THE bill for outside help on the new Citizens Assembly of Scotland has reached almost £500,0000 before it has even met, the Herald can reveal.

The Scottish Government yesterday awarded another £200,000 in contracts to public relations and digital experts to promote the new forum.

It takes the total spend on outside firms to around half a million pounds for the Assembly, which has been dubbed a Nationalist front by critics.

The Scottish Tories urged SNP ministers to abandon the “increasingly expensive vanity project”.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon slated for GERS no-show despite flurry of Fringe events 

Ministers are spending £22,475 with pollster Mark Diffley to find the Assembly’s 120 members before its first meeting at the end of October.

The government is also spending up to £225,000 on help to “design and facilitate” the Assembly as it meets over six weekends before next April.

Ministers have now awarded a £100,000 contract to the 3x1 group for “PR services” under an expedited “framework agreement” procedure that only attracted three bids.

It also struck a £100,000 deal with Whitespace (Scotland) Ltd for “digital marketing services” under a similar procedure that drew two quotes.

If VAT is added to all the contracts, the total goes up another £90,000.

Nicola Sturgeon announced the Assembly’s creation in April, saying it would thrash out some of the long-term challenges facing Scotland and what kind of country it should be.

It is based on Irish models which led to referendums legalising same-sex marriage and abortion, where cross-party buy-in was a vital factor.

However the Scottish version has faced claims it is a Government ruse to promote independence, a charge fuelled by SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC describing it as the “perfect way” to advance independence.

The Scottish Tories and Scottish LibDems have said they will have nothing to do with it, with the Tories urging other Unionists to boycott it.

Tory MSP Adam Tomkins said: “We always knew the SNP intended this to be nothing but a talking shop for independence. Now we learn it’s costing the taxpayer too.

“The SNP government never stops pleading poverty. Perhaps a good place to find savings would be the abolition of this needless and increasingly expensive vanity project.”

READ MORE: Brexit: Deadlock as Brussels rejects Boris Johnson's demands 

A Government spokesperson said: “The Citizens’ Assembly will bring together a wide range of people from across our country to consider and help find consensus on the future of Scotland.

“The Assembly will operate independently of government, and requires an independent secretariat and support services to do so. The two contracts announced on 20 August were awarded following an open and competitive process.

“We will publish details of the Assembly’s budget, and the Assembly will regularly report on its spending.”

The Assembly’s two independent chairs are former Labour MEP David Martin, who lost his Brussels berth in May’s EU election, and Edinburgh arts boss Kate Wimpress.