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Proposed Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

The next item of business is a Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee debate on motion S5M-20752, in the name of Bill Kidd, on its proposal for a committee bill.

All members who wish to participate in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons. I call Bill Kidd to speak to and move the motion on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee was invited by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body last year to instruct and introduce a committee bill that would transfer responsibility for setting the terms of the funding of non-Government political parties from the Scottish Government to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. The committee now presents the Parliament with a proposal for a committee bill, under rule 9.15 of the standing orders, which aims to achieve that administrative change.

The term “Short money” was coined—this is the serious bit, because it is history—at the House of Commons. It is named after Edward Short—later Lord Glenamara—who was the leader of the House of Commons and who first proposed the payments. The payments were introduced by the Harold Wilson Government in 1974 to enable Opposition parties to fulfil their parliamentary functions. That followed a pilot project that had been established by the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, which was designed to assist the Opposition in carrying out its parliamentary duties and offset the advantage that Government ministers gained through receiving briefings from civil servants.

The Scotland Act 1998 included provision for an equivalent scheme, so Short money has been part of the devolution arrangements from day 1. It is generally Opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament that receive payments under the terms of the current scheme, although there are coalition scenarios in which junior parties in Government can receive payments.

Under the current arrangements for funding political parties, payments are made according to a scheme that is set out in an order in council made under powers that are set out in the Scotland Act 1998. Those powers have been used only once. An order was made in 1999, and it has governed the arrangements since the creation of the Parliament. It was prepared jointly by the United Kingdom Government and the then Scottish Executive, but the Scotland Act 2016 removed the UK Government’s role, leaving the Scottish ministers solely responsible for submitting draft orders to Her Majesty.

Although the scheme has always been—and continues to be—administered and funded by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body in the same way as members’ salaries, allowances and pensions are, the corporate body does not have the ability to alter the formula that determines the level of the funding that is provided and who is eligible to receive it. The committee considers that the Scottish Government, as the party or parties of power, is not ideally placed to determine the funding of the other political parties that are represented in the Parliament. In contrast, the SPCB consists of members who are elected by the whole Parliament and acts in a politically neutral manner. As such, it is better placed to propose any alterations in respect of the funding of non-Government parties for agreement by the Parliament.

Under the committee’s proposal, responsibility for setting the terms of the Short money arrangements would be transferred from the Scottish ministers to the Parliament. The provisions of the proposed bill would give the Parliament the power to make a resolution that set out a new scheme. In that way, any changes to the current scheme would be agreed by the whole Parliament.

I reassure members that the proposed bill is narrow in scope. Although it would transfer responsibility for setting the terms of any future funding scheme from the Scottish ministers to the Parliament, it would not change the existing scheme and formula. Those would remain in place until such time as the Parliament agreed to alter them by means of a formal resolution process that is provided for in the proposed bill. The proposed bill would not, in itself, affect the amount that is paid to parties.

It is envisaged that, in drawing up a new scheme, the SPCB would consult on it before submitting it for formal approval by the whole Parliament. In that way, any alteration to the amount of support that was available to eligible parties, or any change to the rules on eligibility, would be determined by all MSPs.

In drawing up plans to introduce the bill, the committee consulted MSPs, political parties, the Parliamentary Bureau, the Scottish Government and the Electoral Commission. Their responses, which have been published on the committee’s web page, were supportive of the policy. Significantly, the Scottish Government has indicated that it is content that its responsibility in the area be transferred to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body.

To sum up: the proposed bill would move responsibility for setting the terms of funding for Opposition parties from the Scottish ministers to the Parliament, and the current order, which determines the current formula, would remain in place unless and until the whole Parliament agreed to a change.

I commend the committee’s proposal to the Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the proposal for a Committee Bill, under Rule 9.15, contained in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s 2nd Report, 2020 (Session 5),

Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill

(SP Paper 669).

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour

I believe that the last time that the Parliament discussed what we commonly refer to as Short money was on 2 June 1999—indeed, that was one of the first debates that the newly established Parliament had. The debate was about modifications to schedules 4 and 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, but the discussion was dominated by the subject of Short money.

I hope that today’s debate will be more straightforward than the original one in that, as we have just heard, the proposed bill seeks simply to transfer administrative oversight of the scheme to the corporate body. I also hope that members will agree that such a move makes sense, given that, for the past 20 years, the SPCB has been funding the scheme as part of its budget.

