Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 7th February 2002.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 2:30 pm, 7th February 2002

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-2619, in the name of Alex Neil, on the general principles of the Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons. Members who are leaving the chamber should do so quickly and quietly. I hope that they will use all the exits.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 3:32 pm, 7th February 2002

I will pay tribute to and thank four sets of people: first, those who drafted the bill; secondly, the Parliament's non-Executive bills unit, which is one of the Parliament's biggest assets; thirdly, the clerk to the Local Government Committee; and fourthly, the clerk to the Equal Opportunities Committee. I will not offer gratitude to the majority members of each committee, who I think fell down at the last hurdle.

The aims of my bill are twofold. The first aim is to increase democratic accountability and transparency for public appointments in Scotland. The second aim is to put an end, once and for all, to the practice and culture of cronyism, which has pervaded public appointments in Scotland for far too long.

My bill seeks to give the Parliament the power to vet and, in extreme cases, to veto public appointments. If enacted, it would give the Parliament a duty to scrutinise the nominations for the chairs of quangos and would give the Parliament the power to scrutinise other nominations without necessarily going to confirmation. Experience elsewhere shows that only 0.1 per cent of the other nominees would ever come in front of a committee for scrutiny, but the very existence of the power will mean that ministers will think twice before they put their pals forward for the cushy and lucrative numbers in the quangos.

We are talking about ensuring parliamentary control of a set of people who have enormous power in Scotland. There are 114 quangos and more than 900 people are involved. Next year, those people will spend about £9 billion of public money in Scotland. That is a huge sum of money. One quango spends nearly £700 million of public money, so the Parliament has a duty to ensure that the person who is in charge of that organisation has the ability, expertise and experience to do the job.

There have been many red herrings and I have no doubt that we are about to hear more of them this afternoon. The first red herring is that the bill will politicise the process. After last week, who in their right mind—unless they have been living on Mars or in East Kilbride—could believe that the process is not already political? Is not every appointment made by a minister? Is not every minister a politician? Does not that make the process political?

Despite the fact that the number of Labour party activists—currently falling quickly throughout the country—represents about 2.2 per cent of the population, Labour party representation among the chairmanships of the water boards is not 0.2 per cent but 100 per cent. If we examine all the public appointments for which a political affiliation has been declared, the proportion of Labour party members is not 0.2 per cent but 66 per cent. If we consider the independent assessors—the word "independent" must be used fairly liberally and certainly not accurately—we find that 50 per cent of those who were nominated last week were Labour party supporters. I would say that there is already a touch of politicisation in the process.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I am grateful for the opportunity to slow down Mr Neil in the middle of his peroration. Will he confirm that, as convener of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, he was asked to nominate the independent assessors that he has just mentioned? I hold in my hand a document that lists the independent assessor posts and the bodies that were invited to make nominations, among which Alex Neil's name is listed.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I did not nominate anyone because I do not believe in the process. I, too, have the list of organisations that were invited to make nominations. Of the 32 local authorities in Scotland, only three were invited to make nominations. Angus Council was not one of those three. To be fair, Clackmannanshire Council was invited. Dundee City Council was also invited. No Liberal council was invited to make a nomination. The other council that was invited to nominate was Glasgow City Council, which supports my bill.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Does the member accept that the normal way for the Executive to consult councils is through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities? The three councils that Alex Neil referred to are those that have chosen not to be members of COSLA. The Executive did not want simply to exclude those councils. Every other council was consulted through COSLA.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Not only was he a poor minister, he is a poor Liberal Democrat. He is neither Liberal nor Democrat. Unbelievable. Iain Smith seems not to know the wording of his own 1999 manifesto, which stated that the Liberal Democrats were committed to—as always, I quote accurately and precisely—

"a system of open nomination and confirmation".

That was the Liberal promise, but look at them on the Liberal benches now. The price of a Liberal principle is four Mondeos. If I looked across and saw a shiver, it would not find a spine to run up.

One of the other red herrings is that the bill will discourage people from applying to be quango members. Where is the evidence? Last week, we had a raging success for the applications for the positions of independent assessor, when we received 27 applications for 12 jobs. That is an amazing rate of application.

I will tell members why people will not apply for the jobs. They will not apply for the jobs because many of them think, rightly or wrongly, that without a Labour party card, they have no chance of getting them. They will not apply for the jobs because, under the present system, there is trial by media. There is no proper system of parliamentary scrutiny, so the scrutiny occurs on the front pages of the newspapers and on radio and television. Those nominated have no right of reply. Under my system, their rights would be protected because they would come to a confirmation hearing and would get a proper hearing that focused on their ability to do the job.

Another red herring is that, during the confirmation hearing, we would go down the road of questioning people about their personal life. To those who say that, I say, "Read the bill." The bill is carefully crafted. There are only four areas on which people can be interviewed—including the code of practice, the statutory requirements and their ability to do the job. The idea that people would be disinclined—

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Sit doon the noo. Iain Smith will get a chance to speak later. I am sure that we will all be on tenterhooks.

What surprises me about the Liberal Democrats is—

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I was going to say what surprised me, not what their intelligence quotient is.

I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats are allowing themselves to be tarred with the brush of Labour cronyism, which is what they are doing. Lanarkshire Labour's practices have been imported into Scotland's Parliament—cronyism, and the culture of cronyism.

There are some exceptions. The former First Minister said in Scotland on Sunday:

"This Parliament should have the power to vet and veto appointments to the quangos."

Henry McLeish was absolutely right; and to be fair to him, had he still been First Minister, the bill would have had a fairer hearing from the Executive than it has had.

Let us look at the Liberal Democrats. Speaking on their behalf down south, Shirley Williams has said that they want a system of parliamentary scrutiny and confirmation hearings. Mark Oaten, one of their famous speakers in the House of Commons, has said that they want a system of open confirmation and nomination. Let us face it: unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats have been bought off. They shame the name of liberalism and the philosophy of liberalism. This bill implements not only a Liberal manifesto commitment but a Liberal philosophy. The late John Bannerman and the late Jo Grimond must be turning in their graves when they consider this shower of modern-day Liberals.

I ask the Liberals, and I ask decent Labour folk, to think about the bill. It is about the new politics; it is about democratic representation; it is about the new Scotland; it is about getting rid of cronyism; and it is about making this a Parliament that we can start to be proud of.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 3:44 pm, 7th February 2002

I am not sure that we actually heard any arguments about Alex Neil's bill in the course of that rant. During question time, Alex Neil asked us to form an opinion on whether his head buttoned up the back; I do have an opinion on that, and I also notice that his jacket no longer buttons up the front. That is for sure.

From what we have heard today and over the past two weeks, it is clear that Alex Neil is not in the slightest bit interested in improving the operations of government. He is interested only in trying to provide himself and his cronies with a vehicle to try to smear the Labour party—something that he always seeks to do.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

No, I want to make progress.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

It is clear that Alex Neil seeks deliberately to take us along the route to a political battleground that none of us wants to see. It is noticeable that, over the past couple of weeks, Alex Neil has not sought to smear the individuals who have been appointed, because he knows that they have been appointed on merit. Similarly, two SNP activists that Alex Neil nominated just a few months ago, using the system that he now denigrates, were appointed on merit as independent assessors. I have the letter in my hand to prove that.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I want to put it firmly on record that we were approached when Mr McConnell was the relevant minister and that Mr Salmond agreed to make nominations on behalf of the SNP, on condition that that was the last time that they were done that way and that in future the process would be open and democratic. We were given an undertaking, but as usual the promise was broken.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am happy to leave the letter that makes the nominations and which is signed by Alex Neil for members to study.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

Will the minister confirm that the letter is not signed by Alex Salmond, the former MSP who escaped to Westminster?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I can confirm that the letter is signed by Alex Neil MSP.

