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  By a Newsnet reporter

With the Prime Minister reportedly visiting Scotland this week, Scottish National Party Depute Leader and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has stepped up the SNP’s challenge for David Cameron to agree to a live television debate with First Minister Alex Salmond on Scottish independence.

Mr Cameron has refused to engage in a debate with the First Minister, however the SNP argue that it is only proper that the man who wishes to remain the Prime Minister of Scotland explains to the Scottish people why he should keep the role, despite the fact his party has only a single Scottish MP.

The Prime Minister's office has reportedly suggested that Mr Salmond should debate with Alistair Darling, the official head of the Better Together campaign.  However critics have pointed out that Mr Darling is a back-bench MP representing a party which is not in office, and which has no influence on UK Government policy.

Ms Sturgeon pointed to the "utterly contradictory" reasons for the Prime Minister refusing to debate with Mr Salmond.  Wednesday’s Herald newspaper reported Mr Cameron's spokesman rejecting participation in a debate because: "It's for people in Scotland to lead the debate on the Union."

However the Scottish Government point out that case against independence is being led by the UK Government from Downing Street.  It is understood that the UK Government campaign is being co-ordinated by Chancellor George Osborne.

It was reported last year that “Whitehall’s full intellectual might is now engaged” in the campaign to oppose independence, and that the Treasury is spearheading the “co-ordinated push” with Sir Nicholas MacPherson, the department's top civil servant, chairing a group of permanent secretaries. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, is also chairing another group liaising with ministers.  

The UK Government has established 13 policy "work streams" in order to counter Scottish independence. Five involve the Treasury and cover the economic performance of Scotland, currency and monetary policy, tax and spending, financial services and banking, and debt and borrowing.

The Downing Street-led operation was established with a view to a paper being published by the UK Government against independence on 13 policy areas every month in 2013. So far, however, only one paper has been published, in February – which backfired when one of its authors and the UK Government’s own legal expert, Professor James Crawford, said that the Scottish Government's timescale for Scotland becoming an independent country in March 2016 is "realistic".

At the end of February, the Scotsman newspaper reported that a leaked Treasury document against independence was having to be rewritten because the UK Government were basing their case for the Union on Britain's triple-A credit rating.  The credit ratings agency Moody's stripped the UK of its triple-A rating in February.  The second major credit ratings company, Fitch, has announced it is to carry out a review of the UK's rating, and it is expected to announce a downgrade later this month.

A YouGov poll commissioned by the SNP showed that over two-thirds of people in Scotland believe Mr Cameron should reverse his position and agree to take part in a head-to-head TV debate with Mr Salmond.  Only 19% agreed with Mr Cameron's position.

Speaking ahead of Mr Cameron's reported visit this week, Ms Sturgeon said:

"David Cameron's reasons for ducking a debate with the First Minister are utterly contradictory. If the case against independence is to be made by 'people in Scotland' – as the Prime Minister's spokesperson claims – why on earth is the UK Government's entire Whitehall machine focused on spearheading a 'co-ordinated push' for the No campaign from London?

"The reality is that the No campaign is Tory-led and Downing Street-led. The Prime Minister should be honest about that, and therefore reverse his position and agree to a live head-to-head TV debate with Alex Salmond – as over two-thirds of Scots want him to do.

"In my view, first and foremost in such a referendum debate should be the UK Government’s brutal welfare cuts – and how David Cameron can possibly justify the Westminster system imposing iniquitous measures such as the Bedroom Tax on Scotland when over 90 per cent of Scottish MPs voted against it.

"David Cameron should use his visit to Scotland to speak for himself and agree to a head-to-head debate with Alex Salmond – if he does not, the conclusion we can take is that he is incapable of defending Westminster's attacks on working families and some of our most vulnerable citizens to the people of Scotland."

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