Outside scrutiny needed to keep ministers on best behaviour

POWER, famously, corrupts. High office obviously only corrupts a minority, but government ministers are most at risk, especially if no-one is scrutinising their work to ensure they're above reproach.

Parliament can, of course, do its best to hold ministers to account, and is certainly proving a more effective watchdog during this period of minority rule. However, the risk is that members will simply vote in line with pure political advantage.

What's more, Scotland's First Ministers of both parties have been world-class at little, but have all been masters of avoiding the question and flannelling the Chamber. MSPs can make the most persuasive case against a minister, but all too often their concerns get submerged in a flood of bluster and spurious counter-accusations.

With this in mind, Holyrood, like Westminster, has a Ministerial Code of Conduct which is meant to be the benchmark against which ministers can be judged. However, while MSPs' behaviour is scrutinised by the independent Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, ministers have always overseen themselves. This has been an exceptional weakness of the system, and would be unacceptable in any other walk of life.

The latest proposal from the SNP explicitly prohibits lying to the Chamber, conflicts of interest, accepting inappropriate gifts or misusing public money for party political purposes.

However, the new code still fails to bring in any independent scrutiny, relying instead on former Presiding Officers to give advice to the First Minister. As the Tory leader rightly observed this week, this means that while the external advisers may bring to bear "the wisdom of Solomon, the judgement remains that of Salmond".

Other aspects of the new code worry us – it appears the planning aspects are even weaker than the previous code, and could almost have been designed to excuse the meetings held over the Trump application. All that remains is a "don't get caught" clause, a perfect symptom of a document full of loopholes.

There is an attitude amongst some in the SNP that proper scrutiny is undemocratic, and the public should hold ministers to account at the ballot box. Leaving aside the inconsistency whereby backbench MSPs are made answerable, this is still a flawed argument.

When allegations of conflicts of interest fly, the public have a right to see an independent and respected report prepared, not a simple partisan battle between ministers and the opposition. Once a report is out, then it will be for Scottish voters to decide the electoral punishment.

All ministers will seek to avoid anything that they think limits their power, but we will continue to argue for the highest level of independent scrutiny. The public deserve nothing less, but so far the SNP have nothing more to offer than "just trust us".

&#149 Patrick Harvie is a Green MSP