I want to set out why we oppose the bill so firmly. Our position derives from consideration of the wide range of initiatives that the Executive is taking to promote openness in government and to open up public life to scrutiny—to make it more transparent, independent and accountable. That is in stark contrast to what we believe would be the damaging effects of the Public Appointments (Parliamentary Scrutiny) (Scotland) Bill.

In 1995, even the Tories recognised that they had to clean up their act and begin to appoint people on merit. The Nolan report was commissioned and signalled a watershed in how public appointments are undertaken—merit came to the forefront. The discretion of ministers was narrowed substantially, a code of practice was brought into force and independent assessors were appointed. The system is now audited and political activities are recorded, an annual report is given to the Scottish Parliament and there are major diversity initiatives that try to bring a wider range of people into modern public service. We have adopted all that.

Parliament has also approved the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc (Scotland) Act 2000, which sets up a standards commissioner. Members of non-departmental public bodies are now required to declare and register their interests and, if they fail to do so adequately, severe sanctions follow. The Parliament is currently considering the Scottish Public Sector Ombudsman Bill, which will make it easier for people to complain about deficiencies in administration in public service. That, too, is independent of Parliament. We have introduced the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Bill, which will give rights of access to information and create an independent commissioner to adjudicate in matters relating to those rights.

Despite all that progress, we want to go much further. We propose to create a Scottish commissioner for public appointments. We will give new additional powers to that commissioner, such as the power to appoint independent assessors and to train and evaluate them—removing that from ministers.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

No, I am not giving way.

We are giving the commissioner a power to whistleblow on any minister who seems to be abusing the code. The matter will be referred to Parliament and the process will stop until the Parliament considers the matter. The commissioner will be appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of Parliament—not ministers. The budget for the post will come from the Parliament—not the Executive—thereby strengthening the independent position of the commissioner's office.

The Parliament itself will get major new powers. We would like to see a public appointments committee, with the power to interview the commissioner and recommend their appointment to the Queen, to receive and scrutinise the annual report and to lead a debate in Parliament. The committee would also receive the whistleblower report to which I referred a moment ago.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

No, I must get on.

There will be new duties on ministers to notify committees about vacancies and appointments and to verify that the commissioners are content with the process.

Against the background of radical reform, more independence and more scrutiny in the Parliament, Alex Neil's bill is not only irrelevant, but takes us back in time. The bill owes its origins to a pre-Nolan and pre-devolution view of the world.

There is no support for Alex Neil's bill. The Executive consulted on public appointments and no support for the bill was indicated. The Local Government Committee has also indicated that it does not support the bill. Alex Neil's bill on the hearing system would significantly compromise the role of the independent commissioner and make his or her judgment subject to second-guessing by a parliamentary committee. That would conflict with the commissioner's role.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Is it appropriate for a minister to be economic with the truth, in saying that there is no support for the bill, when there were 100 submissions in support of it?

Members:

That is not a point of order.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

The chair will judge that. It is not a point of order.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

We also believe that the role that Alex Neil envisages would conflict significantly with the role of the commissioner. The commissioner's specific role is to monitor the process and to scrutinise. What would his or her role be if a hearing process were introduced? It would undermine and compromise significantly the commissioner's office and its independence.

I take up Alex Neil's specific point about diversity. We believe that the bill would undermine significantly the efforts to achieve diversity. There is a major drive to ensure that it is not the usual suspects, but a new range of people who are put on public bodies.

We are targeting unrepresented groups—disabled people, people from ethnic minorities, women, the SNP and other minority groups—and we are encouraging those people to apply.

Through a work-shadowing initiative, we are making sure that people can shadow people who are on currently on public bodies so that applicants can be confident that they can do the job. There is an extensive series of workshops and events to encourage people to apply.

As Alex Neil has indicated, it is hard enough at the moment to attract people. If people believe that they will have to face parliamentary scrutiny, particularly if that scrutiny is conducted in the utterly disreputable way in which Alex Neil has behaved in the past few weeks, it is no wonder that they will find it difficult to apply. Anybody in the chamber who wishes to examine the evidence given to the committee by Dame Rennie Fritchie can do so.

We believe that the proposed system is designed to politicise significantly and bring into disrepute and constant argument the process of nominating and electing people to public bodies. Show trials would become the order of the day. As the past two weeks have shown, the SNP is quite clear that it would target individuals. It would seek deliberately to block the system of appointments and try to grind it to a halt. We firmly believe that Alex Neil's bill does not take us in the right direction.

The Executive's proposals are fundamentally more comprehensive, thoughtful and thorough. They ensure a clear role for Parliament and that is why the Executive will not support Alex Neil's bill.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 3:52 pm, 7th February 2002

There is a perception that an old-pal network thrives in Scotland, corroding and undermining democracy and public confidence. The reality is that an old-pal network in Scotland, thriving, corroding and undermining democracy and public confidence.

Lack of confidence in quango appointments is a challenge that must be addressed. Alex Neil's bill tackles the 900 Executive appointments made to the 114 Scottish quangos.

This week we heard about the 50 per cent of independent Labour— [Interruption.] Did I say "independent Labour"? That is going back a bit. This week we heard that 50 per cent of independent assessors are from the Labour party.

There are even Executive cronies at the top level of assessors. Alex Neil's bill provides a practical means of delivering accountability, which ensures that appointments are not only made on merit but are seen to be made on merit. That would begin to restore public confidence in the appointments procedure.

There is a lack of public confidence in the procedure. That came out in Dame Rennie Fritchie's evidence to the committee. The public believes that there is political interference in the process. We must address the perception as well as the reality of the situation.

At the outset, let me say that I am disappointed with the Local Government Committee's approach to the bill. It seemed that minds had been made up and that circular arguments were made to justify what was, frankly, unjustifiable.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I am sure the member will get his chance later.

Let us examine some of the conclusions of the Local Government Committee, from which Sandra White and I exempted ourselves.

First, let us examine the conclusion that the bill will deter people from diverse backgrounds from applying for public appointments. That argument was based on a vague assertion in the Executive's consultation paper.

Even the research that the Executive commissioned to consider the specific issue of deterrence failed to come up with any hard evidence. The Executive claims that it does not want to deter people from the broad pool of potential candidates, but experience shows that the current situation fails to encourage people to apply.

A further conclusion was that

"the Bill could render nominees for public appointments more vulnerable to discrimination than would otherwise be the case."

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

The committee accepts that under the bill the Parliament would be required to consider

"any statutory requirements concerning the person appointed", which would include anti-discrimination legislation. Therefore, the idea that a committee of MSPs of this Parliament would turn down an individual because of their race, gender, religion or any other such issue is, quite frankly, ludicrous.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

No, I will not give way to Michael McMahon. He made circular arguments in committee; I will not engage in those arguments during my time in the chamber.

The third conclusion of the Local Government Committee was that the bill

"will slow down key appointments".

There is absolutely no evidence to support that. The committee decided to ignore the submissions from the Scottish Civic Forum and Glasgow City Council, which both commented that concerns about delays had been overstated. Of the 12 submissions in favour of the bill, not one raised that as a concern.

The Local Government Committee's sixth conclusion was that the bill

"will depend excessively on changes to the Parliament's Standing Orders, which cannot be scrutinised at this stage."

The Local Government Committee completely ignored the advice of the experts on that issue. The Subordinate Legislation Committee, which deals solely with the technical aspects of legislation, concluded:

"The procedures described are entirely suited to standing orders rather than statutory instrument or primary legislation."

The Local Government Committee ignored the recommendations of the Subordinate Legislation Committee on that point.

