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Chamber and committees

Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee

Meeting date: Thursday, January 19, 2023

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Cross-Party Group, Correspondence, Cross-Party Group Annual Report


Cross-Party Group Annual Report

The Convener

Agenda item 5 is consideration of the annual update on cross-party group compliance with the code of conduct. Members have received the annual monitoring report, which provides, for each cross-party group that this committee has recognised, a green, yellow, red or blue code in relation to a variety of requirements with which the group should comply. Who wants to kick off with a comment or opinion on what they have seen in the report?

Edward Mountain

I do not want to kick off; I want to have a reasoned discussion. Ever since becoming a member of this committee, I have voiced concerns about the amount of work that cross-party groups require from MSPs. In trying to support CPGs, some MSPs take on a huge number of responsibilities, and some feel pressurised into doing so. New members sometimes get themselves into a situation in which they are on several cross-party groups and cannot give any group their full attention.

The chart in the report is extremely interesting. The vast majority of groups are green-lighted—if that is the right description—in that they comply with the rules, but a significant number have one or more yellow warning lights and some have one or more red stop lights.

We need to do more work to consider how to resolve the problem. My gut feeling is that, if a group has two red lights, that is a clear indication that we need to ask whether it is fulfilling its role. The same applies if a group has two yellow lights and a red light.

I do not propose to go through the list—members can do that for themselves and come to their own decisions—but my view is that the committee has a role in helping cross-party groups to decide whether they have a future. We should be forthright in our questioning. We should encourage groups to fulfil the requirements, but, if they cannot do so, we should suggest to them that they drop out.

I say for the record that I do not want my comments to be taken as meaning that I am against all cross-party groups: I am not. I convene two cross-party groups and I give them my entire attention and work hard on them. A lot of MSPs work hard on cross-party groups. However, could I be a member of three, four, five or—as is sometimes the case—10 cross-party groups? I would struggle. I will leave it there.

That was helpful.

Alexander Stewart

As Edward has indicated, time is precious for MSPs, but we have spoken about the need for cross-party groups on a number of occasions in the past and there are some very worthwhile groups. CPGs provide a great opportunity to ensure that the Parliament recognises and supports many organisations and individuals. However, there are issues when it comes to workforce, timing, the focus of the groups and parliamentary business, all of which have an impact on cross-party groups. I am a co-convener of three cross-party groups, and I know how much time that takes. I need to ensure that I manage my work-life balance in order to do that work.

I am concerned about the number of yellow and red warning lights that appear in the annual monitoring report, because that is a red light to us that there is a problem. The problem might well be related to timing, work focus and parliamentary business. The presence of warning lights might be an indication that the cross-party group has run its course and needs to be re-thought, if it is to continue. It is important for us to analyse some of the groups in question and to consider their focus and procedures, if they have got to that stage.

There is also the discussion about how many cross-party groups’ remits overlap, which can dilute their work. Maybe we do not need three groups that cover one area each but one group that deals with that whole area. The report is a useful document, but there is a lot more work to be done to ensure that we get the best out of the CPG system. As I said, I am a great supporter of cross-party groups, as many members are, but they need to be relevant and progressive and must fulfil the standard that we set in the committee and the Parliament. If they are not doing that, they need to be looked at.

Bob Doris

I made some comments to Mr Beattie earlier in the meeting. I felt a bit guilty about that, because I have a very direct constituency interest in the cross-party group on space being successful, given the employment that the space industry creates and the dynamic in my constituency for the space sector, which is growing. However, I wanted to challenge and push a bit on whether we should approve the cross-party group—not because it is a cross-party group on space, but because there has been a feeling for years, and before the session 6 standards committee was in place, that the committee was a conveyor belt when it came to accepting cross-party group applications and looking at compliance. That is how it has always been. Clearly, that must now stop.

