After section 1 — Financial procedures: written agreements

Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:00 pm on 1st December 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party 3:00 pm, 1st December 1999

I am grateful for the amendment's being selected.

The principle that is set out in this amendment is one that the Scottish National party hopes will garner cross-party support. The amendment seeks to be constructive, and to improve the standing of the bill and the relationship between the Executive and the legislature. It seeks to enshrine in legislation what is already happening in the budget process this year, and to ensure that written understandings between the Executive and the legislature are required at every stage of proceedings.

Subsection (1) provides that agreements should exist. Subsection (2) provides that those agreements should, in the first instance, be brought by the Executive, as they are at present. Finally, subsection (3) states that Parliament must agree to the written understandings.

That is the same process as we are engaged in at present. The SNP's idea is that it should happen under any Executive and any Minister for Finance. That does not bind the Executive to anything to which it is not already committed. No one can say now that we would have these agreements if a different Administration were elected. The amendment is to ensure that this helpful process of engagement between the Executive and the legislature is set in stone.

Finally, it requires that Parliament be engaged in that process, so that it will be seen as inclusive.

I hope that the amendment can garner cross-party support. I look forward to hearing that during the debate.

I move amendment 23.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Thank you again for the selection of amendments, Presiding Officer.

I will make a few remarks and I will reserve the right to respond to the debate as well. I hope that on the basis of my remarks, Andrew Wilson may be prepared to reconsider.

As a new Parliament, we do not have the benefit of years of experience, or of established conventions that govern the processes of interaction between the Government and the Parliament. Not all the processes can be easily enshrined in legislation—the processes featured in the amendment come into that category—and neither can they all be dealt with adequately in standing orders. None the less, we must make them work. It is for that reason that we suggested that some of the financial issues advisory group's recommendations be given force, not by legislation, but by a series of understandings. In effect, we are attempting to build conventions in a new Parliament.

The advantage of that approach is that understandings bring flexibility, which is absent using the blunt instrument of legislation. The nature of those processes means that the precise requirements will change over time, in the light of events and changing circumstances. That is not to say that such arrangements should not be honoured; of course they should. The Executive is determined to abide by agreed arrangements. If the Executive ever sought to change those, that could happen only following full discussion with the Finance Committee and the Audit Committee, or with the Parliament.

The amendment seeks to do two things. First, it seeks to give the detailed agreements legislative force. Given the nature of the subject matter—which does not easily lend itself to legislation—I do not think that that is appropriate. As I have already said, I view those as serious undertakings, by which we shall abide.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Mr Wilson will be able to respond later.

Secondly, the amendment seeks to ensure that the terms of any agreements are agreed by resolution of Parliament. That is the key point. It is a matter for the Parliament that does not require legislation. I expect the committees to report to the Parliament on the terms of the proposed agreements, and the Parliament to resolve accordingly. I had always imagined that when the agreements were finalised they would be approved by the Parliament and by the Executive. That is what I understand by agreement. It is not necessary for that requirement to be laid in legislation.

I hope that Mr Wilson will take this important point on board. If the amendment were carried, it would give the power to impose an understanding in the absence of a parliamentary agreement. That was never my intention and I am surprised that that is raised in the amendment—even by accident. The amendment says that if the agreement is not covered by a resolution of the Parliament, the minister's proposed agreement shall be put in place. I do not think that the agreements should be put in place unless they have been agreed by this Parliament and by the Executive. That may not be a deliberate intention of the amendment, but it is clear from subsection (1)(c) that subsection (2) would be in place if an agreement had not been reached by the Parliament.

In all our preparations for and debates on the bill, I have stressed time and again my desire that we agree to our new, democratic and principled procedures without party divisions or conflict between Parliament and the Executive.

I hope, on the basis of the undertakings that I have given again today, that Mr Wilson will withdraw his amendment at the end of the debate.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I thank the minister for his comments and I compliment him on the way that he has handled the bill and the arrangements with the Finance Committee. The comments that I will make today are designed to draw attention to some limited problems, which have emerged from the way in which those matters have been handled. I want to provide clarity for Parliament regarding the way in which it handles such issues in the future.

