I am pleased to open the debate on the Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill. The bill is another important building block in the platform of modern legislative measures that the Executive has sought to construct to support the operation of the public sector in the 21 st century. The bill follows other important legislation that has been approved by Parliament to modernise the public sector in Scotland. That legislation includes: the Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000, the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc (Scotland) Act 2000, the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002. All that legislation is about bringing more transparency into public affairs in Scotland, increasing the rights of Parliament, and qualifying the rights of ministers.
The Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill builds on the extensive work that has been done in the years since the Nolan committee was established. The bill's main aim is systematically to create a transparent, open, accountable and depoliticised framework for appointments to public bodies in Scotland. The framework will ensure consistently that people who have the right skills are appointed on merit to our public bodies. The framework is designed to inspire confidence among Scottish people from all walks of life. We want them to feel that they are able to serve on public bodies and that they can make valuable contributions to public life.
Consultation on the bill has been extensive and we have sought to respond constructively to all the points that have been raised. The bill was shaped by careful consideration by the Local Government Committee and the result will be well thought-through and effective legislation.
The key functions of the Scottish commissioner for public appointments will be to regulate the appointments process by prescribing and publishing a code of practice for public appointments, to oversee ministers' compliance with the code and to report to Parliament. In addition, the commissioner will have a more dynamic role in promoting diversity through a
Members will be familiar with the bill's contents and the increased role that it will give Parliament. Parliament will have a role in the commissioner's appointment: as a consultee on the code of practice and the diversity strategy; in acting on breaches of the code that the commissioner has reported; and in scrutinising the commissioner's annual report.
The Local Government Committee played an important part in weighing up the commissioner's powers in relation to Parliament. The bill strikes a good balance between independence and accountability and it gives Parliament effective and valuable powers of scrutiny without tying the commissioner's hands.
The promotion of diversity in public appointments is an important aspect of the commissioner's additional remit. The boards of public bodies need to reflect the diversity of Scottish society and to bring to bear varied experience in decision making and giving advice to ministers. Through promotion of the diversity strategy, the commissioner will aim to attract all categories of people to apply for public appointments. That additional aspect of the commissioner's operation underlines the Executive's commitment to ensuring that as wide a cross-section of people as possible serves on boards. The positive impacts of involving a wide range of interests, beliefs and opinions are that such involvement informs the delivery of public services and advice from bodies, and promotes equal opportunities and social inclusion.
A secondary, but important, function of the bill is that it will abolish five public bodies. Action has been, or is being, taken on 113 bodies since the public bodies review, and the five bodies to which the bill refers require primary legislation for their abolition. The bill will abolish the Scottish Medical Practices Committee, the Scottish Hospital Trust, the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, the Historic Buildings Council for Scotland and the Scottish Conveyancing and Executry Services Board. As a consequence of those abolitions, the bill will ensure that residual functions are properly provided for.
For example, the notarial powers that the bill outlines will ensure a level playing field for solicitors and independent conveyancing practitioners following the SCESB's abolition. Scottish ministers are grateful to the Law Society of Scotland for accepting their invitation to take over the regulatory and administrative responsibility for conveyancing and executry practitioners. We are discussing a memorandum of agreement with the council of the Law Society, which we intend to finalise before the bill's implementation. The memorandum will prescribe the detailed terms of the transfer of the SCESB's responsibilities to the council and the support that the Scottish ministers will give the council. Once signed, the memorandum will form a binding legal agreement between the Scottish ministers and the council and will be subject to periodic review.
Members will recall my commitment in the stage 1 debate to listen and respond to the concerns of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee and the public about functions that were undertaken by the Ancient Monuments Board and the Historic Buildings Council. As a consequence, the bill will establish a statutory successor body—the historic environment advisory council for Scotland—to ensure an opportunity for public influence over, and input to, the decision-making processes that impact on the historic environment.
The bill will create an opportunity to embed in public life in Scotland a culture of equality, accountability and appointment on merit. It is a major advance and another modernising measure from the Executive. It will strengthen public life and make it more transparent and accountable. In the process, the Parliament's role will be increased. I commend the bill to Parliament.
That the Parliament agrees that the Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc. (Scotland) Bill be passed.
Although we will celebrate the passage of the bill today, we need to look back to where it was born, which was out of the bill that was introduced by Alex Neil as the Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill. That bill went much further than the Executive was prepared to go in the bill that we are debating today.
