Complaint

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:42 pm on 8th March 2007.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 3:42 pm, 8th March 2007

The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5678, in the name of Brian Adam, on behalf of the Standards and Public Appointments Committee, on a breach of the code of conduct for members of the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 3:45 pm, 8th March 2007

The details of the complaint that was made against Mr Monteith are set out in the report that the Standards and Public Appointments Committee published on 1 March. That report includes the details of the investigation that the Scottish parliamentary standards commissioner carried out. In summary, the complaint was that, when Mr Monteith was a member of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee, he disclosed confidential information to the media ahead of the agreed publication time of a preliminary stage report by that committee.

The Parliament has made it clear previously that, when a committee deems information to be confidential, it should remain confidential until the agreed release date. In Mr Monteith's case, in which the information related to a private bill, there were particular reasons why the information should not have been transmitted outwith the Parliament. Private bill procedures differ from those for public bills and it is important that members understand and respect those differences. Private bills are different in that they involve measures that a promoter seeks in its private interests and to which others may object, also in a private capacity.

The Parliament's role remains to legislate but, because of the nature of the issues that are at stake, it is also to arbitrate between competing private interests. That calls for procedures that are both parliamentary and quasi-judicial in character. At the consideration stage, a private bill committee sits quasi-judicially and makes decisions on people's rights, as set out in their objections. The committee report then details the committee's decision on those matters. It is not appropriate to let anybody know the outcome in advance of the objectors having access to that information. The approach is identical to that of the courts when they issue judgments on actions that are before them—all parties can access the same information at the same time. Early knowledge of decisions could affect negotiations between parties, which are generally on-going right up to the publication time.

The Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee discussed and decided on the timing of its report's publication. It was not in the gift of an individual member of that committee to decide to pre-empt that agreement. The Standards and Public Appointments Committee noted Mr Monteith's position, as set out to the commissioner and repeated in a separate submission to the committee. However, the situation in which confidential information was placed in the public domain arose because Mr Monteith chose to put out his own separate media release. The committee noted that there appear to have been two versions of the private bill committee's release. One was sent to members of the private bill committee and the Parliament's media relations office in advance of publication for information purposes and was not to be referred to until publication—hence the embargo. One was issued at the same time as the report was published and carried no embargo.

As the process for private bills is distinct, members of the private bill committee were given a briefing on the procedures for publication, which included an instruction that nothing, embargoed or otherwise, should be given to the media prior to the publication time. I will quote briefly from page 20 of the Standards and Public Appointments Committee report. The commissioner stated that Mr Monteith

"accepted with hindsight that he had paid insufficient attention to procedures for private bills".

In addition, Mr Monteith could have taken steps that might have prevented the situation from occurring. He could have informed the clerks to the committee or, as a courtesy, the committee convener that he intended to issue his own information. The procedures could have been reiterated to him and perhaps prevented the matter reaching this unfortunate stage.

In arriving at its decision to agree with the findings and conclusions of the commissioner and to recommend to Parliament a sanction, the Standards and Public Appointments Committee agreed that the sanction should be proportionate and reasonable. The committee did not wish to stop the member carrying out his work in his constituency.

We are acting to send a signal that members should be cautious in their actions and consider possible consequences. Therefore, the committee recommends to Parliament that Mr Monteith be excluded from all meetings of the Parliament and its committees for the first five sitting days immediately after the motion is agreed to.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the 1st Report, 2007 (Session 2) of the Standards and Public Appointments Committee, Complaint against Brian Monteith MSP (SP Paper 758), and agrees to impose the sanction recommended in the report that Brian Monteith MSP be excluded from all meetings of the Parliament and all meetings of its committees for the first five sitting days immediately after this motion is agreed.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I call Brian Monteith. Mr Monteith, you have three minutes.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Independent 3:50 pm, 8th March 2007

Three minutes? Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I oppose the Standards and Public Appointments Committee motion for three reasons. First, I was denied natural justice in this process. Secondly, I did not disregard the Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee, as the standards commissioner and the Standards and Public Appointments Committee allege. Thirdly, the penalty that will be imposed, should members believe the charges, is disproportionate for such a breach.

In not being allowed to appear before the Standards and Public Appointments Committee to answer the complaint against me, I believe that I was denied the natural justice that this Parliament rightly insists that members of the public should expect. I could not answer in person any allegations or questions or correct any misunderstandings. Would members who are either members of trade unions or sponsored by trade unions accept it if people whom they represent were accused of a breach of their employment terms by their employer but had no opportunity to address any committee dealing with the incident? Is it not right to expect that person to be able to present their own defence or to have someone represent them?

Instead, the process was conducted in writing. When I submitted my written response, I fully expected to be called to a subsequent committee meeting. In respect of natural justice, the system and the decision are flawed and the motion should be rejected.

Secondly, I do not believe that I disregarded the Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee. It is clear from the convener of the Standards and Public Appointments Committee's speech, that people still completely misunderstand the term "embargo." I have said constantly in my defence that I believe that there was a misunderstanding or confusion in the Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee. I certainly do not recall the clerk saying that nothing should be circulated, whether with an embargo or not. In fact, the paper on the release of the report that was circulated to members—I have it here—suggested that the release, which was to be issued the next day, would be embargoed until 8 o'clock. An embargo means that a paper is in circulation, but cannot be used.

It was my belief that in issuing my separate release—which was subject to the same embargo—to explain why I had dissented from the committee's decision, I was doing nothing more than ensuring that the information would be in the public domain to allow people to understand why I had dissented. I would not be so daft as to break the publication of the committee's report, or to misinform the public or the media, by putting out a news release in my name. That just does not make sense.