Let us examine the history of the written agreements to which the minister has referred. The first draft was issued to the Finance Committee on Friday 22 October for it to debate on Tuesday 26 October. I say that not to make pedantic points of detail, but to raise the point that at the outset of the process concern was expressed by members of the Finance Committee about the amount of time that was available for consideration of those written understandings.

In column 45 of the Official Report of the Finance Committee meeting on 26 October those comments were made, not by me, but by Keith Raffan—a member of the Finance Committee.

Once the Finance Committee had provided its views on those issues, the minister issued revised drafts on, I think, 24 November, which was last Wednesday. Those amended drafts have not been considered or agreed by the Finance Committee. Throughout consideration of the bill, the minister has invited us to accept that substantial aspects of financial procedures, in which this Parliament should engage, should not be included in the bill but should be left to written understandings. We are at the stage 3 debate, being asked to agree the contents of the bill, when the Finance Committee and its convener cannot come to Parliament and say that they are content with the contents of the written understandings. That suggests to me that we are being asked to give commitments today when we have not seen all the documents that should have been seen and scrutinised by the Finance Committee. Therefore, a serious parliamentary issue is at the heart of the amendment that we have lodged.

Amendment 23 asks the Executive to agree to nothing more than what it has agreed to already, with one additional point—simply to record in the bill that there is a requirement for such written understandings to exist. I accept without reservation all that the minister said about the need for us to have flexibility in our financial procedures and not to set those procedures in stone. However, I want to put an obligation on the Executive, on its successors and on its successors' successors, to strike an agreement with the Finance Committee and the Parliament about the way in which we conduct our procedural consideration of these matters.

All we ask of the minister is that he formalises a process to which the Executive has consented, and that he inserts the agreement in principle on that point into the bill. I hope that the purpose of the amendment finds favour with many members of the Executive parties who, I know, strongly support the Parliament's committee system. The amendment's purpose is to protect the position of the Finance Committee and its ability to execute properly the functions that it has been given in the first written understanding—functions that we do not want to be eroded in any way in future.

I took part in a debate last night in Dundee, with Mr McAllion, Mr Raffan, Mr Gallie, Mr Harper and various other people, during which Mr Raffan made the point that Parliament would today consider a world-class finance bill. He was absolutely right—the bill is a tremendous step forward. Before arriving at this stage we have given the Executive clear support throughout the Finance Committee's consideration of the bill. However, there is an important issue on financial procedures that we are being asked to consent to, in principle, without there being enough protection for Parliament in the bill—the one point on which we seek the Executive's agreement.

The minister said that the amendment would give the written agreements legislative force—it would not. The SNP wants to give the agreements a status in legislation that will bind the Executive and Parliament to certain obligations. He said that the terms of the agreements had to be agreed by Parliament—that is absolutely right—and that he plans to bring the agreements to Parliament for agreement. His final remark was on the ability of the Executive to impose an agreement. However, that is in no way covered by subsection (2) of our amendment. Subsection (3) adequately covers the need for us to secure agreement between the Executive and Parliament on the issue.

There is nothing in what the minister has said so far that, in my view, questions the validity in principle of our amendment. As I said earlier, the written understandings that we are considering have not been agreed by—or signed off by—the Finance Committee. However, members are being asked to sign off a bill without the consideration that is part of the process being completed.

I therefore suggest that the Minister for Finance consider the opportunity that is available to him under rule 9.8.5 of the standing orders. As the member proposing the bill, he can adjourn stage 3 consideration of the bill—in order to give proper weight to the views of Parliament—if he agrees in principle with an amendment that has been brought forward, but is not absolutely satisfied by the details of the amendment. I make that helpful suggestion to address the way in which the minister could wind up this afternoon's debate.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 3:15 pm, 1st December 1999

I remind members that we have 12 groups of amendments to go through. I am anxious to ensure that we have time for debates on the other groups. If we have not had time for debates, the amendments will be put to the chamber without discussion. I am making an appeal for brief speeches.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

I rise on behalf of the Liberal Democrats to oppose the amendment and support the minister. Much of what the minister said, I would have said. My problem with the amendment is that it is unnecessary. What is more, it reduces flexibility. I take the point that we have not yet debated the amended draft agreements, but their last paragraph makes quite clear that they are agreements between the Finance Committee and the minister.

