Beattie Media

– in the Scottish Parliament at 12:23 pm on 30th September 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 12:23 pm, 30th September 1999

There is now a ministerial statement on Beattie Media and the activities of professional lobbying firms. I will conclude this business no later than 12:57, and preferably earlier.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour 12:27 pm, 30th September 1999

With permission, Sir David, I would like to make a statement about Beattie Media and the activities of professional lobbying firms.

I learned last Friday, 24 September, that there was to be a report in The Observer of the following Sunday about the activities of the public relations firm Beattie Media. The report duly appeared. It has been widely read and a matter of much comment.

The report was based on a conversation between two employees of Beattie Media and an employee of The Observer who was posing as a representative of clients who were seeking public relations and lobbying assistance. I think it is fair to describe the exchange as being essentially a sales pitch by Beattie Media. The circumstances raise sharply ethical issues. But my particular concern, which I will deal with in this statement, is the claims that were apparently made during the meeting about the conduct of Scottish ministers.

Although I was aware from newspaper reports of the principal allegations, the full text of the transcript was not made available to me until late yesterday afternoon. I am grateful to you, Sir David, for agreeing at short notice to allow me to make this statement.

The first major matter relating to the conduct of ministers concerns an invitation to Sam Galbraith as sports minister to attend the Glasgow Rangers v Beitar Jerusalem game on 1 October 1998. The representatives of Beattie Media claim privileged access to the minister and his diary and the ability to influence his thinking on policy matters. They are quoted as saying:

"We took the Sports Minister along to the Rangers game . . . we did it . . . we started the debate".

The Scottish Premier League issued a straightforward invitation to the minister to attend that match. There is no reason whatever why the sports minister should not have attended a football game, and indeed it would be extraordinary if he did not discuss the future of the game with his hosts. I am satisfied that there was no impropriety involved. Any involvement by Beattie Media had no influence on the handling of that invitation.

Secondly, Beattie Media representatives are quoted as saying:

"Yeah, we landed a major project"—

[Laughter.] I am quoting accurately. I might not be very good at the slang, but I am doing my best to pronounce it correctly.

Beattie Media representatives are quoted as saying, "Yeah". [Laughter.]

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

If there is one person to whom I do not intend to listen about the vernacular of Scotland, it is the leader of the Conservative party.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

Beattie Media representatives were quoted as saying:

"Yeah, we landed a major project, £60 million tourism project on the banks of Loch Lomond . . . we asked Henry McLeish if he'd come along and make the official presentation. He turned up, made the presentation, had a chat with the principals involved, and then had a very newsworthy photocall with a golden eagle on his arm".

Again, I am entirely satisfied that the invitation to a minister to attend that event was received in the normal way and dealt with appropriately. Indeed, the invitation first came to my own office from the developers. After receiving advice from the department, I suggested that the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning attend because of his responsibility for tourism. Again, any involvement by Beattie Media had absolutely no bearing on ministers' decisions in that matter.

Thirdly, it is suggested that there was a problem with the Loch Lomond project relating to an environmental issue and that Beattie Media

"briefed Jackie Baillie on that as well . . . It was done . . . it wasn't too difficult to achieve".

The truth is that the Deputy Minister for Communities received an invitation from the developers in her capacity as a local member, and she accepted in that capacity. She was not briefed by that company and is not aware of having been instrumental in solving any "problem", at least on that occasion. It would have been very odd if the local MSP had not been present at the opening of such a major development in her constituency. Once again, any involvement by Beattie Media had no influence on the minister.

The fourth point relates to the Minister for Finance. The suggestion is that Beattie Media has privileged access to him. Again, I quote:

"We speak to Jack regularly. I can pick up the phone to Jack, as Kevin can, as Gordon can."

Further, it is implied that Beattie Media had access to the minister's diary and was in a position to commit him to engagements on behalf of its clients. There is an account of a conversation about a particular event with the minister's constituency secretary, who strongly denies Beattie Media's version of events.

There is no record of any invitation to the event in question being received by the minister's private office and it does not appear even provisionally in his official diary.

Jack McConnell tells me that he has had no discussions with either of the Beattie Media representatives at the meeting since the Scottish elections in May.

