THE umbrella body for Scottish charities has been criticised for rebuking its own regulator over an alleged gag on involvement in the independence campaign.

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, whose chief executive last year denied being too close to Alex Salmond, yesterday accused the regulator of overstepping its remit by threatening to sti-fle debate.

It claimed that draft guidelines issued last month by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator could cause confusion and dissuade charities from participating in the referendum campaign.

However, a senior lawyer told The Daily Telegraph that the regulator's guidelines encouraged participation, while the Scottish Conservatives advised Martin Sime, the SCVO's chief executive to"concentrate on the job he's supposed to do".

Another source said the row may be explained by the fact that the SCVO received the vast majority of its income directly from the Scottish Government.

The document from the regulator said charities should not support a particular political party, but could support or oppose a policy that had an impact on their operations.

It also warned that charities should be careful not to compromise their reputation, prompting the council to claim that the standing of a charity was nothing to do with the regulator.

Elsewhere the guidelines state:"Campaigning for or against different policies is a legitimate way for many charities to achieve what they were set up for, which is to further their charitable purpose.

"As Scottish charity regulator, we are clear that charities may speak out during elections and referendums as long as they meet certain conditions."

Gavin McEwan, charity law partner at the law firm Turcan Connell, said:"This is draft guidance, but it says that charities can and should take part. If a charity's rules say it cannot lobby politicians then it has to be careful, but it can take part.

"One of the questions that it asks is, 'Should we be commenting on the result of the referendum and what it means for our charity?', and the answer is yes."

Mr McEwan said the guidance also said charities could say what the"pros and cons" of a Yes or No vote were.

Jackson Carlaw, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said Mr Sime should concentrate on the job he was paid to do.

He added:"This is the same Martin Sime who tried and failed to drum up support for independence among charities, and then attempted to force through a second question on the ballot paper, again resulting in failure.

"Is it too much to ask for him to concentrate on the job he's paid to do?" Last year, Mr Sime denied working with the First Minister in a bid to get a second"devo max" question on the referendum ballot paper.

The row was caused by a leaked email that disclosed he had been in contact with one of Mr Salmond's special advisers.

Several days later, Mr Sime was reported to have taken a globe-trotting sabbatical in 2008 and 2009 financed by a Scottish Government grant.

The SCVO said in its response that charities often spoke up for the disadvantaged in society, and it was vital that"those voices are added to the debate and not stifled by undue regulation".

David Robb, chief executive of the regulator, said it wanted charities' voices to be heard and the council's response would be considered carefully.