Representing Constituents

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:34 pm on 24th February 2010.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:34 pm, 24th February 2010

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on representing constituents. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there will be no interventions or interruptions during it.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 2:35 pm, 24th February 2010

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement regarding representations that I made to a court on behalf of one of my constituents, Mr Abdul Rauf. Before I set out the circumstances of that representation, I would like to make two general comments.

First, this statement is about action that I took, not as a minister, but as a member of the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, I hope that the fact that this is a ministerial statement will not give rise to any suggestion that ministers' obligations to their constituents are different from those of members of the Scottish Parliament who are not ministers. That is not the case—being a minister does not absolve us of our obligations to our constituents.

Secondly, those who have in the past consulted an MSP, or who might do so in future, might hear the statement and the questions that follow and wonder about the confidentiality of discussions between MSP and constituent. It is therefore important to stress that MSPs owe a duty of privacy to their constituents. However, the letter that is under discussion is to all intents and purposes a public document. It was written to the court and referred to in open court, so it is appropriate that I answer questions about it.

I turn to the specifics of the case. I first met Mr Rauf on 4 July 2008, when he turned up at one of my regular constituency surgeries. The surgery took place in Pollokshaws library in my constituency. At that first surgery in Pollokshaws library, Mr Rauf told me that he was under investigation for receiving benefits to which he was not entitled as a result of his failure to declare his ownership of a property in Edinburgh. He did not at that surgery, or on any subsequent occasion, deny that he had wrongly received the money. Mr Rauf told me that what he had done, and the implications of it, were having a detrimental effect on his health and his family. He told me that he wanted to repay the money that he had wrongly received. He also told me about his previous conviction for fraud.

In the months following his attendance at that initial surgery, Mr Rauf came to see me on four occasions. All our meetings took place either at a constituency surgery or in my constituency office. The meetings were about his situation in general and, in particular, the steps that he was taking to repay the money. I also met Mr Rauf's wife on one of those occasions. It was not until 2 February 2010 that Mr Rauf contacted my constituency office to ask whether I would write a letter to the court asking it to take account of his personal circumstances before passing sentence.

It was in light of my previous discussions with him and the knowledge that they had given me of his family and his efforts to repay the money that was wrongly obtained—and for absolutely no other reason whatsoever—that I decided to write the letter that is now the subject of this statement. The letter was written on 3 February 2010. As members are aware, it set out Mr Rauf's personal circumstances and asked the court to have regard to them. It did not recommend a particular sentence, although it asked the court to consider alternatives to custody. The letter did not, as some have suggested, condone the serious criminal offence of fraud, and nor did it suggest that Mr Rauf should not be punished for his crime.

Some have said that I should not have written the letter at all. There has been much discussion about the MSP code of conduct. Let me therefore be clear about my understanding of the duties of an MSP when asked for help by a constituent. I believe that, when a constituent asks for my help, it is my duty to make such representations as I am asked to make, so long as those representations are reasonable, legitimate and appropriate. However, I fully accept that the decision about what is reasonable, legitimate and appropriate—and what is not—requires the application of judgment. The discussion that we have today should not be about the literal interpretation of a code of conduct. I am very clear that this is about my decision, on this occasion, and whether that decision was right or wrong.

I have thought very long and hard about that over the past few days and I want to set out to the Parliament the conclusions that I have reached. In my view, it was entirely appropriate for me, as an MSP, to write a letter to the court to draw its attention to a constituent's circumstances and ask that they be taken into account. Indeed, I am not the first member of the Parliament to have taken such action. In a statement yesterday, Lord McCluskey, the former Solicitor General for Scotland, although critical of one aspect of what I did, nevertheless said:

"It is perfectly normal for someone in her position as an MSP to supply information to a judge or a sheriff to take into account."

However, having read many times over the letter that I wrote in this case, I believe that in certain respects it could, and should, have been written differently. First, I regret the use of the word "mistake" to describe Mr Rauf's offence. As I hope will be clear from other parts of the letter, I did not intend in any way to downplay the seriousness of the crime that had been committed. However, I accept that the use of the word "mistake" was open to that interpretation.

