Improving Accountability

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 28th February 2008.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15 am, 28th February 2008

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-1434, in the name of Jackie Baillie, on improving accountability.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

In August 1999, when he published Scotland's first ministerial code covering conduct and procedures, Donald Dewar said:

"this underlines our commitment to open and responsible government which is fully accountable to a modern, representative parliament."

Those words still stand us in good stead. I do not think that anyone in the chamber, irrespective of party, will demur from those sentiments, and I hope that we share an ambition for transparent government that is truly accountable to the people of Scotland.

Although the code's provisions are closely based on the United Kingdom ministerial code, reflecting widely accepted principles of good practice, they emphasise openness and partnership with the Parliament to reflect the principles enshrined in the consultative steering group's report. That is as it should be. The code also incorporates the seven principles of public life outlined in the first report, published in 2005, of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Those very principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership continue to have resonance in modern Scotland. We sign up to those principles and understand the importance of openness and accountability in order to build trust in Government. However, it is simply not enough to rest on our laurels: more is required.

The Scottish National Party Government is reviewing the Scottish ministerial code. I am advised that that is routine and that such reviews generally follow elections and allow the code to be refreshed for incoming ministers. Such an approach is perfectly reasonable and, indeed, desirable. However, I do not recall previous reviews taking such an inordinate length of time. It is now nine months after the election and there has not been a single word from the SNP.

More worrying, in the same period we have had complaint after complaint about breaches of the code. Perhaps I am mistaken but, with the Trump planning application, the Aviemore planning application and the Beauly to Denny power line planning application, a distinct pattern appears to be emerging.

Moreover, what about class sizes? We had statement after statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning and her deputy; parliamentary questions were asked and—after a fashion—answered; and there were even promises from the First Minister himself in the chamber. There was no dubiety; everything was perfectly clear; the SNP pledge on class sizes would be delivered in the promised timescale. Or so they all said. Imagine, then, the genuine disappointment of parents throughout Scotland on learning that the clear advice from Government officials to ministers is that the policy is not deliverable. Did ministers know that before they made their statements? Did they inadvertently mislead Parliament? Have they taken the first possible opportunity, as required by the ministerial code, to correct the misinformation given to Parliament? I suspect that, like the long-awaited new ministerial code, it will be some time before we get any answers to those questions.

What about the revelations that emerged only yesterday about the poor Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Does the member agree that, whatever Jim Mather is, he is not poor?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I was, of course, being very careful about the context in which I used the word.

It transpires that the poor minister spoke to the permanent secretary about his £350,000 of shares only on 20 September 2007, after being contacted by a reporter from The Scotsman.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Indeed I will not.

That was more than four months after the election. Contrary to the SNP's spin on the matter, the code clearly states that such matters should be dealt with on appointment, not at some unspecified time later. Also, I seem to recall that the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism said that he would set up a blind trust to deal with the issue. Although such a move would have been entirely appropriate, it appears that that, too, has not been done.

The overall impression is of a Government that ignores the rules, rides roughshod over expected standards of behaviour and, frankly, plays fast and loose with the ministerial code. It is hardly the partnership with Parliament envisaged by the consultative steering group; indeed, it is perhaps much closer to the abrasive style of the First Minister, who presides over the code with breathtaking arrogance.

We must remember that the First Minister decides on breaches of the code in relation not only to other ministers, but to himself. I invite members to pause for a moment and to see whether they can think of any occasion when the First Minister will find himself guilty of breaching the code. Given what we know of his essential character, I think not.

As Patrick Harvie eloquently put it:

"There could feasibly be a situation in the future where a first minister needs to be held to account for a more serious issue and the Scottish Executive does not have processes in place to deal with this."

Mr Harvie said that in 2006, when Jack McConnell met Donald Trump to talk about investing in Scotland. I do not need to remind Bruce Crawford or the rest of the chamber that at that time there was no live planning application on the table. However, almost a year later, we see Alex Salmond travelling in his ministerial car—indeed, falling over himself—to meet the Trump Organization when a live planning application is on the table. Ah, but how can I forget that Mr Salmond was doing that in his role as constituency MSP?

I should also say in passing that I have met the chief planner on a few occasions, but I have never been able to arrange a meeting with him within 24 hours—and certainly not if developers have been involved. In fact, I am confident that no MSP has ever been able to do that. It leads one to conclude that one particular constituency MSP is more important that all the others.

In 2006, the SNP and the Tories shared Patrick Harvie's view. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon herself said:

"to discuss specific proposals that require planning permission is clearly prejudicial and, on the face of it, would be a breach of the code."

Perhaps she should share that very wise view with her boss.

The First Minister will be aware of the Prime Minister's initiative to ensure, as part of a number of changes to the UK ministerial code, the appointment of a new independent adviser to provide advice on ministers' interests and to investigate alleged breaches of the code. The adviser will then report to the Prime Minister. Moreover, an annual report will be laid before the UK Parliament to ensure proper scrutiny of ministerial conduct and a list of ministerial interests will be published. I hope that the First Minister fully supports such an approach.

A modern and progressive Government should have nothing to fear from ensuring transparency and accountability in all that it does. The SNP now has a chance to change its mind in the interests of good government and partnership with the Parliament. The First Minister has said that he will listen to Parliament; I hope that, today, this Parliament sends out a clear signal about introducing independent oversight and improving accountability in the ministerial code. Will the First Minister stay true to his word and listen to Parliament?

I want to share with the chamber other people's views on this matter. Theresa May, the shadow Leader of the House of Commons has said:

"We need an independent body to oversee the ministerial code".

Her opinion is shared by Sir George Young. Finally, I want to share the following comments:

"Given that the First Minister is responsible for the enforcement of the ministerial code ... who would undertake any investigation into the question whether a breach had occurred?"—[Official Report, 19 May 2004; c 8486.]

Our mystery man went on to say:

"It might be wise to look at another body to independently oversee their actions. Anything that makes ministers more accountable and any more transparent must be a good thing".

