Scotland politics

Scottish independence: Referendum purdah to begin before Holyrood recess

Scottish Parliament chamber
Image caption The Scottish Parliament will sit for a three week period in the summer

The independence referendum's purdah period, which prevents government from announcing new legislation, will begin when Holyrood is still sitting.

The plan will form part of the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill, which has cleared a key committee stage.

Purdah will start on 21 August 2014, but Holyrood will not go into recess until 23 August.

The people of Scotland will vote on their country's future on 18 September next year.

They will be asked a straight yes/no question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

In their Stage 1 report on the bill, members of the Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee said they were confident it would provide a "suitable framework" for the historic vote.

The legislation, which contains key aspects of how the referendum is to be conducted, proposes a 16-week formal campaign period, during which limits will apply to the amount of money registered campaigners can spend.

It also says the referendum will be overseen by the independent Electoral Commission watchdog, which is responsible for regulating campaign rules and informing the public about the referendum.

The committee's convenor, Bruce Crawford, said a wide range of witnesses had been interviewed and members had considered "many specific aspects of this detailed and important legislation".

He added: "While we identified some issues that require clarification or amendment, the whole committee was able to agree that the bill provides an appropriate foundation for next year's referendum.

"Indeed, the Electoral Commission told us it was 'a strong piece of legislation' able to deliver a referendum 'that truly puts the voter first'.

"Although committee members clearly differ on what the outcome of the referendum should be, there was a high degree of consensus on how it should be conducted - and I am pleased that almost all the report's conclusions were unanimous."

'Bad tone'

The Scottish Green Party welcomed the committee's findings but its leader, Patrick Harvie, expressed concern that there would be an overlap between the final days of parliament sitting and the beginning of purdah.

He said: "This could undermine fair and open debate at Holyrood in the final week before we break for the last month of campaigning, setting a bad tone for the final stretch.

"We must get such details resolved."

In its report, the committee said it had highlighted the purdah period to the parliamentary authorities.

In other findings, MSPs endorsed a section of the bill which allows local results to be declared before the national result, and said they were "generally satisfied" with the rules on donations.

However, the committee invited the Scottish government to consider further whether a lower threshold for reporting donations would be merited, and whether there should be greater public access to information about donations during the referendum campaign.

In their report, MSPs on the committee said they were "encouraged to hear" that the UK and Scottish Governments were having talks after the the Electoral Commission said voters should be provided with information about what would happen after the referendum, in the event of a Yes or a No vote.

A Scotland Office spokesman said: "Civil servants from the UK and Scottish Governments are working together to produce written material, agreed by both Governments, that answers the questions set out by the Commission."

He added: "These talks between officials are in no way negotiations about independence."

The Scottish Parliament is expected to debate Stage 1 of the bill on 12 September.