Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010

SNP deny 'rigging' referendum

Union and Saltire flags
All three main opposition parties are against the referendum

The Scottish government has denied claims that it is trying to "rig" the bill on a proposed referendum on Scottish independence.

Labour made the allegations after it emerged the SNP does not want to use the usual overseeing body, but plan to set up a special organisation.

But Education Minister Mike Russell has insisted the Scottish Referendum Commission would be independent.

He added it would be responsible to the Scottish Parliament, not ministers.

Normally, the Electoral Commission oversees all elections called by the Westminster parliament, and monitors Scottish Parliament elections too.

But it does not have an automatic statutory role for referenda called by the devolved institutions, and the government wants to create a new body - the Scottish Referendum Commission - to monitor its ballot.

It's like ordering the referee off the pitch
Pauline McNeill MSP
Labour, Culture and Constitution

Mr Russell explained: "The discussions which have gone on show how much we respect the Electoral Commission but a Scottish election needs to be regulated in a particular way, not by a Westminster body, and that's the issue."

Mr Russell added: "The aim from the very beginning was to get the proper body, that was independent, that reported to the parliament and which had the tightest set of rules."

But Scottish Labour's spokeswoman on culture and the constitution Pauline McNeill said the SNP was trying to "rig" the referendum.

She said: " "It's like ordering the referee off the pitch."

Extracts from correspondence between the Electoral Commission and Scottish government officials

Email from the Scottish government, 13 March, 2009 - "We are now looking at what the question in an independence referendum might be and at some point will need to show we have properly assessed it for intelligibility, neutrality, etc."

Electoral Commission minute, 22 September, 2009 - "Scottish government officials confirmed... that there was currently no provision to consult any organisation as to the intelligibility of the referendum question."

Electoral Commission minutes, 6 November, 2009 - "There seems little regard to the remit and role of what the Scottish Referendum Commission would actually do."

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Explain why

The Scottish Conservatives accused First Minister Alex Salmond of trying to dream up new ways of rigging a referendum.

Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Mike Rumbles said: "If the SNP want to hand the constitutional future of Scotland to a different organisation, they need to explain why."

It has also been revealed through a Freedom of Information request that the Electoral Commission had concerns over the wording of the referendum questions and the timescale towards the poll.

The draft bill on the independence referendum is expected to be published on Friday.

If it is passed, the vote could take place as soon as 30 November.

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