Those were the words of Bruce Crawford. I hope that the chamber will reflect on them today.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that government should be open and accountable; affirms its support for the Seven Principles of Public Life established in the first report of the Nolan Committee and for the further principles governing ministerial conduct as set out in the Scottish Ministerial Code; notes that the First Minister is reviewing the code, in line with practice after each Scottish parliamentary election; acknowledges the increasing calls for independent oversight of the code; considers that a modern and progressive government has nothing to fear from ensuring transparency and accountability in all that it does, and therefore calls on the First Minister to include independent oversight of the Scottish Ministerial Code, taking the new UK Ministerial Code as the starting point, and to bring forward a statement to the Parliament on this when the review is concluded.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 9:24 am, 28th February 2008

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this morning's debate. I was a bit surprised yesterday when I read Jackie Baillie's motion calling for an independent input into the ministerial code—not that I disagree with the principle, about which I will say more in a moment. I was surprised that this has suddenly become a big issue for the Labour Party.

I listened with great interest to the quotations in Jackie Baillie's speech from luminaries from different parties in Westminster and here, but I cannot recall any time during the first eight years of the Scottish Parliament when Labour members raised concerns about the content or enforcement of the Scottish ministerial code.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Does the member agree that never have so many issues about breaches of the code arisen in such a short time? Such issues have brought discredit on the Government and the Parliament.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

That might be an issue of perspective. The perspective has changed as the Labour Party has made the transition from government to opposition.

Labour does not have a good record of expressing concern about the issue. I looked through the Official Report to find out how often in the first eight years of the Parliament Labour members expressed concern about breaches of the code, but of course there were no instances of that happening. The transition from government to opposition has sharpened Labour's appetite for reform. However, I will not be too critical of Labour, because we welcome the general thrust of the party's approach and we are happy to endorse much of the motion.

As Jackie Baillie said, the motion is timely. We learned yesterday from that fine publication, The Scotsman, that the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, Jim Mather, had been in breach of the ministerial code in failing to declare his shareholdings on appointment. The ministerial code is clear on that point: a minister must declare his or her shareholdings "on appointment". Mr Mather did not do so. Indeed, he declared his shareholdings only after being rumbled by a reporter from The Scotsman who asked him about them. However, Labour members should not be too critical of Mr Mather. I dare say that there was no intentional wrongdoing on his part, and on that basis perhaps we should let him off with a mild reprimand.

Here is the anomaly. If there is a serious breach of the code by a minister—let us say, hypothetically, that a minister were to act in relation to a large planning application—the person who enforces the code is the First Minister, who is hardly impartial, so where is the sanction? That is the key issue that must be addressed.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Surely the key issue that must be addressed is that when there is a complaint we must have confidence that it will be independently investigated. Of course it is for the First Minister to decide on matters, but we must be assured that there is independent investigation of the complaint.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I agree with Mr Rumbles that we need an important independent element in the process. If he reads my amendment he will see that we call for an independent authority to oversee the administration of the ministerial code. That would go a long way towards addressing Mr Rumbles's concerns.

I agree with many points that Jackie Baillie made. On the motion, I doubt that anyone disagrees with the seven principles of public life that were set out in the Nolan committee's report or that

"a modern and progressive government has nothing to fear from ensuring transparency and accountability in all that it does", although I am surprised and impressed that the Labour Party accepts that the SNP Administration is to be described as "modern and progressive".

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Our amendment acknowledges that we need independent input into policing the code. I do not accept the principle that we should use the UK ministerial code as a starting point, so our amendment would delete that part of the motion. That is simply because the situation at UK level is different from the situation in Holyrood—[ Interruption. ] I am sorry, Presiding Officer, I did not switch off my phone. I am clearly in breach of all sorts of codes this morning.

The obvious difference between Westminster and Holyrood is that the Scottish Parliament is elected by proportional representation and we currently have a minority Government. If a Government minister misbehaves, the votes of only 48 members of the Parliament—or 50 members, if the Greens are loyal—will be needed to remove them. No such sanction exists at Westminster. The situation here is entirely different and requires a different approach.

We accept that an independent authority should be involved, but the wording in our amendment is superior to the wording in the Labour motion. There is legitimate concern about potential conflicts of interest and the involvement of an independent authority to advise ministers and oversee the administration of the code is essential. Like Labour, we call for a statement to the Parliament by the First Minister when the review of the code is concluded.

I hope that the Parliament can unite around our amendment to the Labour motion. This is not an esoteric debate. The public must have confidence in politicians and in Government ministers. The charade of a ministerial code that is enforceable only by the First Minister, with no independent involvement—as was the case during the past eight years, when we had Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers and did not hear a cheep from either party—must be brought to an end.

We can achieve that today, so it is with pleasure that I move amendment S3M-1434.2, to leave out from "oversight of the Scottish Ministerial Code" to end and insert:

"authority to direct ministers in the appropriate arrangements for ensuring that their conduct as ministers is in accordance with the Scottish Ministerial Code to avoid conflict or potential conflict of interest, and to oversee its administration, and to bring forward a statement to the Parliament on this when the review is concluded."

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 9:30 am, 28th February 2008

On 13 December, at First Minister's question time, I asked Alex Salmond whether he acknowledged that it is essential that someone who is independent of Government should be appointed to investigate complaints of breaches of the Scottish ministerial code. He gave a somewhat non-committal reply. However, if the First Minister is given a choice between playing the ball and playing the man—if I may use a football analogy—he always plays the man. He said that he would have had more respect for me and my question if I had raised the issue in the past. However, I consistently raised the issue during all three sessions of the Parliament, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Jack McConnell can confirm that I did so while he was First Minister.

We are all aware that members of the Scottish Parliament are subject to the code of conduct for MSPs, which is strictly enforced. The independent Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner investigates complaints against MSPs, on the facts. The members' code of conduct does not apply to MSPs when they are carrying out ministerial duties outside the chamber. It applies to all MSPs when they are in the chamber, whether or not they are ministers, but it is the duty of the Presiding Officer and not the standards commissioner to enforce the code in the chamber.

The Scottish ministerial code is an additional code and is enforced by the First Minister. I agree with the Labour Party that that is where the problem lies. The SNP Government has been in office for only nine months, but it has been caught out for repeatedly giving misinformation, leaking privileged information to the press and interfering in significant planning decisions such as the Trump application and the Aviemore application. Sir John Elvidge, the Government's chief civil servant, said after being challenged about incorrect information about the Trump affair that was given to the BBC:

"It is regrettable that the Scottish Government issued a response that was inconsistent with the facts."