At stage 1 of Alex Neil's bill, the minister was asked to come to the Local Government Committee to give evidence on the bill. The minister, however, took that opportunity to announce that—lo and behold—the Executive was to have a similar bill all of its own. The Executive told its members, the Liberal Democrat members
The Executive bill is not a better bill than the one that Alex Neil introduced, but it is a bill and we will support it today despite the fact that it does not go far enough. The true test of the effectiveness of the bill will be in four years' time. We will know then whether between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of all appointments to public bodies still come from one political party—the Labour party. If that is the case, the bill will have failed.
When Dame Rennie Fritchie, the UK commissioner for public appointments, appeared before the Local Government Committee, she said clearly that there was a role for a Scottish commissioner who would know the situation in Scotland. I look forward to the appointment of the commissioner and to the day when people will be appointed to public bodies in Scotland on merit and not because of their political affiliations. One of the reasons why so many Labour party members are appointed to public bodies is simply that people from other political parties realise that there is absolutely no point in putting themselves forward because they will not be appointed.
Alex Neil cited the very good example of appointments to the Gaelic board. Everyone recognises that the number of Labour party members—and, indeed, Liberal Democrat members—on that board does not reflect the Gaelic community. It is also not reflective of the balance of the political parties in Scotland.
Although I welcome the bill because it is a step forward; it is not the giant leap forward that was needed and it is certainly not the giant leap forward that would have been achieved by Alex Neil's bill. That said, we will support it, all the same.
The Scottish Conservatives support the bill. We are committed to cutting bureaucracy, red tape and cronyism in Scottish politics and we congratulate the Executive on taking a step in the right direction, albeit that I suspect—as Tricia Marwick said—that it came about as a result of Alex Neil's member's bill. However, we must ensure that the appointment of a commissioner for public appointments does not result in another empty promise from the Executive, but that it translates into real change for the benefit of public life.
I refer members to the empty promises that are contained in the Executive's champions for change initiative, which the Executive abandoned earlier this week. What has happened to the
I support part 1 of the bill, which sets out the creation of a commissioner for public appointments in Scotland. The new code of practice will mean that appointments can be made in an open and transparent manner and that any serious breach of the code can be investigated. I hope that that will reduce the cronyism and jobs-for-the-boys mentality that pervades the appointments system in Scotland.
I continue to have concerns about section 2(10), which seeks to impose diversity in the selection process by setting targets for appointments from minority groups. The Scottish Conservatives celebrate diversity in every way. We would very much like to see more balanced representation of all groups in our society, but that must be achieved on merit and not through setting targets. I believe that positive discrimination is a dangerous and inherently flawed concept and I cannot support its use.
Furthermore, as I articulated in committee, there is some legitimate concern about the term of office that is prescribed under schedule 1, which states that there can be no more than three five-year terms, and that a third term will be permitted only in special circumstances and if it is in the public interest. As I suggested when evidence was given by Roger McClure of the Scottish Funding Councils for Further and Higher Education—who considers five years to be too long—the enforced shelf life of the commissioner might be a deterrent to good candidates applying. Why should a good commissioner who serves the public interest be forced out of office to the public's detriment when he or she is doing a perfectly good job? The same logic applies to the age of the commissioner, and I am pleased that the bill has been amended to allow the commissioner to continue in the position past the age of 65.
Part 2 of the bill provides for the abolition of some non-departmental public bodies—quangos. Five in total are to be abolished. We agree fully with that and have argued for a long time that there is a desperate need for the amount of red tape and bureaucracy to be cut to allow officials to get on with the jobs that they are supposed to do. However, we would have preferred the promised bonfire instead of this damp squib. Despite the protestations of unelected bureaucrats, such bodies do not perform any functions that other, preferably local, bodies could adequately carry
Despite the small reservations that I have mentioned, the Conservatives support the bill.
That is a fair point.
I am a little concerned that the SNP seems to want to judge the legislation's success by the number of appointees who have political affiliations that will have been made by the end of the next Parliament. The nationalists' claim that they expect the Labour party to have made more such appointments than other political parties in four years' time, so they seem to be admitting that they will not be in Government four years from now. Obviously, they have already given up on winning the election.
The bill is very good and it is important, because it creates the right balance between the commissioner's independence and the final accountability of the appointments process to Parliament. It is significantly better than Alex Neil's Public Appointments (Parliamentary Approval) (Scotland) Bill; I should point out to Tricia Marwick that the reason why his bill did not make it to stage 2 was not that the Executive told us not to support it, but that it was fundamentally flawed. That was why I did not support it in committee.
Alex Neil's bill would have politicised the appointments process even more, because every single appointment to every single quango would have had to face the scrutiny of politicians, not independent assessors or people who would consider applicants' merits. Would politicians have considered whether applicants were the best people for jobs? No; they would have been looking for political reasons to challenge the Executive's appointments to particular posts. In fact, the witch hunters of the SNP showed that quite clearly by the way they treated the appointment of the Scottish information commissioner—and Parliament—with contempt.
