SCVO chief defended after LibDem leader asks Sime to quit

SCVO chief defended after LibDem leader asks Sime to quit
Civil Society, by Niki May Young

The convenor of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has heartily defended chief executive Martin Sime after the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats urged him to reconsider his position as head of the umbrella body, over claims of political bias ahead of the Scottish referendum on independence.

Willie Rennie MSP, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, wrote to SCVO convenor – effectively chair of its board – Alison Elliot saying that Sime has "displayed poor judgement by involving himself in a highly polarised debate on matters of process regarding the constitutional referendum", and had allowed the Scottish National Party (SNP) to "use the SCVO as a front organisation to make its case for a second question".

He said that an email discussion between Sime and the chief adviser to SNP leader Alex Salmond, which pointed Sime to a recent Unite poll showing its members favoured a second question that would allow the possibility of ‘devo max’*, was "hard evidence" that Sime is working closely with the SNP government on the referendum, which will take place in 2014. Sime used the poll in a blog he wrote for the SCVO in July.

Rennie said this adds to what he calls Sime’s previous attempt to undermine the launch of the cross-party Better Together campaign, which is in support of Scotland staying part of the UK.

"It seems that Martin Sime’s St Andrews University friendship with Alex Salmond has continued," Rennie declared in a separate statement published on the Scottish Liberal Democrats website.

‘No intention’ of asking Sime to resign

But responding to Rennie’s letter this morning Elliot said that she has "no intention of asking Martin to resign", and advised the SCVO’s involvement in the referendum debate is part of civil society’s role in a healthy democracy.

"I consider your allegations preposterous, your interpretation of the incidents fanciful and your attempt to interfere in the business of an independent organisation unworthy of a public leader," responded Elliot.

"The poll which the Future of Scotland published last month indicates that there is an appetite among the public at present for a wide debate about Scotland’s future, something which should be no threat to the seasoned politicians who lead the two referendum campaigns.
"SCVO is not a front for anyone, nor will it be told by outsiders what it will or will not debate or how it should conduct its business," she concluded.

Sime: It’s a non-story

Sime, who has been CEO of the umbrella body since 1991, himself responded to the accusations, saying: "SCVO regularly engages with special advisers and representatives of all political parties in Scotland. It is part and parcel of our policy influencing work which is always bipartisan. Receiving an email from Alex Salmond’s special adviser flagging up a public document is, quite frankly, a non-story.

"I would also clarify that rather than campaigning for any particular result, both SCVO and the Future of Scotland campaign want to see a more open debate about all of the options."

Discussion over the referendum on the independence of Scotland has been highly visible in SCVO’s communications, with 149 items relating to the referendum on the body’s website.

In July Sime published a blog on the SCVO website in which he referred to the poll in question, saying: "Despite the endless demands for a single question from Cameron, Moore and Labour, the public think otherwise." He then quoted results that found that 56 per cent of people support the inclusion of a second question on increasing the powers of the Scottish Parliament on the ballot paper and added that: "The politicians have clearly lost touch with their supporters. This temperature check of public opinion clearly shows that the Yes and Better Together campaigns are out of kilter with what people want."

Rennie has been leader of the the Scottish Liberal Democrats since May 2011. He told this morning that he was "not surprised but still disappointed with Alison Elliot’s response" to his call for Sime to reconsider his position, and added that he would be "happy to meet her to discuss".