I hope that, with the early start, we have a bit more flexibility in some of the timings this afternoon, because I am keen that this is a proper debate and that we interact with each other. I am looking forward to interventions from members on the Government benches, who I am sure have a lot to say on this topic, because transparency at the heart of Government and indeed at the heart of the governing party is crucial. It is important to each and every one of us.
However, the fact is that we should not need this debate to get that transparency from the First Minister or from the Scottish Government, because I made a very open offer just a couple of weeks ago for the First Minister to come to the chamber and give a statement to the Parliament on the issues engulfing his party—the party of government here in Scotland. It was a genuine offer at First Minister’s question time for the First Minister to put on record his point of view and his responses to crucial questions that remain unanswered weeks into this sorry saga.
That is the most predictable intervention of the afternoon, which will probably be repeated by several others—I thought that such a question might have come from the minister, but maybe he has got it later on in his script.
The point is that the Scottish Conservatives announce their membership numbers during a leadership election. That has always been how we have approached this issue. [
The message from Scottish National Party members, and the noise from members on the front benches, seems to be that the Scottish Conservatives and other parties in Scotland should change their approach because the nationalists lied to the press and to the public across Scotland about the party’s membership numbers. I will take no lectures from the SNP, which wants to see other parties change their approach in order to cover up for the lies that those in the SNP told about its membership numbers. That is a serious allegation—
Mr Ross, please resume your seat. At this stage in the debate, it might be instructive if I remind members that there are certain expectations about language in the chamber. We know that the chair will not tolerate an accusation that, for example, a fellow member has been deliberately untruthful. I remind members of a statement that was made by the previous Presiding Officer, the late Sir Alex Ferguson, who reminded members that the words
“‘lies’, ‘lying’ or ‘liar’ should not be used in the chamber in relation to other members—and preferably not at all.” —[
7 May 2009, c 17290.]
We clarified that through the Presiding Officer’s office this morning. I am not saying that any individual member in the Parliament lied; I am saying that, clearly, there were actions by the SNP on misleading claims about its membership numbers that led to the resignation of the SNP’s head of media and the resignation of the former chief executive of the SNP. Just days before he was arrested by the police, he resigned from the role that he had held for years because of the SNP’s conduct on its membership numbers. That is why I am saying that I will take no lectures from the SNP on the issue.
The fact is that there remain serious questions to be answered. The First Minister seems quite happy to answer the questions outside the chamber—he always stops to speak to the press to give his views on a host of issues. As an Opposition leader, I want to see that continue, because he has only been beaten by Colin Beattie in his attempts to provide no more press stories but subsequently answering the press and providing us with plenty of nuggets. If the First Minister is happy to give those answers to the press just a few metres from the chamber, why is he not happy to come here to answer those questions? Not only is he unwilling to answer the questions in the chamber, he is unwilling even to attend this debate to respond.
There are so many questions, Deputy Presiding Officer. For example, how were the supposedly ring-fenced indyref2 funds that were raised through yes.scot and ref.scot spent? How was that money spent? Why did the party’s former chief executive Peter Murrell give the SNP a six figure loan, and when will that loan be repaid? Was the loan a consideration in any decision not to suspend Peter Murrell, Colin Beattie or, potentially, any other MSP currently serving in the Parliament who may find themselves arrested by the police? Why was the unused motorhome kept at the home of the former First Minister’s mother-in-law? Why were members of the SNP’s finance and audit committee refused information about the party’s accounts?
We have several senior members of the Government and the SNP in the chamber for this debate. That is a flavour of some of the questions that we would like to put to the First Minister. In his absence, can any SNP MSP answer those questions?
Silence. We have the Deputy First Minister of the Government and the deputy leader of the party in Scotland in the chamber, but there are no answers to very basic questions. These are basic questions that are being asked by our constituents and members of the public across the country.
It is important that we have transparency at the heart of Government and that we have a governing party that is willing to answer those questions. Sadly, we do not. In the time that I have left, I want to look at the amendments that will be moved by the parliamentary business manager for the Scottish Government. Incredibly, the amendment deletes massive amounts of the motion that I lodged, including some of the key lines.
George Adam wants SNP MSPs to vote for an amendment that deletes a statement allowing them to agree that the scandal engulfing the party of government in Scotland should be properly scrutinised and debated. Why would anyone not want the situation to be properly scrutinised and debated?
Mr Adam’s amendment deletes the line that calls for
“a more transparent budget process”.
Why would anyone not want that? It deletes a line saying that we should
“give arm’s-length bodies control over information publication”.
Why would we not want to give them more control over that? Further, it also deletes a line that calls on the Scottish Government to
“improve scrutiny of breaches of the ministerial code”.
Why would any MSP representing the governing parties in Scotland vote for an amendment that takes out those key lines on transparency and openness?
Today marks 16 years since the SNP was elected to government. During that time, we have seen secrecy, spin and cover-ups at the heart of the Government. Today is an opportunity for SNP members to say that enough is enough, and that it has been happening for too long. They can do that by voting for the Scottish Conservative motion, by supporting the Labour amendment, which adds to the scrutiny that we seek and by voting down the shameful amendment from the Scottish Government, which wants to delete much of the transparency that this Parliament and the people of Scotland deserve.
That the Parliament believes that the First Minister, as leader of the governing party of Scotland, should make a statement to the chamber of the Scottish Parliament about the governance of the Scottish National Party (SNP); agrees that these are matters of public interest and should be properly scrutinised and debated in the national parliament; notes that the Scottish Government has lacked transparency and openness in its administration of government across Scotland; calls, therefore, on the Scottish Government to end its pre-release access of statistics, deliver a more transparent budget process, give arm’s-length bodies control over information publication, publish a transparency list of public sector officials who earn more than the First Minister, set swifter publication dates for ministerial expenses and transport dates and improve scrutiny of breaches of the ministerial code, and condemns the SNP for its lack of candour about its membership and governance, and for its abject failure to concentrate on the priorities of the people of Scotland.
I was just so keen to get involved in this debate, Presiding Officer.
That was definitely a thing from Douglas Ross—I am not sure what it was and I am not sure what relevance much of it had to what we are talking about today. However, right from the start, let me tell him that transparency and scrutiny of the Government is important, and that is why those things are in our amendment.
