SCOTLAND is “the ultimate laboratory” for testing policy before it is rolled out in England, according to a top official in the Home Office, the department Theresa May ran for six years before becoming Prime Minister.

The comment last week by the UK Government’s Head of Tackling Crime Unit, Nick Hunt, was made in a private meeting with pro-shooting groups, who revealed the remark because they are unhappy about proposals to replicate Scotland’s fees for gun licensing down south.

The Scottish Government has licensed airguns since January 2017, while GPs in Scotland have been charging fees for their involvement in the licensing process for shotguns and firearms, despite the Home Office blocking the practice in England and Wales since 2016.

However, the UK Government is now considering introducing medical fees – a system known as the "Scotland Model" – to secure a firearms certificate in England and Wales.

In the meeting at the Home Office in London, which Hunt chaired, he told representatives of the Countryside Alliance and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation that: “We look upon Scotland as the ultimate laboratory”.

The SNP said the “contemptuous” comment is similar to a remark made by Conservative MP and former minister Oliver Letwin, who described the divisive poll tax pilot in Scotland, which was trialled in 1989, a year before it was rolled out in England and Wales, as “the Scottish experiment” when he was an adviser to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The “laboratory” comment has been revealed in the same week that Home Office minister Caroline Nokes likened the Scottish Government to “any county council” in England. The immigration minister made the remark in response to a call by SNP MP Pete Wishart to give the Scottish Government a place on an independent expert committee which advises on immigration.

“I do not think there is any greater case to put a Scottish Government official on it than one from the Welsh Assembly or indeed any county council who wanted to come forward pointing out there was a specific shortage [of seasonal workers] in their area,” Nokes told the Scottish Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

On Wednesday Home Office Official Nick Hunt met pro-hunting groups to discuss “plans to follow the Scottish Model” of introducing fees for a gun licence,” according to Garry Doolan, of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

He revealed: “Nick Hunt said: ‘We look upon Scotland as the ultimate laboratory’.” Doolan added: “Scots should not be treated as guinea pigs for England.”

Graham Downing, of the Countryside Alliance, who was at the meeting, said: “Those were Nick Hunt’s words. I did make a note of the words and he did say them. I opened my eyes wider at that point. It was unexpected.

“To my mind what he was suggesting was the Scottish system has been an experiment which may or may not be adopted.”

Ian Blackford MP, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, said: “The Tories will never learn. Three decades after Thatcher tried this on with the poll tax, they still seem to think Scotland can be used and abused at their whim.

“On Friday Theresa May paid a flying visit to lecture Scots on the benefits of the union. I’ve got news for her – two-hour charm offensives will never erase decades of evidence to the contrary.

“This leak tops off a week where a Tory minister [Nokes] taunted MPs by likening the Scottish Parliament to an English county council.

“A very real and contemptuous Whitehall view of Scotland is revealed by this leak. The Tories seem to think they can get away with anything. Well my message to them is, you’re not on.”

The Sunday Herald asked a Home Office spokeswoman for an interview with Nick Hunt but this request was refused.

In a statement issued later, the spokeswoman said: “A private meeting took place to discuss the issue of obtaining medical information in the context of firearms licensing, and it would be inappropriate to speculate on comments taken out context.”