Finally, the transcript contains a reference to Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, in his capacity as a United Kingdom minister. It is said that he had been "very, very useful" in relation to trans-shipment arrangements at Prestwick airport. Gus Macdonald does not, of course, answer to me for his conduct as a minister. I have, however, spoken to him and he tells me that he had not spoken to Beattie Media about those negotiations. He was totally unaware of its interest and had neither contact with nor knowledge of APCO UK. Gus Macdonald has made it very clear to me that he would strongly resent and refute any allegation that his decision in that case had been in some way influenced by Beattie Media or its associates.

I need not deal in any detail with other suggestions that have been made on the back of those reports, most of which are based on nothing more than tittle-tattle. Anyone who has been a minister knows that there is a constant stream of invitations, requests for meetings, petitions and demands for one's attention. Firms organising events often seek a minister's presence. Some of them engage PR companies to help them organise the event and to issue such invitations. Beattie Media is in that business. However, involvement in organising events—procuring golden eagles, for example—does not amount to exerting influence over ministers.

I have concluded on the evidence available and in the light of the assurances given to me that there has been no breach of the ministerial code in relation to any of the claims made by representatives of Beattie Media in the meeting reported in The Observer last Sunday. I believe that the ministers concerned have acted properly in every respect and have held to the very high standards laid down in the ministerial code, as I would have expected them to do.

I am reinforced in that conclusion by the statement issued by Beattie Media on Sunday 26 September, in which the company said:

"Like all public-relations consultants and journalists, we do know many Scottish politicians, including Government

Ministers. However, the reality is that Beattie Media has no influence on the Government at Westminster or Holyrood or individual politicians.

I want to make an unreserved public apology therefore to those political figures mentioned in the conversation between the bogus businessman and the two Beattie Media executives."

It was reported on page 2 of The Scotsman on Wednesday 29 September that an investigation into the incident had concluded that the Beattie Media representatives had been guilty of "over-enthusiasm". Others might choose very different words, or find something to say about the way in which they came to be uttered. Clearly, however, the firm does not now maintain that there is substance to the comments. Beattie Media's full apology allows us to draw a line under this particular part of a very unfortunate business.

I believe, however, that the matter should not end there. However baseless the allegations, the very fact that claims of that sort have been made must raise serious concerns in the public mind.

In the light of those events, I have asked my officials to investigate the use of public relations and professional lobbying organisations by all the Scottish public bodies for which we have responsibility. I want to know the full details of the contacts and contracts involved, and I will want to ensure that there can be no question of impropriety, conflict of interest or any other grounds for public concern. I am determined to take every practical measure to ensure that abuse does not occur in future.

It is important that the Standards Committee should take forward its work to put in place a code of conduct for MSPs, building on the work done by the consultative steering group. I encourage the committee to look with care and in depth at any effective safeguards that can be introduced to govern the activities of professional lobbying firms and their contact with members of the Parliament. The public will expect their elected representatives to take the issue very seriously.

The Scottish ministerial code demands, and I expect, that ministers should behave according to the highest standards of constitutional and personal conduct; should account to Parliament, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions that they take; should protect the integrity of public life; and should adhere at all times to the requirements that the Parliament itself lays down. All the ministers in my Administration are fully aware of the requirements of the code and are committed to maintaining its standards.

This has been an unpleasant business, which has attracted much notice. It is clear that the ministers named have not been at fault. I hope that members in all parts of the chamber will work together to achieve the democratic politics that we seek: politics that is open and accessible but also, to the best of our ability, proof against abuse.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

I welcome both the Executive's statement, a copy of which I received in advance, and the announcement of an Executive inquiry into the role of lobbying organisations and PR firms as they affect Executive ministers.

However, am I right in interpreting from his statement that the First Minister is withdrawing his support for a specific inquiry to be carried out by the Standards Committee into the allegations? It would be surprising if that were now his position, as Monday's The Express and Tuesday's The Scotsman have reported. Does not he agree that it would be surprising if he took an apology from Beattie Media—a company that he says tells untruths—as ground for saying that a line should now be drawn under that aspect of the matter? Does not he accept that the Standards Committee has a role in inquiring into the allegations to see whether they are founded?