That is a classic worthy of "Yes Minister". In other words, the response was not true.

The Government has been revealed to have concealed details about crucial meetings and phone calls regarding the Trump planning application. It is bad enough that the First Minister held a meeting with Mr Trump's representatives at a hotel in Aberdeen during which he telephoned his chief planner and asked him to hold while he passed his phone to the Trump representatives, so that they could set up a meeting for the next day, but to have that civil servant call in the application for it to be decided by the Scottish ministers sends out the wrong messages about the independence of Scotland's planning system. That is the serious point. Annabel Goldie, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, called that a breach of the ministerial code, which states clearly that not even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be given. The First Minister said that there was no conflict of interest, because he was acting as the local MSP and not as First Minister. Alex Salmond is the First Minister of Scotland; he cannot pretend not to be when it suits him.

There is no point complaining about the First Minister's actions under the ministerial code, because he is the only arbiter of what is and is not appropriate behaviour. Five formal complaints have been made to the First Minister about alleged breaches of the code. I ask the Presiding Officer a rhetorical question: how many of those complaints have been acted on? The answer is not one of them, as I am sure that you guessed. In each case the First Minister confirmed that his minister had acted properly.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

How many complaints of breaches of the ministerial code were acted on during the first eight years of the Parliament?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I have no idea. Perhaps the member will check the Official Report —[ Interruption. ] This is not a laughing matter, Mr Crawford.

Yesterday we read that a complaint was made that the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism breached the ministerial code by failing to register his shareholding portfolio after several months in office. Sir John Elvidge dismissed that complaint because, as he stressed, the code is, after all, advisory. That is not a satisfactory situation to say the least. There may have been a time when an advisory code was sufficient, but that time is obviously now over. We have a First Minister who believes that all his Government's actions are appropriate when, to an independent observer, the actions that have been highlighted today are at least questionable. [Laughter.]

The SNP back benchers are laughing because they realise—

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

We are not laughing with Mike Rumbles, we are laughing at him.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The SNP back benchers realise that the Parliament cannot hold the First Minister to account in normal circumstances. Times have changed. The time is now well overdue for the ministerial code to be more than simply advisory. The time has come for the Parliament to appoint somebody to police it independently of the First Minister. That role would be about assessing the facts, not making a judgment. That is as it is with the code of conduct for MSPs: the standards commissioner is responsible for assessing the facts of a case and reports to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, but the committee makes the decisions. We want an independent person to investigate the facts of complaints under the ministerial code, report to the First Minister and publish their reports so that we all know the facts. That is why we have lodged our amendment and seek support for it from MSPs from across the chamber.

I move amendment S3M-1434.1, to insert at end:

"and further believes that the best way of ensuring independent oversight is for the Parliament to appoint a person independent of government to investigate alleged breaches of the Scottish Ministerial Code."

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 9:36 am, 28th February 2008

I am delighted to be here this morning to talk about ministerial accountability. As I am the Minister for Parliamentary Business, it is a subject close to my heart.

I welcome the motion—indeed, I agree with much of it. It recognises that Government must be open and accountable, affirms support for the seven principles of public life—to which we are fully signed up—and notes the review of the ministerial code that is under way. However, I also very much welcome the Conservative amendment. Rather than merely mimicking the situation at UK level regardless of the Scottish context, it goes further than the motion by suggesting that an independent authority is needed to direct ministers in the appropriate arrangements for ensuring that their conduct accords with the ministerial code so that they avoid real or potential conflicts of interest and to oversee the code's administration.

This Government prides itself on being open, accessible, effective, accountable and—yes, as Jackie Baillie said—modern and progressive.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

On the issues that have been raised, the suggestions about Jim Mather are utter nonsense. He did not breach the code. In fact, he has done more than he is required to do. He followed the code and the permanent secretary's advice to the letter, and the permanent secretary has described his actions as fully acceptable.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I will make some progress on some of the other accusations. The Labour speaker did not give way to me, did she?

Murdo Fraser adequately addressed the point about the First Minister: he is appointed by the Parliament, which can remove him at any time that it wishes. There have been record numbers of freedom of information requests on the Trump application, and we have answered PQs in record time—and probably record numbers—on the issue. There has also been a committee inquiry into the matter. As far as that is concerned, the First Minister is bomb-proof.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I could not possibly comment on that. Bruce Crawford raised the First Minister's behaviour. The code of conduct requires any minister who does not give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament to tender their resignation to the First Minister. Does Bruce Crawford agree that the First Minister should resign if he does not give truthful and accurate information to the Parliament?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

The First Minister always gives accurate and truthful information to the Parliament.

I will use my own experience as a good example of the types of allegations that have been made under the code of practice. Michael McMahon complained that I had broken the code in regard to the Beauly to Denny transmission line. In fact, not only did I not break it, I could have gone a lot further than I did: I could have attended the public inquiry that was set up on the matter and given evidence.

The day after Stewart Maxwell rightly apologised to the Parliament following the issues that arose on his statement on sportscotland, we got a note from Frank McAveety complaining about it. How spurious does it get? No wonder there is a record number of complaints.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

Rather than pontificate on his own innocence, would it not be better for Bruce Crawford if an independent assessment was made of his position in regard to the Beauly to Denny transmission line?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

The finding would have been the same, whether the assessment had been made by an independent person or the First Minister.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

That is outrageous. He is judge and jury.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

As far as the timing of the review is concerned, we are rightly and properly considering the code thoroughly and exploring all the avenues that are open to us. The debate makes me wonder what the priorities of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats are. With the new Government's priorities, we will, I hope, sweep the graduate tax away today; we have frozen the council tax, reduced business taxation and are getting rid of prescription taxes. Those, not the priorities that the Labour Party demonstrates today, are the priorities of the people of Scotland.

Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that we are having the debate. It is important that we get the chance to consider the matter, and I am confident that, when the review is finished and the Administration publishes the new version of the code, it will be much stronger as a result.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

He does not have time, I am afraid.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that so many Opposition members have so many concerns about the ministerial code's scope and content. It is the self-same code that was applied by the previous Administrations and we have applied it in the same way as they did. I do not recall such levels of interest prior to last May, and I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions about what that says.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Yes, Presiding Officer.

