Spending limits at the Scottish independence referendum

At a time when many have now turned their attention to what could happen with other future referendums in the UK, we have this week laid before the Scottish Parliament our second report on the referendum on Scottish independence that took place in September last year. The report reminds us that the Scottish referendum is an excellent example of a well regulated referendum, which should be used as a template for future referendums.

This was a historic poll when Scotland voted on its position in the UK. 3,623,344 votes were cast at the referendum,(a turnout of 84.3%) and informing the debate were 42 campaigning groups that registered with us to make their cases for both sides of the argument. 21 registered to campaign for a “Yes” outcome and 21 registered to campaign for a “No” outcome.

We now know that those campaigners reported receiving donations and loans totalling £7,318,545 and reported spending a total of £6,664,980 on campaigning at the independence referendum. But in the end, the split between what was spent on the “yes” campaign and the “no” campaign was in fact very close, with a difference of just over £400,000 in total.

Our report today reviews the regulation of campaigners at the referendum and how well the regulatory framework worked in practice. It also looks more closely at the rules surrounding the funding of campaigners and their spending at the referendum. This is an area that those in my team have worked on in particular throughout the entire referendum process.

For me and my colleagues this report is the end result of months of work. We’ve looked at spending limits, worked out formulas, made recommendations to the Scottish Government and then got to see it all come together on polling day when so many went out to vote.

Following polling day, campaigners had either three months or six months to submit their campaign expense returns to us (depending on how much they spent). Once the deadline for submissions had passed, we then moved on to reviewing each of the campaigner spending returns. The information provided to us by campaigners allowed us to analyse whether the regulatory framework that we had worked with the Scottish Parliament to agree had in practice worked well.

Whilst most have now moved on to look towards the next referendum, it is crucial to look back to see what we can learn about striking the right balance between the effective regulation of spending whilst also allowing those that want to take part, the freedom to campaign. Both of these things are important in order to ensure that voters’ interests are put first.

The Edinburgh Agreement signed between the Scottish and UK Governments in October 2012 gave us at the Commission the role, subsequently brought into legislation by SIRA, of regulating campaign spending and donations at the independence referendum. The Agreement also gave us a role in providing advice to the Scottish Government on the spending limits that should apply to campaigners.

When assessing the spending limits for the independence referendum we worked on the same principles that we had set out in 2010, namely that spending limits should allow effective campaigning for all outcomes at a referendum; they should deter excessive spending; and they should not be so low as to distort reasonable campaigning behavior and affect transparency, for instance by giving campaigners an artificial incentive to split their spending between multiple campaigning bodies.

We then needed to apply these principles to the unique context of the independence referendum, taking into account the information we had about the likely shape and scale of campaigning, the Edinburgh Agreement (which had explicitly stated the need for “fairness and a level playing field”) and, where relevant, lessons learnt from the 2011 PPERA referendums. In 2011 referenda were held on the Parliamentary voting system used in the UK and on the law making powers of the National Assembly of Wales, both of which provided the most recent examples of referenda in the UK.

The Commission’s advice on the spending limits for the Scottish Independence Referendum was published on 30 January 2013. Our advice was accepted by the Scottish Government as well as the political parties and campaigners on both sides of the debate and was included in the legislation for the independence referendum.

Today’s report shows that the spending limits did allow for an effective level of campaigning for both outcomes. We now know that campaigners supporting a Yes outcome reported spending £3,118,772 in total and campaigners supporting a No outcome reported spending a total of £3,546,208, with an overall difference of just over £400,000.

For me personally, it has been an amazing experience working on such a high profile event and in so much detail. Now of course there are other electoral events to look forward to in May 2016 and beyond, which I am sure will all be as interesting to work on and will present their own challenges.

Our report, including our recommendations can be read in full here and is a very timely reminder of why regulation of referendums in Scotland and the rest of the UK is an important area for consideration.

Adrian Fryer
Senior Policy Adviser

All of the figures on spending at the referendum can be viewed easily on our website here.

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