rights.

“We are also keen to see this independently verified.”

Meanwhile, the Scotland Office last night issued a statement that said scores of responses to its own consultation, which ended last month and attracted 3,000 responses, had been rejected after individuals failed to identify themselves.

The statement said: “During our consultation period we received 101 responses without an individual email address. We believe these were sent via an online form, but as we had no means of identifying individual responses, we did not include these in our consultation.

“There were also 118 cases where we received more than one response from the same person … we only recorded one reply in each case.”

Ms Lamont had said that the two week recess before the return of parliament was “too long to wait” for ministers to answer “serious questions” about Scotland’s referendum” consultation as she demanded a recall of MSPs or an offer of ministerial and all-party talks on the row.

Mr Salmond faced calls from the Labour leader to return to parliament to answer ten questions, including whether he had signed off the consultation details and whether previous consultations had allowed anonymous online responses.

The Scottish Parliament has been recalled from recess only three times during the 13 years of devolution – following the decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi in August 2009 and after the deaths of the then First Minister Donald Dewar in October 2000 and the Queen Mother in April 2002.

However, Ms Lamont insisted that allegations about rigging were serious enough for the First Minister to ask Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick to order MSPs to return from their two-week break to discuss the row.

Ms Lamont said: “It would appear the First Minister will go to any lengths to ensure he gets the result he wants. The people of Scotland are losing confidence in his competency to run the most important poll in 300 years.”