08 June 2006

S2M-4218 Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Bill

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 8 June 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-4218, in the name of Brian Adam, that the Parliament agrees that the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Bill be passed. Bill Butler has seven minutes in which to speak to and move the motion.


... ... ...


Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I start by thanking Margaret Jamieson for her courtesy in extending thanks to other members of the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Bill Committee, on which I served. Of course, my period of service on that committee was not a happy one, given that Margaret Ewing was then extremely frail. The last parliamentary action in relation to Margaret was her election as the convener of the committee, but alas she was unable to attend any of its meetings.

As much as Margaret Ewing was a politician, she was a parliamentarian above all else. What we debate today is a bill about parliamentary activity. It is a debate for which no party in the Parliament is whipped—apart, perhaps, from the party whose members are absent from the back benches—and in relation to which we will have to exercise our judgment individually when we come to decision time. However, it is clear that what our collective judgment will be has been established and that we will support the proposed changes.

We must consider both the bill and the whole system that is implicit in it in a particular way. The bill is a legal document that will lay down legal requirements on members of the Parliament. However, that is not enough—that is the minimum standard that we must achieve. The bill uses words that make it clear that we will continue to have to exercise judgment; it does not represent a simple tick list or formula that we can apply.

When we look at the prejudice test, it is clear that we must exercise judgment. The bill states:

"An interest meets the prejudice test if, after taking into account all the circumstances, that interest is reasonably considered to prejudice, or to give the appearance of prejudicing, the ability of the member to participate in a disinterested manner in any proceedings of the Parliament."

That is a very high test, which we, as members, must apply for ourselves. At the point at which we have to exercise that judgment, the interest in question may be known only to us and to no one else. Although it may, of course, emerge at a later stage, that will be no justification for our failure to apply proper judgment at the point at which we should have put it on the register of interests.

However, there is an extent to which we will have to have psychic powers. Although the Parliament is constrained with regard to what it may legislate on, we are not constrained with regard to what we may debate. If I had a nephew who lived in Australia in a town where the Commonwealth games were to be held and who intended to lease his house during the games, I would have a familial interest in the profit that would be made from that. If the Parliament was then to debate the Commonwealth games, would that interest meet the test? Only I would be able to make that judgment. We can all come up with examples. The bottom line is that the bill will not relieve us of individual responsibility.

There are other difficulties that we must consider. From the outset, I concluded that the way in which the members' interests order dealt with shares was inadequate, because its test relates only to the nominal value of shares, which often bears little relation to their actual market value. Voluntarily, I have registered most but not all of my shareholdings. The shareholdings that I have not registered are quite small—they have a value of a few hundred pounds. For example, I am in the process of acquiring shares in a co-operative that operates a wind farm in my constituency. I expect to invest £500. As drafted, the bill will catch that because what it says about shares makes it clear—to me, at least—that it is the aggregate total of my shareholdings that matters, not the individual value of an individual shareholding in an individual company. I agree with that provision.

I will now be mischievous by attempting to wind up anyone who wants to be wound up. We may not have excluded the requirement to register the interests of our partners. I use that word very carefully, because in the schedule the bill makes it clear that we must register gifts

"Where ... a partnership of which the member is a partner"—

it does not say a legal partnership—

"receives, or has received, a gift of heritable or moveable property or a gift of a benefit in kind"

and the value of the gift on that date exceeds the amount specified.

Mike Rumbles: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: It is easy to wind him up.

Mike Rumbles: Stewart Stevenson missed out part of the quotation. The bill states that gifts that are received by

"a member or a company in which the member has a controlling interest or a partnership of which the member is a partner"

are to be registered. It is quite clear.

Stewart Stevenson: I view my relationship with my dearly beloved as a partnership of equals. That is my point. My comments are intended merely to illustrate that we must read the bill and ensure that we understand exactly what it says.

It gets even more complicated, because there may be some shares that pay no dividends. I have held shares in a number of companies that do not pay dividends. Microsoft, one of the biggest companies in the world, does not pay dividends. Capital appreciation may be postponed to a far-distant point, but there are still issues. The prejudice test is the key. It is good that that is spelled out in the bill.

It is somewhat ironic that we are concluding the parliamentary process on the bill on the very day that the Parliament has probably—I do not make the claim absolutely—become the first Parliament to publish all the receipts for members' expenses, albeit that we have more to publish. That bespeaks our openness and preparedness to be accountable, as does the bill. I notice that the public gallery is rather sparsely populated and that the press gallery is entirely empty. I am sure that the press are fair cumsnuggered as they look through the 15,000 receipts that have been published. It will keep them out of mischief for at least three hours.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to participate in the work of the committee. There is no hiding place in a five-person committee. We had genuinely engaged and serious discussions about some of the issues. I did not agree with all the conclusions, but that is all right. The bill that is before us reflects the sweat, work and intellectual endeavours of two generations of parliamentarians. Like almost all other members—certainly all members of good common sense—I will support the bill at decision time.


Stewart Stevenson
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However Google who publish for us, may do.
fios ZS is a name registered in Scotland for Stewart Stevenson

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