I will say one thing to start with: on 1 April—many people might find that date ironic—Douglas Ross was in the great town of Paisley, doing one of his many jobs. In this case, he was being a football referee at an important game between St Mirren and Livingston. Mr Ross had a terrible game, as he failed to spot a stonewall penalty in the first four minutes—luckily, that was corrected by VAR. However—this is the relevant and interesting point, Presiding Officer—there was a crowd of 5,894 people attending. Many contemplated the suggestion that that may or may not be the membership of the Scottish Tory party, but we will never know, because the Conservatives will not publish that figure. They will not be transparent and they will not practise what they are preaching here today.
No, we have heard enough from Mr Ross.
The absolute hypocrisy from the Conservatives is almost laughable. We have to admire someone who has the brass neck to complain about transparency when they lead the Scottish Conservatives. Mr Ross’s political party illegally prorogued the United Kingdom Parliament to avoid debate and scrutiny and is the party of a Prime Minister who would agree to speak to the Scottish press only if he could hand pick the media and the questions. It is the party that packs the House of Lords with donors such as Scotland Office minister Lord Offord, who was appointed to the House of Lords for life and given a place on the Government payroll after giving the Tories £150,000, yet the Tories come to the Scottish Parliament and talk about our integrity.
The Conservatives have received hundreds of thousands of pounds from unincorporated associations that do not reveal the origin of their funding, yet they have questioned the integrity of others. We just cannot take the Tories seriously on this issue. They refuse to say how many members they have while criticising those that do. There is a word for a person who does that: hypocrite.
I am not going to stand here and claim that there are not issues in the SNP that need to be addressed, but I can stand here and say that they are being addressed.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I have said that we are dealing with that. Within days of his election as leader, the First Minister announced an urgent review of internal party governance and, as our amendment makes clear, this Government places a great importance on openness and transparency. We are fully committed to meeting the standards of open Government that our public rightly expects of us. I will give just a few examples of that: ministerial engagements and travel are published monthly; we also aim to proactively publish minutes of Government meetings on our website, so that people can see who their Government is meeting and what we are discussing, and understand how decisions are made. In addition, we are focused on making the necessary improvements in handling freedom of information requests, as set out in our published improvement plan, which was agreed with the Scottish Information Commissioner. At around 86 per cent, our performance on responding to requests within the set time is comparable with the wider public sector in Scotland, but it is important to note that we are now responding to significantly more requests for information—the number has risen by more than 50 per cent in the past three years. We also recently enhanced transparency to Parliament and the public on Scottish Government finances, including through the provision of more detailed outturn reporting and more detailed material to the Finance and Public Administration Committee, which all members of that committee have welcomed. In his closing statement here today, Mr Arthur will provide more detail on the steps that we have taken to improve engagement on budget.
I will come back to the issue of party membership. Much has been said, but it is not enough.
My goodness—I gave Douglas Ross the opportunity to build himself up into a frenzy, and that was a bit of a damp squib from him. That comes from the party of Boris Johnson and all the nonsense that is going on in Westminster.
Douglas Ross has refused to publish his party’s membership numbers. He says that he has nothing to hide, yet he continues to hide it. In an interview with ITV Border, his defence was that the party publishes its membership figures only during a leadership election. Given Douglas Ross’s performance today and in recent weeks, I do not think that we will wait too long for those figures to be published.
I move amendment S6M-08764.2, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:
“agrees that good governance and transparency are matters of the utmost importance; believes that democracy is best served when all political parties are transparent on their party membership and sources of income; recognises the improvements made to the transparency and openness of the Scottish budget process as a result of cooperation between the Scottish Government and parliamentary committees; welcomes the upcoming review of the Chief Executive Pay Framework and encourages all parties to clearly lay out their position on public sector pay policy ahead of the annual budget process; calls on all political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament to refuse and return any donations from unincorporated associations that do not publish their sources of funding in full; believes that all political parties should refuse to nominate their donors for any form of honour bestowed by the Crown, including membership of the House of Lords; recognises that the only parties represented in the Scottish Parliament to have published up-to-date membership numbers are the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party, and calls on the leaders of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Scottish Labour Party and Scottish Liberal Democrats, in the interests of democracy and transparency, to publish their membership numbers as a matter of urgency.”
With the recent revelations about its finances, the culture of secrecy, spin and cover-up at the heart of the SNP has been laid bare for all to see. I find it extraordinary that, when it is being investigated by Police Scotland, the SNP’s sole defence is to demand membership numbers from the Opposition. The investigation is serious and it is not about the SNP’s membership numbers. Because it is a live police inquiry, we cannot comment on the substance of the investigation, but suffice it to say that, if someone had told me 10 weeks ago that I would witness the resignation of the First Minister; the arrest under caution of her husband, Peter Murrell, who is the SNP’s former chief executive; the arrest of Colin Beattie, the former SNP treasurer; and a blue forensic tent on the front lawn of Nicola Sturgeon’s home, I would have said that they were delusional. However, all those things happened.
It is a shameful episode in Scottish politics. People who believed in the SNP have been badly let down, but so have the people of Scotland. The governing party is mired in scandal, which is a complete distraction from focusing on the people’s priorities. We are now witnessing the arrogance of members of a party that has been in power for too long, so they think that they are untouchable and treat the Parliament and the public with contempt.
I know that many people will say that the party and the Government are two separate things, but that is simply not true in this case. The culture that pervades the SNP as a party pervades the SNP-led Scottish Government, too. They are inextricably linked. That is no wonder when we consider that the two top positions were occupied by a husband-and-wife team.
I will illustrate that point by taking us back to the inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints—otherwise known as the Salmond inquiry. I start by reminding members of Nicola Sturgeon’s words:
“The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request ... My commitment is that the Government and I will co-operate fully”.—[
, 17 January 2019; c 14.]
What hollow words.
The SNP, in the guise of Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon’s chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, blocked every attempt by the committee to get information. The situation dragged on for months, if not a full year, as they defied the will of the committee and of Parliament at every turn. Letters from the Parliament’s lawyers were in effect ignored, and it took the threat of a successful vote of no confidence in John Swinney to get the material released.
