29 September 2015

S4M-14375 Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament (Amendment) Bill: Stage 1 - Closing Speech

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-14375, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament (Amendment) Bill.

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

We as a Parliament pride ourselves on openness and accountability in relation to the behaviour of all our MSPs. The question is, of course, whether we could do more to build public trust and ensure that we have a regime that is fit for purpose. Robust standards are essential to ensure that, if wrongdoing should occur, there are sufficient checks and balances to hold MSPs to account.

The bill seeks to increase transparency and accessibility. The matters that it deals with are important, and the Parliament must always keep them under review and make improvements where the opportunity arises.

I thank the Parliament for establishing a committee to take the bill forward, provided that the bill receives members’ support at 5 o’clock tonight. I thank those who have participated in the debate for engaging with a topic that is so important for our future probity and reputation.

I turn to some of the points that have been raised in the debate. The minister mentioned the reduction in the gifts threshold from 1 per cent to 0.5 per cent of a member’s salary. We first discussed that subject in committee on 10 October 2013; it stems from the establishment of the groupe d’états contre la corruption, which is a development that we are following.

The minister referred to the Electoral Commission, from which we have received a helpful briefing that makes clear that the commission is satisfied with what we are doing. In particular, the commission is satisfied that it will be able to obtain the necessary information that it requires from the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee clerks in the Parliament to meet its future publication, compliance and enforcement obligation.

I welcome the fact that Tavish Scott has come along to the debate and brought his considerable experience to bear on the subject. I will pick up a couple of the points that he made in a moment.

The minister has already indicated that ministers will be caught by the legislation—I was going to raise that point, but the bill will certainly apply in respect of their behaviour as MSPs.

Tavish Scott made an interesting point with regard to soliciting. Section 9 of the bill introduces the phrase, “or agreeing to receive”. We certainly intend that provision to catch soliciting, but I will take further advice from the clerks to see whether any further amendments could be made to clarify it beyond misapprehension. It is clear that soliciting would be as unacceptable to any of us as “agreeing to receive” would be.

With regard to political parties funding members’ activities in their constituencies and elsewhere, we are seeking to catch the whole issue of the funding of political activities by members with some of the amendments that we have lodged. However, in relation to elections in particular, the Electoral Commission’s requirements on reporting by political parties already catch such activity, and parties’ responses are published on the commission’s website. Equally, the bill refers to the period of election in which financial returns must be made, and it makes provision for when money that is solicited for that purpose is not spent within 35 days of an election.

I want to say a little bit more about one or two points that have arisen. I promised that I would say something about the motion of censure. It would serve as a useful middle ground when the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee found a member to be in breach but did not consider the breach to be sufficiently serious to justify a sanction such as exclusion or removal of other parliamentary privileges. Such a motion could be debated, which would provide the MSP who was the subject of the motion with a public opportunity to apologise in person. A motion of censure would be a useful addition to the Parliament’s toolkit of sanctions.

I also mentioned the bill’s provisions for the retention of members’ registers and we heard a great deal about that from Mary Fee. Keeping the register for 10 years as opposed to five years will be particularly useful in general, and specifically when members have what might be termed as broken service and come back to the Parliament. There are practical reasons for extending the time period, in that it will allow members to see what they said previously. The change will also increase transparency overall. The current five-year term was set in relation to the time for which members were elected but it is reasonable to extend it. Additional transparency for the public has to be good news and keeping the register for longer will help with that by letting the public see what is going on.

At the moment, all the information that we are referring to is on the Parliament’s website and held by the Electoral Commission. However, depending on the nature of the interest, the bill will mean that people will be able to come to one place much more readily. It will also help members to comply with the two regimes. Most of us have comparatively modest operations that involve the Electoral Commission but when it occurs, we will be unfamiliar with it and we do not have sources of advice in the Parliament. That will change.