Finally, the Local Government Committee said that the bill

"will lead to a politicisation of the appointments process".

Alex Neil covered that point more than adequately. The point is that the system is already political, and that we need to find a way to take political hands out of the process all together.

I turn now to the Executive, because in September, when it made its original submission to the Local Government Committee, it was confident to the point of arrogance. There was no mention of a public appointments commissioner (Scotland) bill then. No—the Executive believed that responsibility for making appointments to public bodies that are accountable to the Executive must rest with ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament for their actions.

Since Labour came to power, 60 per cent of the political appointees who declared a political affiliation were Labour supporters. That revelation did nothing to back up the Executive's complacent assertion that everything is okay as far as quango appointments are concerned. Alex Neil's bill is needed more now than it has ever been.

The Executive was caught with its trousers down. It recognised that the public were seriously concerned about the number of political appointments that it was making, so it had to come up with its own system, come hell or high water. As a result, the Deputy Minister for Finance and Public Services turned up at the Local Government Committee to give evidence on Alex Neil's bill, but took the opportunity to come along with a proposed bill of his own. The proposed bill had been cobbled together over the weekend. The minister's presentation consisted of seven slides; the first six were devoted to the Executive's plans, which we were not considering, and there was one slide on Alex Neil's bill, which we were supposed to be considering.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Peter Peacock has described Alex Neil's bill as being out of its time, like a dinosaur roaming a past age. It is not the bill that is a dinosaur, it is the old-pal network, which poisons confidence in democracy. That network and those perceptions must go—and soon.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 3:59 pm, 7th February 2002

This is an important debate. Debates that deal with such large budgets are always important, but that is not the principle issue today. Mr Neil—who we do not regard as a repository of all intellect and intelligence—deserves some credit, because he is seeking to introduce measures that will combat the growing and pernicious culture of cronyism that has permeated Scottish public life for years. While we do not agree with the bill in its entirety, it is manifestly clear that some action must be taken to make public appointments more transparent and open.

It was with feelings of incredulity that I read the comments of the Local Government Committee. The Labour-Liberal majority considered that the bill's proposals would

"lead to a politicisation of the appointments process".

By any standard, that is an astonishing statement, but it is par for the course.

In answer to parliamentary questions last November, Angus MacKay—then a minister—confirmed that more than 60 per cent of the appointees to quangos had declared political affiliation to the Labour party, and that trend increases.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I must continue.

Of the appointments that have been made since January 2000, 75 per cent have been Labour supporters. As Alex Neil said, when the so-called independent assessors were appointed, six declared an affiliation to the Labour party, and against that background the Local Government Committee fears politicisation of the appointments process. The situation is a scandal that borders on the Kafkaesque.

Scotland has the problem of a culture of cronyism. Labour has dominated many areas of Scottish political life for many years. It has won more parliamentary and council seats than other parties. As democrats, we cannot complain that Labour runs elected authorities, but when Labour seeks to use its electoral dominance to control every aspect of Scottish public life, it is time to protest and take action.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

There is a nauseating hypocrisy about Labour's approach. The party of Blair-speak, with its pious lectures about inclusivity, cross-party approaches and the spirit of the new politics jars with reality. It is a serious concern that many Labour politicians cannot differentiate between the public good and what is good for the Labour party. For many, the only criterion is what is good for them personally. That lies behind the criticisms that the Local Government Committee made. Labour does not trust parliamentary committees to use the proposed scrutiny powers properly, because committee members are politicians. It is absurd that the committee appears totally relaxed about the idea that a minister of one political party will be less prone to political manoeuvring than a committee. The statistics that the chamber has been given show that that is a fallacy.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

No.

No impartial observer could be anything but disappointed by the Executive's position on the bill, as outlined by Peter Peacock and the committee. The Executive's proposals are anodyne at best and will provide little confidence. One must wonder what is behind them. The fact is that the Labour party is hotchin with control freaks who are desperate to direct every aspect of Scottish public life.

The new commissioner that Peter Peacock proposes would no doubt have to meet with the approval of Keir Hardie House. It is more than likely that some party apparatchik will find his or her way on to the public payroll.

I will now deal with the Liberal Democrats. They put similar proposals to those in the bill in their election manifesto, and in opposing the bill, they have taken hypocrisy to even greater levels than we have come to expect from them. People are understandably sick and tired of their sanctimonious cant.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

That cant is invariably followed by a weird and wonderful collection of weasel words, as the Liberal Democrats support Labour policies that they know to be wrong in order to maintain their place in the coalition.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

On this issue, the credibility of Labour's Liberal Democrat bootlickers is non-existent.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Order. Mr Scott is becoming over-excited. Mr Aitken is not responding.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

We recognise that not everything in Mr Neil's bill is correct, although it bears many similarities to the Conservative proposals that were outlined at Westminster, where the matter has been discussed and where the Liberal Democrats largely support our proposals.

We accept that many dangers exist. The one aspect of Peter Peacock's contribution with which we agree is about the danger of witch hunts and political grandstanding. However, the flaws in Mr Neil's bill could be resolved at stage 2. We are content to support the bill's progress to that stage. We will not allow the status quo to remain as a blot on Scottish public life.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 4:04 pm, 7th February 2002

I am always flattered by the SNP's determination to ensure that the Scottish Liberal Democrat manifesto is implemented. That determination gives a rare whiff of good judgment that is sorely lacking in almost everything else the SNP does.

We have heard the same tired old record from Alex Neil and Bill Aitken. Alex Neil lodged his proposal two and a half years ago, but the debate and the Executive have moved on; it is time Alex Neil caught up. If he wants to give the Liberal Democrats a hand with implementing our manifesto, he should join us in supporting the Executive's proposals.

As part of the partnership Government, the Liberal Democrats contribute fully to the development of Scottish Executive policy. In public appointments, as in many other areas of policy including tuition fees, free personal care, freedom of information and land reform, Liberal Democrats lead the way. The new proposals, which Peter Peacock announced to the Local Government Committee on 15 January and which he confirmed today, are different to those that were contained in "Public Bodies: Proposals for Change" last June.

It is no secret that the Liberal Democrats did not think that the appointment procedure that was laid out in that document went far enough. In particular, the role of the Parliament in scrutinising the appointments process was inadequate. That is why the Liberal Democrats proposed changes that would strengthen Parliament's role and why Liberal Democrat ministers negotiated those changes.

Peter Peacock outlined the new proposals, so I will refer only to the key points. They include a public appointments committee and a Scottish public appointments commissioner, who will be recommended by the Parliament. The commissioner will appoint independent assessors, who will oversee every public appointment in Scotland. The commissioner will have the right to delay an appointment and to draw it to the attention of the Parliament if he or she is concerned that the Nolan principles have not been adhered to. Notice of vacancies and appointments will be given to the relevant committees of the Parliament. The substantial shift in the balance between ministers and Parliament will ensure effective and independent scrutiny. It would be a brave minister indeed who ignored the commissioner and the Parliament.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto did not call for public confirmatory hearings for all appointments to quangos. The new proposals more than satisfy our manifesto commitment for

"a Public Appointments Committee of Parliament with a system of open nomination and confirmation."

Does Alex Neil believe that the Scottish Parliament should approve every appointment to the Scottish standing committee for the calculation of residual values of fertilisers and feeding stuffs? That is what his bill proposes. We must consider whether to approve the general principles of the bill. Although Tricia Marwick suggested otherwise, the Local Government Committee gave careful consideration to the bill and concluded that although greater scrutiny of public appointments is required, the bill is not the most appropriate vehicle through which to achieve that.