It would be wrong to condemn anyone before such an inquiry. However, would not it also be wrong to exonerate people before such an inquiry took place? The First Minister says that the ministerial code has not been breached. That would not be surprising as the word "lobbying" appears nowhere in the code. Is not it the case that the ministerial code says that it is improper for ministers to accept honours from foreign Governments, but makes no mention of lobbying organisations in Scotland? In other words, although the code says that it would be wrong for a minister to accept the Légion d'honneur, it gives no guidance about issues such as hospitality from lobbying companies. Does the First Minister accept that the ministerial code is defective in that respect and will he consider changes to the code, which could then be submitted to the Standards Committee?

If the First Minister supports an investigation by the Standards Committee into the specific allegations, will he furnish that committee with copies of the ministerial diaries that he has inspected? Furthermore, on a matter of enormous importance to which he has referred over the past few days, does he accept that evidence to such a committee should be heard in public, not in private?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I welcome very much Alex Salmond's suggestion that we should not jump to conclusions. I hope that that message will remain vividly in the minds of some of his colleagues. I have experienced what has perhaps been the difficulty of listening to some of the broadcasts of recent days—but enough of that.

I am of course interested in Alex Salmond's comments on the ministerial code of conduct. As he knows, it was published some time ago. It was approved by the Westminster Parliament, as I remember. It is no doubt a document of importance and Alex Salmond, as a busy and effective MP at that time, will have examined it. If he is now saying that it is inadequate, we will of course listen to argument and debate—I do not have a closed mind on the matter.

However, I would certainly not accept the implication that, in some way, the document was carelessly put together or does not cover most of the ground that it ought to. If Alex Salmond has points to make about that, I am perfectly prepared to examine them.

The Standards Committee is certainly entitled to conduct its own affairs, and must take advice from its own advisers, including the clerk, on this matter. I will content myself by saying that, when the committee has taken its decisions on what it wants to do, the Administration will, as we would expect, want to co-operate with it as fully as possible.

I repeat that the key is to look forward; to try to put a framework in place within which PR firms can operate, and which does all that can effectively be done—although there are great difficulties about systems—to ensure that there is not abuse in future.

This has been an unhappy business. I thought that it was right to come to the chamber at an early stage—yesterday. I have seen some biting criticism of the fact that I did not make a statement yesterday. Yesterday, I had not even seen the full transcripts, never mind anything else. I had had to rely on press reports as to what the charges were. I have now had inquiries made, and on that basis I said what I said this afternoon.

I would like to think that what I have said has been welcome to the chamber, irrespective of party loyalties.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

I have two further questions: one specific and one general.

First, when the First Minister said that the invitation, claimed by Beattie Media, to Mr McConnell did not even appear, even provisionally, in his diary, was he talking just about his ministerial diary, or had the First Minister also made inquiries into Mr McConnell's constituency diary? Is he satisfied that the invitation never existed?

Secondly, we all want to look forward: I welcome the Executive examining the whole issue of PR companies and I welcome the Standards Committee examining it. All of us in this Parliament should do that. Can the First Minister tell us whether he supports—if it is the Executive's position—the Standards Committee examining the specific allegations, hearing evidence in public and being provided with the ministers' diaries, so that the matter can be cleared up to public satisfaction?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Before the First Minister answers that, I must point out that Mr Salmond's second point is a matter for the committee. The First Minister may be able to give an opinion, but he cannot decide it.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

It is very much a matter for the Standards Committee, and I have made it clear that we will co-operate. I do not want to get into a situation in which we further damage this Parliament and its activities. I agree that we should all be satisfied that there has been no breach of the ministerial code. It may be, from the apology that has been given—there may be further information to come on that—that it is the firm concerned, rather than my colleagues, which must answer questions. I take that view on the basis of what I have seen.

I want to be clear, and I am always glad to clarify anything that is required. My understanding is that the diary of my colleague, Jack McConnell, was kept by his private office, and that any invitations that came to him through his constituency office which were relevant to him in his ministerial capacity would be transferred to his ministerial diary and would appear there—that is the only diary that stands.

In my statement, I did not say that there had been no conversation with Beattie Media. I said that there had been a conversation, but the constituency secretary strongly denied the version of it that appeared in the sales pitch, recorded in the document that we have now received from The Observer. I went on to say that no formal invitation was ever received, and did not appear in any diary of any sort, even on a provisional basis.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I welcome the First Minister's statement. It is important that we repair the damage that the affair has done to the reputation of the Scottish Executive and, by association, to that of this Parliament. As everyone knows, mud sticks, and we have to be seen to be cleaning out the stables: the primary responsibility for that rests with the First Minister and with the Labour party in Scotland.