As other members have said, we have never seen the rules on paid advocacy breached. The changes that we want to make today are important because they signal to everyone how important the rules are but, at the end of the day, it is down the personal probity of each and every one of us, not just to the rules that appear in the book. The provisions in the bill will ensure that we are in both places and that is a comfortable place to be.

I am delighted to close the debate and that we have had the opportunity to take the bill through stage 1. I confirm that I seek the Parliament’s agreement on the general principles of this committee bill. As the minister suggested, I hope that we might see a greater number of committee bills in future sessions, not all of which will be related to our internal business.

The bill is an important one that increases transparency and ensures that our procedures will remain robust.


S4M-14375 Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament (Amendment) Bill: Stage 1 - Opening Speech

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-14375, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament (Amendment) 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):

Back in April, the Parliament agreed to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s proposal for a committee bill to amend the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006. The bill and its accompanying documents were introduced on 27 May. I am very pleased to come to the chamber to invite the Parliament to agree to the bill’s general principles.

The bill’s overall aim is to amend the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006 to ensure that information about MSPs’ financial interests is transparent and accessible. The bill combines two existing reporting processes to assist MSPs in complying with requirements to report donations. The proposals in the bill will also strengthen the sanctions available to the Parliament to deal with any breaches of the rules set out in the legislation, widen the scope of the offence of paid advocacy and extend the length of time that the Parliament may retain members’ registers of interest. I will speak about that aspect of the bill in my closing remarks.

First, I turn to the proposals to eliminate dual reporting. MSPs currently have to report financial interests to two places: to the Electoral Commission, under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, otherwise known as PPERA; and to the Parliament. There is an overlap between the two regimes, which results in the dual reporting of certain financial interests. The bill makes the necessary changes to the Parliament’s register so that dual reporting can be ended, bringing the reporting requirements for MSPs into a single place. That will make information about MSPs’ financial interests more easily available to the public. It will also be beneficial for a number of reasons: information on MSPs’ financial interests will be found in one place, on the Parliament’s website, which is where one would expect to find it; MSPs will have to register in only one place, and will be able to receive advice on all their interests from parliamentary officials; and all complaints about an MSP not meeting the reporting requirements will be dealt with in a single way, by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. That will make the process easier to navigate, for the public, for MSPs and for anyone with an interest in the process. There will be a single process for all MSPs, for complaints and for compliance.

The approach in the bill has been to leave the Parliament’s existing regime as undisturbed as possible while incorporating the donations and transactions that are currently reportable under PPERA. However, the changes in the bill that will bring the two regimes together in one place make the legislation much more complex.

The bill will adjust the definitions of “gift” and “overseas visit”, and a new category will be added for loans and certain other transactions. The bill also provides for an additional layer of rules on the aggregation of interests with a combined value of more than £1,500. The overall approach has been to limit the proposed changes, wherever possible, to interests with a single or combined value in excess of the £1,500 threshold, which comes from PPERA.

The current framework for ending dual reporting in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 does not extend to independent MSPs. As that act stands, dual reporting can be ended only for members of registered political parties, and not for independent members. The bill will amend the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to allow dual reporting to be ended for all MSPs. The committee included such a provision so that all MSPs would be treated in the same way—I know that you feel strongly about that, Presiding Officer.

As convener of the SPPA Committee, I have talked to all members in the current parliamentary session who are affected. Indeed, my last meeting with the late Margo MacDonald MSP, when I visited her at home a month before she died, was precisely to discuss the effect of what we are proposing. I have to say that Margo was in remarkably good spirits and my three minutes on the proposal extended to a full hour of discussions of current political topics—no surprise there. It would be unfair to require independent members to continue with dual reporting when the system has been streamlined for MSPs who are members of political parties.