If I—or the clerk or the Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee—had fully understood the terms of the embargo, there would have been no confusion. Given that no evidence from the private meeting is minuted, the corroborating evidence from the convener of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee is thrown into doubt, because she had to seek clarification at a later date from the same clerk. She was not sure what the clerk had meant by the embargo.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The member should be finishing.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Independent

I have worked in the media for 16 years. I understand what an embargo means. To give a member a statement that has an embargo on it means that the statement is in the public domain—the press have the information, but it should not be used.

My third reason for opposing the motion is that the penalty for the alleged breach is disproportionate and should be rejected. If members read the Official Report they will see that the Standards and Public Appointments Committee members recognised that the offence was different to a previous breach, but decided that the penalty should be the same.

For those three reasons, I ask members to reject the motion.

Photo of Mark Ballard Mark Ballard Green 3:54 pm, 8th March 2007

I respect the fact that the Scottish parliamentary standards commissioner ruled against Brian Monteith, but I am genuinely concerned about how minority reports and minority opinions are treated by committees. There is a lack of clarity about the rules in such situations.

I understand from reading the standards commissioner's judgment that Brian Monteith might have fallen foul of the rules, but in a situation where there is such a lack of clarity about what the rules mean; in a situation where there were, as we heard from Brian Adam, two press releases with different uses of the word "embargo"; and in a situation where we routinely issue press releases on a no-approach basis, which do not always give minority opinions the same exposure as the views of the majority, we have a genuine concern that the matter needs to be addressed by the Procedures Committee. We need clear rules so that nobody can claim that a lack of clarity has led to a situation like the one that we are in today.

For that reason, the Greens will abstain from the vote on the motion.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 3:56 pm, 8th March 2007

Although I do not wish to comment on many of the issues that Brian Monteith covered, I do not wish to be part of what can look like a kangaroo court. He was accused of offending against the Parliament's rules, but he was not given an opportunity to answer. He should have been given that opportunity. If he had, we would not see the puzzled faces that we now see around the chamber. People are unsure about what they are being asked to vote on.

We need the clarity that Mark Ballard mentioned, because there is great confusion throughout the Parliament about how embargos are used.

Brian Monteith was not given the chance to face his detractors and accusers. I thought that the chance to do that was a basic element of what we call justice.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 3:57 pm, 8th March 2007

The Standards and Public Appointments Committee contacted Brian Monteith and said that it wished to take further representations from him so that he could clarify any points that he wished to make. He had already dealt with the matter fully with the Scottish parliamentary standards commissioner. Mr Monteith wrote to the committee at considerable length and set out interesting arguments about embargos. He did not indicate that he was desperate to come and speak to us. We understood that the letter was his defence.

The committee decided to support the standards commissioner's judgment. Although there are arguments about what is and is not an embargo, it is clear that the clerk to the Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee—or an equivalent person—made it clear to members of that committee that they should not say anything until the committee's report was in the public domain. Brian Monteith did say something, so it seems clear that there was a breach.

Although the previous incident involving Mike Pringle was different in many ways, it was of the same order of seriousness as the current case, so it is reasonable to impose the same penalty. We should try to have standards that people understand and go along with, so the Standards and Public Appointments Committee imposed the same penalty as was imposed on Mike Pringle.

The committee believes that Brian Monteith has had natural justice. We considered his arguments carefully, but we do not agree with them and we believe that the penalty is commensurate with the seriousness of the event.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 3:59 pm, 8th March 2007

Brian Monteith's suggestion that he has not had natural justice does a great disservice to the Scottish parliamentary standards commissioner and the Standards and Public Appointments Committee. The incident, which occurred in June last year, has been thoroughly investigated. Mr Monteith took up the opportunity, which was offered by the committee, to make a written submission. There was nothing new in it, so we decided that we did not need to hear any further argument. He did not offer any new argument today.

His second point was that, somehow, nobody else understands the meaning of the word "embargo" and that, because he has been a professional in the field, he is the authority on the matter. That is a weak defence. Donald Gorrie dealt with Mr Monteith's third point effectively.

Members will be aware that there have been complaints in previous years about the leaking of documents from committees. Regardless of what information was ultimately transmitted to the media, Mr Monteith admits that he gave information to a journalist. He has argued about the term "embargo". If he wants definitive guidance to be issued, the Standards and Public Appointments Committee has agreed to draw the Conveners Group's attention to its report on the complaint and to the Scottish parliamentary standards commissioner's comments. It will be for the Conveners Group to decide whether action is required.

The fact remains that Mr Monteith was a member of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link Bill Committee and was briefed on and agreed to the special procedures relating to private bills. In breaching the procedures he breached the members' code of conduct and we recommend a sanction that is proportionate and reasonable.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

I will not comment on the pros and cons of the case, but I am concerned that Mr Monteith had only three minutes in which to speak, particularly as—quite rightly—the convener of the Standards and Public Appointments Committee opened and closed the debate and another member of the committee spoke for two minutes. In the interests of natural justice, a member in such a position should be given more than three minutes to explain their position to the Parliament.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That is a statable opinion, but the matter is not covered by the standing orders. In essence, the timings are directed by the business motion. If Mr Neil thinks that the procedures are inadequate, the proper way for him to address the matter would be to approach the Procedures Committee.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Further to Mr Neil's point of order, although standing orders do not cover every jot and tittle of what has gone on in the past 10 minutes, they provide for fairness and equality of treatment, which Mr Monteith has not received. I sincerely hope members will ensure that in future a member in such a position receives equality of treatment.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That might be a statable opinion, but it is not a point of order. If members want rules on such matters, they must consider how such rules could be introduced. Currently there are no such rules.