It is a great pity that the statement has had to be dragged out of the First Minister today, in response— [Interruption.]—let me finish: in response to demands from Opposition parties and to mounting public concern.

The First Minister tells us that the reason for that delay is that he was aware of the full text of the transcript only yesterday afternoon. He seems to have been the last to know. If he was aware of the full circumstances only yesterday afternoon, how is it that one of his many spokesmen issued a statement that was reported in The Express on Monday, which said:

"The First Minister does not believe that there has been any breach of the Ministerial Code"?

If the First Minister did not have a full text of the transcript and did not have all the evidence available to him, how come there was such a rush to judgment on his part on Sunday? It seems an odd statement for one of his spokesmen to issue.

I wish to take up the point made by Mr Salmond on the pending investigation by the Standards Committee. In the First Minister's view, will the Standards Committee be entitled to examine the whole question of the ministerial code of conduct and, in the light of the requirements of the code, this whole affair? Will he give a specific answer to the diaries question, which I think Mr Salmond asked on two occasions and on which, frankly, I do not think we have had a clear answer? Will he have the diaries published, however many may be kept and in whatever format?

I wish to raise two points on the text of the First Minister's statement. As regards the Deputy Minister for Communities and the Loch Lomond project, the First Minister tells us that the deputy minister accepted an invitation to attend an event relative to that project. He says:

"It would have been very odd if the local MSP had not been present at the opening of such a major development".

I accept that: it would be very odd if she had not been present. However, it would be equally very odd if the local MSP was wholly unaware of any problem with that development and apparently took no steps to investigate it or to help to resolve it.

The First Minister received from Mr McConnell the assurance that he

"has had no discussions with either of the Beattie Media representatives at the meeting since the Scottish elections in May."

In other words, Mr McConnell has assured the First Minister that he has had no discussions with Mr Kevin Reid or Mr Alex Barr. Could he please advise us what discussions, if any, Mr McConnell has had with Mr Gordon Beattie or with other members of his organisation during this period?

Does the First Minister consider amendments to the ministerial code to be necessary to cover the relationship between ministers and not only lobbying firms operating as external consultancies, but the lobbying divisions that are employed in-house by many companies and organisations?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I fear that there is nothing that I can welcome in what Mr McLetchie said, and I genuinely regret that.

The conduct of the Standards Committee's business is for the members of that committee. I do not think that it is helpful for them to have people such as Mr McLetchie standing up in the chamber trying to dictate to them what they should or should not do.

I have already said to Mr McLetchie and to the chamber that the Administration will co-operate with the decisions of the Standards Committee. This is a matter for the members of that committee. It is not helpful to turn them into a battering ram with political connotations.

Mr McLetchie mentioned the statements that I made while in Bournemouth. At that stage, all I had was an abbreviated account from The Observer of what would be in the story and press speculation. I knew enough to talk to colleagues who were to be named to get their assurances. At that stage, given the pressure that I was under, it was proper that I said that I had had assurances and that I did not believe that the ministerial code had been breached. That was the most that I could have said at the time and I was careful in my phraseology of that statement.

I returned to Edinburgh yesterday at about 2 o'clock, which is when I saw the transcripts. It was clear at that stage that if I was to make a fuller and more detailed statement than the three or four lines that I issued when the story first broke, there would have to be some investigation. I therefore looked at the original correspondence and the invitation to the famous football match, which came from the Scottish Premier League and was signed by its chief executive, as well as at the history of the Lomond development invitations. I established that there was not a trace of outside influence from any media or public relations firm in those invitations. That allowed me to come forward today, at the earliest opportunity, with the agreement of the Presiding Officer. I could not have made this statement yesterday. That should be self-evident to anyone who is prepared to consider the circumstances fairly.

I accept entirely that the matter will alarm the public, but it is quite clear that ministers have acted properly. It is a matter for ethical debate—which I do not want to enter into at the moment—whether the two employees of Beattie Media acted properly, or whether, as the firm says, they were carried away by over-enthusiasm.

