Sturgeon diverts officials from Covid recovery to focus on 'self-serving' independence sales pitch

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Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister's Questions on Thursday - Fraser Bremner/Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister's Questions on Thursday - Fraser Bremner/Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon has ordered 11 civil servants costing taxpayers £700,000 to oversee the planning of a new sales pitch for an independent Scotland, it has emerged.

A Freedom of Information (FoI) response by the Scottish Government disclosed that a "coordinating team" has been established to draw up the revised prospectus.

Ms Sturgeon has given them responsibility for pulling together work from "other officials across a range of portfolios”.

The FoI response did not specify the number of additional civil servants in this latter group or how much they cost the public purse.

But Holyrood's Unionist parties said the expenditure on the core team alone, whose combined salaries are estimated to be about £700,000 per year, was "scandalous" at a time when the country is trying to recover from the pandemic.

The disclosure came as an expert analysis of an independent Scotland's finances warned that it would likely have a "large budget deficit", which "may make spending cuts or tax rises necessary".

David Phillips, an economist for the impartial Institute for Fiscal Studies, highlighted the "loss of revenue transfers from the rest of the UK" thanks to the Barnett formula. He warned that research shows the creation of a hard border with England would hit trade and GDP.

Blueprint to 'guide' Scottish voters

The First Minister announced last September that she had ordered her officials to start work on a new blueprint for an independent Scotland to "guide" voters in the referendum she wants to hold before the end of next year.

She and Alex Salmond unveiled a 650-page White Paper on independence before the 2014 referendum. However, key sections have since been discredited and the SNP has abandoned its plan to share the pound in a formal currency union.

Last weekend, Ms Sturgeon said Scotland passing the peak of the omicron wave "clears the way" for her to introduce legislation for a second independence referendum. A timetable is to be decided in the coming weeks.

But the announcement prompted a backlash from the struggling hospitality industry. Boris Johnson has also made clear he will not transfer the necessary powers for another referendum to take place.

Ms Sturgeon has said she will organise her own vote and challenge the UK Government to block it in the courts, but constitutional affairs are reserved to Westminster.

In the FoI response, the Scottish Government claimed it was “unable to provide” the budget allocated for the new independence drive, but did provide some details of staff involved.

“The work to prepare an independence prospectus will be coordinated by a team in the Constitution and Cabinet Directorate, but will draw on other officials across a range of portfolios who will contribute to varying extents as part of their wider responsibilities in supporting the Scottish Government," the response said.

“The coordinating team currently comprises one senior civil servant and 10 other officials (five graded C2, four graded C1 and one graded B3).”

Details elsewhere on the Scottish Government website show that, in August last year, grade C2 officials were paid up to £73,935.

C1 officials were paid up to £61,006 and those at B3 up to £46,599. The most recent average wage published for senior civil servants was £100,011.

Prospectus branded 'outrageous' and 'scandalous'

Donald Cameron, the Scottish Tories' shadow constitution secretary, said: “It’s outrageous that the SNP Government are devoting huge resources to their push for another divisive independence referendum, when all their focus should be on Scotland’s pandemic recovery.

“It’s scandalous – yet very telling – that they won’t come clean on how much this self-serving project is costing, but even the admission that 11 civil servants are working on this full-time will appal ordinary Scots."

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: "It is scandalous that when patients are waiting in pain, when kids have missed out on life qualifying education and when NHS staff are on their knees, the SNP and Greens are prattling about on their ridiculous fantasy. They are absolutely off their rockers.”

In an analysis for the Economics Observatory, Mr Phillips forecast that Scotland's deficit would be six per cent of GDP in the middle of this decade, even without any contribution to UK debt servicing costs - a level he said "would not be sustainable".

"Interest rates would at some point rise without a credible plan to reduce the budget deficit," he warned, noting a separate Scotland would not immediately have a central bank to buy up government-issued debt.

Mike Russell, the SNP president, said: "This detailed work will ensure that the people of Scotland can make an informed choice when voting in the referendum and are presented with the choice of a better and fairer future in an independent Scotland."

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