We are considering the suggestion of an independent investigator. However, at a time when we are trying to simplify the public sector landscape, considering how best to implement the recommendations of the Crerar review of independent scrutiny bodies and working to ensure that limited public resources are optimally deployed, could the appointment of a new tsar be justified?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

If Mike Rumbles looks at the evidence that Jim Dyer has given, he will see that he was of the opinion—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

You really must close now.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Okay. I am sorry.

I have no time to finish off that point.

Let us be clear that the code should be strengthened and that we need to put in place the more fundamental mechanisms of accountability that the Parliament and our membership of it represent. We take those mechanisms seriously and should celebrate them.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour 9:43 am, 28th February 2008

Sometimes I find it difficult to believe that the SNP has been in power for nearly a year. One would not think it from what one sometimes hears when watching television and listening to the radio.

Flashback: a year ago, Kenny MacAskill appeared on TV when a prisoner had escaped. He said that the poor law-abiding folk were living in fear and someone had to do something about it. Flashforward: last month, a prisoner escaped in Perth and a schoolgirl was raped. Again, Kenny MacAskill was on TV saying that the good, law-abiding folk were living in fear and someone had to do something about it. However, that someone is now him, as he is the minister.

I do not blame Kenny MacAskill for getting away with saying exactly the same as if he was not accountable. I blame the Bernards and Brians, Kirstys and Jamies who should be holding him to account. Where are they? They are certainly not in the press gallery. For once, the ubiquitous and redoubtable John Knox has a companion, but that is highly unusual for such debates. Where are the rest of them? No doubt they are going round the corridors—I think that the expenses and allowances are published today.

There are enough examples for the press to hold the ministers to account. Where is Gordon BrewerJeremy Paxman with tartan underpants? He is not holding ministers to account, because "Newsnight Scotland" is too occupied with its get-Wendy agenda. When it runs out of motormouth SNP MSPs, it brings on the journalists—the saintly Douglas and the even more saintly Magnus. It has three journalists talking about that. They should be holding the Government to account. We are doing it here, day after day, week after week and month after month, but journalists are doing very little of it. The Tories are doing it. The Liberal Democrats are even doing it occasionally. I see that the Greens are not here doing it this morning. We are holding the Government to account, but there is no follow-up.

In foreign affairs, we used to have most favoured countries. The SNP has most favoured persons. There are celebratory dinners for SNP donors at Bute house at the taxpayer's expense, although the media do not follow that up. People can speed up their planning applications. It is a case of, "Give us the money, and we'll speed up your planning application."

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

I invite the member to withdraw that last remark. Taking advantage of the partial privilege that exists in the chamber to suggest that anybody has taken money for planning applications is unworthy of the member and of any member of the Parliament.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I ask Mr Adam to look and see if there is no correlation between donors to the SNP and some planning applications.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I invite you to consider the remarks that Lord Foulkes has made. He has not taken the opportunity to withdraw them. Is that kind of—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The member knows by now that the content of members' speeches is up to them. However, I ask members to be careful about allegations that they make.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I invite Mr Adam to look on the horizon. There is another issue there, which might give a new perspective to the West Lothian question.

Let us turn to the "bomb-proof" First Minister. Selflessness is not one of the natural qualities that we associate with him. I ask him to reconsider the issues. Integrity is a key part of Nolan's ministerial code. There is the matter of the Aberdeenshire golf course, which Jackie Baillie spoke about earlier. I hope that, when John Swinney considers it—it got an unprecedented fast track to his desk—we will see integrity and objectivity that we did not see when the First Minister dealt with it.

Then there is the hovercraft project, which arose from the south-east of Scotland transport partnership. I fully support a hovercraft service across the Firth of Forth, but is it wrong to demand openness and transparency when £3.3 million of taxpayers' money is handed out to a company that is owned by the SNP's most favoured person and biggest donor? Why are the press hounds not chasing that up? Why are they not challenging the SNP on its broken promises on class sizes and on matching our school building programme brick for brick? Yesterday at the Audit Committee, as Hugh Henry will confirm, serious doubts were thrown on the Scottish futures trust.

I make a plea to Murdo Fraser and Mike Rumbles. They might not agree with every aspect of Jackie Baillie's motion, but surely we can unite on this issue and ensure that the bomb-proof First Minister gets at least a few bombs to prove that he is bomb-proof. We should make sure that issues are dealt with objectively, in the way that Gordon Brown has done. He has appointed Sir Philip Mawer, who is a University of Edinburgh graduate, as an independent adviser on the ministerial code. I am sure that if Philip were approached, he would do the same for Scotland. That would be a first step towards more openness and accountability in this Parliament, too.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party 9:49 am, 28th February 2008

Clarity is required as to whether Mr Foulkes's attack on Scotland's media is official Labour Party policy. That was a disgraceful attack on our independent press.

I welcome Jackie Baillie's kind acknowledgement that the SNP Government is "modern and progressive". That is exactly the view that is held by civic Scotland, as it engages with the most dedicated, dynamic and hard-working team of ministers that Scotland has seen in living history. The most common description of their approach to government, which I often hear from the most unlikely quarters, is that it is a "breath of fresh air".

In recent parliamentary questions, and in today's debate, Jackie Baillie has been calling on the Scottish Government

"to adopt the approach taken by ... Gordon Brown ... to have an independent adviser to investigate breaches of the Scottish Ministerial Code to ensure a culture of openness and transparency in government"—[Official Report, Written Answers, 3 December 2007; S3W-6779.]

Ms Baillie has outlined why, in her opinion, we are in dire need of the apparently much more accountable Westminster system. We must be careful with the presentation of the Westminster system as some kind of gold standard.

Labour has a tendency to exaggerate. Examples include the claim of being 15 minutes away from attack with weapons of mass destruction; the bonfire of the quangos; "Education, education, education"; and "Things can only get better". Today, we have heard more exaggerations from the Labour Party, as its members try to pass off the current Westminster system as open, transparent and independent, whereas it is none of the above.

