30 April 2013

S4M-06388 Press Regulation

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): We come again to the debate on motion S4M-06388, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on the implications for Scotland of the royal charter on the self-regulation of the press.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I start with a quotation from another area of human endeavour that may touch on the matter before us:

“The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.”

Replacing “science” with “the media” perhaps gives us a hook on which to hang the approach that we should be taking in this case.

I am pleased that there has been a broadly consensual approach on the principles of the matter, and that we have coalesced around a motion signed by all the party leaders. I am sure that there will be matters of detail on which we may take slightly different views, and I am about to broach one where my view diverges.

I see absolutely no case, in what is going to the Queen in Council, for allowing any member of the House of Lords to be part of the new system. The majority of the state’s legislators sit in the House of Lords, and this is the only state in Europe where the majority of the legislators hold no electoral mandate from the people. We should not, in any sense, be entrenching any further power in people who have voluntarily chosen to get engaged in the political process in that way. Many members of the House of Lords are very worthy, clever and knowledgeable people, and nothing that I am saying takes that away. However, it dilutes the purity of disconnecting politicians from this important area of public life to allow any member of the House of Lords—however that is restricted—to be part of the way forward.

Liam McArthur: I am interested in Stewart Stevenson’s line of argument. I probably share his desire for wholesale reform of the House of Lords, although perhaps through a different mechanism. Does he accept that, just as provisions are being put in place to ensure that this Parliament, if it so chooses and if the circumstances arise, can move in a different direction, we can go back to the royal charter and amend its provisions following House of Lords reform? For the time being, the Lords remains part of the decision-making process at Westminster.

Stewart Stevenson: Liam McArthur talked about a heavy hand earlier. From my point of view, the heavy hand is merely sisted, not amputated. If the charter does not work as a way forward, what Lord McCluskey has incorporated in his report as a draft piece of legislation is something that we might consider picking up and making law. We could put into law that which we are hesitating to put into law at the moment, because we think that there is a last-chance saloon for a supervised system where the regulation comes from within. Getting rid of the House of Lords is something that we could do tomorrow if we had the will—perhaps we should think about doing so.

It has been quite a long and tortuous journey to get to where we are today. We should be careful not to assert as a matter of fact some of the accusations that are still to be tested by the courts. There are some serious accusations of criminality among a relatively small minority of individuals in the media.

It is interesting that we are talking about the creation of a civil system of recourse although, in fact, the spring from which the contaminated water has flowed was that of criminal action, where the threat of going to prison or being fined vast sums of money did not deter. In the proposals before us, we can see the imposition of £1 million fines making it less financially attractive to break the law. Of course, people should not have to have such sanctions to avoid breaking the law—they should feel naturally that it is their ethical duty not to break the law.

Much of the debate touches on the issue of what is in the public interest and who will be the guardians of that interest, because it is the test of public interest that determines what turns information into news. It has been said that news is something that somebody somewhere does not want you to know. When the public interest test is passed, that thing that someone wants you not to know is properly made available to you so that you know it.

The public interest test is about the balance between the rights of individuals who lose through disclosure and the right of the wider public to know what is going on. How well the public interest test is applied in the new world will be the real test of whether the system is working.

A royal charter carries—it is said—a special protection, as it is a quasi-constitutional bar to easy change of the environment. However, I say “quasi-constitutional” because we live in a state with no formal constitution. There is nothing in law to prevent the House of Commons from working with the House of Lords to overturn anything in the land whatsoever, so I am not wholly convinced that having a royal charter forever offers the protections that some claim it does.

The bottom line is—as I said in the debate on 4 December—that we need to recognise that

“A diverse media, just like democracy, means respecting the rights of those with whom we may fundamentally disagree.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2012; c 14252.]

If others take a different view from what I have just been saying, so be it—I will not get my way today, but that does not mean that I am not right in the long run.

We need diversity, and we need to respect the rights of our local papers. In my constituency office, I have to read 12 local papers. Equally, where is the boundary between a paper that is covered by the charter and a periodical carrying news that is published in a parish for a readership of perhaps 150 parishioners? It seems that such a publication would be caught by the charter. Even we as politicians could be caught by it if we provide something that is news and which perhaps carries advertising in promoting our electoral campaigns. Is such material included?

There is also a difficulty with the boundary between broadcast media and media that is not broadcast. The definition in Lord McCluskey’s draft bill is clear: someone is a broadcaster if they are covered by the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 or 1996, if they are the BBC or if they are Sianel Pedwar Cymru.