At this point, I had hoped to give a quick history lesson on the background to the scheme, but Bill Kidd has stolen my thunder. Nevertheless, I will proceed. As we know, Short money was introduced by Harold Wilson’s Government in March 1975, following a commitment in the Queen’s speech of 12 March 1974. Its purpose was to enable non-Government parties more effectively to fulfil their parliamentary functions by providing funding for staffing of the Opposition leaders’ and chief whips’ offices and for research assistance for shadow front-bench spokespersons.

As members will be aware from the previous speech, an order in council made under the Scotland Act 1998 sets out the financial assistance that the corporate body must pay to non-Government parties—and, I highlight, to junior coalition parties, as we found when funding was available for the Liberal Democrats during the Labour-led Administration. The funding, which is commonly referred to as Short money, assists members to perform their parliamentary duties. In the Scottish Parliament, it is for individual parties to determine how the funding is used, provided that it is used for parliamentary purposes.

Responsibility for setting the terms of the order and, therefore, the amount of Short money currently lies with the Scottish ministers. The order in council that provided for the existing scheme has been in place since 1999. Previously, if any changes were to be made to the arrangements, such an order would have required approval by Westminster and Holyrood before being approved by Her Majesty. The Scotland Act 2016 changed that position, and approval by Westminster is no longer required; only the Scottish Parliament needs to approve a Short money order.

The corporate body considers that the arrangements that are provided for in the 2016 act are still not wholly satisfactory, because the power over funding arrangements was transferred to the Scottish ministers. Given that the funding is provided by the corporate body, we consider that that body is best placed to oversee the arrangements. That would be similar to the corporate body’s responsibility for the administration of the members’ salaries scheme and the reimbursement of members’ expenses scheme.

It is important to note that it might not be considered appropriate, as a matter of principle, for the Scottish Government to have the power to determine funding for non-Government political parties. By contrast, the corporate body consists of representatives who are elected by all MSPs and who act in a politically neutral manner, so it might be thought that the corporate body is better placed to take decisions and promote actions in respect of the funding of non-Government parties. Therefore, the proposal is that, instead of the Scottish ministers having control, the corporate body should regulate the Short money provisions.

I am very grateful to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for the work that it has already undertaken on the matter, and I am pleased that it agrees that such a change to the existing arrangements should be made.

It is important to stress that the corporate body sees the proposed bill as providing for a very narrow change to the control of the regime and not to the regime itself. I hope that members agree that the corporate body has a proven track record in the administration of similar issues. The corporate body oversees the reimbursement of members’ expenses scheme, and it is to the credit of the allowances office and members that we have not faced some of the issues that have impacted other legislatures. Similarly, the corporate body operates the members’ salary scheme, and, with Parliament’s support, we have overseen measures to detach ourselves from other Parliaments’ arrangements and to establish our own.

Over the past 20 years, the corporate body has provided the funding for the Short money scheme. The funding is based on a formula and is currently set at £8,700 per member of the qualifying party group. In relation to accountability, at the end of each year, all parties that are in receipt of funding are required to provide audit certificates, which are published annually on the Parliament’s website, confirming that the amount that has been spent has been used for parliamentary purposes. I am pleased to say that that has been the case.

I know that members consider that changes should be made to the existing funding arrangements. However, the scope of the proposed bill is solely to make provision for oversight of the scheme to be determined by the corporate body in the future. I hope that members agree that what is proposed is sensible. The corporate body already funds the scheme and is politically neutral on such matters, which is important. I hope that members will support the proposed bill.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I very much welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate, although—to the relief of members, I suspect—I propose to keep my contribution relatively short, not least because I doubt that there is much, if anything, on which we will disagree this afternoon.

As we have heard, the committee’s report sets out the terms of a proposed committee bill to replace section 97 of the Scotland Act 1998 regarding the provision of financial assistance to non-Government party groups in the Parliament, which is commonly known as Short money.

The Government’s position has always been that it is for the Parliament to take the lead on matters that are relevant to its own operation, and I am pleased to say that that position was reinforced by the statutory framework that was provided for in the Scotland Act 2016. The current Scottish ministerial responsibility for making orders in respect of Short money appears to be purely a consequence of the need to put in place a range of practical measures at the outset of devolution—more specifically, at a point prior to the Parliament being operational and in a position to take on such a role. On that basis, the Government supports the principle of Parliament having direct responsibility for Short money and that policy move being delivered via a committee bill.