The Local Government Committee's report contains serious concerns about the bill. For example, the bill might deter people from diverse backgrounds from applying—Dame Rennie Fritchie's evidence convinced the committee of that—and it might blur the lines of ministerial accountability. The Equal Opportunities Committee, the commissioner for racial equality and the committee's legal advice stated that the implications of the bill for the rights of individuals under equality legislation are uncertain. Time forces me to leave those matters for other members to deal with in full. I found Alex Neil's oral evidence, and his speech today, on those matters to be unconvincing.

I want to mention the committee's concerns about the politicisation of the process and the absence in the bill of clear guidance on how and why appointments could be challenged. There is nothing in the bill to say how that would be done; it is left to the standing orders.

In his evidence to the committee, Alex Neil made much of the unfairness to candidates of the present system. He said that they can be vilified in the press because of their political affiliation, but that they have no right to reply. He said:

"At present, a nominee who happens to be a member of a political party ends up being trailed through the papers and hammered simply because he or she is a member of a political party, whether or not he or she is the right person for the job."—[Official Report, Local Government Committee, 15 January 2002; c 2626.]

In his evidence to the Equal Opportunities Committee he went even further. He said:

"For example, the minute that Esther Roberton's appointment to the head of SFEFC was announced, MSPs made major criticisms in the press that the only reason that she had been appointed was because she had been a member of the Labour party ... she did not have the right of reply. As a result, she began the job under a cloud".—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 11 December 2001; c 1324.]

That is a tragic tale. Someone was forced to start work under a cloud because a member of the Scottish Parliament had taken less than a minute to scrutinise the appointment before rushing to the press to denounce it. Who is the quick-fire MSP who can judge someone's suitability for a job in less than 60 seconds?

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Iain Smith has not commented on Esther Roberton's other jobs; for example, as chair of Fife Health Board and her other quango appointment. She might well have the qualifications for her present position, but we were never allowed to examine the matter. There is something wrong with a situation in which a Labour party member has had three top quango jobs since this lot came to power.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Tricia Marwick's criticism was not that Esther Roberton had jobs on other quangos, but that she got the job unfairly because she was a prominent member of the Labour party. She said so in The Herald . Alex Neil thinks that we need the bill to protect public appointees because he cannot trust his SNP colleagues not to jump to conclusions in less than a minute.

Let me turn to the text of Alex Neil's motion on the recent appointment of independent assessors, which was published in the business bulletin on Monday.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I want to cover this important point. I am not here to defend the status quo. In fact, I do not support the status quo, which is why I support the Executive's new proposals. Does Alex Neil really believe, as his motion says, that

"none of the 12 can command public confidence"?

Does he include Dr Alex Wright, the SNP member, or the five assessors who have no political affiliation?

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Right. You have covered the point. Please finish.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

Alex Neil also calls the process "shoddy". Does that mean that Dame Rennie Fritchie's scrutiny of the process was shoddy?

I ask the Parliament to reject Alex Neil's bill and to support instead the Executive's proposals, which will ensure that politics is taken out of public appointments and that there will be full independent and parliamentary scrutiny of the process.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

We now move to open debate. I will allow the convener of the Local Government Committee, Trish Marwick, five minutes. [MEMBERS: "Trish Godman."] I am sorry—I meant Trish Godman. Other members will have four minutes. It is likely that the last two members on the list will have to drop off.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 4:11 pm, 7th February 2002

There is quite a difference between Tricia Marwick and me.

It is fair to say that there is cross-party agreement that we need a more transparent system of public appointments. A fair, honest and visible procedure for the recruitment and selection of applicants for such appointments would sound the death knell of the old-boy network and the equally pernicious practice of cronyism. As a result, I support transparency of and checks and balances on ministerial appointments, but I honestly believe that the Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill would not give us the reformed system that we seek.

The Local Government Committee decided by division that the bill would, among other things, deter people from diverse backgrounds from applying for public appointments, that it would politicise the appointments process and that it would obscure the lines of ministerial accountability. I am sure that other members will pick up on the many other points that the committee raised. Before I go on, I thank Tricia Marwick for helping us with the wording of the recommendations, although she then voted against them, which was rather confusing. The committee agreed by division to recommend to the Parliament that approval should not be given to the general principles of the bill. I say that with some regret because I agree with some of Alex Neil's objectives.

In a nutshell, we must enhance the Executive's accountability with regard to public appointments. Furthermore, we have a duty to eliminate powerful networks and the plague of cronyism. We can all agree on that. Like other members, I was much impressed by Dame Rennie Fritchie's fair-minded criticisms of the bill. She said that, on the basis of her experience, women candidates and candidates from ethnic minorities might be deterred by the hurdles that are outlined in the bill. We need only to think of the nerves and anxiety that people suffer when they apply for a job and go for an interview. Under the bill's requirements, candidates for public appointments would also be told at some point that not only will they be interviewed but that, if they are successful, they may have to appear before a parliamentary committee, after which the appointment will have to be put before Parliament for approval. I believe that, with such a process, the people that we are trying to get into the quangos would be deterred from doing so.

It is also unhelpful for Alex Neil to suggest that if candidates are frightened of public hearings, they are unfit for public office. Such candidates are not seeking political office, but positions on public bodies.

Another criticism that is worth mentioning is the possibility of political divisions in committee or parliamentary hearings. In his evidence, Peter Peacock suggested that

"there would be a tendency within the system to allow those hearings to be used as sorts of show trials of particular individuals whom political parties, over time or at any given moment in time, might choose to target for that particular purpose".—[Official Report, Local Government Committee, 15 January 2002; c 2665.]

When I heard that, I thought that the minister had gone over the top, but when I gave his comment some consideration, I thought that he was right. Such hearings would block the principle of appointment by merit. In any case, a candidate's membership of a particular political party does not mean that he or she is incapable of doing the job for which they have applied.

I do not believe that the bill addresses the issue of independent scrutiny. Ministers who are responsible for the appointments should be accountable to the Parliament. If the commissioner has concerns about the procedures that are carried out before an appointment is made, the minister should have to justify that appointment before a committee and, if necessary, before the Parliament.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does Trish Godman draw a distinction between general quango appointments and the appointment of the 26 independent assessors who really should be free of all political affiliations?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I do not agree that we should expect candidates to be free of all political affiliations. We would not get anybody to do a job anywhere if that was the case.

It is important that the Parliament should have a key role in the scrutiny of the commissioner's annual report, first through a committee meeting at which the minister and the commissioner can be cross-examined, then through a parliamentary debate.

I fire a warning shot at the minister. Back benchers such as I will not be happy to maintain the status quo while offering a token grumble from the back benches from time to time. That is not what we are about. We need a system that ensures that cronyism is dead and that merit is alive and kicking. I believe that Alex Neil's bill does not address that and I recommend that the Parliament does not approve the general principles of the bill.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party 4:16 pm, 7th February 2002

I thank Alex Neil for his member's bill and I thank members who supported the initiative in the first place.

When the prospect of a public appointments bill was first raised, my initial thought was that at last we would have a mechanism to put a stop to back-door appointments. However, I was concerned about the confirmation hearings system, which might from the outset have put off prospective candidates. My fear was quickly allayed, however, when the proposed bill was given a hearing in committee. I now fully understand the need to have that device in place. It will ensure the achievement of the ultimate goal of the bill, which is to create a fully accountable system that operates in the best interests of non-departmental public bodies and in the interests of delivery of quality services in Scotland. In previous appointments, positions have been filled by people whose professional credentials and abilities have been less than adequate.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

Gil Paterson mentions people whose expertise is not up to the job. Can he name three such people?

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

No. I would never name people—this is not the forum for that. Even if Bill Butler were such a person, I would not name him.

