THE row over the impartiality of the chief of the umbrella body for Scotland's charities took a new twist last night after it emerged the SNP Government gave his organisation a £10,000 grant that allowed him to take a six-month round-the-world sabbatical.

Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), who has been accused of acting as a front for the SNP in the independence debate, took the trips in 2008 and 2009.

The Government gave the grant to the SCVO for "qualitative research on the relationship between civil society and governments in a range of countries", enabling Mr Sime to visit India, Australia, Africa and the US.

The organisation confirmed the money was used to pay for Mr Sime's travel and accommodation.

Ministers also gave the SCVO £37,873 in 2008 and 2009 to "facilitate voluntary sector engagement" in the National Conversation about independence.

The Herald revealed last week Mr Sime had been in email contact with Alex Salmond's special advis-er on the constitution. This led to claims the SCVO boss was helping to engineer support for a second question on devo max.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie called on Mr Sime to step down, while the SNP accused Mr Rennie of "illiberal" slurs.

The SCVO's convener, Allison Elliot, a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, also intervened, telling Mr Rennie: "I consider your allegations preposterous, your interpretation ... fanciful and your attempt to interfere in the business of an independent organisation unworthy of a public leader."

However, the revelation Mr Sime was the direct beneficiary of an SNP Government grant has raised fresh questions about his position.

Mr Sime, 58, wrote a blog during his sabbatical, listing the places he visited, and his engagements with civic organisations.

His journeys began in October 2008 with a two-month spell as a visiting scholar at Princeton University in the US, followed by trips to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

In a blog entry in December 2008, he praised one of the First Minister's pet projects, the Council of Economic Advisers.

Mr Sime took a brief detour to visit his best friend who was working in Ecuador, then travelled to Ottawa and Toronto in Canada before a break over Christmas.

The new year resulted in "an intensive set of trips" to South Africa, Mozambique, Ireland, India, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia, and wrapping up in April in Los Angeles.

The SCVO,which employs 100 people, has been funded by successive Holyrood administrations since 1999. Last year it received £800,000 of core funding.

The organisation dates back to 1943 but has existed in its current guise since 1986. Martin Sime has been chief executive since 1991. Under his leadership it has grown to represent more than 1300 member organisations, employing 50,000 people between them.

The SCVO's role is to assist and lobby on behalf of the £4.1 billion third sector in Scotland. An SCVO spokeswoman said: "I can confirm the third sector team in the Scottish Government provided funding of £10,000 to contribute to travel and accommodation costs associated with his [Mr Sime's] sabbatical. On his return, he produced a report, gave a public lecture and contributed to many discussions about third sector relationships with governments."

A Scottish Government source said: "The SCVO, as a representative of civic Scotland, has an absolute right to speak on the issue of Scotland's constitutional future.

"Willie Rennie's ham-fisted attempts to gag the SCVO have already been slapped down by the organisation's convener, and these latest ill-judged comments from Mr Rennie only serve to further undermine his credibility."