The proposal may be regarded as a welcome continuation of legislation promoted by the Parliament to govern its internal operation in a more permanent manner. Examples of that are the registration of members’ interests and the arrangements for the administration of parliamentary pensions. As the convener has set out, the aim of the proposed bill is simply to transfer statutory responsibility for setting the arrangements for Short money from the Scottish ministers to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. I note that the bill that is being proposed by the committee is admirably brief. It sets out a clean and simple statutory framework, which is also to be commended.

Members will, no doubt, be aware that the corporate body already provides the funding from its budget. Therefore, it is arguably best placed to oversee any future arrangements. Indeed, such a move would place Short money on a similar footing to the administration of members’ salaries and expenses schemes.

I note that the proposed bill does not seek to affect the amount that is paid to parties, make changes to the existing scheme or alter the formula that is applied for the disbursement of funds; rather, it provides that the amounts that are paid to parties to in the future will be determined by a resolution of the Parliament as a whole. That seems an entirely sensible basis on which to proceed, as it would enable the Parliament to set its own timetable for any future review of Short money and to assess the merits of any specific reform proposal. As we have heard, the current order will remain in force until the first resolution is made under the new framework.

The committee recommends that the Parliament agree to the proposal that it introduce a committee bill, and the Government, in turn, supports the general principles of the proposed bill. I look forward to hearing other members’ views.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

My thanks go first to the SPPA Committee’s clerking team for their continued work on the proposed bill.

The proposal is relatively straightforward, and I will not take up too much of the chamber’s time on it. In essence, it moves payment of financial assistance—Short money—from being the responsibility of the Scottish ministers to being the responsibility of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. Recent events in the chamber notwithstanding, the corporate body is a non-partisan body that acts in the wider interests of the Scottish Parliament as an institution. It is right and more fitting that the corporate body takes on that responsibility.

As the convener mentioned, Short money has a surprisingly brief history in British parliamentary politics, dating back to only the mid-1970s. Short money provides support for political parties to support their MSPs to fulfil their parliamentary duties. In that context, it has a significant role to play in our parliamentary democracy.

In reality, the funds are already paid from the corporate body’s budget. Similarly, the corporate body already holds responsibility for other funding arrangements that relate to members, including the arrangements for salaries and expenses. That is uncontroversial, and I am sure that there would be a broad consensus that the approach is sensible.

Last June, the Scottish Government indicated its support for moving responsibility for financial assistance over to the SPCB. Although there may be differing views about the role of financial assistance for political parties, no other changes are proposed as part of the process. The proposed bill and its intent are straightforward—the passing of responsibility from one body to another—and will not change the underlying level or nature of payments made.

The committee has consulted on the process and the responses have been positive. It is, of course, important that the use of public funding continues to be transparent and properly administered. I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that the corporate body is up to that task.

The committee’s proposed legislation is sensible and straightforward. It brings financial assistance into line with other forms of imbursement and sets right an administrative abnormality that has existed since 1999. I hope that the proposal will find the support of the chamber.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I, too, welcome the proposal for a committee bill to move responsibility for setting the terms for funding non-Government political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament from the Scottish ministers to the SPCB.

A framework for giving financial assistance to Opposition parties is a fundamental part of our democracy. Government parties enjoy the advantage and resources of the civil service, which assists them in formulating policies. Short money ensures that other parties can have the means to scrutinise the Government’s actions and legislation.

As we heard from Bill Kidd, Short money is named after the Rt Hon Edward Short MP, lately of the House of Commons, who, in 1975, established a payment to Opposition parties in the House of Commons to help them pay for certain services necessary in carrying out their parliamentary duties. Today, Short money goes towards paying research staff and helping party leaders, chief whips and front benchers to do their jobs.

Fortunately, the name “Short money” does not indicate the amount of money that is to be given to the parties—although some might disagree. In other words, Short money helps to level the playing field between the main party of Government, which calls on its army of professional researchers and administrators from the civil service to assist it, and the Opposition parties, which must employ their own staff to assist them in holding the Government to account.

