Scottish independence: SNP accepts call to change referendum question

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

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Media caption,

Scottish Electoral Commissioner John McCormick says there has been a rigorous testing process

The Scottish government has agreed to change the wording of its independence referendum question, after concerns it may lead people to vote 'Yes'.

SNP ministers wanted to ask voters the yes/no question: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" in autumn 2014.

The wording of the question will now be altered to: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The change was suggested by the Electoral Commission watchdog.

Final approval of the referendum arrangements rests with the Scottish Parliament.

In a report on the issue, the commission, which has been testing the government's proposed wording, said concern had been raised over the phrase "Do you agree" and said more "neutral" language was needed.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish government would accept in full the commission's recommendations, which also include increases in the campaign spending limits proposed by the Scottish government in the run-up to the referendum.

That would see the cap on the two main opposing campaigns - Yes Scotland and Better Together - raised from £750,000 to £1.5m, while there would also be changes in the cap for political parties.

Ms Sturgeon said: "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.

"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."

For the UK government, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore added: "We accept the commission's advice on the clarity of the question, the funding levels for the referendum and on the clarity of the process.

"The UK government has always acted on the advice of the Electoral Commission for every previous referendum."

Media caption,

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accepted all the commission's recommendations

Scottish ministers also welcomed a call from the Electoral Commission to clarify the process which would follow the referendum result, under a joint agreement by both governments, to avoid confusion.

UK ministers said they had already begun setting out views on the post-referendum process, and Prime Minister David Cameron said he would not ''pre-negotiate Scotland's exit from the United Kingdom".

Yes Scotland and Better Together also welcomed the commission's findings.

Scottish Electoral Commissioner John McCormick said voters were entitled to have confidence in the result of the referendum.

He 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'."

Calling on the Scottish and UK governments to work together to provide more clarity on the referendum, the commissioner added: "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."

On campaign spending limits - which cover the "regulated", 16-week period of the campaign before the poll is held - the commission based its recommendations partly on information it now had on the likely shape and scale of campaigning.

Mr McCormick said: "The campaign spending limits we have recommended are designed to ensure there are no barriers to voters hearing from campaigners in what will be a historic vote for the people of Scotland.

"We have listened carefully to the views of the Scottish government and to campaigners, and have set out proposals based on our principles that spending limits should allow effective campaigning for all outcomes, deter excessive spending and encourage transparency."

Media caption,

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore: "What really that we have a referendum that is fair''

In drawing its findings on the question, commission spoke to voters across Scotland to see whether they could easily understand and answer the question and took advice from "plain language" experts, politicians, academics and others.

The question and spending limits will form part of a Referendum Bill to be introduced to the Scottish Parliament in March.

The legislation is expected to be approved by MSPs without any major issues, given the SNP's overall majority at Holyrood.

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