Evading scrutiny and accountability underpinned much of the SNP’s approach to the Salmond inquiry. The use of SNP emails and WhatsApp groups by Cabinet ministers, the former FM and special advisers was widespread to avoid formally recording ministerial discussions and decisions.
The dissembling, the dishonesty and the duplicitous behaviour on the part of Government was routine. Then there were the memory lapses—the inability to recall or remember from people who up to that point had had the sharpest of memories for details, it has to be said.
Then there was the incompetence and a new low—the leaking of material by the then Deputy First Minister and his special advisers to journalists who were writing a book about the inquiry, after the inquiry, which had not even been shared with the inquiry in the first place. Although that breached the ministerial code of conduct and the special advisers code of conduct, the then First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, chose to do nothing about it—such contempt for Parliament.
It is time for an overhaul of the Parliament’s ability to hold this Government to account. Scottish Labour has a plan for doing just that. Let us start by seeing fewer cabinet secretaries and ministers; let us see binding sanctions for breaches of the ministerial code; let us see more power for committees to compel witnesses and evidence; and let us see less tribalism from members who try to deny the evidence that is presented to committees before their very eyes. Let us have a right of recall for MSPs who break the law, whoever they are.
The SNP is tarnishing the reputation of the Parliament and the Government. It is mired in scandal and it is divided, and its members are fighting like ferrets in a sack. The SNP is contemptuous of the Scottish people and has completely lost focus on the people’s priorities. It is time that it was held to account, it is time for a Scottish election and it is most certainly time for change.
I move amendment S6M-08764.1, to insert at end:
“; believes that the culture of secrecy, spin and cover-up has no place in good government; considers that there is a need to strengthen the ability of the Parliament to hold the governing party to account, and so calls for a limit on the number of MSPs who can take up cabinet secretary or ministerial roles in government and the creation of binding sanctions for breaches of the Ministerial Code, and supports the introduction of parliamentary privilege for MSPs, the election of committee conveners by the whole Parliament, stronger powers for parliamentary committees to compel the provision of evidence and the appearance of witnesses, and a right of recall for MSPs who have been convicted of a crime or face serious sanction by the Scottish Parliament.”
It has been a painful few weeks for the SNP—a party that has seemed impregnable for the past 16 years is now shambling, anarchic and quarrelling. I almost—almost—feel sorry for it, but we must all feel sorry for Mike Russell, the modest, self-effacing president of the SNP. At the most recent election, for four whole weeks, he was forced to live in a smelly old horse-box. If only he had known, poor president Mike could have been chauffeured in that executive motorhome. I can almost see it; in fact, I cannot get the image out of my head—president Mike, thrust atop the luxury motorhome, draped over his chaise longue, dressed in his satin robe and addressing his adoring crowds at Dunoon pier. What a glorious sight that would have been but, like everyone else, he was kept in the dark, so we do need transparency.
The current troubles in the SNP have further undermined faith in the governing party’s ability to look after the public finances. That is on top of the waste of millions of pounds of hard-earned public money: £50 million to save 1,500 jobs at Burntisland Fabrications; £586 million to create 2,000 jobs at Lochaber, which are nowhere to be seen; and £300 million to build two new ferries, which are over budget and overdue.
The SNP has been boosting its public image by wasting public money. All that waste is happening when people are struggling to make ends meet; when people are desperate for a decent home; when the national health service is on its knees; when schools are struggling; and when the climate is in crisis. It is no wonder that people have had enough as the SNP Government spaffs their money up against the wall when the country and the people must count every penny.
However—I must get this off my chest—the Conservatives have got a nerve to talk about standards. No party has done more to damage faith in politics than the Conservatives. This is the party that gave us Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. With Boris Johnson, there were issues to do with parties during Covid, loans, the decor in the number 10 flat, personal protective equipment contracts for friends and the defence of friends who breached the rules. With Liz Truss, we had a reckless budget. That and the cavalier dismissal of the so-called blob cost billions, which ramped up the cost of mortgages and rents and the cost of living.
What about Douglas Ross? Some call him dithering Douglas. He could not even make up his mind about the blundering Boris Johnson and gormless Liz Truss. He condemned them one minute, then hailed them the next. We need change in politics, but it will not come from the Conservatives or the SNP.
We need change, such as Katy Clark’s proposed member’s bill for extending freedom of information powers, because being able to follow the money will give us greater understanding of how it is spent. We need to deal with the pre-release of statistics, so that the Government cannot spend hours and days manipulating the facts before statistics are published. We must have a recall system like the one at Westminster, but such a system evades the Scottish Parliament and our ability to throw out recalcitrant MSPs. We need to have all those powers in this Parliament so that we can get change.
We agree with the elements of the motion about the ministerial code and transparency, but I must say that the rest of the motion is utter tosh. The Scottish Parliament is not the SNP conference, nor is it the SNP national executive committee. Our job in this Parliament is to run the country; our job is not to run the SNP.
It was only last Wednesday when the Parliament debated transparency, and we—all of us in that debate, including SNP members—agreed in principle that the Parliament has a primary duty to the public to be as open and transparent as possible when accounting for public money. Ministers have such a duty too. Surely taxpayers have a right to know exactly what their money is being spent on and, just as important, why elected members in this place make certain choices. As politicians, we need to be held fully accountable for every single decision that we make, most especially when it comes to spending other people’s money.
I completely understand that a police inquiry about current events inside the SNP is on-going and that it is not appropriate to comment on those recent events. However, as Douglas Ross rightly said, that should not overshadow the important issue of the lack of transparency inside the Government and inside Scotland’s ruling party, because that is interlinked. The Parliament has a clear interest in establishing probity, so we will not shy away from asking important questions of the First Minister.
Auditors general round the world acknowledge that there are five principles of good governance: accountability, leadership, integrity, stewardship and transparency. Personally, I do not see how anyone could argue otherwise or seek to undermine those principles. However, that is exactly what we see in the SNP currently, and that is a matter of public interest.
The Times reported on the Finance and Public Administration Committee’s inquiry into the efficacy of Scottish Government decision making. It does not make good reading for the Scottish Government, not just because too much decision making has been seen by senior civil servants and former senior ministers to be “rushed, unclear and unstructured” but because some financial rules have, on occasion, been found to be optional.
That must be a concern for us all, yet the Scottish Government seems to be rubbishing the report, although the committee’s inquiry is not yet concluded. That is just not acceptable.