I supported the first Asian candidate for the Scottish National Party about 20 years ago, not because he was an Asian but because he was the best candidate. People need a lot of encouragement and support. If we want to get people into public service who are perhaps not very good at coming forward, such as women and people from the ethnic minorities, we must encourage them and ensure that the infrastructure is in place that allows them to do that. The best people will then come forward. They are there and they will come forward.

My other concern was the impact that the bill would have on the role of the public appointments commissioner for Scotland, if the Executive went ahead and created that position. However, it has been made clear that the creation of the commissioner can only complement the sentiments of the bill. The public appointments commissioner will retain a role in overseeing the appointments while the bill will ensure that the procedures are in place to select the best possible candidates through a system that is safeguarded against cronyism.

The Parliament makes great claims about openness and accountability. The bill would bring public appointments from the back door to the front door. As elected representatives, we have the opportunity to create valuable legislation that will make certain that we get the right people for the jobs. It will remove the folly of providing jobs for the boys and girls, which has been done so many times with less-than-effective results.

The small costs of the bill to the Executive pale into insignificance as we look at the bigger picture. Would we rather save a few pounds and have a repeat of the VisitScotland fiasco, or do we spend and guarantee a transparent and democratic system that benefits all concerned? The VisitScotland incident was ultimately costly to the Executive financially and damaging to the appointments system. There was no gain for the tourist industry or the people of Scotland. The bill would put an end to such embarrassing situations. I am not saying that the bill will not add work for the Parliament, but it is surely better to tackle the problem.

I commend Alex Neil and the support that he received from Parliament, which ensured that the bill has been given the opportunity to be debated in the chamber. Getting the best value for money with the highest return is a solid base from which to start. The bill can only be a step in the right direction in making certain that non-departmental public bodies are in capable hands.

Photo of John Young John Young Conservative 4:21 pm, 7th February 2002

I quote:

"I set out the fundamental principles which I am determined will underpin our decisions and actions: to be open and transparent in all that we do."

Who said that? Was it Abraham Lincoln? Was it Richard Nixon? Was it Tony Blair? It was none of those. Jack McConnell said it in his press release of 27 November 2001, when he announced his new Cabinet after the night of the long knives.

Today we are discussing public appointments. If ever a bill was given the wrong title, it is the Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill. Labour, in many ways, has manipulated the system by making not public appointments, but political appointments. In November last year, Angus MacKay told David McLetchie that more than 60 per cent of those who were appointed to public bodies and who had declared a political affiliation were Labour party supporters. That percentage has probably moved upwards. At one time in a Labour controlled authority such as Glasgow, even Mayor Daly of Chicago would have ended the operations that were being carried out. On 29 January the Lib-Lab Executive—perhaps that should be the Lab, or Labour, Executive—appointed 12 independent assessors to scrutinise appointments. However, at least six of the 12 declared political activity. Guess who with: the Labour party.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

Is the member claiming that the process is in some way corrupt or that the people are corrupt? Has he any evidence for such an assertion?

Photo of John Young John Young Conservative

Does Bill Butler mean Glasgow City Council? In the week that I was elected to the then Glasgow Corporation at least seven councillors were taken away in handcuffs. I will not say which party they were in. [Laughter.]

Photo of John Young John Young Conservative

I was not one of them. At the Local Government Committee—here is another intervention. I hope that I will get extra time.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour

Does the member care to tell us how many Conservative ministers were required to resign in disgrace between 1979 and 1997? The answer is 21, in case he does not know.

Photo of John Young John Young Conservative

To be frank, I do not know whether that is the answer. However, I am sure that the member will confirm that in writing. That will be most interesting.

I hope that I am getting an extra minute out of this, Presiding Officer.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

You just push on, Mr Young. You have a minute and a half.

Photo of John Young John Young Conservative

In the Local Government Committee, nice Mr Peacock was wheeled out. Now, Peter Peacock appears to be a reasonable picture of moderation and someone in whom one might have confidence. He is a sort of male equivalent of Sylvia Jackson. His revelations were hardly shattering, but the one thing that came through loud and clear was the construction of a virtual tower of Babel. Some 12 different points were mentioned. As usual, one would have to appoint the proverbial commissioner, who would be aided by senior assessors; new offices would be created, more staff would be recruited and, of course, there would be more expenditure.

In his remarks, which were very revealing, Peter Peacock said:

"The Executive needs to consider Alex Neil's bill and decide whether it has anything to offer. I think that the Executive has decided that that is not the case." —[Official Report, Local Government Committee, 15 April 2002; c 2664.]

He used the word "think", which means that the Executive must not have told him—because the Executive had decided. However, Peter Peacock thought that that was the case. Did he not know? Was he not consulted? Why did he not say that the Executive had reached a decision? Is the Executive a Holyrood branch of Tammany Hall? That is the way it is heading.

The Conservatives at UK level proposed that MPs rather than the Government should make public body appointments. They also called on the Government to adopt US-style confirmation hearings when appointing quango chiefs, to make the system more accountable. Mention was made that some budding applicants would be scared off. If so—tough. If that is the case, they do not have the necessary fibre to hold such high positions.

All the anonymous members of health boards and trusts should have their photographs and main contact phone numbers on posters that are displayed in libraries, shopping centres and so on. Their public consultations should be conducted properly, unlike the farce last week when Greater Glasgow NHS Board held an all-day meeting that was crammed into a room in the Mitchell Library. I have no doubt that that was done on purpose to exclude many people who are in employment, including MPs and MSPs.

I am on my final sentence, Presiding Officer.

In the end, those appointees have an agenda of their own and their Labour masters will implement what they want, but not what the people want, which is particularly the case for health boards, of which perhaps 51 per cent should be appointed or elected by the electorate, although that is a personal view and not—to my knowledge—an official Conservative party line.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

That was an extraordinarily long sentence, Mr Young.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour 4:25 pm, 7th February 2002

I congratulate Alex Neil on producing what some MSPs consider to be the perfect bill. Unfortunately for him, the only people who think that are his sycophantic colleagues in the SNP.

Mr Neil is also to be congratulated on taking up an issue on which I am sure everyone in the chamber agrees and managing to divide us on it. That is indeed a remarkable achievement, but given the tenor of Mr Neil's arguments, the comments that he made earlier and his comments during evidence to the Local Government Committee and the Equal Opportunities Committee, it was inevitable.

Alex Neil's bill contains more holes than a North sea trawler's nets. If the bill is to progress, it will require to undergo a host of changes in order to address the concerns that were raised by the committees and by those who gave evidence to them. Given the Executive's commitment to introducing its own proposals, which even Alex Neil agrees amount to 80 per cent of what he is seeking, it is not worth wasting Parliament's time on this bill.

The Local Government Committee's report indicated concerns which colleagues expanded on earlier. One change that we did not argue for was a renaming of Alex Neil's bill but, given his contribution, perhaps we should have done. Rather than the Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill, it should be called the I Hate the Labour Party and Want to Take Every Opportunity to Give It a Good Kicking Bill—that is what the whole process has been about.

The way in which Mr Neil's colleagues have rolled over and ignored every concern that was raised during evidence on the bill has highlighted the hypocrisy of the Nats. They never tire of telling Labour MSPs that we are Executive lobby fodder and that the Lib-Dems are Labour's poodles. However, when it comes to it, the Nats have exposed their own incapacity to criticise their party colleagues.

I am proud to be a member of two committees that have shown the ability regularly and effectively to challenge Executive proposals. We have built a track record of listening to groups and individuals concerned about ministers' proposals, and addressing those concerns. In keeping with that record, we did the same with Alex Neil's bill and it is to Tricia Marwick's shame that she made her earlier comments.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

However, when it came to criticising Alex Neil, his spineless pals could not bring themselves to criticise their own leader-in-waiting.