I move on to the bill’s provisions on sanctions. The Scotland Act 2012 amended section 39 of the Scotland Act 1998 to give the Parliament greater flexibility in determining what sanctions are appropriate for breaches of the members’ interests regime and the paid advocacy prohibition. The bill largely restates the existing criminal offence. The provisions on parliamentary sanctions in the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006 are currently limited to excluding a member from proceedings in the Parliament or restricting participation in proceedings on matters in relation to which there has been a breach.

The bill makes it clear that a full range of parliamentary sanctions will be available if an MSP fails to register or declare an interest or undertakes paid advocacy. It makes provision for a range of parliamentary sanctions that are broadly equivalent to some of the measures that are available to the Parliament when it withdraws a member’s rights and privileges, for example in respect of a breach of the code of conduct. The approach ensures consistency with section 39, which envisages further provision on sanctions being made in or under an act of the Scottish Parliament.

The committee thought it vital that a wide range of sanctions should be available to the Parliament when dealing with breaches of the interests legislation and the code of conduct for MSPs. The available sanctions must be sufficiently stringent to enable the Parliament to respond effectively to breaches of the rules—and to discourage such breaches in the first place.

The bill will ensure that a broad range of sanctions is available to the Parliament, including the potential removal of all allowances or salary. That change will demonstrate that the Parliament has the tools to deal effectively with breaches of the legislation.

Paid advocacy is where an individual uses their position as an MSP to advocate for a particular matter in return for payment, including a benefit in kind, or urges any other MSP to do so. It is a criminal offence and a breach of the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006 for an MSP to undertake paid advocacy, although no MSP has ever been found to have breached those rules.

The committee is very clear, given the gravity with which paid advocacy should be treated, that the criminal offence for paid advocacy is appropriate. Our consultation paper proposed that the definition of paid advocacy should be amended for greater consistency with the Bribery Act 2010. Of particular note to the committee was the incorporation of the act of agreeing to receive inducements within the offence of being bribed under section 2 of the Bribery Act 2010. The paid advocacy offence currently requires actual receipt; it does not incorporate payments or benefits in kind that a member agrees to receive. Our bill amends the definition of paid advocacy so that agreeing to receive inducements, as well as actually receiving them, will be an offence and a breach of the interests legislation.

The bill introduces a new sanction—that the Parliament should be able to agree a motion of censure. I will say more about that in my closing remarks.

I believe that the provisions of the bill will increase transparency for the public, make it easier for members to ensure that they comply with the rules and create a more robust standards regime.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament (Amendment) Bill.


22 September 2015

S4M-14311 Education

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-14311, in the name of Angela Constance, on building on Scotland’s educational success.

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

Feasgar math, Presiding Officer. I hope that one member of the front-bench team recognises that I said, “Good afternoon.” “Math” is a very important word in not only English but Gaelic, in which it means “good”. I am delighted that the cabinet secretary said right at the start of her speech that there needs to be greater public enthusiasm for maths. I see that my Gaelic pronunciation has clearly amused the Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages—entirely justifiably, I am sure.

Both the Conservative amendment and the Liberal Democrat amendment seek to delete all reference to maths from the Government’s motion. Mary Scanlon emphasised the importance of maths, but her amendment would delete all reference to it, replacing it with numeracy. Numeracy is important, but it is in the motion in the first place. Perhaps that tells us that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats simply do not count in this debate. However, they are far from being the worst of legislators when it comes to their ability to deal with maths.

I draw members’ attention to the Indiana pi bill—Indiana House Bill 246—of 1897, which sought to define in law a value for pi. It sought to define that value to be 3.2 rather than the 3.1416 et cetera—it is a transcendental number and cannot be defined in the real number system—that we all know it to be. That bill was passed on 6 February 1897. Fortunately, the Indiana Senate had another look at it after it went to the temperance committee. That might tell us something about the mood of the representatives who passed the bill in the first place. If we get things wrong here, there is always the comfort that others get it even more wrong elsewhere when it comes to maths.

The making maths count initiative is a very important one. As the cabinet secretary said in her press release on 3 September,

“Maths has a vital place at the heart of our curriculum”.

