22 April 2015

S4M-12951 Members’ Interests Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-12951, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the proposal for a members’ interests bill. I call Stewart Stevenson to speak to and move the motion on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.


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

The role of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is to keep the Parliament’s procedures and processes under constant review. The Scotland Act 2012 gave the Parliament some extra flexibility to manage our members’ interests regime, and the committee has used that opportunity to take a fresh look at how we operate our standards.

The committee now presents the Parliament with a proposal for a committee bill, under rule 9.15 of the standing orders, which has two aims: to make the register of interests more transparent and to make the standards regime even more robust. I will first address the proposals for increased transparency.

Under the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006, members have to register certain financial interests that are then published in the Parliament’s register of members’ interests. The register is principally concerned with interests that might prejudice or appear to prejudice a member’s ability to participate in the parliamentary proceedings in a disinterested way. The public deserve to know about a member’s financial interests, so that they can judge whether the member might be influenced by them.

Separately, members also have to register donations or loans for political activities with the Electoral Commission. The commission has its own rules and thresholds for what needs to be registered, which are different from the Parliament’s rules, and it publishes its own register. That is known as dual reporting. It means that the public have to look in two places for information about a member’s interests and that members have to register financial interests in two separate places under two separate sets of rules. The draft bill that we are bringing forward aims to end dual reporting. Members would have to register financial interests in only one place and, more important, the public would have to look in only one place to find information about a member’s financial interests.

Under our proposals, the Parliament’s existing registration requirements will continue to apply. We have been careful to leave the existing regime as undisturbed as possible. However, there will be an additional layer of reporting requirements imported from the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000—PPERA, as it is known—which is the legislation that governs the Electoral Commission’s regime.

PPERA is quite a complicated set of rules. In summary, members must register donations or loans of more than £1,500 that have been received for political activities. That might be a single donation or it might be several donations of more than £500 from the same person in the same calendar year.

As its name suggests, PPERA is concerned with members of political parties but, of course, we also have independent members here. We are proposing specific changes to deal with the position of independent members. In her closing remarks, Margaret McDougall, the deputy convener, will speak about that in more detail and about other matters that I will not have time to deal with.

The bill’s proposals have been discussed in depth with the Electoral Commission. It must be satisfied that the Parliament’s register will give it all the information that it needs before it can agree to the ending of dual reporting. The commission has told us that our proposals, along with the changes that we will propose to the code of conduct, should meet its requirements. As PPERA is reserved legislation, the United Kingdom Parliament must pass a commencement order to exempt members from the PPERA reporting requirements.

I will put on record my appreciation of the commission’s help in getting the bill to this stage. Between last year’s referendum and this year’s general election, although the commission is clearly busy, it has always been helpful to us in navigating our way through its complex regime.

We are proposing an important reform, which will keep our Parliament in step with the UK Parliament. Dual reporting has ended for Westminster MPs, and we understand that the other devolved institutions are also considering changes.

The draft bill builds PPERA’s requirements into the Parliament’s interests act. I am the first to admit that the bill that we are to introduce will look complex. However, the changes can be boiled down to a number of key questions that members must ask themselves. Has anyone given them a gift or donation of money, goods or services? Has anyone funded an overseas visit for them? Have they been paid for any work that they have done outside Parliament? Do they own shares or property, apart from their own home? In all those cases, there could be a registrable interest.

As convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, and not simply in an effort to reduce the committee’s workload, my advice is simple: members should always ask the standards clerks for advice if they think that there is any possibility that they have acquired a new interest or that the nature of an interest that they already hold has changed, for example if the value of shares has risen above the threshold without the individual member having taken any action. The clerks can navigate the complexities of the existing legislation and the new provisions. The bottom line is that members must approach them within 30 days of acquiring a new interest; they must also look at the value of their shares annually.

The committee will propose changes to the members’ code of conduct, which relate to the changes that I am explaining. At the start of each new session, particularly the next one, the standards clerks and Electoral Commission officials will arrange briefing sessions for members on the new rules.

Our proposals will mean a more streamlined system for members. They will have to seek advice in only one place—from our standards clerks here in Parliament; they will have to register interests in only one place—here in the Parliament; and the public will be able to find all a member’s interests in only one place—the parliamentary register.

By increasing transparency, the proposals chime with other developments on the horizon, not least the proposal for a lobbying register, which we expect the Government to introduce soon.

One more benefit of ending dual reporting is that complaints about failing to register will all be dealt with by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. At the moment, a complaint could be investigated by the commission, by the Electoral Commission or even by both at the same time. That can be confusing for the public to navigate; it could also result in a member having to deal with two separate investigations into what is essentially the same complaint. The committee’s proposals would streamline the process so that all complaints are dealt with by the commission.

To sum up our proposals for the ending of dual reporting, information about a member’s financial interests will be available to the public in one place, members will have a one-stop shop for advice on registering interests and we will streamline the process for dealing with complaints.

In addition, in the light of the Council of Europe’s group of states against corruption—GRECO—report, we propose to lower the threshold for registering gifts from 1 per cent of a member’s salary at the start of the session to 0.5 per cent. Responding to the GRECO report in that way will bring us into line with legislators elsewhere.

I said that the second aim of our proposed bill is to make the Parliament’s standards regime more robust. We already have a very robust regime. In the whole parliamentary session, we have had to deal with only one, relatively minor breach of the interests act by a member. It is a criminal offence when a member fails to register or declare an interest, or undertakes paid advocacy, which is not the case in the House of Commons. We should be proud of our existing regime, but we are not resting on our laurels. The committee believes that we can go further.

First, the bill will extend the sanctions that are available to the Parliament for dealing with breaches of the interests act. The power to withdraw rights and privileges is already available, but when it comes to breaches of the interests act, the Scotland Act 2012 requires us to set out specific sanctions in legislation. The bill will make sure that the widest range of sanctions are available for breaches of the interests act. Those sanctions will include excluding a member from the premises of the Parliament, withdrawing a member’s right to use the facilities and services that are provided by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, and withdrawing salary and allowances when a member is excluded.

To that end, the committee has included in its draft bill a new sanction—a motion of censure, which would allow the Parliament to draw attention to a breach in a debate in the chamber and would give the member the opportunity to comment and apologise, as appropriate. Members will appreciate that that is not a trivial sanction. For some breaches, it might be more appropriate than withdrawing pay or access.

The committee’s proposal will increase the transparency of information about our financial interests and will make the standards regime that we have even more robust. I commend the committee’s proposal to the Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the proposal for a Committee Bill, under Rule 9.15, contained in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 2nd Report, 2015 (Session 4), Members’ Interests Bill (SP Paper 681).


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