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Businesses 'pressed to keep quiet'

Business leaders, economists and academics have spoken out about pressure to remain silent in the debate on Scottish independence, and the misrepresentation of information, with criticism levelled at both the UK and Scottish governments.

The interviews are contained in a new documentary, The Great British Break Up, by Channel Four's Dispatches programme which is due to be aired tomorrow night.

The programme makers contacted 50 companies and business leaders believed to have concerns over independence.

Five told the programme privately they had been contacted by the Scottish Government and said they "felt pressured to stay quiet about their views".

Of the five, one claimed they had been visited by a minister, two claimed they received a phone call from a minister and two claimed they had received a call from the First Minister's office. A further 14 claimed to know of other businesses who felt under pressure.

Gavin Hewitt, the former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said that he or senior members of his staff have met with Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, on at least six occasions over the past two years.

"He and the SNP have regularly tried to get the message to the Scotch Whisky Association that the Scotch whisky industry should stay out of the independence debate," Mr Hewitt told the programme.

"He was, I think, trying to neuter business comment. There was a genuine fear that in fact if we were seen to scupper by coming out publicly against independence, there would be retribution down the track. "

In response, the Scottish Government told Channel 4 Dispatches that Mr Hewitt's claims about Mr Robertson are "utterly false".

The programme makers also spoke to Professor Patrick Dunleavy, public policy chair at the London School of Economics, who has previously stated that the UK Government misrepresented his research when it published its analysis of the fiscal implications of independence.

The Treasury used Prof Dunleavy's figures to estimate that it could cost between £1.5 and £2.7 billion to set up an independent Scotland, but the economist later said the initial set-up costs to duplicate core Westminster functions would be around £200 million.

Speaking to Dispatches, he said: "It's very hard to describe it in polite terms actually, it's very crude, it's alarmist, it's not been checked and it rests on a whole series of, you know, false steps... that makes this a very dubious document. A dodgy dossier, you might call it."

A UK Government spokesman told the programme it had "cited several external sources" to provide context in its calculations for the set up costs.

Dispatches also examines the Scottish Government's involvement in organisations' decision to pull out of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) when the body registered as a No campaigner in the referendum earlier this year, and correspondence between the Foreign Office and its embassies stating the UK Government is "actively campaigning to secure a referendum result that will keep the United Kingdom together".

The programme comes as Nobel Laureate scientist Sir Paul Nurse and former Chief Medical Officer in Scotland Sir David Carter called for academics to be able to speak freely in the debate without fear of retribution.

Speaking at an event in Edinburgh yesterday, Sir Paul said some academics working in Scotland's universities feel inhibited about expressing their views, while Sir David said some university principals had told him they felt ''constrained and unable to speak out''.

A spokesman for Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "This programme will make uncomfortable viewing for the No campaign and the UK Government. This is not the first time Westminster has been accused of producing a 'dodgy dossier' in an attempt to mislead the public.

"This is a very serious accusation from Professor Dunleavy and it simply isn't good enough for the Treasury to blame it on 'mis-briefing'. The Treasury should be withdrawing this document immediately.

"Using the Foreign Office to lobby foreign governments to try and scare voters in Scotland is simply unacceptable. With new freedom of information requests also revealing that the Foreign Office has set up overseas engagements for the leader of the No campaign and new figures showing the UK Government has spent £300,000 on secret referendum polling, Westminster and the No campaign must answer questions over their use of Government resources.

"Business has shown huge confidence in Scotland. In contrast to the fear-mongering of the Chancellor who claimed the referendum would damage investment in Scotland, our economy is performing well with foreign investment in Scotland second only to London and the South East according to independent assessment from Ernst and Young.

"Businesses on both sides of the debate have been open in making their views known and we welcome and encourage all voices and views to the debate on Scotland's future. With numerous high profile contributors on all sides as well as town hall meetings and discussions taking place in every community, the independence referendum is an exciting opportunity for everyone in Scotland to debate our future."

A Better Together spokesman said: "It is absolutely vital that everyone has their say in the debate in our country's future.

"Businesses and other impartial voices saying that they have received phone calls or visits from SNP ministers in order to pressure them into silence is a deeply troubling development. These allegations need to be investigated urgently, independently and fully."


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