Presiding officer orders inquiry into 'veracity' of SNP ministers
AN UNPRECEDENTED inquiry was ordered yesterday amid claims ministers have been misleading the Scottish Parliament.
It was ordered by Alex Fergusson, the Presiding Officer, who has written to Holyrood's standards committee in a growing row over the accusations.
The move comes after Alex Salmond, the First Minister, again refused to apologise following claims he misled MSPs at question time last week.
It reflects Mr Fergusson's growing frustration at the number of points of order about the truth of ministerial statements and answers, and his lack of ability to hold ministers to account.
"While I have repeated on numerous occasions that the Presiding Officer cannot possibly be responsible for the veracity of what is said in this chamber, I do note that the frequency of such points of order is on the increase, which does indicate to me a sense of frustration amongst members," he said.
"The parliament is ultimately ill-served by this type of exchange and I want us to be able to demonstrate the highest standards of probity, scrutiny and accountability. I would therefore be grateful if your committee could look into this issue."
He has no power to police ministerial statements as they fall under the auspices of the ministerial code. The final arbiter on whether this has been broken is the First Minister.
The Presiding Officer's move is an acknowledgement of anger among opposition MSPs about the content of ministerial statements, and of the rising number of complaints that ministers are misleading parliament.
Labour has been working on a "Pinocchio file" and the Liberal Democrats have been keeping a record of "mistruths".
But there have also been allegations from the SNP that its opponents have been lying, and yesterday's exchanges underlined the friction.
Labour and the SNP accused their opposing leaders of failing to tell the truth over the number of apprentices in Scotland and south of the Border.
Mr Fergusson's impatience was clear yesterday when he told Mr Salmond to stick to the point, after the First Minister had answered a query on tourism from the Labour leader, Iain Gray, with an unrelated attack on a UK minister's claims over the use of European funding.
Professor John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, said he could think of no precedents for such an inquiry. He said: "In Westminster, ministers misleading the House is seen as a heinous crime and usually a sacking offence. One wonders what the standards committee can do here, but perhaps this will be the time it rises to the occasion and above party politics."
Although the Presiding Officer has claimed the investigation is unrelated to any one event, a row between Mr Salmond and Tavish Scott, the Lib Dem leader, appeared to be the last straw.
Last week, Mr Salmond told Mr Scott in an answer that funding for the Scottish Inter-Faith Council (SIFC) had been resolved. This was later denied by the SIFC convener, and funding was not properly resolved until Tuesday this week.
Yesterday the spat continued at First Minister's Questions when Mr Scott accused Mr Salmond of "making stuff up" and demanded he apologise for misleading parliament.
Mr Salmond refused, saying his justice minister, Fergus Ewing, had guaranteed the funding on 20 December and the Tuesday meeting was to finalise details.
Afterwards Mr Scott said: "It's just Alex Salmond's style. Most of the time, he just wings it at First Minister's Questions. He doesn't worry about detail; he just says what he wants."
Mr Scott has written to Mr Salmond demanding that he ask his advisory panel of former presiding officers to look at whether he had broken the ministerial code.
The SIFC issue prompted five points of order on Wednesday, including one from Labour MSP Richard Baker, calling for a change in the rules. Welcoming the inquiry, Mr Baker said: "It is clear the First Minister cannot police himself and we need the Presiding Officer to have more powers in this respect."
Mr Salmond also welcomed the inquiry, saying he believed it would concentrate on points of order, which his spokesman described as vexatious. He said too often they were used to continue debate. Claims and counter-claims about the veracity of statements, he argued, were part of the political process.
The First Minister later invoked a new procedure to deal with the complaint, whereby it will be referred to former parliamentary presiding officers under the ministerial code.
Mr Salmond said: "I understand Tavish Scott says he intends to pursue a ministerial code complaint. This offers a first and welcome opportunity to invoke the procedures I outlined to parliament last June.
"I will ask the two former presiding officers to provide that independent advice on any complaint regarding my responses to parliament on this issue. That advice will be public."
It was announced in June that the ministerial code was to be strengthened to include independent scrutiny.
The Conservatives warned a rule change could create a free-for-all. David McLetchie, Tory chief whip, said: "We cannot have an inquisition into every response by every minister."
ALEX Fergusson took a lot of persuading to become the Presiding Officer.
The Eton-educated Conservative MSP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale was seen as an exemplary committee convener in previous parliaments and one of the most fair-minded MSPs in Holyrood.
However, there has been criticism from all sides of the way he has handled the chamber, and some have suggested he is too weak.
In particular he has failed to crack down on rowdy MSPs, although he has had to control the most finely balanced and ill-tempered parliament since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened.
There have also been complaints about his unwillingness to force ministers to answer truthfully, although he says has no powers in this respect.
THE Standards Committee came under the spotlight last year when it decided to suspend the then Labour leader Wendy Alexander for one day for failing to declare her leadership campaign expenses.
The debate surrounding that decision led to claims that the committee had become partisan and broken away from its former neutral position.
There were also concerns that it was stuffed with new MSPs, including its then SNP convener Keith Brown. Since then many of the members of the committee have been replaced for unrelated issues, including Mr Brown.
The committee is chaired by an SNP MSP, Gil Paterson, who has the casting vote. It has three SNP members, two Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat.
Lack of apologies after ministers are caught out
SINCE the SNP came to power, opposition MSPs, mainly from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, have alleged on many occasions that ministers have misled parliament. But so far, only one apology has been issued by a minister. Here are some examples:
• In 2007, John Swinney, the finance secretary, told the finance committee that 100 million for university funding had been allocated for the year 2007-8.
It was then revealed that this sum was to be delayed until 2011 and not a single penny would be allocated for 2007-8.
• On 9 January, 2008, Stewart Maxwell, the sports minister, said he was unable to give details about staff numbers as a result of changes at sportscotland. It became apparent that the minister had the numbers and they could have been disclosed. He later apologised to parliament for inadvertently misleading MSPs.
• On 25 September, 2008, Alex Salmond told MSPs that "the real figures for teachers – who are delivering the enhanced hours – are, under this government, substantially increasing". According to Labour the number of nursery teachers had, in fact, fallen.
• In First Minister's Questions on 8 October. 2008, Mr Salmond stressed the severity of the recession by claiming the International Monetary Fund had predicted the UK economy would "go into recession by almost 1 per cent" that year.
The IMF had actually said the UK economy would see growth of 1 per cent in 2008 and shrink by 0.1 per cent in 2009.
• Following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, Mr Salmond told parliament that officials "had been in contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office" and claimed there would be "ministerial contact" that afternoon. It has since been claimed that no ministerial contact had been agreed and none took place.
• On 8 January, 2009, Mr Salmond told parliament the Inter Faith Council would not be closed because the matter had "been resolved". Opposition parties have claimed the matter had not been resolved at the time.
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