The minister has co-operated well with the committee—indeed, we got the papers on 22 October, four days before we debated them, which I believed is a record for a minister. I wish that the others would do the same, although I am aware of the pressures that ministers are under.

The agreements are important and the guarantee that the minister has given that they will be debated in this chamber is important. I also think that it is important that we retain flexibility. Mr Swinney was right to say that I said that we have established a world-class budgetary process. That is a tribute to the financial issues advisory group and their excellent report to the minister and to the Executive.

I do not want to make what would be the equivalent of a third-reading speech now, but I must say that we have a world-class system in place. We have a framework that will have to be altered in the light of the experience that we will go through in stages 1, 2 and 3 of a budget bill when we get into a full financial year. I would not want to tie the hands of the Finance Committee or of the minister by enshrining this in legislation at this point. I would rather that the committee and the minister retained a flexibility that allowed us to alter those agreements and understandings in the light of experience. That is common sense.

I oppose the amendment because I believe that it is crucial that we retain flexibility.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

Much of what the previous speakers have said relates to the honesty with which this Parliament is approaching what could be a very good bill for Scotland.

We support, in principle, what Andrew Wilson is trying to achieve with his amendment. Nothing in the bill cannot be dealt with through the amendment. What the amendment does not do is specify what the written agreements are. It provides a framework to which the Parliament, the Finance Committee, the minister and other committees can refer as a method of deliberation and as a means to update the bill when it becomes law.

We need flexibility but we also need to have building blocks in the bill that satisfy the requirements that have been stated on a cross-party basis in the Finance Committee. It is refreshing that people do not divide on party lines in that committee, which has approached the issue positively and sensibly. All members of the committee have made contributions. The wording of the amendment might not be perfect, but I am happy to let the minister use the powers given to him by the standing orders to change the wording to make it more suitable. However, the amendment satisfies the general desire of the members of the Finance Committee.

I see that I am being frowned at by Liberal Democrat members, but we have had a good discussion in the committee. We have demonstrated trust, in that the Finance Committee does not have the written agreements in a discussed form. The amendment would ensure that, whatever discussions take place, either with this Executive or a future one—which might be of a different persuasion—there is an opportunity for this Parliament to deal with the process. In saying so, we support the amendment.

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

I recommend to members that we wind up debate on this amendment, as we are a quarter of the way through our time and we have dealt with only the first amendment, important though it is.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the comments that we have heard so far on this amendment. I hope that they have been made in a spirit of improvement. I say to Mr Raffan that his argument against setting in stone the form of the written agreements does not stand. All that we want to set in stone is the existence of written agreements. The form that those written agreements take can be amended as we choose; there is nothing binding on that. Therefore, his justification for opposing the amendment does not stand.

I hope that the minister will give thought to the opportunity at his disposal to improve the wording.

I am not precious about that. I would be delighted if he agreed to the amendment in principle and took the opportunity to amend it, as both Mr Swinney and Mr Davidson have suggested. I invite all members to support the principle of the amendment.

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

I apologise. I should have allowed Mr McConnell to speak first.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I address the specific point that I made, that this amendment would give more power to the ministers than has ever been envisaged by our drafting of the bill.

I do not have strong views on whether the procedure for agreeing written agreements should be in legislation, although I think that it is better that it is not. If the amendment had addressed that point, we could perhaps have gone ahead today. I do not think that it is necessary to break up the debate and adjourn, to revisit this amendment. I have said very clearly on the record today that these written agreements will be agreed. It will be up to the Parliamentary Bureau to decide how the Parliament agrees them. However, it will be for this Parliament as well as for the Executive to agree them.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I wonder whether the minister will agree with me on two points.

First, because of the inflexibility of this amendment, it may not include some items that we may want to include later. For example, subsection (1)(b) mentions changes only to expenditure allocations. If we wanted to change income allocations during the year, that would not be allowed. There is already that inflexibility.

Secondly, it is always open to the Finance Committee to introduce this in legislation through the Finance Committee at a later date, if we feel that the terms that have been promised today are not being appropriately met.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I think that those are good points that are well made. Flexibility may be an important issue. We may want to have more agreements, in the future, than are listed here.

