AN independent firm is set to oversee the SNP leadership election amid criticism of Peter Murrell’s role in the contest.

Party CEO Murrell – who is the husband of outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – has come under fire for his alleged oversight of the race.

SNP officials have, however, disputed this and said he has no oversight of the ballot.

Former Scottish health secretary Alex Neil said it was “not really acceptable” that the SNP boss should be playing a central role and claimed the party hierarchy had a “preferred candidate”.

Supporters of Kate Forbes have accused party headquarters of devising a short, six-week campaign to scupper her bid because she is not due to return from maternity leave until April.

READ MORE: 'Conspiracy' to hide extent of oil wealth from Scots, Tom Devine says

Ash Regan, meanwhile, has insisted having a CEO who is married to the party leader is inappropriate.

An SNP spokesman said: “An independent ballot services company has been appointed by the national secretary to administer the poll.”

The result of the election would be the only voting information provided and would be communicated directly to the SNP’s national secretary at the close of the poll, the party said.

Forbes herself has not given any indication of what she thinks of Murrell’s role.

When asked if Murrell should step aside on Monday, she said: “I think we need fresh faces in the SNP, which is why I’m campaigning for election but ultimately that’s a question for Peter Murrell.”

READ MORE: Scotland's oil funded Margaret Thatcher's transformation of Britain

Kirk Torrance, Regan’s strategic adviser, who formerly worked at SNP HQ, said there were “serious concerns about the potential for bias in the counting of votes”.

Humza Yousaf – who it is reported is the favourite among party chiefs - said internal party reform was needed but did not believe Murrell should stand aside.