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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 February 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Construction and Procurement of Ferry Vessels, Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time


Contents


Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill: Stage 3

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23674, in the name of Bill Kidd, on stage 3 of the Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill.

I am required under standing orders to decide whether any provision of the bill refers to a protected subject matter—that is, whether it modifies the electoral system or franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. In my view, the bill does no such thing and therefore does not require a supermajority in order for it to be passed at stage 3.

I invite Bill Kidd to speak to and move the motion on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

16:57  

I start by thanking the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee clerking team for all their work.

It has been almost a year since the Parliament agreed to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s proposal for a committee bill to amend the Scotland Act 2016 to transfer responsibility for setting the terms of the funding of non-Government political parties from the Scottish Government to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. The bill and its accompanying documents were introduced last summer and I am delighted to be here today to invite the Parliament to agree to pass it.

The bill seeks simply to transfer administrative oversight of the so-called Short money scheme to the corporate body. That makes sense, given that for more than 20 years, the SPCB has been funding the scheme as part of its budget.

In previous speeches, I have spoken of the origin of Short money payments. Named after Labour MP Edward Short, the payments were introduced by the Harold Wilson Government in 1974 to enable Opposition parties to fulfil their parliamentary functions.

The scheme followed a pilot project, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, which funded parliamentary assistants for Opposition front-bench spokespeople. The idea was to assist Opposition parties in carrying out parliamentary duties and to counteract the advantage that Government ministers enjoy through briefings from civil servants. The assistance that was provided under the scheme became known as chocolate soldiers, which was a reference to the source of Rowntree’s wealth. That is just a wee bit of interesting detail.

I remind members that the bill is administrative in nature. Any alterations in the funding of non-Government parties would always be subject to agreement by the Parliament as a whole. The bill does not interfere with the existing scheme and formula, which will remain in place until such time as the Parliament agrees to a change by means of a formal resolution process. As such, the bill’s passage will not, in itself, affect the amount that is paid to parties. It is envisaged that the SPCB, in drawing up a new scheme, will consult before submitting it for formal approval by the whole Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill be passed.

17:00  

It might come as little surprise—and, no doubt, a great relief—to colleagues that, consistent with my previous contributions to the Parliament’s scrutiny of the bill, I do not propose to speak for particularly long. I simply reiterate the key point of principle that the bill, which I anticipate will shortly successfully complete its passage, embodies the Government’s long-held and often-expressed view that it is for the Parliament to take the lead on matters that are relevant to its own operation.

As has been noted often during its progress to date, the bill was promoted by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee on the basis of the Parliament’s increased competence, as delivered by the statutory framework that is provided for in the Scotland Act 2016. As such, the bill continues what I consider to be the ever more natural process of the Parliament developing and establishing its own operational procedures and, in doing so, refining, remodelling and—most important of all—reforming the framework that was inherited upon devolution.

In relation to the effect of the bill, the Government has made clear its position that it is only right and proper that the Parliament directly determines the arrangements under which financial assistance is provided to non-Government party groups. I have already put on record the reasoning behind placing that responsibility in the hands of the Executive—namely, the need to ensure that an arrangement was established in advance of the Parliament formally taking up its responsibilities. The power has not been exercised since then; it would only ever have been deemed appropriate to be used at the behest of the Parliament. However, the framework that is proposed under the bill is a better way forward, because such matters are for the Parliament alone.

As we know, the bill transfers only responsibility for Short money, with any alterations to the current funding arrangements subject to parliamentary resolution. Current funding is, of course, drawn from the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body’s budget. It will be for the corporate body and, ultimately, the Parliament to consider what further action, if any, should be taken in the future. That function naturally sits alongside other budgetary considerations that are overseen by the corporate body, thereby ensuring that any reform is evaluated in that context and with regard to all demands on parliamentary resources. Once again, I remind colleagues that the current order will remain in force until the first resolution is made under the new framework.

The Government very much welcomes, and is supportive of, this committee bill. I look forward to hearing the views of other members.

17:03  

I welcome the Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill and the work of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee in bringing this committee bill to Parliament. The bill was introduced and the stage 1 process was completed before I joined the committee, so I acknowledge the work of Jamie Halcro Johnston in helping to get the bill to stage 3. Of course, I also thank others on the committee at that time and since. I thank our clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre, as well as the Finance and Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their scrutiny of the bill.

This is a consensual bill that makes a technical change to the Scotland Act 2016 to allow a motion of our Parliament to authorise the awarding of financial assistance, which is known as Short money, to political parties. The job of disbursing Short money to political parties will be carried out by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, which is duty bound to do so in the best interests of a functioning Parliament and which I understand now carries out its work consensually.

