New spending limits also proposed by Electoral Commission
The Scottish Government has confirmed it will change the intended question put before voters in next year’s referendum after the Electoral Commission warned it was too leading.
The elections watchdog, which published its long-awaited assessment this morning, said the question advocated by the SNP government – ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ – was biased in favour of a ‘yes’ outcome.
Instead the Commission, which tested four questions, recommended a more neutral option – ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ – be used on the ballot paper for next year’s referendum.
It comes as the independent body also laid out recommended campaign spending limits that would allow each campaign to spend double that which the Scottish Government proposed in last January’s consultation, ‘Your Scotland, Your Referendum’.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the Scottish Government will abide by both findings, while welcoming the Commission’s calls for the UK and Scottish governments to agree a joint position on what would follow the referendum as way of clarity for voters weighing up whether to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
Ms Sturgeon asked the watchdog last November to consider the wording and intelligibility of the question.
A combination of one-to-one interviews and focus groups across Scotland found the government’s question to be “clear, simple, concise and to the point”, though “the formulation ‘Do you agree…’ was commonly felt by research participants to be biased towards a ‘yes’ outcome and potentially leading people towards a ‘yes’ vote”, according to the Commission’s report.
A final decision will fall to the Scottish Parliament, though the Scottish Government has confirmed the revised question will be the one put before MSPs.
Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, John McCormick, said: “We have rigorously tested the proposed question, speaking to a wide range of people across Scotland. Any referendum question must be, and be seen to be, neutral. People told us that they felt the words ‘Do you agree’ could lead voters towards voting ‘yes’.
“People had a clear understanding that ‘independent country’ meant being separate from the UK. But they did want factual information in advance about what will happen after the referendum. We’re asking the UK and Scottish Government to provide that clarity and we’ll then make sure it gets to voters as part of our public awareness campaign.”
As part of the Edinburgh Agreement the Electoral Commission was also asked to advise on spending limits.
Last October, First Minister Alex Salmond told the SNP conference in Perth tight restrictions should be in place to prevent the referendum being “bought and sold for English gold”.
It followed proposals by the Scottish Government to limit the two campaigns to £750,000, each political party to £250,000, other permitted participants to £50,000, and other individuals or bodies to £5,000.
Under the Commission’s proposals, however, Yes Scotland and Better Together would be able to spend up to £1.5m in the 16-week period before the independence referendum, while limits for political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament would be based on their share of the 2011 ballot.
Each political party would be able to spend as follows: SNP (£1,344,000), Labour (£834,000), Scottish Conservatives (£396,000), Scottish Liberal Democrats (£201,000), and Scottish Greens (£150,000).
“We are recommending limits for political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament based on their actual share of the vote at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. This will allow each of the parties to campaign on a similar scale as they did at the 2011 election in putting across their party messages. The total cumulative value of the limits for the parties that have expressed support for each outcome at the referendum will be similar,” said a report presented by the Commission this morning.
The Scottish Government confirmed it will accept all recommendations of the Commission on the question itself as well as campaign spending limits.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I would like to thank the Electoral Commission for the work they have done on testing our proposed referendum question and giving advice on campaign spending limits. I am pleased to confirm we will accept their recommendations in full.
“I am particularly delighted with the conclusion the Electoral Commission has reached on the question. While its view is that our proposed question was clear, simple and easy to understand, I am nevertheless happy to accept their recommended change.
“Their advice is based on rigorous testing and we will submit the Electoral Commission’s recommended question – ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ – to the Scottish Parliament as part of the Referendum Bill.
“I am also pleased with the spending limits proposed by the Electoral Commission – they deliver a level playing field and will allow a fair and balanced debate on both sides. I am also pleased that the Commission has modified the position set out in their response to our consultation in March, as this would have resulted in an imbalance between the two sides of the campaign.
“We have always said that Scotland’s referendum will be run to the highest international standards of fairness and transparency, and the Electoral Commission plays a vital role in that.
“The Scottish Parliament will take the final decision on the wording of the question and campaign spending limits as part of its consideration of the Referendum Bill which reinforces that this is truly a referendum made in Scotland.
“I also welcome the Electoral Commission calls for both the Scottish and UK Governments to clarify what process will follow the referendum if most voters vote ‘Yes’ or most voters vote ‘No’ vote. The Electoral Commission rightly point out this is in line with the Edinburgh Agreement.
“I have been calling for the UK Government to enter discussions to allow the voters to be better informed, but so far they have refused. This would not be pre-negotiation on the terms of independence but vital information for voters that will allow them to make an informed choice in autumn 2014. Given the Scottish Government is accepting all recommendations from the Electoral Commission I would hope that the UK Government is prepared to do the same.”