ALEX Salmond’s referendum plans were dubbed “utterly meaningless” last night after it emerged his government’s consultation on the independence poll was open to multiple, anonymous responses.
Labour said the consultation could be hijacked and added to “the feeling that Alex Salmond is trying to rig the referendum” after strategy minister Bruce Crawford admitted individuals could contribute without disclosing their identity.
The revelation that online respondents can make as many contributions as they like, without giving a name, email or home address leaves the process open to abuse by Salmond’s supporters, who could skew the results in favour of the First Minister’s approach, Labour argued.
The outcome of the SNP consultation will play a crucial role in determining when the referendum is held, if a second devo-max option is included and whether the vote is extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, as the SNP wants.
Crawford said all responses would be accepted in an answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Labour, which said a single individual could enter the same response repeatedly to add greater weighting to a particular view.
Patricia Ferguson, Labour’s constitutional spokesman, said: “The Scottish Government’s answer suggests anyone can put in as many responses to their consultation as many times as they like. This makes this most important consultation completely and utterly meaningless. It is not just open to abuse but appears to be inviting abuse.”
In the past, the SNP has been criticised for not doing enough to discourage so-called “cybernats”, web-users who hide behind anonymity to promote independence online – often in abusive terms.
“Considering the problem the SNP have with their cybernats, the likelihood of this consultation being distorted for the SNP’s own ends is enormous,” Ferguson claimed. “This will add to the feeling Salmond is trying to rig the referendum. All along we have argued the running of this referendum must be independent and must be, and be seen to be, above reproach.
“Instead, even the Scottish Government’s consultation looks more like something from a banana republic than the 21st century democracy that Scotland is.”
The Scotland Office has recently completed its own consultation into the independence referendum.
In contrast to the Scottish Government’s consultation, the Scotland Office version made it a requirement for contributors to provide an email address, if they do not respond to the exercise by post. Having provided an email address, they could request their contributions remain private.
In a further setback for Salmond, early analysis of the Scotland Office responses has revealed 70 per cent believed the referendum should be held “sooner rather than later”.
Only 22 per cent of the 3,000 organisations and individuals who took part agreed with Salmond that the vote should be delayed until autumn 2014.
The UK government wants to hold the referendum much earlier claiming that delaying the vote will create uncertainty and harm business.
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has published a timetable showing it would be possible to hold the vote as early September 2013.
Yesterday, he said: “The overwhelming public support for an early vote sends a strong signal that holding off on the decision is as unpopular as it is damaging.”
On Labour’s claims, Crawford’s spokesman said: “The analysis will focus on the range of views expressed. If multiple identical responses – anonymous or otherwise – are received, that will be fully set out in the analysis. This is in line with what the previous administration did when it received identical or duplicate responses to the Smoking in Public Places consultation in 2004.”