Senior mandarins in Scotland and Whitehall are being asked to rule whether Nicola Sturgeon can continue to spend taxpayers’ money on independence after the Supreme Court said she does not have the power to stage another referendum.
Around £1.5 million has so far been spent on renewing Ms Sturgeon’s independence prospectus, according to Tory calculations, with Scottish Government civil servants permitted to help SNP ministers advance their political objectives.
But The Telegraph understands that Whitehall advice has been sought by UK ministers on whether officials and public money can continue to be allocated to a policy area the court unanimously ruled was reserved to Westminster.
In addition, the Tories will this week write to John-Paul Marks, the Scottish Government’s permanent secretary, demanding “urgent clarification” on whether the spending is lawful.
Need for ministerial direction
Donald Cameron, shadow constitution secretary, said Mr Marks had a legal duty to seek “a ministerial direction” – a formal objection to SNP ministers spending public money on an area over which they have no responsibility.
Permanent secretaries of Whitehall departments and the devolved administrations must seek a ministerial direction if they believe any spending proposal is beyond the powers of their respective ministers.
If Ms Sturgeon ordered that the spending on independence preparation continue, this would mean she would be legally accountable for the decision rather than Mr Marks.
The Telegraph disclosed earlier this year that no ministerial directions had been sought in Scotland in 15 years, raising new concerns over the politicisation of the SNP government’s civil service.
But the First Minister was forced to hold a press conference on the ruling last week at an Edinburgh hotel on an SNP-branded podium rather than at her official Bute House residence.
Ms Sturgeon refused to reallocate her £20 million referendum fund in the wake of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, saying she hoped the UK Government would perform an about-turn and allow a vote.
She also said that public funds and civil service time would be spent preparing a series of papers that together will form a new independence prospectus. Three had been published before this week’s court result.
Keith Brown, SNP deputy leader, argued that the UK Government was “scared” of allowing a referendum on Scottish independence because it knows it will lose.
But Alex Neil, a former cabinet minister in Ms Sturgeon’s government, scathingly rejected her claim that the court ruling had “galvanised” the independence movement.
Mr Neil, a former health secretary, also urged her to drop her controversial plan to use the next general election as a “de facto” referendum, warning it is “unnecessarily high-risk”.
Alex Bell, former advisor to Alex Salmond, went further by warning the election will be the nationalists’ “Culloden” and will see the movement go out with a “whimper”.
Ms Sturgeon has claimed she would have a mandate to open independence negotiations with the UK Government if the nationalist parties together achieve more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.
Mr Cameron said this was “clearly a party-political SNP tactic, not something for the apparatus of government” and it would be “scandalous” if publicly-funded civil servants continued to be used.
He said Mr Marks had “a duty to seek a ministerial direction” if he had concerns that spending was beyond the Scottish Government’s powers.
“Given there will be no referendum in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, I see no justification for the SNP Government continuing to deploy 25 civil servants – at a combined annual cost to the taxpayer of £1.5 million – to pursue the case for independence,” he said.
“At the very least Nicola Sturgeon is blurring the lines between party and government; at worst, she is misusing civil servants to work on her party’s strategy for the next UK general election.”
A Scottish Tory Freedom of Information request disclosed that 24 officials are working on Ms Sturgeon’s independence prospectus and related work, plus a senior civil servant.
A wage bill of £1.5m
Although their individual salaries were not disclosed, if each is earning the maximum amount in their respective pay bands, the total wage bill comes to £1,532,664 per year.
But James Mitchell, professor of policy at Edinburgh University, told the Sunday Times: “It is quite possible that in taking this case before the Supreme Court, the SNP Government has shot itself in the foot by making officials less willing to cross the line between party and government business.”
Writing in the same newspaper, Mr Neil said the independence movement “shouldn’t waste time crying over last week’s spilt milk” as there was still a democratic route to achieving separation.
“When it becomes blatantly obvious that independence has become the settled will of the Scottish people, Westminster will yield to our wishes,” he said.
“The job of the SNP and the wider independence movement, therefore, is to build up popular support for independence to such a level of support that we cannot be ignored or defied.”
Attacking the de facto referendum plan, Mr Bell wrote: “Loyal SNP folk think of it as a bang, a big event to marshall the troops towards. They are being led toward the destruction of their own cause.
But Mr Brown told BBC Scotland’s Sunday Show: “I think they know they’re (the UK Government) going to lose this, that’s why they are doing everything they can to twist democracy, to refuse the opportunity for the people of Scotland, because they know they’re going to lose.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said it accepted the court ruling but pledged that it will “continue to set out, through the Building a New Scotland prospectus series, what could be done with the full powers of independence, reflecting clear PfG (Programme for Government) commitments”.