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By a Newsnet reporter

The Scottish Government has revealed that it received more than 26,000 responses to its public consultation on the independence referendum.  

The figure exceeds the estimate of 21,000 responses given in May this year by the Scottish Government at the end of the four month consultation period.  Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hailed the figures as "a fantastic response from the people of Scotland".

Full details of the responses are yet to be published, but over 160 organisations, including the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Electoral Commission, the National Union of Students and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, have submitted responses to the historic consultation.

Earlier this year the anti-independence parties at Westminster also held a public consultation on the Scottish independence referendum.  The two month long consultation attracted fewer than 3,000 responses. 

The results of the Westminster led consultation were strongly critcised by First Minister Alex Salmond after it came to light that over 25% of the replies were identical responses from a Labour website.

Mr Salmond said: "If you have a consultation exercise which is so puny and tiny it can get flooded by multiple responses or identical responses from the same website, it discredits it completely."

Responses to the Scottish government's consultation are currently being verified by an independent organisation, a key difference between both consultations.  Earlier this year the Scottish Labour party boasted of having made bogus submissions in the name of cartoon characters such as Donald Duck - such submissions will be rooted out.

A key issue in the Scottish Government's consultation was whether voters should be given a choice between a simple yes or no to independence, or whether there should also be an additional question asking voters if they were in favour of increased powers for Holyrood - so-called "Devo Max".

Although First Minister Alex Salmond has already said his preferred question for the referendum is: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?", when the consultation was launched the First Minister said that if the consultation showed there was widespread support for devo-max, then it would be "only fair and democratic" to include it on the ballot paper.

The Scottish Government has said that it will make a decision on the issue of a "devo max question" based on the results of the analysis of consultation responses.  The full analysis is expected to be published in early autumn.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "This is a fantastic response from the people of Scotland, with more than 26,000 contributions to the consultation - over 10 times the number that responded to the UK government's consultation on the same issue.

"This positive level of response sends a clear signal that the people of Scotland believe the Scottish Parliament is the place to decide the terms and timing of the referendum - and that these should not be imposed by Westminster.

"The responses from organisations already been made public show a lively debate around issues such as whether there should be a second question on the ballot paper.

"They also show support for votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. We set out our preferred question in the consultation document but have always said we would listen to the view expressed in the responses we received."

Last week, Head of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) called for the views of the people to be heard and insisted that any second option on the ballot paper could not be excluded.

John Downie, The Director of Public Affairs in the SCVO, questioned the anti-independence parties tactics after an attempt was made by them to hi-jack the referendum process.  Mr Downie wrote that it was "yet another attempt to narrow the debate about our future"

The criticism followed a bid by Unionist parties to force consideration of their own preferred ballot paper question.  The move was rejected by the Electoral Commission who said the formation of a question was for the "relevant Government" to carry out.

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