More calls for SNP to scrap referendum as costs near £12m

FIRST Minister Alex Salmond faced more calls to abandon his referendum bill yesterday, as new details emerged of the mounting costs of the SNP's flagship policy.

The challenge came from Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, who accused the Scottish Government of wasting nearly 12 million on the referendum bill and National Conversation.

Mr Gray later published evidence which suggests that 13 civil servants are being paid more than 750,000 a year to "help break up the UK".

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This included two – Gerald Byrne, a head of division, and David Rodgers, a deputy director – who earn up to 141,000 each in salaries and benefits. Another 57,000 was spent on events, 25,000 on leaflets and almost 100,000 on external groups.

It has also emerged that 3,114 had been spent to fly external affairs minister Mike Russell and civil servants to Brussels to launch a National Conversation paper on foreign affairs.

The total cost of the National Conversation to date is 1.8m, despite deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon claiming in September 2007 that it would only cost 48,000.

The SNP has already admitted the referendum bill itself will cost about 9m if it is passed by MSPs. However, the Nationalists face growing pressure to drop the bill as Unionist parties have indicated they will vote it down. Even the SNP leadership has privately admitted it will not get a referendum before the 2011 Holyrood election.

Going on the attack on the issue at First Minister's Questions, Mr Gray said 12m should not be spent on "Mr Salmond's vanity projects". When Mr Salmond refused to state how much the bill would cost, Mr Gray said: "This is meant to be the First Minister's flagship policy and he can't tell us how much it is going to cost.

"The figure is around 9m – the SNP gave the game away earlier this week."

For that money, Mr Gray said, Scotland could have 300 more teachers, 600 more nursery teachers or two new primary schools. He added: "I know what most Scots would rather have."

The First Minister was rebuked by Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson for not answering a question on how much the National Conversation will cost. And he was also chided for using insulting language in relation to comments about former prime minister Baroness Thatcher.

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During a clash between the two leaders over the disclosure earlier this week that Mr Salmond's dentist was twice an invited guest at official functions, the First Minister referred to a visit by Lady Thatcher to Gordon Brown in Downing Street. He said: "If it came to the choice of inviting a dentist to Bute House (the First Minister's official residence] or inviting Margaret Thatcher, I will take the dentist any day of the week."

But Mr Gray also blundered when he said the result of a referendum was "already known".

The First Minister then accused Labour and the Tories of running scared of the answer a referendum might bring. "They are frightened of the verdict of the people," he said.