As a member of that committee, I am very clear that all is not well when it comes to Government openness, transparency and accountability. It is true that Audit Scotland and the Scottish Fiscal Commission have welcomed efforts to improve transparency in the Scottish budget, but they have also warned strongly that that simply is not good enough. We have heard so much about the profligate waste of failed Scottish Government projects, which have cost in the region of £350 million. The committee has been told that we have to start thinking about serious reforms so that we get much better transparency.
The named person legislation, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021, the National Care Service (Scotland) Bill, gender recognition reform, the deposit return scheme and the highly protected marine areas programme—which we will debate later today—are all examples of Scottish Government failures when it comes to good governance.
On top of all that, and worst of all, we have the murky and disreputable goings-on inside the party of government. Not only are openness and transparency good practice for measuring best value for taxpayers’ money, but they are essential if there is to be renewed trust between Government and the public. The loss of that trust currently is very serious, and it is particularly serious for this country. Therefore, I support the motion in the name of Douglas Ross.
There is certainly a lot in the motion and the amendments, so I will not try to cover everything in four minutes.
First, on the SNP accounts, I understand that a police investigation is under way, and we need to let that take its course. No one has been charged yet, and we have a system that says that a person is innocent until proven guilty, so it seems to be far too soon to be having statements or debates about that in Parliament.
The last published accounts of the SNP, which were for the year to 31 December 2021, show net assets of £610,000. They also report that the referendum appeal raised £740,000, of which £253,000 had been used. The balance in the referendum fund of £487,000 is therefore covered by the assets on the balance sheet.
On current membership of UK political parties, the House of Commons library makes it clear that parties do not need to publish numbers. However, it also shows that last September the Conservatives had 172,000 members. If we are generous and give the Scottish Tories 9 per cent of that figure, that means that they had some 16,000 members, although only 6,500 of them voted in 2020. In any case, they are way behind the SNP.
Labour was reported to have 432,000 members at December 2021; taking 9 per cent of that would give that party about 39,000 members in Scotland. However, the
Daily Record reported that the figure was only 16,000—
No—I am afraid that I have only four minutes.
With 74,000 members, the SNP is clearly well ahead of both those parties. As a percentage of the relevant electorate, SNP membership is about 1.7 per cent, Labour is at 0.9 per cent and the Conservatives are at 0.4 per cent. It is pretty clear which party has the most members, is the most popular with the public and wins the most elections.
Transparency about budgets is a serious point: I am not quite clear what practical differences the Conservatives want. For example, both the SNP and the Greens have been open and clear that, if we want better public services, we need to consider raising taxes. By contrast, the Conservatives have called for lower taxes but simultaneously asked for extra spending on a range of areas. That is neither honest nor transparent—in fact, it is impossible. The Tories might set an example in transparency by saying where they would cut public services to match tax cuts.
When it comes to transparency in political parties, we could do no worse than look at the House of Lords. As members know, the SNP does not take seats there because the lords are unelected, which is an affront to democracy. Britain cannot be considered a true democracy as long as one half of its Parliament is appointed and not elected.
How do those people get appointed? Some may be there on merit but, for others, it seems that they just pay money to the Conservative Party. I understand that about £3 million is the going rate. We are told that 15 of the past 16 Conservative Party treasurers have been offered a seat in the House of Lords, having each donated more than £3 million to the party.
It is not only party treasurers; it has been reported that, since 2010, 22 of the Tories’ main financial backers have been given peerages, having donated at least £54 million to the party. Other nominations have been blocked by the House of Lords Appointments Commission; it tried to block Peter Cruddas in 2020, but Boris Johnson overruled it and Peter Cruddas got his peerage.
“so many ... Tory donors ... ending up in the ... Lords is equivalent to entering the National Lottery 12 times in a row—and winning the jackpot every time.”
To be clear, it is illegal to sell titles for money, but that rule has been enforced only once—in 1933.
I mention in passing that Labour seeks the right of recall for MSPs. We should not forget that, although Labour’s Mike Watson had to resign after he got a 16-month sentence for trying to set fire to a hotel, he still sits as a Labour member in the House of Lords. Maybe Labour should clean up its own act first.
In conclusion, politics can be a dirty business and no party is completely squeaky clean. However, if we are looking for a party that is heavily engaged in sleaze and underhand deals, which lacks transparency and which sells seats in the House of Lords, it is the Conservative Party.
It is a pleasure to follow John Mason, although I am not sure that the concept of squeaky clean parties will resonate with our constituents. This has already been a rambunctious debate, which was to be expected, but there are very important questions at its heart that Parliament needs to ask itself and that the people of Scotland need to ask themselves. It is about understanding the difference between political parties, the Scottish Government and the Parliament, and it is about where the Parliament’s powers should lie in order for it to hold the Scottish Government to account.
It is right that any party, member or, indeed, citizen of Scotland should be interested in upholding the basic democratic principles that we have here and should look to strengthen Parliament, and it is right that the Parliament should be able to properly hold to account the Scottish Government, irrespective of the party membership that makes up the chamber. That is the role that constituents send us, who are not in the majority party that then forms the Government, here to do.
It is fair to say that there has been an increasing lack of transparency, over 16 years, as to how the Scottish Government operates. We have already heard discussions over the budget, and there are calls in the motion and the Labour amendment to make that process more transparent.
However, I would like to use the short time that I have to draw attention to other matters that the motion and the Labour amendment address. The first matter is in respect to the size of the Government in Scotland, which, bar one position, can be drawn only from members of the chamber. We have seen an increase in the size of the Government in both the number of cabinet secretaries and the number of ministers who support them.
Those increases clearly cause challenges when it comes to supplying members for committees. Given that we are a unicameral Parliament, the responsibility on committees to hold the Government to account is enormous, and the pool that can be drawn from to make up those committees is reduced when the number of ministers is increased.
I sympathise with much in the Labour amendment, but that is the line that I have a problem with. Would Mr Whitfield acknowledge that, although the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are far more powerful than they were in 1999, the number of members remains unchanged? Instead of the number of members in the Government, is the issue not the number of members in the Parliament?
