Points of Order

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:34 pm on 20 June 2007.

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Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 2:34, 20 June 2007

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

Last Wednesday, I made a point of order in connection with a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning on higher education, the contents of which had appeared in a number of newspapers the previous weekend, in articles that trailed an Executive announcement on the abolition of the graduate endowment.

I regret that today there seems to have been a repetition of the same offence. Today's edition of The Herald carries a story, which is tagged as an exclusive, that there will be an announcement today from the Executive on extra free nursery provision. The article says:

"Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, is expected to unveil the £15m initiative during a debate on education at the Scottish Parliament."

That might be deemed educated guesswork from the journalist, but I suspect that he would have needed clairvoyancy talents akin to those of Mystic Meg to be so right and to be able to tag the story as an exclusive. He goes on to quote the Minister for Children and Early Years, Adam Ingram, as saying that the announcement on free nursery education is a "significant step".

When I made my point of order last week, I pointed out that when members who now occupy the Executive benches were in opposition they complained regularly about the then Executive trailing ministerial announcements in the press before informing the Parliament. There have been three incidents in the past week in which details—on the graduate endowment, on fees for free personal care and on nursery education—have gone into the press before the Parliament was informed about them. That is deeply discourteous to members. The new Executive appears to be a serial offender at a very early stage in the new parliamentary session.

After he was elected, the First Minister told the Parliament:

All of us in the Parliament have a responsibility to conduct ourselves in a way that respects the Parliament that the people have chosen to elect. That will take patience, maturity and leadership on all sides of the chamber. My pledge to the Parliament today is that any Scottish Government that is led by me will respect and include the Parliament in the governance of Scotland over the next four years.—[Official Report, 16 May 2007; c 36.]

Those were fine words from the First Minister, but the events of the past two weeks suggest that they have been all too quickly forgotten. Presiding Officer, will you rule on whether the Executive is in breach of parliamentary procedures in this matter? Should this not be a case of three strikes and you're out?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

On a point of order on the same matter, Presiding Officer.

I make the Parliament aware that, as the newly appointed convener of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, I received a letter this morning from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, which advised me that she intended to make a statement about early years provision and asked that I and other members of the committee treat the letter's contents as confidential until the statement had been made. I am sure that I and committee members were more than happy to do so, but given that the contents of the statement appeared on the front page of The Herald this morning and that the committee did not receive the letter until after that newspaper had been published, it would have been rather difficult for us to comply with the cabinet secretary's request on this occasion, no matter how keen we were to oblige her.

In addition, given that during an interview on "Good Morning Scotland" this morning, the cabinet secretary commented on class sizes for primaries 1, 2 and 3, we can expect her to make an announcement on the matter in her speech. However, there was no reference to such an announcement in her letter to me of 19 June.

When Hugh Henry asked the cabinet secretary about probationary teachers, she said that she would make an announcement on the matter before the recess. This is her final opportunity to do that, so it is likely that she will make such an announcement today. However, again, there was no reference to the matter in her letter to me of 19 June. [Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. The member is making serious points.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

It is unfortunate that the cabinet secretary has chosen to ride roughshod over the Parliament and its committees. I seek the Presiding Officer's guidance on whether that is appropriate conduct for a minister in the Scottish Government.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I point out that members who wish to make a point of order have three minutes in which to do so—that is their inalienable right. I thank Murdo Fraser and Karen Whitefield for giving notice of their points of order.

This is the third occasion in recent weeks on which points of order have been raised regarding an announcement in the Parliament. As I did on those previous occasions, I refer members to the good practice guidance on Executive announcements, which I understand has been reissued to all business managers. The purpose of that guidance is to ensure that the Parliament is treated with respect and is properly the place in which major spending and policy announcements are first made. I understand that, as Karen Whitefield pointed out, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning somewhat belatedly attempted to forewarn the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee before details of today's announcement appeared in the press. However, I stress to the Executive the importance of adhering to the guidance and ensuring that its terms are followed. I believe that the Executive is sailing slightly close to the wind on the issue and I exhort it to err on the side of caution in future.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

On a different point of order, Presiding Officer. I draw your attention to reports in the press yesterday that the First Minister has signed an historic pact with Northern Ireland's political leaders. One report stated:

"Details of the joint statement ... include proposals for collaboration on education, transport and tourism. The Scottish and Northern Irish Executives have also agreed to work closely on gaining the right to set their own rates of corporation tax and securing greater fiscal autonomy."

It went on:

"One area where Northern Ireland's politicians want to make quick progress with Scotland is over higher education."

The Scottish Parliament might have expected advance consultation on matters of such importance but, at the very least, there should be a statement to the Parliament. Presiding Officer, I draw your and the Parliament's attention to the statement made by the First Minister in the Parliament on 7 June, when he said:

"matters of such importance will rightly be brought to the chamber—members of the Parliament are entitled to nothing less."—[Official Report, 7 June 2007; c 587.]

If that is the case, why are we to have no statement on the agreement with Northern Ireland?

Presiding Officer, I ask you to discuss with the First Minister the possibility of his making a statement later this afternoon. After all, we have questions to ask. Members of the Scottish Parliament rightly want to ask a number of questions on the issue and surely they are entitled to nothing less.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I thank the member for giving me notice of his point of order. However, the First Minister is entirely at liberty to sign agreements with other institutions as he feels fit. Whether he intends to make a statement to the Parliament is a matter for him in the first instance. There will be opportunities during this and next week's parliamentary debate to put questions to the First Minister.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I apologise for making this point, but since George Foulkes has raised the issue of First Ministers taking executive decisions, I would like to know whether the Parliament could also be consulted by the Prime Minister before he signs up to a European constitution by any other name.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

You may have a point, Ms MacDonald, but I do not think that it is a point of order for me.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

You do not have to take three minutes, by the way.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I assure my good friend Margo MacDonald that, unlike the First Minister, the Prime Minister is making a statement to Westminster on the issue of the European constitution.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Again, you may have a point, but it is not a point of order.