Leaders: Openness key to clean politics

The unique exterior of the Scottish Parliament building. Picture: Getty
The unique exterior of the Scottish Parliament building. Picture: Getty
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BACK in September 1999, Scottish politics was consumed with a saga that became known, perhaps inevitably, as Lobbygate.

At the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh an undercover journalist posing as a businessman recorded a lobbyist apparently boasting of his personal connections with government ministers. That the lobbyist happened to be the son of the then Secretary of State for Scotland gave the story a certain edge. In the intervening years, public faith in politicians has deteriorated considerably. The Westminster expenses scandal of 2009 created a public perception of parliamentarians as shysters on the make. For the majority of politicians this was an unfair slur – most of the men and women who enter politics do so out of a genuine sense of public duty, albeit tinged with a desire for power. But the fact remains that politicians no longer enjoy the public’s presumption of innocence. Add to this scenario a multimillion pound lobbying industry – the preferred description these days is “public affairs” – the purpose of which is to influence the political process on behalf of paying clients, and the potential for public cynicism is obvious.

Which is why this newspaper believes our news story today on cross-party groups at Holyrood is an important one. The key to public confidence in the political system is its degree of openness and transparency. When the Scottish Parliament was set up there was a conscious effort to ensure that openness and transparency was at the heart of its procedures. Nothing would happen in a closed or secretive manner. All business of the parliament would be open to public scrutiny. The contrast with a Westminster thirled to centuries of tradition and custom was implicit. Holyrood would do its politics in a more modern way.

So it is extremely worrying that the regulations on cross-party groups at Holyrood – one of the key interactions between MSPs and those who would seek to influence them – are being ignored on a massive scale. In fact, only a handful of groups fulfil the full requirements of financial disclosure that the rules demand. This is simply not good enough.

Let us be clear, the existence of cross-party groups is a good thing. They allow MSPs to engage with a range of industries, charities, trade groups and interest groups. The question is whether they do so in a manner where it can be demonstrated to a sceptical public that this is all above board. Similarly, the existence of public affairs companies is also a good thing. Legislation and ministerial action that was uninformed by experts in the fields in question would run the risk of being bad law and misguided action. But interested parties wanting to lobby MSPs or ministers must do so in a way that is completely transparent.

It is understood that Tricia Marwick, Holyrood’s presiding officer, has been concerned about the cross-party groups for some time. No surprise, then, that the parliament’s Standards Committee last month published a report into the operation of this system and recommended a tightening up of procedures. These include far more stringent requirements on openness and transparency, as well as a mechanism of checks to ensure groups are toeing the line. These are eminently sensible proposals. This newspaper hopes that when they come before parliament for ratification they will receive the unanimous backing of MSPs, encouraged by all party leaders. Faith in our politicians is fragile. We must do all we can to ensure the political process is not only above board, but seen to be above board.

Unfair system

THE Child Maintenance Service has not had its troubles to seek since it was first set up in 1993 as the Child Support Agency. The history of the agency has been littered with characteristic civil service bungles and occasional tabloid-inflamed scandals about the way it operates. On the whole, however, there are few politicians or members of the public who would question its basic role in making fathers who split from their families help to pay for their upkeep.

And it also commendable that ministers in charge of the agency are actively seeking to reduce the astonishingly-high costs – around £500 million a year – of administering the cumbersome system. But in attempting to reform the system, family lawyers and charities in Scotland, as we report today, have accused the UK department in charge of the agency of weighting new rules in favour of wealthy parents who can afford to engage in expensive lawsuits about the extent of their financial assets.

This is being done for expediency, to reduce costs, rather than for any just cause, and is unfair to the many thousands of less well-off who do take their responsibilities towards their children seriously and pay up without argument and on time. The creation of a two-tier system in which the most wealthy benefit, because of their wealth, should not be allowed to happen.