Also, having drawn the court's attention to Mr Rauf's personal circumstances, I should have left it there. I should not have gone on specifically to ask the court to consider alternatives to custody. On reflection, that was a request more suited to my former occupation as a solicitor than to my current job as an MSP, so I can and do understand why some people think that making such a request went too far. That point was made by Lord McCluskey in the statement to which I referred. It was also unnecessary to make such a request, given that a court will, of its own accord, consider all the options open to it.

In short, I assisted a constituent in good faith and for what I considered to be the right reasons but, in doing so, I got some things wrong and for that I am sorry. With hindsight, I think I allowed myself to be too influenced by the likely impact of Mr Rauf's actions on his family and that led me to write a letter that was not as carefully worded as it should have been.

Those are the conclusions that I have reached after careful consideration and reflection. Of course, it is not easy for any of us to stand up and say that we should have done things differently or better than we did. Our political culture, particularly in a pre-election period, does not make that easy, but I think that it is right that I should do so. Indeed, my reflections over the past few days have made me wonder whether a more general willingness to allow each other space to reflect on honest mistakes, admit where we have got things wrong and learn lessons would not be much better for our politics than the instant judgment that we all, me included, so often rush to.

It is fair to say that the past couple of weeks have not been the easiest of my time in the Parliament. I say that not for sympathy. I accept unreservedly the scrutiny that comes with the position that I am very privileged to hold. I say it simply to give me the opportunity to thank those who have given me support during this period: my colleagues in the Scottish National Party; the many members of the public who have written to me offering support and encouragement; and last, but not least, those MSPs from all Opposition parties who have gone out of their way to offer me words of kindness. They will be relieved to know that I will not name them, but they know who they are.

In conclusion, being health secretary is a job that I love. It is a job that I am privileged to do. I am very proud of the many achievements and improvements in patient care that there have been over the past couple of years, thanks, of course, to the efforts of those who work in our national health service. There is no doubt that being health secretary is a job that, with the permission of the Parliament, I look forward to getting on with, but I believe that the first and overriding duty of an MSP is to represent their constituents. I also believe that it would be wrong for any of us to decide what help to give or not to give a constituent simply on the basis of how it might later look for us.

I will learn the lessons of the past days and I will try to make better decisions as a result of them, but I will also continue to represent my constituents without fear or favour and seek to do so to the very best of my ability, because that, above all else, is the job that I was elected to do.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

As I indicated, the cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I have exactly 20 minutes for such questions.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Last week, the First Minister said that Ms Sturgeon had an "absolute obligation" to send the letter. That was absurd. Ms Sturgeon's statement makes it clear that, on reflection, she knows that the First Minister was wrong. Under both the ministerial code and the code of conduct for MSPs, Nicola Sturgeon could have chosen to write a far more cautious letter or no letter at all. The Deputy First Minister's decision to intervene on behalf of a twice-convicted benefits fraudster, and how she did so, was always a matter of judgment, as she herself has made clear today—I welcome that.

These are not victimless crimes. Scotland cannot understand why the Deputy First Minister would choose to stand up for a criminal. I asked the Deputy First Minister to consider her position. [Interruption.]

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I accept that she has said that she will not and that she has apologised for the nature of the letter, but in doing that she has accepted that she made a mistake and should not have written the letter that she did. Her apology is welcome, but she can still put the mistake right by withdrawing the letter—the terms of which she has now disavowed. Will she do that?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I thank Iain Gray for his question. Let me deal with some of the points that he made. The First Minister was absolutely right in what he said almost two weeks ago about the code of conduct. The code of conduct requires MSPs to take up constituents' cases unless there are good reasons not to, but, as I said, the decision about what to do in those cases requires judgment. I said that honestly, and I am glad that Iain Gray has accepted that.

Iain Gray also said that he could not understand my decision. I accept unreservedly that people will reach different conclusions about whether my decision was right or wrong. That is the essence of judgment: different people weigh the same factors and reach different conclusions. I have tried to set out clearly, frankly and honestly the reasons that lay behind my decision. It is for other members to draw their own conclusions.