In 2006, three years after the Committee on Standards in Public Life called for an independent adviser on ministerial interests, and in a last-ditch attempt to appease the public over the cash for honours scandal, Sir John Bourn was appointed to provide confidential advice to ministers and to conduct investigations at the request of the Prime Minister. The independent adviser must be asked by the Prime Minister to investigate the facts of a case. If there has been a breach of the ministerial code, the decision on whether to publish the results of the investigation and on what action should be taken remains solely with Gordon Brown.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Would the member not therefore agree that the best way to deal with the matter is to have an independent person investigate the facts, report the facts to the First Minister and publish them?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

The Conservative amendment provides the best way forward, with the most appropriate system for the Parliament. That amendment is to be commended. I hope that all members can rally round it and that we can all agree on something that clearly firms up the ministerial code.

Back to Westminster. The appointment of the independent adviser is made by the Prime Minister, without whose explicit consent the adviser cannot investigate. When they are allowed to carry out an investigation, they cannot publish their findings without the Prime Minister's say-so. To top it all, the first independent adviser had to stand down after it emerged that, over three years, he had taken his wife on 22 overseas visits, including a week-long stay in the Bahamas—first class all the way—at the taxpayer's expense.

The hypocrisy of the Labour Party has reached new heights today, with former ministers such as Jackie Baillie calling for a change to the ministerial code only after they have been kicked out of office. It was good enough for Labour ministers, so why not ours?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I will tell Jackie Baillie why it is not good enough for our ministers: it is because our ministers have a higher standard. That is why we are reviewing the code. It is to make the system more transparent and to get away from the opaqueness of the former Administration.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The member has one minute left.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

It is primarily the Labour Party that is responsible for the poor public image that elected members have today. The last three leaders of the Scottish Labour Party have all been accused of breaching parliamentary regulations. One resigned over financial irregularities; one was cleared after the Red Rose dinners scandal in 2002; and let us not forget that the current incumbent admitted breaking the law—but only a little bit, and not enough to face criminal charges.

We must not forget that we recently witnessed a serving Prime Minister being questioned, for the first time ever, by police conducting a criminal investigation.

In its short time in office, the SNP has shown itself to be open and accountable, in stark contrast to the previous Administration. We will take no lessons from the sleaze-ridden Labour Party, and we are committed not to adopting the flawed Westminster style of government that Jackie Baillie is calling for but to improving the current ministerial code to ensure the highest standards in our Government and to protect the public in the increasingly unlikely event of the Labour Party ever returning to office.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Given that you are responsible for overseeing members' behaviour in the chamber and their accountability to the Parliament, will you invite the member who has just spoken to reflect on his comments, given that they are wholly inaccurate and inappropriate? I think that he owes the Parliament an apology.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

That is entirely up to the member concerned. I am sure that he has heard your non-point of order.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 9:54 am, 28th February 2008

Today we are discussing an issue that might not register highly in the public's mind, but it throws up fundamental challenges for the Parliament. It questions to some extent whether the Parliament is fit for purpose and whether it can, as it is expected to do, hold the Administration to account on behalf of the people of Scotland. I have concerns about how we are doing that, and I have concerns that the present Administration is playing fast and loose with the rules and the basis on which the Parliament was created.

Paragraph 1.1(b) of the Scottish ministerial code says:

"Ministers have a duty to the Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions taken within their field of responsibility".

So far, so good. Paragraph 1.1(d) says:

"Ministers should be as open as possible with the Parliament and the public ... They should refuse to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest."

In the chamber on 20 December 2007, when debating class sizes in primary 1 to 3, I asked John Swinney:

"Will the cabinet secretary confirm that, in August this year, ahead of the budget, ministers collectively knew that the target could not be met by 2011?"

Mr Swinney did not answer that question. He was then asked by Ken Macintosh whether he would write to me with the information requested. He replied:

"I do not intend to write to Mr Henry, because there are no issues that I need to follow up from the answer that I have just given him."—[Official Report, 20 December 2007; c 4724.]

I wrote to John Swinney the same day to ask the same question. He replied 40 days later, saying that he considered that he did not need to follow up any of the issues and that he had nothing to add to the answer. It was a simple question, but there was a refusal to answer, despite the fact that the ministerial code says that ministers should not refuse to answer such questions.

On 12 February 2008, following a freedom of information request, I received a copy of a minute of a meeting last year between Donald Henderson, then head of the Government schools division, and Universities Scotland, which stated that

"the advice that had been offered to ministers" is that

"the scale of the commitment does not allow it to be delivered in the life of a parliament ... With the scale of the plans to reduce class sizes in P1 to P3 ... the commitments will take 8 to 10 years to achieve."

We can see why John Swinney was reluctant to give an answer but, in refusing to do so, he clearly breached the ministerial code. Has action been taken by the First Minister? Clearly not, but there is also an issue for the Parliament.

As you know, Presiding Officer, I have written to you on the issue. You said that Parliament can hold ministers to account by oral and written parliamentary questions. You also said, on 9 January, that the Parliament's standing orders

"do not make any provision for answers" and therefore you have no powers under the rules to challenge what is said. We have a ministerial code that is being ignored and a Parliament that has no power to act.

Paragraph 1.1(c) of the ministerial code says:

"It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament".

Bruce Crawford said to me that the First Minister always gives accurate information to the Parliament, but I beg to differ. On 5 September, I asked the First Minister whether he could confirm that his promise to reduce class sizes in primary 1 to 3

"will be delivered in the lifetime of this parliamentary session".

He replied:

"Yes, I can".—[Official Report, 5 September; c 1378.]

That was clear: it will be delivered by 2011.

As the FOI answer that I referred to earlier indicated, ministers had been advised before July that the commitment would not be met by 2011 and, indeed, that it might not even be met by 2015. Ministers knew that the promise would and could not be met at least three months before the First Minister confirmed to Parliament that it would be.

I argue that the First Minister has misled Parliament. Nothing has been done and there has been no attempt to retract. As you know from exchanges of correspondence, Presiding Officer, I am concerned that the Parliament has no power to do anything about it. A First Minister can ignore the ministerial code. No action can be taken and very little can be done to hold ministers to account.

The challenge is not just for the Administration but for the Parliament. Are we prepared to do something about the situation and to give people in this country the confidence that their politicians will tell the truth and be held to account when they do not?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party 10:00 am, 28th February 2008

I first make it clear that I am giving my own views and not speaking as convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee or on behalf of the committee.

