Ian Swanson: Scottish Politics

IT’S jobs for the boys, evidence of a crony culture and a sign of growing control freakery. The opposition reacted predictably to the news that Jack McConnell had appointed eight new "ministerial parliamentary aides".

These backbenchers have been given the job of improving liaison between Cabinet ministers and Labour MSPs.

It’s a new role within the Scottish Parliament - although Henry McLeish did appoint Linlithgow MSP Mary Mulligan as his parliamentary private secretary.

But PPSs are a familiar part of the Westminster scene. Every self-respecting minister has one.

With the Scottish Executive’s rapid turnover in ministers and now this latest layer of appointments, there will soon be few Labour MSPs who have not tasted preferment.

It’s easy to see why the introduction of aides is portrayed as jobs for the boys.

But there is a potentially more serious effect, which threatens one of the key principles behind the parliament.

Aides will still serve on parliamentary committees, holding the Executive to account, even though they are working for ministers in that Executive.

The Ministerial Code, amended to cover aides’ positions, says they should not be on committees dealing with issues linked to their minister’s portfolio and they should not ask parliamentary questions on subjects covered by their minister. But there is no move to take them off other committees.

The aides are unpaid and are not themselves members of the Executive.

But the code restrictions recognise there is a potential conflict of interest.

The code admits aides are "liable to be regarded as speaking with some of the authority which is attached to a minister".

And it also makes clear aides will have to support the Executive on key policy issues.

Fiona Hyslop, the SNP’s parliamentary business spokeswoman, has written to Parliament Minister Patricia Ferguson, demanding the aides should resign from all parliamentary committees.

"These Labour MSPs owe their new positions to the Scottish Executive and that compromises their ability to act independently," says Ms Hyslop.

"It would be impossible for them to hold the Executive to account as committees are meant to, at the same time as working for Executive.

"This wholesale jobs for the boys is in danger of corrupting the committee system, which is seen as the jewel in the crown of the Scottish Parliament."

Ms Hyslop argues Mary Mulligan set the right precedent when she resigned from the education committee, which she chaired, on her appointment as parliamentary private secretary to Mr McLeish.

But Executive sources insist the code lays down guidelines to avoid any clash of interests. "There is a very clear and distinct set of rules on what they can and cannot do."

The Liberal Democrat ministers in the coalition decided against appointing aides on the grounds that four ministers should be able to liaise with 12 backbenchers without specially-appointed intermediaries.

Labour now has 16 ministers, eight aides and 31 backbenchers. The aides will now pick up concerns of the other MSPs and put the ministers’ case where necessary.

The Tories love to point out that before devolution Scotland was administered by five ministers at the Scottish Office.

They fail to recognise one of the driving forces with devolution was profound dissatisfaction, to put it mildly, with that state of affairs.

It may be those who drew up the plan for devolution did not expect a 20-strong ministerial team, but the numbers are almost a side issue.

The real focus for concern should be the clash of loyalties involved in an MSP working for the Executive and having to support its policies on the one hand, while on the other being expected to hold that Executive to account.