ONE of the many lessons learned in the scandal over MPs’ expenses at Westminster in 2009 was that politicians have to be fastidiously careful what they do with taxpayers’ money.
And the cash does not have to be spent on extravagances such as moat clearing or, famously, floating duck islands for the public’s ire to be raised. Quite modest expenses need to be fully justifiable and wholly declared – and, even then, such is the degree of public cynicism about politics and politicians, voters are still unlikely to be happy about them. That is their right. The expenses saga entrenched in the public consciousness a deep suspicion about “politicians on the make”. It will not go away any time soon, and politics therefore has to change to accommodate it, if confidence in our system of governance is to be protected.
While the system of MPs’ expenses has now been largely reformed – at Holyrood, MSPs’ expenses have always been far more open to scrutiny – some aspects of politicians’ finances have carried on pretty much as usual. One of these is highlighted on our front page today. Somehow, the practice of MPs and MSPs renting their parliamentary offices from their own political parties – with the party happily pocketing the taxpayers’ cash – has carried on largely unchecked. It is time this changed, and changed for good.
Do our MSPs and MPs really expect us to believe that the best-located office in their constituency – and the one that offers best value – just happens to be the one with their own party as landlord? It is very hard for the MSPs involved – including First Minister Alex Salmond – to defend themselves from the public suspicion that they are operating a cosy little scam to put public cash in the party coffers.
The practice also has the pernicious effect of blurring the demarcation lines that should exist within the functions and responsibilities of an MSP. Their constituency office, quite rightly paid for by the taxpayer, is there to assist them in their duties as a parliamentarian, not as a politician. There are strict rules about what signage must be used on such offices – they must have the parliamentary livery and logos, not those of any party. So why should there not be similar rules about the provenance of the offices themselves?
Given the short but eventful history of devolution it is perhaps surprising this issue has not been reformed. After all, it was a story about Henry McLeish’s parliamentary office – in particular, a deal to sub-let it to other organisations – that ultimately led to his resignation as first minister in 2001. Holyrood is not the only offender. The same problem at Westminster recently came under similar scrutiny, and it needs to be addressed by that parliament’s authorities. But right from the start of devolution, Holyrood has always prided itself on a greater adherence to the principles of openness, transparency and accountability, and that has included financial matters. That honourable position is now being tested.
The Scottish Parliament’s presiding officer, Tricia Marwick, has shown herself to be a reformer, increasing scrutiny of aspects of Holyrood’s business that she felt fell short of the parliament’s declared standards – a recent clampdown on the activities of “cross-party groups” was a particularly good example of her influence. Marwick needs to add this new issue to her to-do list. MSPs must stop using taxpayers’ money to fund their political parties by the back door.
Clear vision needed
A recent innovation from Google is a small camera worn in a special pair of spectacles named, somewhat predictably, Google Glasses, that could in theory be used to record a person’s entire day-to-day life. This development has led to a wide discussion about privacy and civil liberties, as we come to terms with the implications of an existence preserved permanently on our own hard drives, and those of other people. Of course, the day when most people wear Google Glasses is still some years off. Scotland’s police officers, on the other hand, could be wearing tiny video cameras very soon indeed, recording everything and everyone they come into contact with.
Before Police Scotland goes ahead with this, we need to fast-track the Google Glass debate and apply it to Scotland in the here and now. Then we have to factor in some very obvious concerns about the consequences for the Scottish system of criminal justice. Will an ordinary citizen, speaking to a police officer, have the right to ask for the camera to be switched off? Whose rights take precedence? Will comments recorded on this device be able to be used in a court of law against whoever makes them? This innovation opens up a range of issues that go to the heart of 21st century living, and the law. We need to discuss those issues now.