Iain Gray referred to the fact that he had asked me to consider my position. As I hope I made clear in my statement, I have considered this issue very closely over the past two weeks. I have considered little else, in some respects, because it has weighed heavily on me. When I stood up in the chamber today, I wanted to give the Parliament the benefit of my honest reflection. I have done that. I believe that it was appropriate to write the letter and to set out in it the personal circumstances of the constituent, as he asked me to do, but I have conceded that that letter, in two respects, went too far. I have been very honest. On reflection, the part of the letter that I should not have written was, as well as inappropriate, unnecessary, because a court will, of its own volition, consider all the options open to it. That is why I do not believe that the course of action that Iain Gray has asked me to take is necessary in the circumstances.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

When the issue first arose two weeks ago, far from helping his deputy, the First Minister hindered her case. We had the usual Alex Salmond decibel delivery of rhetoric and arrogance. Where there should have been humility and reflection, all that we had was bluster. Where there should have been an apology, all that we heard was defiance. When we needed to hear something of substance, all that we heard was misrepresentation and spin. The fiasco should never have happened.

Nicola Sturgeon's approach is welcome and sharply contrasting. I thank her for her candour, humility and courageous recognition that she did not get everything right. We have today heard answers to many of the questions that were asked, but some questions remain.

Ms Sturgeon continues to use the word "duty" in relation to the code of conduct. In the light of her statement, will she confirm that MSPs are not under "an absolute obligation" to make representations, as Alex Salmond claimed? That phrase does not appear in the code of conduct. Will she accept that we have discretion as to whether and to what extent we become involved?

To put the general matter beyond doubt, will Ms Sturgeon confirm whether Mr Rauf and his associates have any connections with her party or the independence movement?

Does Ms Sturgeon accept that a lid has been lifted on the Scottish National Party's attitude to crime and criminals? The public will have every right to believe that, although she accepts that she went too far in pleading for Mr Rauf to be spared jail, the SNP still believes that a non-custodial sentence is right, even for a serial and serious fraudster.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I thank Annabel Goldie for her questions. I acknowledge the inevitability of some questions that will be asked and of some of the politics that lies behind them. If the roles were reversed, I have no doubt that I would behave in the same way, although perhaps the experience of the past couple of weeks will make me reflect a bit more in future.

All that I will add to what I have said about the First Minister is that I take the opportunity to place on record my thanks to him for the unstinting support that he has shown me in the past two weeks. I have appreciated that not only politically but personally.

As for Annabel Goldie's questions about the code of conduct, I have made my position on that absolutely clear. I did not quote the code of conduct in my statement; I gave an interpretation of what I consider MSPs' duties to be in relation to requests for support for their constituents. In that respect, my statement speaks for itself.

Annabel Goldie asked about links to the SNP. I will say something clearly. As the First Minister said two weeks ago, Mr Rauf is not involved in the SNP. To the best of my knowledge, he has never been involved in the SNP. When he came to see me, I did not know him or know of him. He sought my help in a way that hundreds of constituents seek my help every year—by walking through the door of a constituency surgery. The letter that I wrote to the court was not influenced by or discussed outside my constituency office with anybody other than Mr Rauf.

Those are the facts of the matter. As Annabel Goldie's questions have been entirely reasonable so far, I hope that she will accept that.

As for Annabel Goldie's observations about crime, as I said in my statement, nothing that I said in the letter condoned the serious offence of fraud. On reflection, I should not have used the word "mistake"—I did not intend to downplay the offence's seriousness, but I accept that the text was open to that interpretation. That is why I have said openly that I regret the use of that word. Of course, it is for the court to determine sentence. I laid out to the court the constituent's personal circumstances and it is for the court to make the decision in this case and all such cases.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I extend my personal sympathy to Nicola Sturgeon for the ordeal that she has faced today in the chamber. She has done well to apologise for what she manifestly got wrong.

Sorry is not a word that we often hear from the SNP Government. It is entirely appropriate that it is from Nicola Sturgeon's mouth that it should first come. That said, I caution her against becoming a shield for the First Minister. She knows that her explanation of the basis on which the constituent complaint should be handled is simply not compatible with the repeated statement by the First Minister on the matter.