Where does that leave Buchan community radio in Peterhead, which broadcasts on the internet but hopes, from time to time, to broadcast for a month or so through the airwaves? Where does it leave Deveron FM in Banff, which is in the same position? Some of the time they will be the media and the press and will be covered by the charter, and some of the time they will not.

The reality is that we need to look at the whole picture, and ensure that we cover all the ways in which people get news and that they are properly controlled.

I thank you for your indulgence, Presiding Officer. I will certainly be supporting the motion today, but I will be hoping for better thereafter.


25 April 2013

S4M-06294 Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is a stage 1 debate on motion S4M-06294, in the name of John Swinney, on the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Scotland) Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I rise as yet another non-member of the Finance Committee.

This is quite a complex bill. One way of deciding that it is complex is to look at it and realise that approximately three quarters of the pages in it form the schedules. My suspicion is always that if a Government wants to hide something, it puts it in the schedules, not in the bill.

I will give an example of that from schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, which I looked at earlier today. I refer to part II, head B3, section B3, which is about elections. I discovered today that we have the power in this Parliament to hold and run elections for members of the House of Lords, because the only things that are excluded from our powers in that regard are elections to the House of Commons, the European Parliament and this Parliament. That is why we can organise local authority elections and, by implication, elections to the House of Lords. It is unlikely that those elected could take their seat, but that is another matter. If one wants to hide difficult things, sometimes the schedules are the place to do so.

Perhaps Neil Findlay and I will introduce a member’s bill to organise elections to the House of Lords, or perhaps we will not bother. I see that Neil Findlay has woken up.

Neil Findlay: If we did that, what would Lord Stevenson’s official title be?

Stewart Stevenson: Well, there have been two Lord Stevensons already. The one of Coddenham, whom we no longer talk about, was the chair of HBOS and the other is a distant relative of mine, whom I will pass over as well.

I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this complex but comprehensive piece of legislation, which is clearly receiving a consensus of support. I congratulate parliamentary colleagues of all parties on a committee report that I can describe only as pellucid in its delineation of the issues. It is a good, rattling read and covers the issues extremely well. I want to cover one or two of them in the time available.

First, on subordinate legislation, I am a member of the Subordinate Legislation Committee and the Government has a very good record of responding to what that committee says. I am encouraged that we will be looking seriously at whether the procedures for a number of the powers in the bill should be negative or affirmative.

On the matter of sub-sale, I may not have caught the full nuances of the discussions, given that I have not been sitting in the committee, but I think that there is a case for a taxation regime that has concurrent sales: sales of the big bit and then dispersal to smaller bits. As long as the tax revenue is derived from the big sales rather than the small ones and is therefore protected, we should ensure that we do not exclude the possibility of such sub-sales. We do not want them to be inhibited by an inappropriate tax regime.

Avoidance generally is something that troubles me. If a company owns property and shares in the company are traded, the risk is that that falls outside the taxation provisions. Company law is essentially reserved. That issue has a more general application, in that much property and land is owned beyond the boundaries of Scotland. The situation in Denmark is apposite, where one cannot own property or land unless there is a local representative. That is not to inhibit ultimate beneficial ownership being outside Denmark; however, there is always an accountable person who discharges ownership responsibilities within the boundaries of that state. I have thought for some time that we should look at that issue.

Jamie Hepburn: Given that that is the situation in Denmark, does the member not consider as somewhat ludicrous the suggestion posited by some organisations that the requirement that charities furth of Scotland register here is an onerous one?

Stewart Stevenson: I have not read the data. However, that was certainly my initial reaction. I am confident that the committee will deal with the issue. Of course, it is possible for charities registered elsewhere to represent themselves as being charities in Scotland even though they are not registered in Scotland, so I think that there are wider considerations of which to take account.

The bottom line is that tax avoidance is always a big issue in any taxation system. I look forward to the tax management bill and I hope that when looking at tax avoidance we are able to legislate. That is why I was looking at schedule 5 to the 1998 act, to see whether tax avoidance would be prevented. The test will be the intention rather than the application of rules, which can always be got round. I await what happens with interest.

The work of Registers of Scotland has an important application to the implementation of the bill. I first crossed their threshold in about 1962 in my pursuit of family research. Fifty years later, we have world-beating computer systems that give access to the real records, which practically no other jurisdiction in the world has. With the right incentives and the right application, the work can be done. The Government has the potential to do that, just as Registers of Scotland has done.

On the process for the bill thus far, the work of the Government and the committee demonstrates that there are as yet untapped competences and abilities in this place. I hope in the future to see those abilities applied more widely, not only to taxation issues but, more fundamentally, to the whole range of powers with which a normal independent country would grapple. We have the skills; we now need the opportunity.


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