10 SPENDING LIMITS FOR PARTICIPANTS IN THE REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN
10.1 Section 3 of 'Your Scotland, Your Referendum' set out the Scottish Government's proposals in relation to campaign rules - that is, the rules that are intended to ensure that the referendum campaigns are run in a fair and transparent manner. This section of the consultation document addressed:
- The need for campaign rules
- Which individuals or groups should be able to participate in the referendum campaign
- The issue of public funding and proposed spending limits for participants
- Referendum expenses, donations and returns to the Electoral Commission.
10.2 The penultimate question in the consultation document, Question 8, sought respondents' views on the proposed spending limits.
Question 8: What are your views on the proposed spending limits?
The Scottish Government's proposals
10.3 The Scottish Government's proposals seek to ensure that the referendum campaign is run in a fair and transparent manner. The proposed rules are based on UK legislation, although the spending limits have been tailored to the specific context of the referendum.
10.4 The consultation document proposed that the Electoral Commission would have responsibility for policing the rules and would report to the Scottish Parliament.
Comments on the spending limits
10.5 The number of responses at Question 8 was among the lowest in the consultation, with 18,217 respondents making a comment. Only one of the campaigns made a comment in relation to this question: the Lanarkshire campaign affirmed that limits should be applied and that the proposals contained in the consultation document seemed reasonable.
10.6 Among those who submitted a response at this question, around 6,300 either stated they were unable to make further comment (often because they felt they had insufficient understanding of the specific proposals), or they made a comment which did not relate to campaign spending.
10.7 Around 12,000 respondents expressed a view on the specific issue of campaign spending. Of these:
- Around three in five respondents made a comment either in support of the proposed spending limits as set out in the consultation document, or in support of the general principle of having spending limits. However, it was not always possible to distinguish between this 'in principle' agreement that limits should be in place and support for the specific proposals.
- Around one in five respondents made a statement which suggested that they disagreed with the proposals regarding spending limits. However, again, it was not always possible to ascertain whether these individuals disagreed with the principle of spending being limited, or with the specific proposals.
10.8 As noted, comments made at Question 8 frequently focused on the basic principles which should underpin the spending arrangements, rather than on the specific proposals set out within the consultation document. It was suggested that spend should be "equitable", and that there must be high levels of transparency and accountability. Related to this latter point, there was a feeling that clear processes must be in place throughout the referendum campaign. A few respondents suggested that any 'rule breaking' on spend must be addressed as it happens, rather than as part of a retrospective review of whether the participants had kept spend within the prescribed limits.
10.9 Respondents who offered such comments generally wanted clear spending limits in place. However, a contrasting view - expressed less often - was that those campaigning should be able to spend whatever they had available and whatever they considered necessary to make their case to the Scottish electorate.
10.10 Other issues raised by respondents who recorded their broad disagreement or who disagreed with specific aspects of the proposals included:
- The overall spend suggested is too high, should be kept as low as possible, or is a waste of public money.
- The overall spend is too low or should not be restricted when such an important decision is being made.
- Although raised less frequently, that allowing each party represented at the Scottish Parliament to spend up to £250,000 would advantage the anti-independence campaign because there are more pro-union than pro-independence parties. Those who raised this issue generally suggested that overall equality of spend between the two campaign positions must be ensured.
10.11 Other issues raised by respondents were that:
- In accord with the proposals in the consultation document, respondents felt there should be no grants of public money to those who wish to campaign.
- The current administration is already using, and will continue to use, Scottish Government resources (particularly in the form of Scottish Government staff) to promote their case. The respondents who made this comment questioned the appropriateness of this.
- The proposed limits would only apply to the regulated period leading up to the referendum. Respondents raising this issue sometimes went on to suggest that the regulating and monitoring of spend must start straightaway.
- Consideration should be given to whether donations from outwith Scotland should be permitted. Those who raised this issue generally felt they should not.
10.12 Finally, a recurring theme was that, irrespective of the imposition of spending limits, a fair campaign will not be achieved unless measures are taken to ensure that media coverage is even and balanced. Respondents' concerns tended to focus on the broadcast media more generally and the BBC in particular and usually suggested that these organisations demonstrate a pro-Unionist bias.
Email: Alison Stout