When I was a school student, our deputy head was Doc Inglis, a Lancastrian and a mathematician. His duty was to impart enthusiasm for maths among his pupils, so the first thing that he used to do with each class—my class was one of those with which he did this—was send it round the school to search for infinity. We looked in the dustbins, we took the blackboards down and we even went out to the sports field to contemplate infinity. The point is that, 55 years on, that is still imprinted in my memory. In the sixth year, he brought his tax return to the class and did that with us—either to tell us how little he got paid for trying to impart mathematical principles and practices to us, or to show us that there was some modest value in being able to add up numbers and minimise the tax that we pay.

Perhaps we most admired Doc Inglis as an inspirational teacher for his celebration of our headteacher’s appointment. He had gone for the job and not got it, and on the anniversary of the headteacher’s appointment, he would always come in wearing a black tie.

The motion talks about mathematics and numeracy. A great deal can be said on that subject. Much of what can be said to enthuse our schools students can be found in quite unlikely places. In particular, I commend “The Simpsons”, which is written by a team of writers of whom most are mathematicians. Almost every episode of “The Simpsons” has within it a mathematical conundrum.

For example, one episode made a sideways reference to Fermat’s last theorem just after it had been solved: four numbers expressed to the power of 12 on a blackboard in one of the scenes. Of course calculators show that Fermat’s theorem has been solved, but the reality—the trick—is that there is a digit about 17 points across to the right that shows that it has not actually been solved. It might be useful for us to contemplate encouraging teachers to introduce things such as watching “The Simpsons” as part of teaching mathematics in the classroom. If we make mathematics relevant to real life, we make mathematics a matter of enthusiasm for our kids.

Mathematics takes part in literature as well. Fiona McLeod has just spoken about literacy, and Dante’s “Inferno” refers to hell; one of the keepers of the gates of hell is Belphegor, who has his own special prime number. It was named after him and is 1000000000000066600000000000001—31 digits in total.

It is symmetric, and we can see other interesting things when we add up the digits.

There is also mathematics in religion. For example, Hindus are guided by the Vedic texts, which discuss what Hindus believe are the five types of infinity—the infinity of point, of line, of area, of volume and, of course, of time—and introduce the concepts of 1 and 0.

There are many places in our culture and in our lives where mathematics can be used to make maths relevant to people, which is the important thing.

Perhaps the great internet Mersenne prime study is the best of all. The largest Mersenne prime is, of course, 257,885,161-1. That is a really fascinating number to be getting on with.


15 September 2015

S4M-14245 Refugees

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-14245, in the name of Humza Yousaf, on responding to the global refugee crisis.

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

The origins of the catastrophe that faces us today lie with Governments, but the most effective response to what has happened has been with individuals, and that has often been the case down the paths of history. In 1898, Émile Zola, a French literary giant, took on the power of his Government when injustice was done to someone in the army. His efforts were recognised by two consecutive nominations for the Nobel prize for literature and he eventually overcame, but posthumously. In 1968, we saw Jan Palach immolate himself in Wenceslas Square in Prague as part of the Prague spring, which eventually led to change in his country and indeed in the Soviet bloc, and in 1989, in Tiananmen Square, we saw a single individual stand in front of the tanks. Those people did not do that for personal glory or for any reward from anyone else. In fact, to this day we do not even know the name of the man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square.

When we look at the Scottish response to the situation, we look at the response of the individuals in our community, which has been excellent. The same is true throughout the United Kingdom and in countries across Europe. People from our countries have historically been welcomed to other countries. It is now our turn to welcome those in their extremity to our shores and to our support. I welcome the launch of the website; I see an excellent contribution there from the Scottish Refugee Council on fundraising and how practical help might be given. I hope that many people will look at that.

It is worth looking at our own situation in Europe. We are the home of colonising nations, benefiting enormously over hundreds of years from countries around the world. Now, in their extremity, it is our turn to help those who actually helped us to build the wealth that we depend on today.

