‘Cut value of MSPs undeclared gifts’ says watchdog

The body has recommended a cut in the value of undeclared gifts MSPs receive. Picture: Michael Gillen

The body has recommended a cut in the value of undeclared gifts MSPs receive. Picture: Michael Gillen

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AN international anti-corruption body has recommended a cut in the value of gifts that MSPs can receive before they must be declared.

Gifts of just £280 would be liable for inclusion in the MSPs register of interests, half the current £570 value, following a recommendation by the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO).

“Our proposed bill will not only build on the existing robust regime, but will also streamline reporting for MSPs”

Stewart Stevenson

MSPs could also be prosecuted for agreeing to receive inducements from lobbyists even if no inducement was actually received, under a new law proposed by a Holyrood standards watchdog to make Holyrood more transparent.

The Standards Procedures and Public Appointments Committee had considered removing the criminal offence of failing to declare an interest, insisting previous breaches had been “minor and inadvertent”.

But it decided against it as this may be interpreted as MSPs not taking the current law seriously enough.

MSPs who breach parliamentary rules but do not break the law could have their salary docked, be excluded from Holyrood and be named and shamed.

Committee convener Stewart Stevenson said: “Our proposed bill will not only build on the existing robust regime, but will also streamline reporting for MSPs, ensuring all information about MSPs’ financial interests is in one easily accessible place for the public.

“We have also suggested broadening the definition of paid advocacy.

“Whilst no MSP has ever been found to have breached the current rules, the committee is clear of the gravity with which paid advocacy should be treated.

“This is why our committee is proposing an expansion to the scope of the criminal offence.”

The committee’s report stated: “The Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) monitors countries’ compliance with anti-corruption standards.

“In response to a GRECO recommendation, the bill proposes lowering the threshold for registering gifts from £570 to £280 (0.5 per cent of a member’s salary rounded down to the nearest £10).”

It added: “The Committee consulted on removing the criminal offences for failure to register or declare an interest.

“Breaches have generally been minor and inadvertent and the parliament has robust mechanisms for investigating and sanctioning MSPs.

“No breach has been prosecuted since the Parliament was established in 1999.

“However, after consulting, the committee accepts that removing the criminal offence might be interpreted as the Parliament taking breaches of the Act less seriously.

“The Committee is therefore not recommending the removal of these criminal offences.”

It continued: “If a member breaches certain conduct rules, the Parliament can withdraw their rights and privileges (eg removing salary or excluding them from Parliamentary premises).

“The sanctions in the Interests Act are currently limited to excluding a member from Parliamentary proceedings.

“The Committee recommends that the full range of sanctions should be available if an MSP fails to register or declare an interest or undertakes paid advocacy.

“The Committee proposes to amend the definition of paid advocacy so that agreeing to receive inducements, as well as actually receiving them, would be an offence.

“The Committee recommends that the Parliament should be able to agree a motion of censure, a form of public naming and shaming, agreed by the Parliament as a whole.

“This would be an alternative response where the Parliament does not think a serious sanction such as exclusion or removal of other parliamentary privileges is appropriate.”

Mr Stevenson stressed that the committee had been working on these proposals for several months “before developments elsewhere have come to light”.

Last week, Holyrood Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick asked the committee to look into Labour proposals for a ban on MSPs seeking employment as paid directors or consultants whilst in office, following the “cash for access” row at Westminster involving former Labour and Conservative foreign secretaries Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind.

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