I welcome the recognition of the increased powers that devolution has given to the Government and Parliament in Scotland, and I agree that a challenge exists around striking that balance. Looking at the D’Hondt calculation, I wonder whether a more balanced approach could be achieved by reducing or deducting from that calculation those members of the predominant party who are in Government, which would then balance speeches and debates across the Parliament.
I am conscious that there will be many positive contributions, but I want to mention my colleague Katy Clark’s proposed member’s bill—the proposed freedom of information reform (Scotland) bill. I look forward to seeing that come forward.
The final issue that I ask the cabinet secretary or minister to address at the end of the debate relates to breaches of the ministerial code. The ministerial code is not overseen by the Parliament or by any committees within it, and we have a situation in which, in essence, the judge is judging itself. We have seen the problems with that down south, at Westminster, and I invite ideas as to how that can improve under the current Scottish Government.
However, that is actually a familiar story. For decades, the Scottish Labour Party arrogantly viewed Scotland as its fiefdom—its iron grip unbreakable, no matter how badly it behaved or how poorly it performed. We know what happened: people grew sick of being taken for granted, they finally rejected the sleaze and corruption, and Labour went the way of the dinosaurs.
Self-righteous SNP politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon were the noisiest critics.
I will not, as, unfortunately, I have only four minutes. I am sorry.
Their party would be different—that Scottish politics would be cleansed was their pious pitch. Honesty, integrity and transparency were the buzzwords. Dear, dear me—look at where we are now. These past 16 years of SNP rule have been a disaster for our country. The SNP is a single-issue party that is perpetually distracted by its incoherent obsession with breaking up the United Kingdom. It is a party with all the power in the hands of Nicola Sturgeon and her husband. It is a party that does not tolerate reasonable questions from its own people. It is a party that thinks nothing of destroying those who do not toe the line.
In recent weeks, I have seen SNP members in a state of shock. Party unity is shattered as they have been put on the spot and forced to pick a team. One newspaper identified the following seven factions:
“The Yousaf loyalists, the Forbes followers, the Sturgeon establishment, the Westminster wing, the rebel alliance”,
who, I believe, sit up at the back,
“the watchers … and the sheep.”
Many in the SNP are trying to tell us that that is private party business—that it has nothing to do with Parliament or Government. Well, they are wrong, because the toxic culture of the SNP has been allowed to infect St Andrew’s house and Holyrood. We have a Government that operates by three main principles: secrecy, spin and self-preservation. It deprives the public of information while preaching about transparency. It misleads the public while preaching about integrity. When cornered, when evidence of wrongdoing and corruption are laid bare, it responds with aggressive deflection and deception.
Let us talk about accountability. This Government acts as if it answers to no one. Even the Auditor General for Scotland is impeded in his work, unable to access critical yet basic financial data. Everyone else is blamed. Colossal and costly failures usually result in promotion, not the sack—we need look no further than Humza Yousaf. The SNP has forgotten that principles matter. Values of honesty and integrity are gone from this Government. The only values that it is interested in are the ministerial salaries of Humza Yousaf’s continuity cronies.
What is now clear is that SNP politicians have absolutely no right to wag their fingers at anybody else. Just like the pigs in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, the SNP now looks no different from Labour. These scandals have exposed an out-of-touch governing class of careerists and chancers. They could travel Scotland in their mysterious motorhome, but they will never find the moral high ground. They are as transparent as the painted windows of the ferry that was launched by Nicola Sturgeon. They have lost their way, and, if political justice is done, they will also lose the power that they take for granted.
I apologise to you, Presiding Officer, for coming in slightly late at the beginning of the debate.
At the outset, I will concede one point to the Tories with regard to the motion that we are debating today: it is abundantly clear that my party faces a range of issues at present. It is a party that has had stability for 19 years, a party that has been the party of choice for the electorate in this Parliament since 2007, and a party that has been the party of choice at Westminster for Scots since 2015. The issues are certainly not of my choosing, but I am convinced that we will get through them—and, with a huge amount of work, I believe that the electorate will continue to place their trust in us to deliver for the people of Scotland.
Many aspects of the motion surprise me. For example, I am pleased that the Tories seem now to accept that Westminster does not speak for Scotland, as their motion speaks of
“the governing party of Scotland”.
The Tories continually proclaim that Scotland has two Governments. Does that mean that the Tories are about to give up on the long-discredited union and the absolute shambles of a Government down the road at Westminster?
Ultimately, nobody in Scotland will be fooled by this debate. It is the Tories who are playing cheap party-political games, chasing headlines with absolutely zero credibility. Describing last week’s debate on the abhorrent and inhumane Illegal Migration Bill, Brian Whittle said:
“We could have had a constructive debate this afternoon, but we have instead had an exercise in performative anger.”
Brian Whittle also described that debate as
“an exercise in posturing in the absence of policy.”
Later, he described it as
“a point-scoring exercise and nothing more.”——[
, 25 April 2023; c 56, 54, 56.]
I genuinely had no idea that Brian Whittle is the Scottish Parliament’s very own Nostradamus, but his predictions are so very apt for today’s debate.
The Tories talk about transparency as if they actually care about it. This from the party that has been up to its eyeballs in scandals, including cash for honours, cash for contracts, texts for tax breaks and even cash for curtains. In the eyes of the public, it is a UK Government that has normalised sleaze.
Let us take one example of that abuse of power: the cash-for-honours scandal.
Fifteen of the
Tory party’s main treasurers, who happened to hand over £3 million to the party, were coincidentally given life peerages in the House of Lords. Twenty-two of the Tory party’s top financial backers have all coincidentally been given peerages since 2010. In total, this group has stuffed the Tory party coffers with £54 million—yes, £54 million. We even have a situation whereby the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, tried to give his dad a peerage. Come on—what was all that about? Stephen Kerr is laughing, but Boris Johnson even tried tae gie his dad a peerage.
The Tories’ claims about transparency indicate the parallel universe in which the Tories live. Only last week, it was the Tories who wanted to shut out the press from asking their Prime Minister questions at their Scottish conference. The economic lessons that we were supposed to take from Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s time in charge were much lauded by Mr Ross before he quickly realised that he had backed the wrong horse. That is on top of the lying and scheming of the Brexit campaign led by Boris Johnson, which is estimated to have made the UK economy 5.5 per cent poorer than it would have been if we had stayed in the European Union, with UK imports and exports expected to be 15 per cent lower. It is no wonder that the International Monetary Fund predicts that the UK is set to be the worst-performing economy in the G20.
