Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:58 pm on 5th February 2003.

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Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 3:58 pm, 5th February 2003

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 diversity strategy, appoint and train independent assessors to scrutinise each appointment round and inform the Parliament of significant breaches of the code. Crucially, that can be done before an appointment is confirmed. That is the powerful whistleblowing role to which I have referred. The commissioner for public appointments in Scotland will build on the many positive aspects of the operation of the UK commissioner for public appointments, but will have the advantages of having particular awareness of the environment in Scotland, and of having a more substantial and influential role.

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.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc. (Scotland) Bill be passed.