I am interested in why the Labour Party has chosen this debate. What has changed in less than a year since the Lib Dems and Labour Party were in office and apparently subscribed to a code that they now find unfit? Perhaps it is because, in Labour's view, there has been such a mass outbreak of venality among ministers that there is a radical and pressing need for others to be held to a different standard from Labour and the Lib Dems.

There is a term for someone who holds others to a standard that they do not want to be held to themselves. I cannot bring to mind the exact nature of it, but when Jackie Baillie mentioned the seven Nolan principles it struck me that one of the principles is integrity. There can be no integrity in someone holding others to a standard that they are not willing to be held to themselves.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

No.

There are also terms to describe saying one thing and doing another.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I said no.

It is not long since we had a very good debate on the Crerar report, in which all parties agreed that we should desist from establishing new quangos or tsars every time there is a crisis of events leading to a public clamour for action. We have not even had a crisis of events or a public clamour for action. In fact, as you know, Presiding Officer, those were the words of Tavish Scott at the Conveners Group less than a week ago. The idea was that we should not always rush to create new bodies every time it suits our own interests.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Surely, as convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, the member would appreciate more than anyone that it is important to have the facts of any accusation independently investigated. It happens in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, so why can we not have the same system for the First Minister? The facts would be independently investigated and reported to the First Minister and published. Surely that is the right thing to do.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

That does not relate to the point that I was making, which was that Tavish Scott and other Lib Dems have said that there should not be a clamour to create new bodies or tsars. I have made it clear that I am not speaking in my capacity as convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. However, I am looking forward to a long and fruitful career in the media as the ex-convener willing to throw around allegations on a regular basis.

It may be advancing years and a touch of deafness on my part, but I have heard no clamour from the public. I have had no representations at any of my surgeries, and the public galleries are virtually empty. Even John Knox has gone home because of what he has heard so far. In raising this issue, the Lib Dems and the Labour Party have shown strange priorities.

The other element of hypocrisy is in comparing what we have here to Westminster or even Wales. We have heard that it is essential that we have independence and openness. There was no independence in the person appointed by Gordon Brown—he made that appointment and it was not scrutinised by Parliament. The independent person can take action only when they are asked to do so by the Prime Minister, and if they are asked to look at something, it goes further only if the Prime Minister agrees that it should. There is no independence in that procedure, so it is hypocritical to ask for the same system here. Only the Prime Minister decides whether something happens.

It is interesting that Gordon Brown omitted from the Westminster code any mention of or guidance on the question of blind trusts. There is hypocrisy on that as well. As Joe FitzPatrick has said, the Labour Party perhaps feels under particular pressure—arising from cash for honours and other controversies—to be seen to do something. That can be the only explanation for what it has done.

Mike Rumbles was factually incorrect earlier. It is inconsistent with the facts to say that the code of conduct for MSPs does not apply to MSPs outwith the chamber. Of course it does and it always has done.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

That is exactly what he said—he can check the Official Report .

We heard an anti-media rant from George Foulkes. He seems to have no trouble in getting himself into a television studio. His problem is that, when he does so, the SNP cheers and his Labour back-bench colleagues groan.

When George Foulkes has been on TV, he has made a virtue of saying that it is wrong for politicians to make spurious and ill-founded allegations against one another, because that demeans us all. That is exactly what he has done this morning, so I invite him to intervene and take the opportunity to apologise for what he said. It would do us all some good if he did that, but I see from his shaking his head that he does not want to. There is an element of hypocrisy in people who are willing to make allegations without foundation or fact going into TV studios and saying that it is wrong when other people do that. We have all seen that of late.

The Conservative amendment has something to commend it. I disagree with the idea that the situation is different now because we have a minority Government in the Parliament. Even in my lifetime, we have had minority government in Westminster, so I do not see that as a defining reason for having a different code of conduct. Having said that, I am pleased that the Government is considering the matter and I am sure that it will come forward with proposals around which we can all unite.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

We now move to the winding-up speeches.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 10:05 am, 28th February 2008

This is an important debate because it goes to the heart of our individual and collective responsibilities as members of the Scottish Parliament and as representatives of the people of Scotland. It is about the integrity of Parliament and Government. Perhaps even more important, it is about the personal integrity of every one of us as we carry out our privileged roles as MSPs.

Over the years, the reputation of politicians has so diminished in the public's mind that, sometimes, it seems like admitting to being a drug dealer would be better received by some sections of society than owning up to being a politician.

Of course, we have not only a moral obligation to be open, transparent and accountable but, in relation to some parts of our code of conduct, a legal obligation. Unfortunately, recent and historical events clearly show that that is not enough to prevent a liberal interpretation of some of the rules, which are not always legally binding either in content or in timeframe. However, if the public's faith in politicians and the system of government and democracy that we represent is to be somewhat restored, it is not good enough to play semantic games with rules and codes—ministerial or otherwise—just to escape the sometimes-justified criticism of errors of omission or commission.

I accept that public disaffection is caused by the need of some sections of the media to fill a blank page every day with some tittle-tattle or other. However, we have to recognise that we are accountable, and not just every four years when the elections come round. Every time we stand up in the chamber and hold forth on some topic or other, regardless of whether we know much about the topic or are reciting a mantra prepared by a civil servant or party worker, we have a duty to the people of Scotland to be transparent and honest, even if that means that we—ministers and back benchers—have to admit to ignorance, stupidity or both, and even allowing for the cut and thrust of debate, the pressure to wing it and the sedentary comments that we are all subjected to when caught out on some point or other. Where we have the protection of privilege, we have to take personal responsibility for the things that we say and the way that we act. Obfuscation, economies with the truth, smoothing, terminological inexactitudes or Government spin will not carry the day, nor should they. Regardless of political party, if the Government is to be held to account by the Parliament, it cannot be right that the ultimate decision on such matters is left in the hands of the Government and the First Minister of the day.

We are probably the most transparent Parliament in Europe; certainly, we are a thousand times better than Brussels. However, that is no justification for not recognising or acting to remedy shortcomings in our system. Codes—ministerial or otherwise—will go only so far if we cannot rely on our own integrity to deal with these matters. It is clear—currently and, to some extent, historically—that we do not do that well.