Of course, the whole thing is not just about money, although money is the most important thing that many of us will be able to contribute. In fact, it is hardly about money at all. As Sandra White said, it is a moral issue. No man, woman or child stands alone in the world. In the palm of our hands is the future of desperate people around the world. Their very lives depend on us. Physical threats drive people from countries, as do violence, lack of shelter, lack of food and lack of water. None of those is new, but the scale of the problem today is, alas, very different from what happened previously.

In the late 1930s, we supported Jewish children in particular out of the hands of the Nazis. There were tens of thousands then, but the numbers are orders of magnitude greater now. Forty years ago, I visited a refugee camp in the West Bank and I remain moved by just thinking about that visit. I know that others in this Parliament have visited refugees in many places around the world.

It was only towards the very end of my father’s life that I discovered that he had briefly worked with a Christian charity and had been based in an office in Brussels getting Jewish children out of Germany in the late 1930s. Indeed, he told me that he was arrested by the Gestapo in Cologne in 1938. Being my father, he talked his way out of the situation, but today’s refugees cannot simply talk their way out of their extremity. They need us to speak for them.

The Conservative amendment talks about underlying causes. Those are not simple; they are diverse and there will be future challenges to our morality and our practicality. As the minister who took the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill through the Parliament, I return to that subject as something that will cause huge problems in the future. As the climate changes and we benefit, people around the world will find themselves migrating.

In recent times, we have seen many other examples of migration in Europe. One of my friends has just spent many months out in Bosnia, working with people who were affected by the war there. Let me remind the chamber that Syria and the adjacent areas are important to our history and where we are today. Sumeria, which is part of Lebanon that is adjacent to Syria, was the origin of money as the transition from a herdsman culture to an agrarian culture gave rise to the need for money. Our number system comes from there, as do many of the intellectual underpinnings of our society, while Damascus is the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. The Poles came here in the 1940s and 1950s, but the Scots went to Poland in the 1830s.

We do not demand action because it is easy; we demand action because life is incomparably more difficult for refugees if they are denied help. More than ever, it is for us to provide that help in the refugees’ extremity.


08 September 2015

S4M-14156 Scottish Economy (Progress)

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-14156, in the name of John Swinney, on progress in the Scottish economy.


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

Whenever Jackie Baillie lodges an amendment to a Government motion it is interesting to look at what she wants to delete. The first thing that she wants to delete is that we are in the

“longest period of ... economic growth”.

Obviously, the Labour Party does not want to celebrate that. I diverge dramatically from Jackie Baillie’s position in that regard. However, I agree with her that it is important that we look at educational inequality. It is a proper moral and practical thing for us to invest in people who are not performing so well and who have unrealised potential. Educating people who need additional help will create additional jobs—that is good. It will bring those people to the job market and make them more effective contributors to our economy and society. That is good, too. What it will not do in the short term is improve productivity in our economy. However, it is something that we most certainly should do.

We have to think about what kind of jobs there will be in the future and how our economy, and employment in it, will look—not just this year, next year or in five years, but in 20 years.

A range of issues have not yet come up in the debate. There are inhibitors in the way that public policy works that will, if they are allowed to continue unchecked, make things more difficult. For example, many businesses in my part of Scotland find it difficult to get deliveries via parcel services and so on because there is no adequate universal service provision. I heard of someone who could not get something delivered by Amazon to Aberdeen. The material concerned was potentially flammable and Amazon said that it would have to cross water to get to Aberdeen. Delivery services can inhibit receipt of goods and services in many areas of Scotland. It is a significant issue. In the opposite direction, companies’ being unable to have their goods collected from their premises inhibits economic growth and development.

