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Cabinet (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 16th September 2004.

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Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 12:00 pm, 16th September 2004

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Scottish Executive's Cabinet. (S2F-1030)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

At the Cabinet meeting next Wednesday, we will discuss our budgets for the next three years, which are to be announced in Parliament shortly thereafter.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I thank the First Minister for that answer. I look forward to, but do not expect, a substantial cut in the tax burden on Scots in that budget. However, we will wait and see the details.

I note that, in relation to the Fraser report, the First Minister has been talking about civil service reform. I would agree that the reform of the civil service may well contribute to better government in Scotland today. However, does the First Minister agree that that should not obscure the fact that it is ministers who are accountable to Parliament and the people for the decisions that are taken and that civil servants are accountable to ministers, and that we must not get that the wrong way round? Does he also agree that, if ministers do not accept those core principles of our constitution and fail to accept their responsibilities, our whole system of democratic accountability will break down and that that will further erode trust in politicians, Parliament and Government?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I absolutely agree with that. That is precisely why I took the initiative last year to set up an inquiry. I did that to ensure that the facts were on the record with recommendations that we could take forward. I decided precisely that the inquiry would be headed by a former Conservative minister, who I am sure also understands that point. As a leading Tory in the House of Lords, he is completely independent of anyone on these benches and is someone whose reputation should ensure that the end report is clearly accepted by people across Scotland. I hope that Mr McLetchie will recognise that and accept how Lord Fraser has conducted his business.

I accept that ministers have responsibilities. That is why I expect ministers in this team to sort out problems as they occur and to anticipate them where possible. However, I also expect ministers to accept responsibility for taking Scotland forward. That is why the inquiry was established. That is why I accept each one of its recommendations and that is why we will now move forward, using the report and the lessons that have been learned to improve Scotland.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I agree with the First Minister that there are important recommendations, in particular on public procurement processes and on the construction and financing of major public sector projects. I hope that those lessons will be learned.

I was pleased to hear the First Minister accept the principle of ministerial responsibility, which lies at the heart of our system of government. Having accepted that principle, will he therefore accept that, whatever the shortcomings—so graphically described in Lord Fraser's report—of some of the civil servants who were involved in the Holyrood project, those who are to blame must, in the last analysis, be those who took the crucial political decisions? Ministers chose the site and the architect. Ministers pressed ahead regardless of cost. Ministers failed to ask the appropriate questions of their civil servants. Ministers—and Labour MSPs—voted to press ahead with the project in 1999. Throughout the process, ministers—including the First Minister when he was Minister for Finance—abdicated their financial responsibility and continued to sign blank cheques. The First Minister's failure to make the BBC hand over the tapes means that, according to the Fraser inquiry report, the inquiry is still not formally closed. Given that litany of failure, will the First Minister accept the ministerial and collective responsibility of his party and of his colleagues for those disastrous political decisions?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

On the final point, I remind Mr McLetchie that we live in a democracy, not a dictatorship. In my view, politicians should not dictate to broadcasting organisations what decisions they should make on their research material. I hope that Lord Fraser, like the rest of us, will be able to view that material in due course. I regret the fact that the BBC did not co-operate, but in a democracy it should not be forced to do so. I believe that very strongly indeed.

Let me also say that it is easy—I shall not go so far as to say that it is cheap—to criticise someone who is not here to answer for himself. However, if Donald Dewar were here, I think that he would indeed have accepted responsibility. Perhaps he would have accepted responsibility far more than he should but, as the honourable man that he was, I am sure that he would have done so. I have no doubt about that whatsoever.

However, as I have said before, I wish that all members, in particular members of the four main parties, would accept their responsibility for the fact that the building project has been in the hands of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body since 1 June 1999. As members of the corporate body, every one of those parties—the Scottish National Party, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, but also the Conservative party—took part in every decision that was made. Ultimately, they share some of the responsibility. I am prepared to accept, as I have been all along, my share of that responsibility as an individual MSP. As First Minister, I accept fully my responsibility to ensure that this never happens again and to ensure that Scotland can now move forward. However, Mr McLetchie and the nationalists should accept their responsibilities. We were all involved in the decisions, so we should all learn the lessons.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

As John Home Robertson has withdrawn question 4 to allow the questioning on the issue to continue, I will take a few more supplementary questions.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I welcome the First Minister's response to what is a constructive report. I suppose that it is inevitable that the usual suspects are still peddling the same old drivel, regardless of what Lord Fraser said. If any apology is due to Scotland for the fact that we have Scottish granite paving and cladding on Scotland's Parliament building instead of Portuguese granite, I am prepared to offer that apology.