I hope that Mr Swinney will listen to this point. The amendment says:

"Scottish ministers shall ensure that . . . administrative arrangements" will conform to

"an agreement established under subsection (3) or, if no such agreement has been established, proposed agreements under subsection (2)."

That means that, if this Parliament has not passed the written agreement that is referred to in subsection (3) by resolution, our proposed agreement, without amendment by the Finance Committee or discussion in the Parliament, will become the written agreement that is put in place.

What I have said again clearly today is that I want written agreements to be agreed here—not just proposed by ministers—by Parliament and the Executive.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

The agreement of this amendment would lead to a situation in which the ministers would have more authority than they would have had otherwise. Much as I might enjoy that, we have sought all the way through to avoid that situation. I ask once again that this amendment be withdrawn. If it is not, I am prepared to recommend that the Parliament vote against it.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I thank the minister for allowing me to intervene. This subject is not an unfamiliar one in debate between the two of us, as we have discussed it many times in the Finance Committee. I refer him to the Official Report of the Finance Committee from 2 October, when I raised exactly the same issue. At stage 2 of the bill, we were encouraged not to amend the contents of the bill, as the written understandings would be in a condition and a position before we completed the process of the bill. We do not have Finance Committee agreement on the contents of those written understandings, yet we are being asked to sign off the process today.

I ask the minister, who, in the process of his speech, has not objected in principle to there being reference in legislation to the written understandings, to accept the offer that I have made to him today and to consider this issue, bearing in mind that the Finance Committee's rights have been compromised by the fact that we have not had the opportunity to sign off those written understandings.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

It is unfortunate that, when we have been trying to build a consensus around this bill, and when the revised arrangements are based on the comments of the Finance Committee and the Audit Committee that were circulated last week and are in the public domain, we are facing what I regard as an attempt by Mr Swinney to point-score about the timing of the arrangements. I do not think that that is appropriate.

Today a firm undertaking has again been given that these understandings will not be put in place without the agreement of this Parliament, which is exactly what this amendment is meant to be about. Because such an undertaking has been given, the amendment is unnecessary. It would give additional powers to ministers that my version of the understandings would not give and, as Dr Simpson has correctly pointed out, would put in place an inflexible list of arrangements that could not be added to. That would be wrong, because we may want to have more understandings in the future. Those are the points that have been made, and I hope that they inform the judgment that members make.

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

That was a good try, Mr Davidson, but I think that Mr McConnell had finished. I am sorry, but we must come to a decision.

The question is, that amendment 23 be agreed to. Are we all agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 1

For: Adam, Brian, Aitken, Bill, Campbell, Colin, Canavan, Dennis, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Davidson, Mr David, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Elder, Dorothy-Grace, Ewing, Fergus, Ewing, Mrs Margaret, Fabiani, Linda, Fergusson, Alex, Gallie, Phil, Gibson, Mr Kenneth, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Grahame, Christine, Hamilton, Mr Duncan, Harding, Mr Keith, Harper, Robin, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Mr Adam, Johnston, Mr Nick, Johnstone, Alex, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, MacDonald, Ms Margo, Marwick, Tricia, Matheson, Michael, McGrigor, Mr Jamie, McLeod, Fiona, McLetchie, David, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Quinan, Mr Lloyd, Reid, Mr George, Scanlon, Mary, Swinney, Mr John, Tosh, Mr Murray, Ullrich, Kay, Wallace, Ben, Welsh, Mr Andrew, White, Ms Sandra, Wilson, Andrew, Young, John
Against: Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Barrie, Scott, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Brown, Robert, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Dewar, Donald, Eadie, Helen, Gillon, Karen, Godman, Trish, Gorrie, Donald, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Dr Sylvia, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Cathy, Kerr, Mr Andy, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, MacKay, Angus, MacLean, Kate, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, McAllion, Mr John, McCabe, Mr Tom, McConnell, Mr Jack, McMahon, Mr Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, McNulty, Des, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Ms Irene, Peacock, Peter, Radcliffe, Nora, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Iain, Smith, Margaret, Thomson, Elaine, Welsh, Ian, Whitefield, Karen
Abstentions: Watson, Mike

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

The result of the division is as follows: For 44, Against 54, Abstentions 1.

Amendment 23 disagreed to.