The relationship between the Parliament, the Government and the courts is delicate. MSPs and, even more so, ministers must be very careful about putting themselves in a position where they seek to influence or even appear to seek to influence the courts. The Deputy First Minister appears to have crossed that line. What was the purpose of sending the letter on behalf of Mr Rauf? Other than the influence of her name and office, what was she giving to the court that could save a twice-convicted serious offender from getting what most people would regard as his just deserts? What new and compelling information was she providing that might affect Abdul Rauf's sentence that could not have been conveyed by the silver tongue of Mr Rauf's lawyer, Donald Findlay QC, one of the most eminent advocates of the day?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I thank Robert Brown for the tone of his question, or at least the initial part of it. I said clearly that in my letter to the court I laid out the personal circumstances of a constituent who had come to ask me for assistance. I also said—I think that this is not challengeable in any way—that I am not unique as a member of a Parliament in doing what I did. There are similar cases. As we have heard over the past couple of weeks, the current Prime Minister did the same thing when he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. All MPs and MSPs have to make their own judgments. I am not passing judgment on anybody else. I have set out the purpose of what I did. I refer Robert Brown to Lord McCluskey's comments, which I quoted in my statement.

I have conceded that the last line of the letter went too far. I hope that all members accept my apology for that. Robert Brown also reflected on the word "sorry". One thing on which I have reflected is that sorry is not a word that we hear often from the mouth of any politician from any party. There are those who said two weeks ago that I should apologise immediately. I dare say that there are some who still say that I should have done that. I wanted to be sure that, if I was to come to the chamber and say sorry, I would do so having reflected on the matter. I wanted to be sure that I would make an apology that I meant, genuinely and truly, and not one that had been demanded from me or one that might have seemed to be tactically and politically convenient. I wanted to be sure that I meant it. That is what I have done. I hope that members will accept that.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to open questions. Thus far, we have had substantive questions and answers. From now on, the question and the answer should be as brief as possible. We will get through as many questions as we can.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

My question is on the duty of privacy to constituents. Does the cabinet secretary agree that we should all be very careful that what is said in the chamber today does not undermine the relationship of trust that must exist between MSPs and their constituents? Furthermore, does she agree that all our constituents—and I mean all, particularly in light of Annabel Goldie's question—should feel able to approach their MSP? They must feel able to do that whether they are a member of our party or another party, whether or not they voted for us, and whether the case is simple or complicated.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Christine Grahame raises an important point that should genuinely concern us all, despite our differences and the subject of our discussion. One thing that concerned me about making my statement—although I accept absolutely my duty to do so—was that, if other constituents of mine listened to these proceedings, they would wonder whether they had the right to confidentiality in the matters that they bring to me. That is why I said that we owe our constituents a duty of privacy. I believe that that duty of privacy is laid down in the code of conduct. I am also very clear that, by writing the letter to open court, I turned it into a public document, so it is appropriate for me to answer questions on it. It is important to draw that distinction. It is also important for all members to send a message to our constituents that they have the right to come and see us—as they do frequently—to discuss things that they want to keep private and confidential. Regardless of our differences, I hope that today we unite to send out that message to the people of Scotland.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I am sure that the Deputy First Minister would not have wished to mislead the court when she wrote the letter. In answer to a question, she said that she spoke to no one else about the matter. I would be grateful if she would indicate how she satisfied herself that her constituent's circumstances were as he described them? In particular, when she told the court that Mr Rauf was

"heavily involved in his community", how did she check that? Will she indicate what that involvement entailed?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

What I said in the letter reflects what Mr Rauf told me. Any of us who writes letters on behalf of constituents reflects in those letters what constituents tell them. None of us has the ability to conduct investigations into our constituents.

Johann Lamont is entitled to an answer to her question. Mr Rauf told me about community involvement through regular attendance at his mosque and other religious activities, involvement in a group that teaches children to read the Qur'an, and support for the involvement of his wife and children in a local Muslim educational organisation in my constituency. I reflected on those points in my letter to the court. I hope that members will accept that that was entirely acceptable.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I welcome the content and tone of the Deputy First Minister's statement, which stands in stark contrast to the utterances of the First Minister on the issue. In light of her statement, does she accept that, in providing a reference, she was in danger of breaching paragraph 7.7 of the ministerial code?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I will answer the question in two parts. First, I will give my opinion, which is that I do not accept that I breached the ministerial code. I have read the paragraph to which the member refers, and anyone who reads it would reach the same conclusion. Secondly—I had better be careful here—I remind members that I am not the final arbiter of the ministerial code of conduct. That is the role of the gentleman on my right, the First Minister. Questions about the ministerial code of conduct, as opposed to the MSP code of conduct, are properly directed to the First Minister, but I hope that he will accept my interpretation of the code.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The Deputy First Minister said:

"... I hope that the fact that this is a ministerial statement will not give rise to any suggestion that ministers' obligations to their constituents are different from those of MSPs who are not ministers. That is not the case".