I do not recollect that our group made any such decision on the matter; instead, our members made up their own minds on the merits of the argument. We did not think much of the merits of the SNP's argument and, accordingly, voted the right way. The important point is that the appointment was made—at least by some of the parties—on the merits of the candidates and not on any political basis. The danger with going down Alex Neil's proposed route is that we would start to appoint people for political reasons and make the process more, not less, political. The Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill is important because it will correct such flaws.
It is interesting to note that we will complete consideration of the bill two hours early. That is because the Local Government Committee has a very good working relationship with the ministers, which means that our concerns can be addressed and we can reach agreement on changes early in the process. By doing so, we improved the bill at stage 2 and do not have to waste too much of members' time at stage 3. I thank the minister and his staff for their work in that respect. I also want to thank the Local Government Committee clerks and our other staff for their important work in supporting our consideration of such bills.
The origins of the Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill were not in Alex Neil's bill, as Tricia Marwick claimed; rather, it came out of several discussions and investigations by the Executive about the future of public bodies and public appointments long before Alex Neil introduced his bill.
The Liberal Democrats were not initially convinced by the Executive's position on how it would deal with the Scottish commissioner for public appointments. We were not satisfied that there was sufficient parliamentary involvement in the proposed process. We, as a party, discussed with ministers how to improve that. We did that not because of Alex Neil's bill, but because we wanted improvements. We got agreement from ministers to make the significant improvements that mean that Parliament is the backstop. Parliament will appoint the commissioner and have the final say if the commissioner is not satisfactory. That is as it should be and it is the case because Liberal Democrats and Labour can work together, whereas the SNP cannot work with anyone.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am sorry about my croaky throat.
The aims of the bill are laudable. In addition to setting up the post of a commissioner for public
The bill strikes the right balance on those issues and frankly, as was said earlier by Iain Smith, I do not want a rerun of the earlier debate about the post of a freedom of information commissioner. In her evidence in that debate, Dame Rennie Fritchie remarked that we must open up the appointments process to a wider cross-section of people—to those who might not be thinking about standing for such appointments at the moment. I remember that horrendous debate and I did not think that people would be attracted to those posts.
There has also been debate today about charitable status following the McFadden report and, hence, the need to withdraw from the bill the dissolution of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, and to include the establishment of the national survey of archaeology and buildings of Scotland.
A fundamental part of the bill is the degree of autonomy and responsibility that will be given to the commissioner to undertake his or her job. In that connection, sections 7 and 8 of the bill are important; they deal with what should be reported back to Parliament. I am pleased that the minister has listened, as Iain Smith said, to what members of the Local Government Committee said, and that he has found the words that allow us to get over the difficulties that we discussed at stage 2.
Finally, it would be disingenuous not to say something about the earlier debate about Alex Neil's bill. That debate was informative and useful and it formed a basis for what came after it. I do not think there was a need for the amount of negative comments that came from Tricia Marwick, but the debate was useful nevertheless.
As the minister outlined, much work remains to be done; for example, the code of practice and all the other procedural matters need to be dealt with. I wish the bill well.
I give many thanks to Local Government Committee colleagues, to the convener—Trish Godman—and to the clerks.
The bill did exist in another form and was introduced by Alex Neil in September 2001, to be exact. I echo the minister's words when I say that that bill was introduced for all the right reasons that he mentioned—transparency, openness and accountability. I hope sincerely that the Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill will attain all that has been mentioned.
I thank Peter Peacock for the genuine interest he took in the many amendments that the SNP lodged. They were lodged not only by me, but by Alex Neil, Tricia Marwick and others. He listened carefully, although he did not always agree with us, and he introduced amendments at stage 2 and stage 3 that most of us in the SNP can live with.
I also thank the clerks—who worked so hard on the bill—and my colleagues on the Local Government Committee. Many groups were involved in consultation on the bill and we held many evidence sessions. Openness and transparency are what this Parliament is all about and they are necessary if we are to justify ourselves to the public.
My only regret is that amendment 5, which would have strengthened the bill, was not agreed to. It is unusual that the Conservative party supported amendment 5, because we do not agree with it on many issues. Although I am disappointed that amendment 5 was rejected, I suppose that we can live with that.
I welcome the bill and I accept what the minister and members of the Local Government Committee have said. I look forward to the implementation of the bill and to scrutinising it during the next session of the Parliament, when it has been enacted.