It was not a problem for them that people might be deterred from applying for posts. When Alex Neil did not outline the changes to standing orders that would be required to make the bill workable, they did not indicate their concern. They did not complain that the appointments process would be slowed down unnecessarily to allow the Parliament's committees the opportunity to score points by politicising that process.

All of that might be considered to be a matter of opinion around which a serious debate could ensue. Perhaps amendments could be lodged to address the problems that have been identified in the bill. The concerns that witnesses raised at committee were ignored by the Nats because they were feart to criticise Alex Neil's bill.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

No amendments were called for and all criticism was dismissed out of hand.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

For the SNP, parliamentary scrutiny appears to mean that everyone should scrutinise Labour, but that no one should criticise an SNP proposal.

Some sections of the bill are up for debate, but there can be no debate where the facts get in the way of Alex Neil's views. Evidence from the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission included concern that committees of the Parliament are not subject to the acts governing discrimination on the grounds of sex, race or disability. That evidence was put to Alex Neil. His reply was, "Nonsense". I am sorry, Alex, but the legal advice that we received proves that that is not the case.

For Alex Neil's bill to succeed would require the Scottish Parliament to remove the right of the people to challenge a decision if they perceive it to be discriminatory. If the Parliament is to be taken seriously, it can not tolerate that.

The bill contains a variety of flaws. The fundamental flaw, which cannot be overcome as it goes against everything to which the Scottish Parliament is committed, is the failure to protect the rights of the Scottish people. In the main, it is for that reason that I will not support Alex Neil and I hope that I have the agreement of all other members on that.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 7th February 2002

The bill addresses the important issue of how we ensure public confidence in the public appointments system. The Liberal Democrat manifesto commits us to

"Raise standards and accountability in public life by drawing up a strong code of conduct for MSPs."

The Parliament has implemented that already. The manifesto also called for the establishment of

"a Public Appointments Committee of Parliament with a system of open nomination and confirmation."

For the Liberal Democrats, the question is how best to achieve our manifesto aims. Alex Neil's bill provides one approach. However, I believe that it is important to get the matter right.

The Parliament's committee system has been designed to ensure close scrutiny of legislative proposals. We ignore the specialist committee recommendations at our peril.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I will give way in a moment.

Only once have MSPs ignored a committee's advice and we have seen the mess that that caused with the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill. Alex Neil, to give him his due, spoke out forcefully in the stage 1 debate on that bill, urging the Parliament to ignore the Rural Development Committee's recommendations. Once again, he is urging us to throw out a committee's recommendations. That approach is thoroughly irresponsible and, if we follow Alex Neil's wishes, we risk wrecking the success story that is our committee system.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Is not it true that nine of the 13 witnesses who gave evidence to the Local Government Committee recommended that the bill be passed? Perhaps the committee's recommendation is a case of the committee's not listening to the people. Is not it the case that, only four days ago, Mr Rumbles told me that he was in favour of the bill?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

One should not make such accusations in the chamber when they are blatantly untrue.

The Local Government Committee stated that it was not persuaded by the bill. Events supersede Alex Neil: we now have a commitment from the Scottish Executive to make greater improvements than would be made by the bill. The committee was not persuaded that the bill was the most appropriate vehicle to provide greater scrutiny of public appointments. If Alex Neil cannot gain the support of the committee, we should not proceed further with the bill.

In evidence to the committee, the Scottish Executive made a commitment—Alex Neil should take note—to establish a Scottish commissioner for public appointments. The Executive proposes that the commissioner should not be a ministerial appointment and supports the view that recommendations for appointments should go through a new public appointments committee of the Parliament, subject to the wishes of the Parliament.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

You are in your last minute and must finish inside a minute. Do you want to give way?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

No. I need to press on.

I want a change in the rules. I made the point earlier today that I would like the proposed commissioner to appoint the 26 independent ministerial assessors so that they do not have party political affiliations. I draw a distinction between the independent assessors and all the other public appointments.

I believe that the Executive's commitment is a real improvement on the current system, implements fully the Liberal Democrats' manifesto commitments and will fulfil the aim of the exercise, which is to ensure complete public confidence in the appointments process. For those reasons, we should accept the Local Government Committee's views—that is why the committee exists—and not proceed any further with the bill.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

My regrets to Bill Butler and Lloyd Quinan, who sat through the debate but were not called.

We move to closing speeches. The way things fall, it runs Liberal to Liberal.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 4:34 pm, 7th February 2002

Much of what Alex Neil has sought to do should be commended. He has, as Trish Godman said earlier, sought to open up the process by which quango appointments are made. However, Alex Neil should have acknowledged during the debate, as he did on "Newsnight" on 15 January, that 80 per cent of what he was seeking to achieve has now been achieved by the Scottish Executive's proposals. That, for a member's bill from an Opposition back bencher, is no mean achievement. A lot of what we are seeking to achieve across the parties—apart from the Conservatives, to whose sanctimony I will come in a moment—should be applauded.

Perhaps the minister, when winding up, could cover the legislative mechanism and the timetable under which the Executive will bring forward its final proposals.

There are two central issues in the debate: parliamentary scrutiny and the politicisation of the appointments process. It is important to examine closely what the Executive is proposing for parliamentary scrutiny: a Scottish public appointments commissioner, appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of Parliament—not on that of the Executive. The Tories and, presumably, the SNP will oppose that measure.

All vacancies will be advertised to the relevant parliamentary committee and the Scottish public appointments commissioner will be able to raise with the relevant minister any concerns whatever about the appointments process. In addition, if the commissioner is not satisfied with the minister's response, the matter can be referred to Parliament before the appointment is confirmed. The checks and balances that the Executive—and the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups working together—proposes to put into the system are important for improving the very system of accountability and the process that we want to establish.

The real points are these. First, Mr Neil's bill would give the perfect opportunity for SNP members—but not Mr Neil himself, whom I recognise as a fair convener of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, although I thought that we heard a bit of a music hall turn from him today—to make every quango appointment a political interrogation. Tricia Marwick illustrated that this afternoon. Secondly, the parliamentary commissioner will appoint the independent assessors, thereby resolving the issue that has been raised in recent weeks.

As for the Conservatives, their position is consistent with only two principles: political opportunism and, now, the increasing tendency of the Scottish Tories to be controlled by everything that Iain Duncan Smith says in London. David McLetchie illustrated that at its best during First Minister's question time. He criticised other parties in the same context. Just yesterday, however, we heard an utterly irresponsible and opportunistic line on the very important issue of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. The Tories should be ashamed of themselves.

It was the Tories who took political appointments to a new height. Let us recall that, under the previous Tory Government, 30 per cent of the quango appointments were not just Tory MPs, but Tory MPs' wives. I ask you! The case that I always recall is that of Hamish Gray, who lost the Ross, Cromarty and Skye seat to Charles Kennedy in 1983. What did the Tories do the day after Hamish Gray lost that seat? They put him in the House of Lords, made him a minister of state in the Scottish Office and, not only that, gave him special responsibility for the Highlands and Islands, the very region that had kicked him out of the House of Commons. I will therefore take no lessons from the sanctimonious Tories on my far and extreme right.

I am pleased that the Liberal Democrat and Labour parliamentary parties have brought pressure to bear on the Executive to improve its initial proposals, which are, indeed, significantly improved. I have set out what those improvements are, although the Tories will still oppose the proposals. I look forward to the election campaign and to opposing the Tories on that process. I urge members to endorse the Executive's proposals as outlined by Mr Peacock, and to oppose Mr Neil's bill.

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative 4:38 pm, 7th February 2002

This has certainly been a lively debate, which I think has touched many a raw nerve. I congratulate Alex Neil on introducing the Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill, which represents a genuine attempt to improve the public appointments system in Scotland by making it more open and accountable. All the parties in the Parliament are publicly committed to that, but there is disagreement over the best method of achieving that goal.