A fully functioning Parliament requires a fully functioning democracy, which demands that parties other than those of Government are able to hold the Government to account. That ability to hold a party or Government to account has never been needed more than it is today, and that is what Short money helps Opposition parties to do.

Access and accountability support our adversarial democracy in Scotland, in our devolved Parliament, where matters of law, financial management, budgeting, education and health spending are constantly under review. Strong Opposition parties must have the resources and the ability to challenge and scrutinise Government spending and practices. Short money facilitates accountability and scrutiny, and this technical bill allows that money to be directly allocated from within our own Parliament. The Scottish Conservatives welcome that change.

We welcome the bill, and we will support it at decision time.

17:05  

When, as the convener said, we debated in the chamber early last year the SPPA Committee’s proposal to lodge a committee bill on Short money, I welcomed the clarification that it would bring to the functions of the Parliament and the Scottish Government. I commend the work of the committee members in their deliberations and scrutiny to get us to this stage, and I thank the clerking support team.

The bill is a welcome move to further standardise arrangements across the parliamentary estate and to ensure that allocations of Short money deliver consistency in the support that is given to party leaders. As I said last year, I support the framework to further ensure that all Opposition parties have the means to fully scrutinise the Government. Bringing the management of, and the decisions about, Short money clearly into the remit of the SPCB is welcome, as it does not make sense that the Government determines the funding of other political parties.

I also hope that the bill will allow early discussion of some standardisation of terms and conditions across the workforce in the Parliament. I will highlight one anomaly in that regard. Staff who are employed through Short money and who work in the office of any party leader might be off sick for extended periods of time or might be on maternity leave or extended paternity leave. Currently, the costs of that must be met from within the Short money allowance, and there is no arrangement in place that is equivalent to the contingency fund for staff who are directly employed by MSPs.

When that contingency fund was introduced, in the early days of the Parliament, it was partly to ensure that there were no unintended barriers to MSPs employing women or those with long-term health conditions and to encourage positive action in recruitment practice. Although we know that any discrimination at the point of recruitment is unlawful if proven, the fund ensured that MSPs could still be supported when staff were off work for a period. That was a real issue when working within a fixed budget. Without that provision, MSPs would be unable to staff their offices to fulfil all constituency and parliamentary responsibilities. The temporary cover fund on which all MSPs can draw was therefore seen as a very progressive policy, and it means that the work of an MSP is well supported and covered. It also helps to ease the workload on those staff who are still at work, and it ensures that staff who need to be off work do not feel additional pressure.

However, there is no such provision for Short money staff cover. If the purpose of Short money is to effectively support party leaders equally and fairly, the approach to staff absence after a two-week period that is currently in place for other MSP staff should be applied to staff employed through Short money, because we have a duty of care to all staff, regardless of their contract. We now have the chance to address that situation with the passing of this bill. I wanted to flag the issue up now so that, in the next session, Parliament can consider taking the matter forward. I think that it is a necessary and desirable change that the SPCB should make at the first opportunity.

On that note, I am happy to support the bill on behalf of Scottish Labour.

17:09  

I am very happy to close on behalf of a committee that I have not been a member of for the whole bill process. In thanking my fellow committee members, the convener, the officials involved and everyone who has helped to get the bill to this stage, I am aware that I am also offering thanks on behalf of my predecessor on the committee, Mark Ruskell, who took part in the committee’s work during that process more than I did.

As Elaine Smith said, there are longer-term questions about how the system for allocating the resource to political parties might be changed in the future, but it is important to restate one more time that the bill is not the place for debating any overarching change to the system. The decisions have been the responsibility of the SPCB for some time, and the bill merely changes the technical placing of that responsibility with the Parliament rather than the Government. As Bill Kidd, the convener, emphasised, it does not change the actual scheme of support. That might be debated at some time in the future, and, if that happens, there should be a wide-ranging and open-minded debate.

Graeme Dey, on behalf of the Government, also made it clear that the change is supported by the Government. It does not make sense for the responsibility for setting out the scheme to rest with the Government when, in reality, we know that the decisions should be made by the SPCB on behalf of the whole Parliament. That is what the bill seeks to ensure.

In drawing up the plans, the committee consulted widely with MSPs, political parties, the business bureau, the Government and the Electoral Commission, and it is clear that there is a pretty strong consensus around the change that the bill brings about.

It is not necessary for me to use up all the time that is available to me, especially given that we are already a little bit late for decision time, so I will wind up by once again thanking colleagues—including the officials who supported the committee process—for helping to get the bill to this stage. I commend the bill to Parliament and invite members to pass the resolution at decision time.

I am sure that other members will join me in thanking you for your brevity, Mr Harvie.