The bill that the committee proposes is simply about the transfer of responsibility for setting the terms of financial assistance from the Scottish ministers to the SPCB. As proposed, it will not seek to make changes to the existing scheme and the formula of disbursement of funds; neither will it affect the amount of money that is paid to parties. However, it will give Parliament the power to make any necessary or desirable changes that it decides to make.

Giving total control of the regime to the corporate body is timely and appropriate. As David Stewart mentioned, the bill brings the situation into line with the powers that the SPCB already has in relation to members’ salaries and expenses. That the SPCB should provide the money from its budget but the order-making power should be left solely with the Scottish ministers does not make sense. By replacing section 97 of the Scotland Act 1998, we would put not only the administration of Short money, but the power to change Short money, into the hands the Parliament, should the Parliament desire to make changes.

As the SPPA Committee stated,

“the Scottish Government ... is not ideally placed to determine the funding of the other political parties ... in the Parliament”— no matter which party is in power.

There is often confusion regarding the separation of power and responsibility between the Parliament and the Scottish Government. The bill might help to make matters clearer in that regard—it could certainly add clarity.

Having consulted the Scottish Parliament’s Parliamentary Bureau, the Scottish Government and the Electoral Commission, which all responded favourably to the changes, I am satisfied that we can be confident that the bill will be in the interests of better democracy and, possibly, of an even fairer settlement for the non-Government parties that sit in the Scottish Parliament. On behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, I am happy to support this committee bill.

The Presiding Officer:

I call Mark Ruskell to close the debate for the committee.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

As the deputy convener of the SPPA Committee, I am happy to close the debate. This has been a busy time for the committee, with both the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill and the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill on top of our more regular responsibilities, and now with what I gather is the first committee bill of the session, which the committee is proposing. I join other members in thanking the clerks for their support.

From this brief debate, it is clear that there is a strong consensus that responsibility for setting the terms of financial assistance to non-Government political parties should be transferred from the Scottish Government to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body by means of the bill that is proposed today.

As the convener highlighted—as well as David Stewart, on behalf of the corporate body—the Short money contributions, as they are colloquially termed, were introduced in the House of Commons in 1974 with the aim of providing greater support to Opposition parties to fulfil their parliamentary functions. Since then, that financial assistance in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament has been fundamental to Opposition parties fulfilling their parliamentary roles. It was useful to get a little smidgeon of history from Dave Stewart. The early debates in 1999 seemed to focus more on the level of Short money rather than the administrative function of how it was distributed, which is, of course, the purpose of today’s debate. As we go forward, we might have interesting debates about what the level of Short money might be.

I can almost declare an interest, in that, although I was not an MSP in the first session of the Scottish Parliament, I spent a period of time working for Robin Harper, the first Green MSP, assisting him to introduce the first Green member’s bill in the Parliament. At that time, with a single MSP in Parliament, it was hugely important to have a little bit of resource to support his parliamentary work. We had a toehold in Scottish politics—at the time, we did not have full-time members of staff, so we did not have a lot of capacity to support our first-ever parliamentarian. Over the years, I have seen the value of Short money, particularly in my role as convener of the Green parliamentary group in the Scottish Parliament.

Elaine Smith reflected on how Short money helps level the playing field. It is about campaigns and the legislation that political parties bring forward, but it is also about our ability to scrutinise the Government, which has an army of civil servants ready to answer every question and legislate for every line in every bill.

I agree with other members who have spoken in the debate that it is appropriate that, following the Scotland Act 2016, the responsibility for submitting draft orders should be transferred from the Scottish Government to the SPCB. The SPCB is made up of representatives who are elected by the Parliament and it is therefore better placed as a neutral body to take decisions in relation to the provision of financial assistance to Opposition parties. The SPCB also has responsibility for setting members’ salaries, and for their allowances and expenses, so it can be argued that taking on the proposed role in relation to financial assistance is a logical extension of its role.

The committee has worked to develop the proposal, following the Scottish Government’s indication that it would be content to support the transfer of the provisions to the SPCB. The committee’s report sets out the full background to the proposal and includes a draft bill. As the convener indicated, the bill is narrow in scope and would not, as currently drafted, affect the amount of financial assistance paid to parties.

I am happy that widespread support has been expressed for the proposal and I hope that it will progress through the various stages of the committee bill process to enactment.