I, too, will begin by thanking the members of the Local Government Committee and its clerks, who worked very hard on the bill. I also thank the minister, who was often available when we needed clarification.
Sylvia Jackson was right to say that there were some parts of Alex Neil's bill with which the Local Government Committee was happy. We considered those aspects carefully and some have been included in the Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill. However, I have been here for four years and it sometimes upsets me that even when one agrees with something, members of the SNP still get on their feet to make negative comments. That is beginning to get us all down.
Most people would like to have a much more transparent system of public appointments. A fair,
We need a separate commissioner for public appointments in Scotland. Among other things, that role will involve monitoring, regulating, advising and reporting on ministerial appointments to public bodies. The commissioner will also prepare a code of practice, investigate complaints and report annually through Parliament.
I am especially keen for the commissioner to promote diversity in public appointments, because that would send a positive message to ethnic groups and to others who, until now, have simply been spectators in the public appointments process. Attracting more women, more people from ethnic backgrounds and more people with disabilities to apply for public appointments should be central to the work of the new commissioner. The commissioner should also encourage applications from younger people.
The commissioner will have responsibility for ensuring that all categories of people are afforded the opportunity to be considered for public appointments. Although it will upset some of those who have benefited from the old and rotten system of appointments, I welcome that move.
In the committee's deliberations on the code of practice, we agreed with the Deputy Minister for Finance and Public Services that the independent position of the commissioner would be eroded by any procedure that was stronger than consultation with the Parliament and ministers. I am pleased that the bill makes that explicit. I am also satisfied that the bill gives the commissioner adequate powers in the event that the code of practice is breached or ignored by a minister. It allows for the commissioner to intervene before an appointment is made and to inform Parliament that he or she believes that the minister in question is ignoring the code of practice, intentionally or otherwise. That is a highly significant inclusion.
The principle behind the bill is to have an independent Scottish commissioner for public appointments. Our public consultation provided strong support for the establishment of such a commissioner with the powers that the bill seeks to confer. It is right and proper that we increase the Executive's accountability in relation to public appointments. In doing so, we will go a long way towards eliminating powerful networks and the plague of cronyism. The principle of appointment by merit alone should be absolute and transparent—nothing less will do. We must assure the public that cronyism is dead and that merit is
It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to endorse the bill.
I pay tribute to all those in the Local Government Committee and the Executive who have contributed to the bill. I also pay tribute to Alex Neil, who deserves credit for raising the issue. Perhaps he thinks that he offered the Parliament a full bottle of malt whisky and that the Executive is now offering a half bottle of a blended whisky. However, at least we are getting whisky. It is often the role of the Opposition or back benchers to propose ideas—one does not get what one wanted, but one gets quite a bit.
I will try to talk about political appointments without putting my foot in it. It is not a sin to be a supporter of the Labour party or of any legitimate democratic party. However, in some of the discussion that has taken place, there has been an undertone that people with any political involvement or political past are rather dubious when it comes to appointments. That is wrong. Such people should have a fair chance, like everybody else. People should not have their past hung around their necks. Throughout history, many people in politics have started on the extreme left and ended up on the extreme right—members of the Cabinet in London typify that. I naughtily say that Gladstone and I started on the right and became steadily more radical in growing older.
It is important that people with a political background should not be excluded. However, we must accept that, over the past 50 years or more, one party has become dominant in some parts of Scotland and many applicants for jobs come from a political background. That is fair enough, but people in those areas need to be careful not to exclude talented people who do not happen to be members of that party. A balance must be struck.
SNP members spoke about allegations of bad appointments—that matter must be pursued with people who make such appointments. The person who is appointed is not necessarily a bad person. If, through prejudice of any kind—political or otherwise—a person makes a bad appointment, they should be held to account. The bill will help to ensure that that happens.
On people's political positions, my experience is that any person who is half-decent leans the other way in favouring people. If one is a Presiding Officer or a judge on any matter, one is conscious of one's background and says to oneself, "I must be very careful not to favour someone." If anything, the other side is favoured. Perhaps I
The bill is a great step forward. It may lead to further steps forward in the future and I hope that the commissioner and the whole system will help us to produce a fair and open system of appointments from which the whole community will benefit.
Like Donald Gorrie, I welcome the bill as a step forward—it is a significant step in the right direction. Now that we have debated the bill, we should look forward and think about how to implement its provisions.