Some new structures need to be put in place. I commend the clerking team for providing this visual aid to let us know what is going on across all the cross-party groups in Parliament. We probably need to build up additional structures around the way that we scrutinise the compliance of cross-party groups. We need to be consistent and systematic in how we approach that, so that no one cross-party group feels that it has been unfairly targeted for lack of compliance.

We need to have a review of how the system is monitored and how cross-party groups that are not compliant are supported to be compliant. We might also need to have some slightly more challenging conversations about whether a group has, in effect, fallen into abeyance and whether the best way forward is for it to limp on—I hate that expression—or whether it is better for MSPs to reconsolidate their efforts and consider the best use of their time.

The Convener

That is helpful, and it is right to say that a significant number of the CPGs have complied with their regulatory requirements. Indeed, there are CPGs that have not got to the stage when they would have been expected to do their annual return that have complied with all the requirements. We have already withdrawn recognition from one CPG this year for failure to meet the requirements, and that is noted in the report.

For the purposes of the annual review, would the committee be content for me, as convener, to write to all cross-party groups? I would thank those that have complied and, for those that have not complied, I would highlight where they have fallen short and the outcomes that could follow unless they rectify their regulatory failure—I was interested to hear Mr Beattie talking about regulatory requirements—and would ask them to explain why they have been unable to comply. I know that a number of events have had to be cancelled because of chamber commitments.

If the committee is happy for me to write to the cross-party groups in those terms, I think that that would be a way to take forward the annual monitoring report, which is an excellent piece of work—I echo Bob Doris’s comments on that. I would draw the report to the attention of all CPGs so that they can see how they are doing. It is very quick for members to find an individual CPG that they are involved in to see whether it has complied with the requirements.

Edward Mountain

I totally agree with that suggestion. In that letter, could you be quite firm in saying that we will continue to look at the matter? You might also offer CPGs that have not complied the opportunity to consider whether they wish to withdraw the group. As an MSP, once you get tied into a group, it is really difficult to say, “Maybe this isn’t working.” If you give those groups the opportunity to consider withdrawing, that might be useful to some members of those groups.

The Convener

That is very helpful.

To echo Bob Doris’s remarks about asking Colin Beattie pressing questions, there is an obligation on MSPs to ask such questions. Sometimes, we may need to save MSPs from themselves. I will certainly put in my letter that, should a CPG have come to the end of what it sought to achieve, it is possible for the convener of the group to write to us so that the group can, in essence, be de-recognised and its obligations can be removed.

Bob Doris

I did not say in my contribution, but I am very pleased that you did, that most cross-party groups are compliant and meet all the requirements. That might have got a bit lost in my comments, so I am pleased that you put that on the record. I expect that most cross-party groups are compliant because they have exceptional secretariats that support them, which, by and large, are unpaid and are doing sterling work. It is important to recognise that.

I think that the committee is in agreement that we should write to conveners. I do not know whether it would also be appropriate to write to the associated secretariats with the same correspondence. It is a horrible thing to say, convener, but I want to make sure that the secretariats are sighted on these matters at the earliest opportunity, particularly if a cross-party group is not compliant.

The Convener

That is common sense at its best. I will write to the conveners of the cross-party groups because, as MSPs, they are the individuals who have undertaken to comply with the requirements. However, it makes sense to make sure that the secretariats, where they are identified, are also aware of the situation, because of the good work that a lot of them do.

Almost from day 1, the committee has been concerned about CPGs. The issue is discussed by MSPs. At their very best, CPGs fulfil an incredibly valuable function in the Parliament, as they allow people, industries, charities, the third sector and communities in Scotland to reach out and speak to specific MSPs in order to seek their help and assistance or simply to give them information. However, the annual report shows that there are warning lights on the dashboard, which it would be wrong for us to ignore.

If the committee is happy, I will write to all CPGs, as well as their supporting secretariats, to congratulate those that have complied. For those that have not, I will seek an explanation and an undertaking that they will put right the defects as soon as possible. Are members content with that suggestion?

Members indicated agreement.

10:13 Meeting continued in private until 11:14.