Does the First Minister agree that the time has come to recognise that this building is a tremendous national asset for Scotland? Does the Executive have plans to take advantage of the image of a confident new Scotland to promote communities throughout the country, and Scotland as a whole abroad?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I hope that the international visitors who are in the gallery today are impressed by what they see and by our resolve, which I have mentioned before, to ensure that we learn the lessons of what has happened. We now have a national asset and our job is to use it to promote our country, not just for tourism, but to promote in a symbolic way everything that has now been refreshed about Scottish identity, confidence and the future for Scotland. I hope that we can do so and we intend to start around the official opening of the building, which is on 9 October.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

It wisnae me.

I want to return to what should be concerning us: the working relationship between the Executive and civil servants, which the Fraser report illuminated. I fully accept that the First Minister has agreed that that relationship should be changed and modernised. Does he worry, as I do, that worthwhile reforms are not in his gift, given that they require the consent of Whitehall because civil servants here are home civil servants? What assurances can the First Minister give that his best intentions will not be bogged down in the corridors of power, which I think are still in Victoria Quay, not St Andrew's House?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

One reason why there has been so much progress on civil service reform in Scotland in the past five years is precisely because the civil service in Scotland is now directly accountable to me and to the other members of the ministerial team in Scotland. Those civil servants may be employed by the UK home civil service, but they are accountable—for their actions, the direction in which they work and for the priorities that are set for them—to the team of ministers and to me as First Minister. That is a good working arrangement.

Devolution was not devised for Scotland so that we could become insular and restrict people's ability to have contact outside our borders. It is good and healthy that there is interchange and dialogue between the civil service in Scotland and in London and that people can move within the home civil service to develop their skills, professionalism and careers. However, it is important that our civil service is accountable to the Scottish ministers. I assure Margo MacDonald that that is the case, which is precisely why we will lead the drive for further reform and modernisation and why we will not need to ask anyone's permission to do so.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Yesterday, Lord Fraser suggested at his press conference that Labour ministers should have asked more searching questions about the Holyrood costs. Given that the First Minister was Minister for Finance at that time, does he regret failing to pose the right questions then to his civil servants?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

If Mr Ewing checks the evidence, he will see that it is recorded that I posed questions. In the short time that I was Minister for Finance before the project was handed over, and in the weeks following that, and in the time up to my announcement to the Parliament of the budget in September 1999, I insisted absolutely that there should be full disclosure of all costs and all potential costs that might have been outstanding. That was our understanding at the time. That was the right approach to take and we have taken it in the Parliament.

Our financial systems are far more open and transparent than they ever were at Westminster and than they are today at Whitehall. We in this Parliament have a system that we should be proud of. It declares in an open and transparent way where money is being spent and it seeks approval for that expenditure in advance. That is a mark of this new Parliament, and it is something on which we should build in years to come.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Given Nicola Sturgeon's last comments, does the First Minister agree that the truth has come out about Holyrood precisely because he set up the inquiry? Looking to the future and to the lessons that can be learned, following the defect period, and given the fact that this is a specialist building that might require high maintenance, does the First Minister know what maintenance arrangements are in place? Will construction professionals be involved in maintenance, or will we be tied to the original contractors? If so, are we talking about blank cheques again? Can they charge what they like? We need to ask those questions.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Although I welcome Elaine Smith's reminder to those who might try to portray the report as coming from anything other than a proper inquiry that was set up for the best of objectives, I might be in trouble with you, Presiding Officer, if I were to interfere in answering questions on the maintenance of the new building. Although I would love to comment on that in some respects, I would be very happy for the Presiding Officer to deal with the matter. I am sure that he will write to Elaine Smith with the answer that she requires.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

I shall do so, in a written form that can be circulated to members.