What no one should doubt is the necessity of tackling this problem as a matter of urgency. Whether we like it or not, the public's perception of quango appointments is that there is a culture of cronyism in Scotland, and that jobs are handed out on the basis of who you know, not what you know.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

It is the Tories who are responsible for that—

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative

I kept quiet while Iain Smith spoke; could he please do the same?

The First Minister has made many statements acknowledging that the issue of public appointments requires urgent attention. As Minister for Finance, he launched a consultation document on modernising the public appointments system, stating:

"It is about ensuring that our public bodies command public confidence by being fair, open and transparent."

He went on to point out, quite rightly, that

"Devolution creates the opportunity to modernise our public appointments system."—[Official Report, 30 March 2000; Vol 5, c 1242.]

The Executive has now come up with proposals to do that, with which we have no great problem. During the debate at the launch of the consultation on public appointments, we argued that there should be a separate Scottish commissioner for public appointments. I would hope that the proposals to appoint such a person, who would be answerable to Parliament, would command all-party support.

As far as we are concerned, the problem is twofold. First, the Executive's proposals are just that. There is no firm timetable for their implementation. Secondly, we fear that the proposals, however well intentioned, simply do not go far enough towards addressing public concerns. That is because the powers of patronage, which will remain in the hands of ministers after the implementation of the Executive's proposals, are still too great.

In order to regain public confidence, we must not only put our house in order, but be seen to do so as a matter of urgency. That is why we are sympathetic to Alex Neil's bill, which is on the table and offers the Parliament a practical way of addressing the problem. I hope that the Executive will rethink its outright opposition to the bill. In the debate on public appointments back in March 2000, the First Minister said that he welcomed

"good ideas whatever their source".—[Official Report, 30 March 2000; Vol 5, c 1240.]

That is certainly the spirit in which we have approached the bill.

In principle we agree with the idea of increasing parliamentary accountability and Alex Neil's bill would move us in that direction. The bill is similar in many respects to proposals that the Conservatives made in Westminster. It might interest Mr Scott to know that I voted to support the general principles of the bill before Iain Duncan Smith spoke. He is following us; we are not following him. We believe that the bill would help to restore public confidence in the public appointments process. It would make more open the scrutiny of appointments and would end the perceived political bias in the present system.

We have some concerns, but we believe that those could be addressed by amendments at stage 2.

I turn now to the Liberal Democrats. I urge them to take the opportunity of delivering a full promise from their manifesto by supporting the motion to agree to the general principles of the bill. There is no doubt that, as usual, the Liberal Democrats will do as Labour tells them. Their manifesto is worthless. I suggest that the Liberal Democrats leave the coalition and join the Opposition, where they could achieve far more of their manifesto promises far more quickly.

If the motion is not agreed to, Alex Neil has the consolation that he has forced the Executive to address the issue that it created. The Liberal Democrats obviously expected earlier today that we were going to vote against the motion. That is indicative of the fact that they do not do their research, because Mr Rumbles was not even aware that I voted against rejecting the general principles of the bill.

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative

If Mr Rumbles wants to make excuses, he should do so in his own time. He should read page 32 of the Local Government Committee report; my vote is recorded at the bottom.

We will support the bill today, as it offers the best available means to end the culture of cronyism in Scotland.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 4:43 pm, 7th February 2002

We have heard about the cosy partnership between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. Iain Smith mentioned 15 January. It must be said that if it had not been for Alex Neil, there would have been no proposals from the Executive. They are just proposals; we do not know whether they will be enacted by 2003. Alex Neil's bill, if agreed to, would be enacted by then. The Executive's proposals were put through as a gut nerve reaction to Alex Neil's bill and that is the honest truth.

Mike Rumbles mentioned the committees. One of the strengths of the Parliament is the committee system and our ability to take an independent view. I respect Trish Godman's sincerity in her summary, but as a member of the Local Government Committee I have been greatly disappointed by the part the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have played on the bill.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I am sorry; I do not have time.

The Liberal Democrat and Labour members of the committee have tamely followed the Executive's pathway. They have tamely agreed to go along with the Liberals and the Labour party and continually voted for the Executive's proposal, which SNP members—and Keith Harding—voted against. They have not opposed their party. That is a real worry for the committees. They should be independent. It is unfortunate that in this case they have not been.

In her summary, Trish Godman says that she agrees with some of Alex Neil's bill but cannot vote for it on principle. That is rather sad.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I will come on to the points that Michael McMahon made shortly, if he will be quiet.

It has also been said that the bill would deter people from diverse backgrounds from applying for public appointments. That claim is based on a vague assertion that the Executive makes in its consultation paper. There is no hard evidence to back it up. Reference has been made to concerns expressed by the Equality Network, but the Equality Network supports the bill and does not believe that it contains flaws that cannot be overcome.

Michael McMahon said that, under the bill, nominees would be more vulnerable to discrimination. Some members of the Local Government Committee argued that the Parliament is not bound by equality law as the Executive is, but the Parliament is required to consider any statutory requirement relating to appointees, including the application of anti-discrimination legislation by the Scottish ministers. Furthermore, the Parliament's legal office stated that it is widely accepted that the Scottish Parliament is a public authority as defined by the Human Rights Act 1998. I do not see Michael McMahon's problem. There is also the option of judicial review.

It has been said that the bill would lead to the politicisation of the appointments process. That claim is deeply flawed.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I will not.

There has been no politicisation of the appointments process in countries that use systems similar to that proposed in the bill. Indeed, many believe that the current system is already politicised. The Executive and the Lib-Lab pact seem to be saying that their politics are the politics of patronage and should never come under democratic scrutiny.

The Labour party—and now the Lib Dems—like to maintain their grip on power and on public life. They rely on keeping control of public appointments. I suspect that that, and no other reason, is the real reason for their opposition to Alex Neil's bill. The Labour party's power in much of Scotland depends on patronage, favouritism and cronyism. Once again, Labour's only motivation is to work in its own selfish self-interest. I am sorry to say that the Lib Dems have joined that party.

I call on members to support Alex Neil's bill and to reject the Lib-Lab Executive's proposals.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 4:47 pm, 7th February 2002

I am conscious that we have very little time, but I would like to pick up as many of the points that have been made in the debate as possible and to do justice to them.

Several members—Iain Smith, Trish Godman, Tavish Scott, Michael McMahon and others—have referred to the dire consequences that the bill would have if it were passed, noting that it would open up the appointments process to much more politicisation. They raised the prospect of show trials, in which Opposition members would deliberately target candidates for appointments.

Members did not point out that if, under the bill, a committee of the Parliament decided not to hold a hearing, that decision would itself become politicised. Given Alex Neil's behaviour over the past couple of weeks, I can imagine that in such a situation back benchers would be accused of supporting ministers to stop the scrutiny process kicking in. I can also envisage ending up with whipped votes on appointments that are supposed to made on merit rather than on the basis of political judgments.

Contrary to what Alex Neil said—this also refers to points that other members have made—the process that he proposes would expose individuals to questioning about their personal circumstances. Under the hearings process that he envisages, a committee of the Parliament would have to check the qualities of an individual seeking appointment to a post. What would there be to stop an individual being asked when they stopped beating their wife, husband or partner, whether they had ever smoked dope, whether they had been in a brawl when they were a teenager, or how much they drank? Matters of that sort would immediately be opened up to public scrutiny. If that would not stop people applying, I do not know what would.

