03 October 2002

Proposed Committee Bill (Members' Interests)

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): We come now to the second debate, which is on the Standards Committee's "Report on Replacing the Members' Interests Order: Proposal for a Committee Bill".

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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): As the most recently elected MSP, I thought that it might be useful to speak about some views that I formed when I had to draw up my entry in the register. I say to Mike Rumbles that I did not respond to the consultation not because of lack of interest, but because of lack of time when the opportunity arose.

We must be careful about being too complacent. I think that we have an honest and open group of MSPs and that all 129 of them maintain high standards in ethical behaviour and the expression of interests. However, our regime is very liberal and far from restrictive compared to that which I experienced before coming to the Parliament.

As a bank employee, I operated under the Financial Services Act 1986, which had restrictive and specific requirements to register and to relate information. In my circumstances, those requirements were difficult, because I worked for one bank, my wife worked for the stockbroking arm of another bank and my brother worked for a third bank. None of us was a banker, but nonetheless, the rules covered us. For example, if I wished to conduct a share transaction, the 1986 act required me to do so through my employer, but because of my wife's employment in stockbroking, the act also required me to transact through her employer, although that was impossible. Fortunately, a procedure existed by which we could nominate the employer that would get the business, although both employers had to be told about it. I could not sell or buy a share in any company without registering the fact that I had done so, or sell or buy a share in my own company except in two four-week periods during the year and with permission. There were significant constraints, only some of which I have dealt with.

I welcome the proposed change from the nominal value of shares to their market value. I spent 30 years with the Bank of Scotland and put my staff profit share away year by year, little amount by little amount, into shares, because of the advantages to doing so. As a result, I had Bank of Scotland shares with a nominal value of £9,800 when I joined the Parliament. However, when I voluntarily registered my interest, their market value was of the order of £360,000. The difference between those values was huge. Even at that level, I did not require to register the shares and would not require to register them under the present order until their market value reached approximately £1 million. I think that members share my view that shares at such a level should be registered. Alas, I have lost about £100,000 in the value of those shares, but I never had that in the first place, so let us not worry about it.

The Standards Committee turned its attention to outside employment. In my previous life, I would have required permission to accept outside employment. I draw that to members' attention as a model that we might think about.

Mr Rumbles: The Standards Committee considered prohibiting members from accepting employment outwith the Parliament. Most committee members felt that being an MSP was a full-time job, but that it was not the committee's place to recommend restricting outside employment.

Stewart Stevenson: I understood that. I do not oppose small, relevant, outside interests. I lecture a little in the business school at a local university, which helps me to keep in touch with some matters, but my doing that would be inappropriate if it interfered with my ability to do my job as an MSP. The committee may wish to consider whether prior approval of outside employment could apply that test. My opinion—it might not be the opinion of others—is that an occasional audit could be valuable.

Gifts raise an interesting issue. I forgot my wife's birthday this year, so I can tell members that the absence of a gift can—to use Mike Rumbles's phrase—influence political life. I was a bit grumpy for a few days because my wife was more than a bit grumpy. What is a gift between family members? If the only family member who receives remuneration for employment is the MSP and that person takes their partner on a holiday that costs £500, is that a gift under the order? It might well be. That situation should be considered—it applies to close family members, too.

Outside people could think that many non-pecuniary interests influence members. I voluntarily registered two unpaid directorships. One of those directorships is in a voluntary organisation; I receive no remuneration for it and have no legal obligations under it. The other, however, is in a limited company, which means that the Companies Act 1985 places on me some fiduciary duties that could conflict with my duties as a member of the Parliament, in some circumstances. The test of whether an interest is unpaid is not in itself adequate.

By the same token, we should consider societies and clubs. I am a member of Edinburgh Flying Club. Flying is my hobby, and lest members should think that it is an expensive hobby, I say that if I smoked 20 cigarettes a day, I would spend more than I do on flying, but perhaps that tells members how little time I have spare from the Parliament. As a member of Edinburgh Flying Club, I might—if I were not a member of the Parliament—wish to take a position on developments at Edinburgh airport, which we discussed recently. It would be appropriate for me to make known my membership of that club if we discussed those issues.

I am also a member of an informal group called the escape committee, which comprises former workers in the trenches at the Bank of Scotland, with whom I occasionally have lunch. Like Kay Ullrich, I do not think that it would be appropriate to register such membership. However, if a member were an honorary consul for one of the many small countries around the world that wish to have representation in Edinburgh, it would be appropriate to register that.

I suspect that it would be inappropriate to register the amount of a pension, but there is value in considering registering the fact of a pension, because the source of a pension, the body that pays that pension and the interests of that pension fund might be held to influence a member, in some circumstances.

The members' interests order focuses on services that members provide in their capacity as members and for which they are paid, but members provide services for which they are not paid and which may influence us. For example, I write four newspaper columns for local papers. I am not remunerated for that, but it is in my political interest to maintain a good relationship with the owners of those papers. In some circumstances, members and the general public should be aware that I have a connection with a commercial company that is non-remunerated but is of value to me.

I suggest that having two parts to the register of members' interests could be valuable. One part would be published and the other part would provide the opportunity to record facts. For example, the amount of a pension might be registered but not published. That might be a way forward and might be useful for a range of matters.

I welcome the thought that any changes could be introduced before the election. That would give those who wish to stand for election a clear view of the expectations of them, so that they would meet no nasty surprises when they arrived here. That could be a benefit.

I welcome the Standards Committee's excellent work and I have no difficulty in supporting the motion.


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