The way in which the ministerial code is managed has long been a concern, contrary to comments that have been made from a sedentary position and in speeches today. The Parliament must address that issue as a matter of urgency—despite the continued sedentary comments from the Minister for Parliamentary Business.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I was actually making complimentary comments to my colleague about the points that the member is making.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

In our view, despite the merits of the Labour motion and the Conservatives' amendment—although we are a little unclear about what that amendment is proposing—the best way in which to address the issue is to accept the proposals in the Liberal Democrat amendment, which I urge everyone to support.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative 10:10 am, 28th February 2008

It is a pleasure to wind up this important debate on behalf of what is self-evidently the most modern and progressive party in this Parliament.

Hugh O'Donnell touched on the important issue of the broader reputation of politics and politicians. Most of us would accept that politics can be rough. In Britain, and certainly in Scotland, it is often very rough indeed. However, even the most critical of people would hesitate to suggest that there is anything corrupt in Scottish politics or that our politics is anything other than clean; we might disagree with each other about various issues, but only the most unreasonable would argue otherwise.

We can all agree that the ministerial code should be obeyed and that, when ministers do not obey the code or act inappropriately, they damage not only the reputation of the Government but the reputation of all of us in the Parliament—because, even today, many people struggle to understand the dividing line between the actions of Parliament and the actions of Government.

Just as inappropriate actions of ministers can be damaging, so can inappropriate allegations. When making allegations, we must be extremely careful that we do not give in to the temptation to throw enough mud to ensure that some of it sticks. When politics descends to that level, all of us are damaged. Perhaps that is why we get too caught up in the letter of the codes rather than the broader principles that ought to guide us.

Much has been said about the broad principle of independence in respect of the ministerial code. George Foulkes seems to take the view that ministers are, currently, guilty until proven innocent, which is not the appropriate way of looking at things. There must be someone in the process who is independent, has no vested interest and can assess matters without the burden of their previous experiences or current role clouding their judgment. It strikes me that the only people in this Parliament who have no axe to grind as a result of having been or currently being a minister are those of us on the Conservative benches, so I will make a constructive suggestion: if anyone wishes to refer complaints relating to the ministerial code to the Conservative party, we will be happy to assess and opine on them. I am sure that we would be much more effective than the independent Electoral Commission.

Members have mentioned the Nolan principles. I will mention some other principles that we all ought to be able to agree on. We should not slavishly follow what is happening at Westminster—to be fair to the Labour Party, I do not think that that is what its motion proposes—and, in that regard, I believe that some reasonable points have been made about just how far Gordon Brown's announcements go.

The ministerial code should be seen as fair by all parties, whether there is a minority Government, a majority Government or a coalition. We should be able to agree the ministerial code so that it does not change every time the Government changes. The principles by which ministers operate should be ones on which we can all agree and, to some extent, should be unchanging.

We need to ensure that we discourage spurious complaints. The ministerial code should be reserved for serious issues and not used for party-political point scoring, which we are all able to do well enough in this chamber.

A final principle that must be taken into account concerns the balance between the ministerial code and political accountability, which is key. As Murdo Fraser said, it is possible for us to remove ministers on a vote of the Parliament if we feel that they are acting inappropriately.

Jackie Baillie made the valid point that the revision of the ministerial code has had a long gestation period of nine months. There is an existing ministerial code in place and, given the number of complaints about SNP ministers that we have heard today, it would be reasonable to assume that the substance of the ministerial code should not change much. The issue seems to be about enforcement, interpretation and investigation.

George Foulkes spent a lot of his time attacking the media, and I am sure that he will receive his due reward tomorrow. He also made a very odd point, in seeming to suggest that the opportunity to dine with Alex Salmond at Bute house would be an inducement to give money to the SNP. Frankly, I would be happy to pay to avoid the prospect of dining with Alex Salmond, whether at Bute house or anywhere else.

The Conservative amendment seeks to strengthen the Labour motion and to draw us to where we need to be on the matter—towards consensus, as the Conservative party, in its modern and progressive way, always advocates in the Parliament.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 10:15 am, 28th February 2008

I have listened to the debate with interest, but the first time that I started to pay serious attention was when Hugh O'Donnell made his contribution, for he, at least, made an attempt to contribute in a mature fashion. Derek Brownlee summed up very well, and when he commented on mud slinging it was interesting to watch the body language of members on the Labour benches, and of Jackie Baillie in particular. She was nodding, yet she and her colleagues today get the prize for the mud slinging of all mud slinging. That is what the debate was all about. The member talked about distinctive patterns, but the only distinctive pattern that we have seen today is that of spurious allegations, pathetic mud slinging and misguided innuendo, to put it as kindly as I can.

In participating in that, members damage the body politic and cause more damage to the reputation of this place. Joe FitzPatrick made a reasonable point in his response to your mud slinging. There are many broken panes of glass in your house, and you should be careful as far as that is concerned.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

It is important to clarify some of the comments that have been made by Joe FitzPatrick and his colleague Keith Brown—and, indeed, that last comment. Is the minister suggesting that somehow my integrity is in question?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Thank you—no is the answer.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I am suggesting that the way in which you have gone about contributing to the debate—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The member should clarify who "you" is, otherwise he is addressing me.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I apologise.

The debate has been nothing more than a cynical attempt to continue a smear campaign against the most successful Government and First Minister that Scotland has ever seen. Contribution after contribution, in particular from Labour, has contained a series of recycled misrepresentations that continue the failing attempts to undermine the Government. One would think that, following the fiasco of the handling of the Scottish Parliament elections and the Gould report and all that surrounded that, Labour members would have learned.

Is it any wonder that the turnout in the Scottish Government elections and local government elections is falling, when such contributions are made to politics in Scotland? It is time for members to raise their game. Speaking of raising your game—

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I will, in a moment. As far as George Foulkes's allegations about the hovercraft project are concerned, I hope that he is aware that the money for that project did not come from this Government but came from the previous Scottish Executive. Will he now take the opportunity to withdraw his scurrilous remarks?