However, it is the case. Does the Deputy First Minister not recognise that the ministerial code places extra responsibilities on ministers? She says that she has learned many lessons. Has she learned the lesson that it is simply wrong for a minister to intervene in a live court case?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I have made my position on the issue absolutely clear. I am not the first member of the Parliament or the first minister to have written to a court laying out a constituent's personal circumstances. I am not sure that I can usefully add anything to what I have already said in that regard.

I am aware of my obligations under both the MSP code of conduct and the ministerial code of conduct. I said in my statement that I will try to learn lessons from the experience of the past two weeks—I would be foolish if I did anything other than that. I assure Mike Rumbles and the chamber that, whatever those lessons turn out to be in the period ahead, I will do my best to learn them and to put them to good use for the future.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

The leader of the Labour Party said that the Deputy First Minister has let Holyrood down and asked her to reflect on her position. Does Ms Sturgeon agree that Holyrood has been let down by Iain Gray's rush to judgment, which focuses on personality and individuals to cover the fact that he has nothing to say to the people of Scotland about policies?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

It is tempting for me to answer Tricia Marwick's question in my usual style, but I am trying to be a bit more reflective today. I am here to answer for my actions, and I have tried to do so as openly and honestly as possible. I am pretty sure that, before too long, I will be back to the rough and tumble of politics. I hope that I will take with me the experiences and lessons of the past couple of weeks. For the purposes of today, I will confine myself to answering for the things that I did.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

Has the Deputy First Minister received any representations from Mr Rauf's solicitor or any other third party in connection with Mr Rauf's case?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I have set out clearly the sequence of events. Mr Rauf asked me to write to the court, and I set out when he did that and the factors that I took into account in making the decision. The request came to me directly from Mr Rauf, and it was responded to in the way that I have already set out.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I shared some of the criticisms on the question of judgment when we first learned of the letter that had been written, but Nicola Sturgeon has shown impeccable judgment in striking the right tone today, and I respect her for that. Does she agree that, after the dust has settled and we have all calmed down a wee bit, we might even come out of this incident with a clearer and stronger shared understanding of the relationship between MSPs and constituents, and that constituents will have a clearer understanding of what they can expect from us?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I think so, and I certainly hope so. I cannot speak for any other member, but the experiences of the past couple of weeks will make and have made me think deeply about the relationship between an MSP and his or her constituents. My reflections will stay with me for a long time to come. If my experience over the past couple of weeks—which has been entirely down to my own actions—leads any other member to a deeper understanding or to reflect, it might be all to the good.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I am afraid that we have come to the end of the time that was allocated for this item. I am sorry that there are members who could not be called.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I have found these proceedings uncomfortable, for a particular reason. I understand that a ministerial statement is made under rule 13.2 of standing orders. We would normally expect such statements to be on issues within the minister's portfolio. I understand that the cabinet secretary herself opted to use the procedure of a ministerial statement. For the avoidance of doubt, could you clarify that the accepted route for raising matters of complaint against an MSP in the delivery of their duty to constituents comes under our code of conduct? At paragraph 9.1.6(b), the code says:

"Complaints made under Section 8: Engagement and liaison with constituents: these are to be referred to the Presiding Officer."

In conflating the work of a minister with that of a constituency MSP, might our proceedings today have established an unfortunate precedent? Is it not the proper route to invoke the guidance in the code of conduct? I seek the Presiding Officer's guidance that the statement does not set any precedent for members in the difficult circumstances in which we all find ourselves from time to time in the execution of our casework.

Furthermore, I seek the Presiding Officer's guidance on whether, if further such statements were to be demanded by anyone in the circumstances of members undertaking work for constituents, there could perhaps be unintended consequences—we came close today—in breaching constituent confidentiality, which undoubtedly impacts on people's willingness to bring sensitive matters, in particular, to the attention of MSPs. Your views would be most useful to us all, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I am sorry to say that Ms Grahame was in error right at the beginning of her point of order. This business was not scheduled as a result of a complaint; it was scheduled as a result of a request, which was agreed to by the Parliamentary Bureau.