I would like to say something about the proposed establishment of a public appointments committee in the Parliament. If the Parliament decides to delegate its responsibilities to a public appointments committee, it is important that the membership and convener of that committee are seen to be objective, like the commissioner—the committee must not be dominated by members of an Executive party or an Opposition party. I hope that, when we discuss the composition of the public appointments committee, we will take into account the fact that its remit will be unique and that its structure and membership will probably need to be somewhat unique, too. That would be an indication of an act of faith by everybody that we are determined to make the bill work and make it work fairly, transparently and objectively.
I hope that the bill is the beginning of major reform not just of the public appointments system, but of wider public administration in Scotland. There is certainly a feeling in some parts of the chamber—probably throughout the chamber—that we need to consider reform of the civil service and examine how it operates in Scotland. I hope that the bill will be the forerunner of a long-term programme of reform to make public administration more politically accountable, democratic and transparent.
We cannot pluck numbers out of the air to say how many quangos or next-step agencies are required to perform the functions of government. That number will change from time to time and from function to function. However, the Parliament has created new quangos in the past few years. Despite George Robertson's promise back in 1997 that we would have a "bonfire of the quangos", something like 19 new bodies have been created since the Parliament came into being, although there has been a net reduction of four or five bodies overall.
We should not think purely in terms of numbers; we must consider the effectiveness of the bodies and the need to achieve modern, efficient and
Although the bill does not go as far as I would have liked, it is undoubtedly welcome and the SNP will support it at decision time at 5 o'clock—or earlier. We hope that the bill will bring about significant change in the nature of appointments.
However, I say to the Executive in all honesty that it should be conscientious about the whole issue of cronyism. It should try to ensure that we do not have a repeat of the past, when one political party had an absolute monopoly on public appointments in Scotland. We want a new kind of Scotland—not one run by Lanarkshire Labour, but one that is open, democratic and transparent and of which we can be proud.
As is usual at this point in the stage 3 debate, I will thank the clerks to the Local Government Committee, who have worked extremely hard to help the bill through the process, as they have with many bills during the session. I thank the committee convener and the members of the committee, with whom I generally have a very constructive relationship. I hope that we have made real progress with the legislation. I also thank the many people who have responded over many months to consultations on the bill.
In particular, I thank my officials in the Executive bill team, who have worked extremely hard, too. They have helped me through a great many of the complications of the various provisions. I place on record my thanks to them—if they are still around later tonight, I will be happy to buy them a drink. That invitation extends to the officials and members of the committee, not to the whole Parliament. Opposition members are welcome to come along. Genuinely, I want to thank those people for what they have done.
As always, the processes of the Parliament have, as a consequence of the committee system and the scrutiny that takes place, led to the bill being better than when it was introduced. We have genuinely moved the bill forward.
I welcome the constructive comments that members of all parties have made about where the bill takes us. As I have tried to make clear throughout the passage of the bill—I have done so again today—the bill is part of a range of measures that the Executive has initiated to improve the operation of public life in Scotland.
I am sorry to be a bit dispiriting at this point, but, contrary to what the SNP says, the bill was not introduced in response to anything that it said or did in relation to our comprehensive approach. I am glad to tell Alex Neil that the Executive consultation on the prospect of a commissioner started in February 2000, whereas his bill, which was a spoiling bill, was introduced in September 2001—a full 20 months behind the pace.
Is not it the case that, a few weeks before the Local Government Committee considered my bill, the Executive said that there was no need for legislation on the matter?
As I said, we consulted on the prospects for a commissioner a full 20 months ahead of the introduction of Alex Neil's bill. Alex Neil was smarter on his feet just now than he was in responding to our initiatives on the matter.
The bill is contrary to what the Tories have said—one of its principal aims is to clear up the mess that the Tories left after years of misuse of patronage during the dark old days of the Thatcher years and beyond.
The bill makes sensible provision for the future and will take political considerations out of the appointments process. That approach is the opposite of the SNP's proposed approach. The SNP has attempted to politicise the appointments process and to create a climate of suspicion around it. As Alex Neil knows, the vast bulk of people who serve on public bodies have no political connections whatever; we want to encourage more people to apply for such jobs in that spirit. The SNP complains about the number of SNP supporters who are appointed, but I encourage SNP supporters to apply. If they have the required qualities, they will be appointed to the bodies, which will add to diversity in the process.
Sadly, the SNP's approach through its amendments and through Alex Neil's bill has been to seek to provide a vehicle for a variety of witch hunts, which, it was intended, would end up as show trials of individuals in the chamber. However, the bill, through its inventive and positive measures, will comprehensively thwart the SNP's intentions. More important, the bill will give Scotland a modernised, independent, accountable, transparent, open, powerful and constructive public appointments landscape that will serve Scotland well for many years to come. I commend the Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill to Parliament.