By Martin Kelly
The row over claims that the UK Government was involved in releasing market sensitive information to the BBC, in breach of financial regulations, has intensified with the news that First Minister Alex Salmond has repeated his call for an inquiry.
It has emerged that Mr Salmond has written again to Sir Jeremy Heywood, head of the UK civil service, following confirmation of the fact that the Treasury did release potentially sensitive market information to the media, ahead of a formal announcement by Royal Bank of Scotland.
Earlier today The head of the civil service rejected Mr Salmond’s claims that the Treasury had leaked sensitive data to damage the Scottish independence campaign. However the UK Treasury admitted that it had indeed informed the BBC of the RBS move, claiming the bank itself had already briefed journalists.
Commenting, the First Minister said:
“The head of the UK civil service has confirmed that the Treasury did indeed release sensitive information regarding RBS to the media in advance of any formal announcement.
“That is an extraordinary development which merits an urgent and thorough investigation, given that it appears to be a clear and serious breach of both financial market rules and pre-referendum guidelines. We need to know which minister or official authorised the release of this information, the timing of that release and to which outlets.”
The row follows news that RBS was preparing for a Yes vote in the independence referendum by registering its business south of the border. The news was broken by the BBC in an online article which revealed the broadcaster had been informed of the bank’s plan by officials at the UK Treasury.
The BBC report led to claims in other media outlets that independence would lead to an exodus of financial jobs which would hit the Scottish economy. These claims were used by the anti-independence campaign which said it was evidence of the dangers of a Yes vote.
The media reports forced the bank to issue an official statement to its employees denying the contingency plan would hit jobs. In the statement, RBS Chairman Ross McEwan told staff that the bank has no intention of moving operations or jobs from Scotland following a Yes vote in next week’s referendum.
The RBS CEO apologised to staff who had learned of the contingency through the media, and added: “It is always my aim to ensure we inform our staff about such issues at the earliest opportunity. I know many of you will have already heard about this first in the media. My apologies for that, on this occasion this was unavoidable.”
The memo was highlighted by Alex Salmond in a radio interview after the BBC had suggested the contingency move by RBS could have a significant impact on the Scottish economy.
The episode also led to an extraordinary exchange involving BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson and Mr Salmond at an international news conference yesterday when the BBC reporter was heard heckling the First Minister off-camera after Mr Salmond had responded to a question from the correspondent.
In his response, Mr Salmond had highlighted his concerns over the role of the BBC in the release of the RBS plan prior to the markets themselves being informed.
The exchange, which was released on youtube has been viewed by over 210,000 people.
Despite his question being answered by Mr Salmond, a bruised Robinson bizarrely claimed on that evening’s BBC news that the First Minister had refused to answer his question.
Meanwhile, in other developments it has emerged that statements issued by some businesses, which appear to suggest prices would increase in an independent Scotland, have been prompted by Prime Minister David Cameron. Downing Street has admitted that the Conservative leader summoned leaders of large retail chains to Downing Street in order to urge them to issue statements against independence.
The news followed reports that during his recent visit to Scotland, a Downing Street official called several Scottish businesses in an attempt at persuading them to issue similar anti-independence statements. The BBC is this evening reporting that a letter is to be issued which has been signed by several retail leaders.
Commenting on reports of Mr Cameron’s plea to retailers, Mr Salmond said:
“This is further evidence of the lengths to which the Westminster establishment are going to in an effort to spread scare stories about business activity in Scotland following a Yes vote next week.
“That includes the reports that the Prime Minister met with supermarket bosses in Downing Street yesterday to try and persuade them to comment on their price structure in Scotland – again, an extraordinary revelation given the strict controls on retailers’ pricing.
“Westminster’s scare tactics are being exposed one by one – the people of Scotland are seeing straight through them, and will not be cowed or bullied, as they continue to move towards a Yes vote in huge numbers.”
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