It is important to work hard to establish that proper safeguards are, if possible, in place. Mr McLetchie is concerned that mud sticks. I hope that in the days ahead he will remember that it helps not to throw mud, because it does stick.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

I welcome the First Minister's statement. Does he agree that the convener and members of the Standards Committee are accountable solely to this Parliament and not to the First Minister or the Scottish Executive? Will he join me in condemning the ignorant, inaccurate and—quite frankly—malicious report on the front page of today's Daily Record, which suggests the opposite?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

There are so many reports that— [Interruption.]

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I do not want to comment on any particular report. If I did, we would be here for a very long time. I have just made the point that the Standards Committee is independent and reports to the Parliament. I have been sparing in my diktats as to what the committee should or should not do. It would be helpful if others were equally restrained.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

Does the First Minister agree that the reputation of the Scottish Parliament is far more important than the reputation of any political party, and therefore that sleazemongers must never, ever be allowed privileged access to members, irrespective of the fact that they may be relatives of Cabinet members, ex-employees of the Labour party or ex-employees of Beattie Media who have transferred to Labour's so-called second team?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

Mr Canavan makes a series of rather prejudiced statements and value judgments that do not help us at all. If he is asking whether I believe that sleazemongers should not be able to influence this Parliament, I certainly agree. However, that does not tell us what a sleazemonger is.

As Mr McLetchie will confirm, as we all could from our experience, a large number of lobbying organisations have access to the Parliament, many of which are a world removed from sleaze. A large number of charitable organisations with special interests lobby ministers. It is a phrase—we all go to be "lobbied" on occasion. Those are excellent organisations. At the other end of the scale, there are dangers and possibilities of abuse that must be addressed.

The kind of blanket statement made by Mr Canavan does not advance the cause of finding the right solution at all. I hope that he will consider that before he takes the platform again.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The First Minister referred to the fact that he has asked his officials to investigate the use of public relations companies and professional lobbyists, which Mr Salmond welcomed. Will the First Minister agree to publish a list of the contracts operated by Beattie Media on behalf of the Scottish Executive, local authorities, local enterprise companies, health boards and health trusts in Scotland, as well as specifying the value of each contract and stating whether they were secured by competitive tender?

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

I must give an important explanation. We have asked officials to investigate the use of public relations and professional lobbying organisations by all Scottish public bodies for which we have responsibility. The investigation is not directed at Beattie Media alone, although any contracts that it has will be included in the examination. That is the right thing for us to do. I have already made it clear that we will make every effort to ensure that there is no possibility of abuse in the future. Mr Swinney will no doubt lodge questions on the matter, which, as always, the Executive will try to answer as honestly and as fully as possible.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Given everything that the First Minister has said today, does he agree that the message that must come out of the chamber is that there is no advantage in using lobbying companies? There are 127 members of the Scottish Parliament. [MEMBERS: "There are 129."] Sorry. There are 129 MSPs. I was excluding one or two of them. There are 72 Scottish members of Parliament at Westminster. Surely the best way for people to approach ministers is through the people who have been elected.

Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar Labour

As a generalisation, there might be some force in that. However, if Mr Gallie were to discuss the matter with his friends in industry and business, he would discover—and there were instances of this in the events that we have been discussing and to which my statement refers—that when large and complicated events are mounted, to inaugurate a new project, for example, or if a conference needs to be run, organisations that have taken the business decision not to have a large in-house department to deal with such events might employ outside experts and specialists. Most of the companies that do such work also make representations on behalf of companies. The line is very blurred. It is easy to generalise, but the Standards Committee will have some difficult questions to answer about definitions and the framework in which we want lobbying organisations to operate, if it wants to examine future access by such organisations to this Parliament.

The best defence is the vigilance of individual MSPs. However, if a £20 million industrial development were opening in my constituency—I wish one were—and the firm wrote to me to ask whether I would like to come along and be part of the opening ceremony and join my constituents in celebrating the event, it is difficult to imagine that I would phone the firm to ask whether it was using a PR company to organise the event, and that if it was, I would say that I could not go. Such difficulties can arise. We should all recognise them before we start to talk in absolutist terms, although there were nice, easily defined groups of organisations and companies at the heart of the current problem.

Question, That the meeting be now adjourned until 2.30 pm today, put and agreed to.— [Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

Meeting adjourned at 12:59.

On resuming—