There is also a range of practical difficulties with the bill. Tricia Marwick said that she does not think that the bill would delay appointments, but it sets out a procedure that could delay appointments by 56 days at the very least. If a committee rejected an appointment, an organisation looking for a new chair could be left leaderless for at least six months. At the same time, the minister responsible would be held to account for the performance of that organisation. That is not a satisfactory situation.

Tavish Scott asked about the timetable for the Executive's proposals.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I want to make progress on this point.

Sandra White said that there is no timetable and that the Executive's proposals would not be in place by 2003. In fact, we hope to start the consultation period next week and to introduce a bill to Parliament by the end of May. If Parliament agrees that the bill be passed, a new system should be in place by 2003. I presume that that is the assurance that Tavish Scott was seeking.

Tavish Scott dealt very well with the sanctimonious approach of the Tories—the people who invented cronyism in the past decade or more. Given the revelations of the past week, in which Keith Harding was involved, the Conservatives could be described as the grand masters of cronyism. The right-wing coalition between the SNP and the Tory party in the Parliament clearly and quickly swings into action in these situations, so that their prejudices about the real world are reinforced.

Trish Godman and Gil Paterson raised the issue of diversity, although I thought the way Gil Paterson did it was rather obscure. I advise him that I had not realised that Alex Neil's bill also seeks to scrutinise the appointment of organisations' chief executives—the VisitScotland appointment to which he referred was of a chief executive, not a board member. On the hugely important issue of diversity, which I tried to address in my opening speech, all the evidence points to the fact that Alex Neil's bill would impede attempts to bring in more people from diverse backgrounds, even if that is an unintended consequence.

John Young came at the debate from the completely wrong direction. He demonstrated the problem with the bill when he said that people who are not of the right fibre to be able to withstand the scrutiny process are not fit for the job. Colleagues such as Paul Martin, who sits on the Labour back benches, were right to ask me why people from tenants associations, residents groups or community councils never end up on a quango. That is precisely the point: by making an attack on the lack of diversity a high priority, the Executive is trying to make it more possible for such people to become members of public bodies. We want people from very ordinary backgrounds to be given a chance to contribute their life experience to the operation of public bodies—but Alex Neil's bill would act in exactly the opposite way.

I took seriously Trish Godman's request for an assurance that merit, and not cronyism, should be the dominant factor in the system. That is exactly what our proposal is designed to achieve. We want to ensure that politicians are significantly removed from the process.

The debate has shown that Alex Neil's bill has nothing to offer the advancement of openness and scrutiny in the Parliament and Scottish public life. The modernisers and the progressive forces on the Executive benches are committed to the introduction of comprehensive measures to bring about more openness in all that we do. We want to be more transparent, to give more power over appointments to the Parliament—and less power to ministers—and to make the whole system more independent.

Alex Neil's intention is to create a platform for himself and his cronies that would enable them to organise show trials of anyone they wanted to target at any time and to play out their obsessions with the Labour party. The bill would lead to more politicisation, not less, less independence, not more, and less diversity in appointments. That is why the Executive does not support the bill and I urge the Parliament not to support it.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I call Alex Neil to wind up the debate. Mr Neil, you have until 5 pm—just under eight minutes.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 4:52 pm, 7th February 2002

I thank Tavish Scott for making the only honest contribution to the debate from the Executive benches. He recognised that the proposals that the Executive made two weeks ago would never have been made if my bill had not been introduced. The Executive brought those proposals to the Local Government Committee at the very last minute because of the potential threat that some Liberal Democrats might vote for my bill. It is well known that a number of Liberal Democrat members—Mike Rumbles, Donald Gorrie, Robert Brown, Nora Radcliffe and Margaret Smith—support my bill—

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

—so anyone who says that there is no support for it is speaking absolute nonsense.

I point out to the committee's convener, Trish Godman, that the committees have a responsibility and a duty to consider the evidence objectively and independently. Nine of the 13 witnesses who were called to give evidence to the Local Government Committee supported the bill.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I hear "quality" and "quantity" from behind me. I thought that quantity counted in a democracy. After all, who has the majority? As for quality, the organisations that supported my bill include the likes of the Scottish Civic Forum and the Commission for Racial Equality.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

No. Trish Godman would not take an intervention from me.

Irrespective of whether one judges the evidence to the Local Government Committee on the basis of any definition of quantity or quality, members of the committee would have come out in favour of my bill if they had not been dragooned by the whips. That is the central point.

Several members:

rose

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I will not take an intervention. Members would not take one from me. Sit, sit, sit.

I recognise that the Executive has moved some way towards what we are trying to achieve, but I must make two points on its proposals, which were cobbled together over that weekend. First, they are still skeletal. I will return to that in a minute. Secondly, they will deal with only 80 per cent of the issue—the crucial 20 per cent is missing. The crucial 20 per cent is the need—in the words of the Liberal Democrat manifesto—for

"open nomination and confirmation."

By any reasonable definition, the Executive's proposals do not propose

"open nomination and confirmation."

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Sit doon.

The whole process will continue to be carried out behind closed doors. That is why a recent survey by the commissioner for public appointments made it clear that two thirds of the electorate have no confidence in the present system because they think it stinks of cronyism. The events of last week help to prove that the system still stinks of cronyism.

The Executive proposals, which were enough to buy off the Liberal Democrats, would not be enough to buy off any decent-thinking true democrat. Let us consider the example of the proposal for a public appointments committee in the Scottish Parliament. When the Local Government Committee dealt with my bill, the Executive whips dragooned committee members into one particular way of doing things. If the public appointments committee was to be run in that way—

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

To prove that the public appointments committee will be independent, will the Executive give us a commitment that the chair of the committee will be a non-Executive member? Will the Executive give us a commitment that the Executive will not have a built-in majority on the public appointments committee? Of course it will not give us such a commitment.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

The Executive will not give us a commitment because it will stuff that committee with all the usual yes-men, placemen and party hacks, to perpetuate the system. The Liberal Democrats will no doubt go along with it.

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party

I have sat through the debate from beginning to end. I want to ask Mr Neil whether he will condemn a principle that was enunciated by Mr Rumbles. That principle was that if a committee states a view and a member does not agree with it, the member has no right to introduce a bill. That would be very severe threat to the rights of a member of the Parliament.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

You have a minute and a half, Mr Neil.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I agree absolutely with Mrs Ewing. I am surprised at Mr Rumbles, who usually rumbles such things much more quickly than he has done on this occasion.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Is it appropriate for members to name other members repeatedly and to lie about them, without their being able to give a response?

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

It is certainly not helpful, particularly in relation to the convener of the Local Government Committee.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

The other substantive point that has been made is that the creation of a Scottish commissioner will in itself put an end to cronyism. The fact of life is that that is not a new position in the sense that we have had a commissioner for the past five years. Her name is Dame Rennie Fritchie. She has been responsible for public appointments that have been made by the Parliament and the Executive, as well as for those that have been made from London. Despite her five years of effort, Dame Rennie Fritchie—who is a very able lady indeed—has not been able to put an end to cronyism in Scotland because it is so in-built. That suggests to me that the Parliament needs to intervene.

There is an argument about the mechanism that the Parliament should use, but the fundamental and important principle is that the final part of the appointment process for senior positions should be in front of the Parliament's committees. It should be done in the open, not behind closed doors.

To conclude, far from reaching an objective decision, the Local Government Committee has on this occasion shown itself to be at the behest of the Executive whips, which is unusual for that committee.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I say to members of the Local Government Committee that the bill would not deter, but encourage, people. It would lead not to politicisation but to democratisation. The bill would put an end to Labour cronyism in this country once and for all.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Is it in order for a member repeatedly throughout his speech to make accusations that are without foundation against other members, without allowing those members the right to respond?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Although that may not be appropriate, it does not seem to be out of order, nor is it unprecedented in the chamber.