We might think about some good and underexploited issues. I have a Betamax tape. It is only 25 years old and I can no longer watch it, but I have a piece of family paperwork from more than 200 years ago that I can read. The National Library of Scotland is taking a leading role in protecting the records of our country from obsolescence through technological change. It is developing ways in which electronic databases can be migrated over time. Paper has historically looked after itself, but in the modern world, with our storage of information being largely electronic, there is a huge risk that we will lose lots of that information. The Government should be encouraged to support the National Library of Scotland. That work will create a specialist skill in Scotland that will be of great benefit all over the country and all over the world, and will create commercial opportunities.

We have to improve delivery of electronic services to everyone in our country. We have to come up with technological solutions and investment to support the 5 per cent of us, in which I include myself—and I speak with a heartfelt plea—who are on exchange-only lines that cannot be connected to fibre optic cable. I see that Alex Johnstone is in similar difficulty.

Yesterday I had lunch at Hergés on the Loch in Tweedbank, for which I say thank you to Borders rail. I now want to move to our building the case for Buchan rail, because Fraserburgh, with a population of 15,000, is 37 miles from the nearest railway station, and Peterhead, with a population of 19,000, is 32 miles from the nearest railway station. That is the next big rail project: I hope that the Government looks at it in early course.


01 September 2015

Programme for Government 2015-16


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

I, too, congratulate the First Minister and all the Government team on an excellent programme for a stronger Scotland and, in particular, the support to tackle many of the social ills that are in our society.

There are a number of proposals in the First Minister’s statement and the Government’s programme that I want to touch on. Let me start with food and drink. The industry is an important source of employment in my constituency. We are the home of excellent beef and lamb, and fishing is a strong industry in the north-east of Scotland. We have seen oilseed rape move from being simply a commodity that puts nitrogen back into the soil to delivering first-class extra-virgin oil, which is used in the best kitchens in these islands and beyond. We have seen the north-east of Scotland become a centre for garlic production—we are exporting garlic to France. We are innovating and we are continuing to improve.

There are challenges for the food and drink industry, and I hope that the Government, in supporting the industry, particularly through funding for small and medium-sized enterprises, will look at how we can improve branding for SMEs. Some of the recent troubles in the fish-processing industry in my constituency are based on the inability of even quite large firms to control their own destiny to an adequate extent. Firms do not own the brands but are doing work for others, on short-term contracts, and when the contract moves the effects can be devastating. Firms also do not control the sources of supply of the raw materials for many of the products that they produce. I would like to think that the Government could give support, through the enterprise agencies, to enable companies to develop branding and more robust channels of supply of raw materials. We produce some of the best food and drink in the world, but we can do more and we need more support.

The Government said that it will look at the planning system, which can also touch on the subject of food and drink. When we grant planning consent, be that at local government level or at Government level, we are granting a privilege to the commercial companies that have applied for consent, so we should perhaps be more ambitious about what we seek to get in return. For example, when we are giving planning consent to supermarkets, which exercise heavy control in the food and drink sector, planning consent conditions that require local sourcing could be a part of national policy, which would be implemented by local councils and elsewhere. Under European law, “local” is likely to mean “within Europe”, but we could say that produce must come from small and medium-sized enterprises. We can perhaps create the opportunity for such companies to grow by operating the planning system slightly differently.

The document “A Stronger Scotland: the Government’s Programme for Scotland 2015-16” talks about digital infrastructure to some degree. During the recess, our week away was in Plockton, which was an absolute delight. The town has 6 Mbps broadband, an airport and a railway station—three things that I do not have at home. We even had a 2G phone signal, which I do not have at home. The UK Government’s programme for new masts and phone coverage does not do terribly well; there is not a single new mast in Scotland. I hope that the excellent results that we are seeing in the delivery of better broadband across the Highlands will take us to near universality. For those rural dwellers on exchange-only lines, like me, who cannot be connected to superfast broadband, I hope that some priority will be given to the development and implementation of solutions.

We are making terrific progress and we are ahead of where we might have expected to be some time ago. The programme for Government is excellent, and I commend it to all members.


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