The Tories want transparency. Maybe they can respond to the following questions. Do they agree with the £8.7 billion wasted on unused or unusable personal protective equipment, storing it and prematurely cancelling PPE contracts? Do they agree with the Commons Public Accounts Committee report that found “no clear evidence” that the £29.5 billion spent on test and trace had any impact on reducing Covid infections? Do they agree that a firm owned by an ex-Conservative councillor and Conservative donor was awarded contracts worth £275 million for the supply of masks and gowns?
Believe it or not, buried under the hypocrisy and the double standards in the motion, there are a few points that are actually issues for which the Scottish Government has responsibility. Believe it or not, I even agree with one of the points that the motion makes. The First Minister’s salary is an entirely reasonable level at which to set a threshold for proactive publication of the list of posts in the public sector whose holders are in receipt of high levels of pay.
However, I would go further than what the Conservatives propose. Significant services are delivered by the private sector on the public sector’s behalf, and high levels of pay inequality are certainly far more prevalent in the private sector. Therefore, if the aim is to reduce pay inequality and ensure best value for money for the public purse, I would not only support regular publication of those public sector posts the salaries for which are at or above that of the First Minister, as the Conservative motion proposes; I would want grants and procurement contracts that are awarded to the private and third sectors to be conditional on the receiving organisations opting in to that transparency mechanism. Regardless of who receives it, it is public money, and we should set high standards.
Given that the initial proposal is included in the Conservative motion, I would appreciate hearing the thoughts of Conservative members on expanding it in that manner. It is a timely suggestion, given that the Scottish Greens’ suggestion about a review of chief executives’ pay was accepted by the Scottish Government earlier this year. I hope that all parties engage with that review and with wider public sector pay policy at budget time.
One policy that I would like to put on the record now is that the salaries of college principals be brought into the pay framework for chief executives. They are the heads of large public bodies in Scotland, and some principals are—completely unjustifiably, in my view—on salaries larger than that of the First Minister. Indeed, the growth in principals’ pay over the past 30 years has massively outstripped that in the pay of college teaching and support staff. If the new-found enthusiasm in some quarters for good governance could extend to greater scrutiny of the governance of our colleges, that would have far more positive outcomes for the public than the partisan opportunism that motivated the choice of this afternoon’s debate.
If the Conservatives are interested in good party governance, they need to look much closer to home. According to the Good Law Project, since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, the Tory party has accepted at least £243,000 from donors associated with Russia. Much of that—£175,000—came from Lubov Chernukhin. Her husband is a former deputy finance minister under Putin and a former chairman of the state corporation VEB.RF, which is rightly subject to sanctions in the UK.
If that name is familiar here, that is because the same Lubov Chernukhin also paid £20,000 for a meal with Ruth Davidson. That meal did not go ahead, but the cheque was certainly cashed. The Tory party is awash with dodgy Kremlin-linked cash, and it has been for years, so I suppose that we should be grateful to the Tories for giving us the opportunity to put that on the parliamentary record.
There is a clear conflict of interests in political parties nominating their donors for awards and privileges, but it is particularly outrageous for donors to be nominated for lifetime appointments to Parliament via the House of Lords. As the Minister for Parliamentary Business mentioned, the Tories took that one step further when they appointed the party donor Malcolm Offord not just to the House of Lords, but to the Government, as a minister in the Scotland Office. This is a man who has never been elected to any office, who is not accountable to voters and who will have the power to influence the laws of the UK for the rest of his life. Why is he in that position? He donated £150,000 to the Tory party in the years leading up to his appointment.
Even other Tory party members have described the support that Mr Offord has received from their party leadership as cronyism. Talking about the endorsement that he received ahead of candidate selection for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election—this comment was made anonymously, so it might even have been made by someone who is in the room today—one Tory said:
“It seems all you need to get an endorsement is to have deep pockets.”
That is a pretty damning indictment from a member of Mr Offord’s own party.
There are, of course, only two parties in the Scottish Parliament that will not nominate to the House of Lords: the Scottish Greens and the SNP. I challenge those Opposition members who extol the virtues of transparency and accountability in government to reconcile that with their parties’ role in maintaining the undemocratic outrage of the House of Lords and the arcane mechanisms that, for example, allow the royal family to amend draft legislation in secret.
The Conservatives demand transparency and accountability from everyone but themselves. Today’s debate is not motivated by a principled belief in good governance; it is pure opportunism. However, it has spectacularly backfired for a party that has so much baggage of its own that we have barely scratched the surface this afternoon. Therefore, I finish by asking Douglas Ross if he would not mind bringing back a similar motion in the future. There is so much more rot at the heart of the Tory party, which we could do with putting on the parliamentary record.
I am delighted to take part in this debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to provide some balance for the benefit of Conservative colleagues. I can hear Douglas Ross muttering away. I welcome the motion in the same way that the Hibs fans welcomed Douglas Ross at McDiarmid park two weeks ago, although I will not use the same language that they used.
The motion talks about “the governing party” but, as the Tories never tire of saying—often tiresomely—as Stuart McMillan mentioned, Scotland has two Governments, and their party is also a governing party.
Yes, the Tories are transparent—so transparent that it is crystal clear to everyone that the motion is nothing more than an attempt to grab some headlines and deflect from the failures of their own Government at Westminster. Last week, for example, the Tories did not seem to think that debating the UK Government’s abhorrent anti-immigration bill was a good use of their time. So transparent was their discomfort that we could see only one or two of the back benchers—the others were completely transparent.
However, this week, the Tories are here aplenty for a debate about party-political matters. Let us play their game and do a wee test of transparency here. I am happy to give way to any Tory member who can and will tell us how many members the Tories have in Scotland. Anyone?
.] I am struggling to hear myself speak, Deputy Presiding Officer. Is it possible to get some quiet, as Conservative members were given when they made their speeches?
“there is a number, but” they
“don’t disclose it”.
Demanding that the SNP does something that we have already done while refusing to do it themselves seems to be the Tory way.
I would also be happy to give way to any Tory who can tell us, to the nearest £1 billion—to make this as easy as possible—how much the Truss-Kwarteng economic experiment cost the people of Scotland.
