Sleaze watchdog to investigate MSPs

A POWERFUL independent sleaze watchdog is to be appointed to investigate complaints against MSPs.

And the Scottish Parliament’s new standards commissioner will have stronger powers than Westminster’s Elizabeth Filkin.

Details of the job were being unveiled today as the parliament’s standards committee published its bill to create the new post.

Unlike Mrs Filkin, the Scottish Parliament’s commissioner will have the power to summon witnesses and compel the production of evidence.

And the committee has also pledged its bill will ensure the appointment and dismissal process for a Scottish commissioner will be fully open and transparent.

That will also be in marked contrast where Mrs Filkin has effectively been forced out of her job by MPs who believed she was over-zealous in her investigations.

Up until now complaints against MSPs have been investigated by a standards adviser, but the post carried no powers to require witnesses to co-operate.

Although the Westminster watchdog can invite MPs to give evidence, there is no legal obligation for them to turn up.

The bill launched today will give the Scottish commissioner the power to summon witnesses and order the production of documentary evidence.

The commissioner will be responsible for carrying out initial inquiries into a complaint before deciding whether it warrants further investigation. He or she would then carry out that investigation and report to the standards committee on whether or not an MSP had breached the code of conduct. Any sanctions to be imposed would be a matter for the committee to decide.

The commissioner will be appointed for a fixed period of up to five years and would be eligible to be reappointed for one further five-year term.

He or she could only be removed by a resolution of parliament.

A report published by the committee last April said it was vital the commissioner should be completely independent when it comes to investigating complaints against MSPs.

Public confidence in the Scottish Parliament would also increase if an independent watchdog was appointed, the report claimed.

It said: "The committee believes that the establishment of a standards commissioner in the Scottish Parliament is an essential step in cementing the public’s confidence in the Parliament’s ability to ensure that its members carry out their duties with integrity, selflessness and honesty.

"The commissioner will be an important independent element in ensuring that complaints against members are dealt with in a transparent and rigorous manner."

The report followed a nine-month inquiry by the committee into the current procedures for investigating complaints against MSPs.

When it was debated in parliament, standards committee convener Mike Rumbles assured MSPs they were not proposing a Star Chamber or a Witch-finder General.

But he said: "It is only right and proper that the parliament is seen to be promoting the very highest standards of probity for its members. In short, it is for the Parliament to ensure that its own house is in order."

Mrs Filkin announced in December she would not be re-applying for her post as parliamentary commissioner for standards at Westminster after MPs broke with precedent and refused to renew her appointment automatically.

She accused MPs of forcing her out because of her dogged pursuit of inquiries into members’ outside financial interests.

And she claimed some senior politicians had been involved in a whispering campaign against her.

During her time in office, Mrs Filkin produced reports which were critical of the conduct of three cabinet ministers, Peter Mandelson, John Prescott and John Reid.

All were subsequently overturned by the Labour-dominated standards committee to which she reports.

She also clashed with Keith Vaz, former foreign office minister, who refused to co-operate with her inquiries.