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

Will the minister—if he is accountable to the Parliament—take the opportunity to answer one question? Jim Mather said that he would divest himself of his shares into a blind trust to remove

"even a scintilla of doubt" of any conflict of interest. Has he done that?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

George Foulkes has entirely avoided the question that I put to him. He could at least have had the grace to accept that the point that he made was an entirely erroneous and misdirected attack on the Government. He should hang his head in shame. Jim Mather acted entirely within the permanent secretary's advice.

I turn to the serious points that Mike Rumbles made in the debate. Much has been made of the idea of an independent adviser on the code, and we have considered that as part of our review. The Government has a responsibility to ensure that any changes that we make are considered and add genuine value in the Scottish context, which, as I have said before, is not directly comparable with what happens at Westminster.

For example, we already have a register of interests here in Scotland, which was put in place by the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006. That makes us different from Westminster. The Government in Scotland is smaller than the UK Government and, indeed, smaller than previous Scottish Administrations. We must develop relationships and arrangements that are proportionate and appropriate to our circumstances.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Our point is short and clear: when an allegation is made against a minister, there should be an independent person to investigate the facts, report to the First Minister and publish the results, so we get away from any false accusations. Will the minister accept that?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

I am concerned that such a post could quite easily be seen as protecting ministers' interests. Depending on the role of any such adviser, such an appointment might be seen as diminishing the democratic accountability of this institution and replacing members' elected authority with that of an appointee. That is another issue that needs to be carefully considered. Assuring integrity in such a way might come at a great price. Some members might say that it would be worth it, and I might agree with them, but if the appointment did not add significantly to the value of existing arrangements, the price would be high. Would the post offer value for money? What would the workload be, week in and week out? The Government is not in the business of expensive window dressing.

I thank members who made positive contributions to the debate, but it did not quite go in the direction that I had hoped, and the mud slinging has brought shame on this place.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour 10:21 am, 28th February 2008

In every parliamentary democracy, there is a healthy tension between the Executive and Parliament. This morning's debate aims to prevent the relationship between this place and the current Administration from unnecessarily becoming more strained than it already is. Any incoming Government is entitled to try to fulfil its manifesto commitments, but it cannot ignore Parliament in its attempts to do so. A weak sense of responsibility to this place does not weaken the fact of such responsibility.

We expected today to hear—as we have heard—criticisms aimed at Labour and claims that we are taking a different view from the one we took when we were in office. That is simply not the case, no matter how much Murdo Fraser and Keith Brown might try to make it so. Mike Rumbles was correct—he is a good example of a member who, like others, raised issues over the ministerial code in the previous Administration. Such questions are more effective when they come from one's own back benches.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Will Michael McMahon tell me in what way the current code, as agreed by the former partnership Government, turned out as it did as a result of successful challenges by individuals?

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

The code was changed and reviewed periodically.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

It was changed, which is the important aspect. Derek Brownlee was right when he said that the issue is as much about how the code is applied and tested as it is about what it contains—that was a very important point.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

There has been a change in the way that the code is operated. In the past, when ministers inadvertently made a statement to Parliament that was wrong, they were willing to come back and record that they had made an error. Over the past nine months, it has been clear that that is not happening. Does the member agree with me on that? Back benchers in Parliament are being misled by ministers on a weekly basis.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour

There is much accuracy in what my colleague says. We are asking Parliament to strive continually for the highest standards of accountability. Democracy is dynamic, and we make no apologies for asking the new Administration to do what was expected of us when we were in Government—that is, to look at the Scottish ministerial code and seek ways in which to improve it.

In response to the questions that have been raised in the debate, I recall at least one occasion on which the First Minister at the time asked a Labour minister to come back to Parliament to apologise for misleading Parliament—in a matter of a culinary nature—without any intervention from Parliament itself.

Rather than accusing us of having double standards, the SNP should accept that changes in the Administration mean that the relationship between the Executive and the Parliament must be considered anew. Murdo Fraser was right to make that point.

The convention of ministerial responsibility predates the modern party system. As democracy and society have developed in Britain, so too has the requirement continually to enhance ministerial accountability. We believe that the convention of ministerial responsibility is a mechanism through which the Parliament can control ministers. Responsibility must focus on the minister, with a clear line of accountability to the Parliament. In today's debate, we seek to ensure that we in the Parliament adhere to that ideal. As Jackie Baillie said, if the SNP wants to be seen as a modern and progressive party—not that it is—that should be its perspective.

Counter to that ideal is another historical perspective that favours executive control. Its main proponent was Sir Robert Peel, who wanted ministers to be supported by a loyal party that tried to prevent Parliament from interfering in the workings of Government. In that context, the executive inverts ministerial responsibility and seeks to diminish the role of the Parliament. Based on the arguments that we heard this morning, it could easily be said that that is the attitude that the SNP Government and its slavishly devoted back benchers have adopted. I give Joe FitzPatrick and Keith Brown as perfect examples. In particular, Joe FitzPatrick did his impersonation of a political lava lamp—he used an awful lot of energy but did not shed much light on anything.

We have to accept that, as society evolves, new challenges and responsibilities are placed at the doors of ministers. However, one thing remains constant. Parliament matters, and in the balance of power between the Executive and the Parliament, the Parliament must remain the primary institution.

Errors are inevitable in Government, and George Foulkes and Hugh Henry quite eloquently pointed out where errors have been made. The mark of a good Government is not simply to be found in how it overcomes the problems that errors create; the real test is whether it acknowledges and takes responsibility for them. Good government is certainly not to be found in refusing to recognise them, as the First Minister has done again and again.

The First Minister is the guardian of the Scottish ministerial code, by which ministerial responsibility is tested. We in the Labour Party believe that the record so far shows that Alex Salmond cannot be trusted to apply the code. As a result, we must re-establish the authority of Parliament over ministers. If, as we suspect, the Government regards itself as the primary institution in the political framework in Scotland, ministers are deluding themselves, and they must and will be held to account by the Parliament.

It is clear that the First Minister, in his actions, is not applying the code effectively. Surely he would prefer transparency over ambiguity and accountability over accusation. We merely ask him what he has to fear from giving us the results of the review that he told us he was going to have. Bruce Crawford said that the First Minister is bomb-proof. I conclude by asking him to come out of the bunker and face independent oversight. That is what our motion calls for.