.] I was happy to give way to any Tory who could actually tell us—[
.] I cannot hear what is being said. I was happy to give way to any Tory who could tell us not just how many members the Tory party has, but whether they actually know how many members they have, because that seems to be a moot point as well.
How can we expect—[
.] As Russell Findlay had, I have only four minutes, most of which have been wasted already, so I am not giving way.
As ever, that was not a point of order.
Should we really expect that Scotland’s other Government—the Conservative Government—will release the polling evidence that it collected, at taxpayers’ expense, on support for Scottish independence? How about an arithmetical question? How much more is high speed 2 costing compared with its original estimate of around £30 billion? It is now over £100 billion.
How much is the £3.5 billion aircraft carrier the Prince of Wales worth now that it has been stripped for parts for its sister ship? How much of the European Union structural funds that used to come to Scotland and other parts of the UK have been cut from Scotland?
Let us have no more pious lectures from the Tories on transparency. After all, in 2021, during the current Prime Minister’s tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was revealed that the Treasury refused to comply with more freedom of information requests than any other department in Whitehall.
Members on our side have repeatedly called for a full public inquiry into the revelation that the UK Government used funds for Covid contracts to conduct research into constitutional issues—
The SNP’s descent into chaos in recent months has certainly brought the dark underbelly of the party management into the light of day, but the culture of secrecy, spin and cover-up has been far reaching and—as Jackie Baillie rightly pointed out—has stretched the gap between party and Government. That requires remedy and scrutiny, and the implementation of the measures that are outlined in Labour’s amendment.
The debate has been of a rather dubious standard. The issues are incredibly serious, but there has been, I am afraid, no shortage of audacity from Tory members, in particular from Russell Findlay in citing Orwell. I am reminded that George Orwell also said:
“I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own except that you happen to be insane.”
However, it is fair to say that the SNP back benchers, and the minister in his opening speech, have been rather remiss in their lack of recognition of the lack of transparency from the Government over many years. There was the surprisingly thin paper trail on the decision to award ferry contracts to Ferguson’s shipyard. There were reports from Audit Scotland—by now almost too numerous to mention—calling on the Scottish Government to improve transparency, in particular with regard to how it spends taxpayers’ money. There was a paucity of data on how nearly £5 billion of Covid-19 funding to support businesses was actually spent. There was also—again, as my colleague Jackie Baillie highlighted—the SNP Government’s dissembling, dishonest and duplicitous approach to the provision of documentation in the Salmond inquiry, with that committee facing obstruction at every turn.
I turn to the exploitation of lobbying register loopholes. In 2020 alone, hundreds of meetings between Scottish Government ministers and lobbyists were not registered. There is also a fully contemptuous approach to freedom of information requests—
Not at this moment, thank you.
There is a contemptuous approach to FOI requests, culminating most shamefully in the Government’s failure to disclose Covid-19 data modelling. That cover-up was then challenged by the Scottish Information Commissioner, who said that there was a lack of compliance and found that there was a “strong public interest” in publishing that data.
Turning to warnings about patient safety from staff and patients at Queen Elizabeth university hospital that were covered up in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, it is absolutely clear that the board was aided and abetted by the then Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, Humza Yousaf. He failed to remove those who were responsible, backing that culture of secrecy, cover-up and incompetence. Although, to most, that behaviour showed Mr Yousaf to be unworthy of his position, in the eyes of the SNP high command, it proved that he was the ideal candidate—the continuity candidate—who was capable of ascending to the highest office in the land.
However, the people of Scotland are not fooled by any of that. The SNP is led by that continuity candidate, and it is infected by the same culture of secrecy, spin and cover-up that has festered at the heart of the party for too long. Again, as Orwell said,
“The end was contained in the beginning.”
Labour’s amendment calls for serious measures and actions that can improve transparency on behalf of the people of Scotland. The good governance of our country and of the public services on which we all rely needs to see the restoration of integrity and transparency to the heart of Government. Scottish Labour’s “Stronger Holyrood” paper sets out how we would do that, as is contained in our amendment. I hope that members are able to back it in that spirit.
I thank members on all sides of the chamber for their contributions. It is important that we, as a Parliament, consider how we can enhance scrutiny and transparency of not only the work of the Government more generally but the activities of Parliament, which have also been touched on.
It is important to recognise that we operate in a devolved context, so the way in which this Parliament and this Government interact with the UK Government, and the way in which processes are conducted by the UK Government and the UK Parliament impact on the processes that we undertake. That is quite clear when it comes to the matter of public finances and budgeting.
Of course, we operate under a fiscal framework that is, as I think we all recognise, one of the most complex sets of arrangements between a state level Government and a sub-state level Government to be found anywhere in the world. If I recall correctly, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report a few years ago highlighted that point.
That can create genuine challenges in presenting information transparently and clearly; indeed, it can also present challenges for the Government, particularly when we consider—members who have served in the House of Commons will be aware of this—the rather esoteric approach to finance that Westminster has, through votes on confidence, main estimates and supplementary estimates. That approach can mean that we discover changes to our budget only late on in the financial year.
We have, in the Scottish Parliament, a well-established process in relation to public finances. We have the annual budget statement, followed by the three-stage budget bill process and, routinely, two budget-revision processes in the financial year. During the Covid pandemic, we took the extraordinary step of having an additional budget-revision process.
Along with all that, we have statements on provisional outturn, a rates resolution, as is required under statute, and the local government finance order, which provides multiple parliamentary opportunities for engagement.
Everything that we undertake in the Government, and all decisions that we take around the budget process, are taken through Scottish Government systems. The information exists, and I certainly assure members that I and my colleagues undertake that process.
I want to come back to—
In relation to the processes that I was setting out,
I made reference to the on-going work around the budget process, but I recognise that there is a desire to do more. I have certainly seen that through engagement with the Finance and Public Administration Committee. There has been constructive engagement with Liz Smith and with Daniel Johnson, in his former role, and I look forward to constructive engagement with Mr Marra about ways in which we can provide additional information, particularly around the budget-revision processes, which can be quite fluid and dynamic, especially in relation to the challenges that we face around supplementary estimates.
With his making this calm and intelligent contribution, I do not think that the minister was here earlier in the debate. Nevertheless, would he be in favour of freedom of information reform along lines that Katy Clark proposes, which would allow us to scrutinise the public finances in public bodies?
I know that the Government will be consulting on matters pertaining to FOI. I do not have lead responsibility on FOI, but Willie Rennie has made his point, and the Minister for Cabinet and Parliamentary Business will have heard it.
The point that I want to come to is that our consolidated accounts have had unqualified clean audits for the past 17 years. However, I recognise nonetheless that there will always be challenges around ensuring that information is accessible and as transparent as possible. It is also absolutely vital that the work that we undertake in the Scottish Parliament is as accessible and transparent as possible to the people who vote for us. That will always be challenging for any state.
That will be challenging with regard to the devolved context in which we operate.
As I have said previously, I make an open offer; I want to ensure that everyone we are so privileged and honoured to serve has as much information as possible, and that that information is presented in a way that is transparent, inherently discernible and easy to grasp.
I very much want to have those discussions and conversations with any members who have a desire, beyond the theatrics of today, to engage constructively on something that is of such vital importance. I look forward to conversations with Opposition finance spokespeople and, as I said, I extend the offer to all members, because we have a shared interest and a shared responsibility.
I thank all the participants in this afternoon’s debate. There are many issues that we would prefer to have been debating this afternoon. Indeed, we will shortly be moving on to the vital subject of highly protected marine areas. However, the debate was, sadly, necessary, because the whole issue of SNP party finances—the scandal, and perhaps even criminality—has become a distraction from the business of Government.
We called for the First Minister to come clean and make a statement to Parliament on his party’s finances so that we can all move on, but he refused to do so and sent George Adam to do his dirty work for him.
At least Mr Adam has a sense of humour. He read out with a straight face the line in the amendment that says
“good governance and transparency are matters of the utmost importance”.
I commend him for that. At this rate, he will be making a bid to fill the vacancy that has appeared at the Stand Comedy Club following the removal of Joanna Cherry, who has been cancelled by it. Incidentally, nobody in her party seems to be prepared to speak up for Joanna Cherry—not the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, nor Shirley-Anne Somerville when she was on the radio this morning, and not even the First Minister. The SNP has left Conservative members to defend free speech and Joanna Cherry.
During the debate, we have learned that there only seems to be one line of defence from the SNP. Its members have kept on repeating, parrot-like, “How many members do you have?” One would think that an entire army of special advisers, advisers, spin doctors and press officers could have dreamed up one other attack line. Even poor Keith Brown was exhausted by the end of the debate.
There are legitimate questions that need to be answered, and it is simply not enough to say that answers cannot be provided because there is a police inquiry. What has happened to the £600,000 of ring-fenced funds that were raised for another independence referendum? What is the real position of the SNP party’s finances? Is the party on the brink of financial collapse, as some people have suggested
? Why did its auditors resign? Why did the former chief executive grant a substantial personal loan that has been only partly repaid? Why on earth did it purchase, as a campaign vehicle, a camper van—one that seems not to have moved for the past two years? None of that makes sense.
We learned today that the SNP has now appointed new auditors—AMS Accountants Group Ltd of Manchester. Perhaps it is not the greatest start to learn that that business is already late in filing necessary paperwork with Companies House. I hope that it will attend to the SNP’s documentation better than it seems to be handling its own.
What we see in the SNP’s finances is all too typical of the way that the Government conducts its business—as a number of members from around the chamber have made clear.
Last week, during the finance debate, I identified concerns that have been raised about lack of transparency across a range of Government decisions, including investment in private companies such as Burntisland Fabrications Ltd, or BiFab, Glasgow Prestwick Airport Ltd and GFG Alliance. Those issues have been identified by the former Auditor General, the current Auditor General and even by the Parliament’s Finance and Public Administration Committee.
We learned this week, from evidence sessions at the finance committee, that former ministers, senior civil servants and special advisors have denounced Scottish Government decision making as “rushed ... unclear and unstructured”. Even those who have been at the heart of the Government know that it is getting this badly wrong.
Liz Smith reminded us of the need for transparency in Government.
Do Murdo Fraser and his party have any self-awareness, at all? I have been sitting listening to the debate. His party took us all for mugs during the pandemic with contracts for its cronies—as the UK Labour Party has pointed out—and they partied the whole time. This is absolutely shameful.
What a bizarre intervention, which has nothing to do with the debate. I say to Fulton MacGregor that when we shine a light on the Scottish Government’s track record on procurement of PPE and other matters we will find that the choices that it made were not dissimilar to those that were made by the UK Government at the time, so he needs to be very careful about what he says.
Like Jackie Baillie, I recall sitting two years ago on the committee of this Parliament that looked at the handling of harassment complaints against the former First Minister, Alex Salmond, and I recall the deplorable attempts at a cover-up that we saw from the SNP Government, the refusal to release vital documentation that that committee needed and the unwillingness to co-operate with a cross-party inquiry.
It took the threat of a vote of no confidence in John Swinney, the then Deputy First Minister, to get the documentation that that parliamentary committee required. Nothing, it seems, has got any better in the interim.
Today, we have a motion that notes the lack of transparency in the Government and gives a range of positive proposals on how to make matters better. It also calls for a statement to Parliament on the governance of the Scottish National Party—the party of government here.
Those are all matters of legitimate public interest. We know that there are SNP members in this Parliament who share our concerns; they agree with us that something has gone far wrong with SNP finances. They are as appalled as we are at what has been going on and they, as we do, want answers.
We have already seen within the SNP a willingness among some back benchers to stand up to their leadership. We have seen that in respect of issues such as the A9 and the deposit return scheme. We might also be about to see it in relation to marine protected areas. We saw it in relation to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, on which there was an unprecedented rebellion. I call on SNP back benchers to show the same resilience today.
I am not a supporter of independence, but if I was trying to make the case for independence, I would want to demonstrate that the Scottish Government is as effective and transparent as possible. Immense damage is being done to the body politic in Scotland by the culture of secrecy and cover-up. I hope that all members from all parties will be prepared to join us in voting for the motion, and I hope in particular that SNP members with conscience and a backbone will be prepared to join us, because that is the least that Scotland will expect.
That concludes the debate on the transparency of Scotland’s governing party. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business, to allow front-bench teams to change positions, should they wish to do so.