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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 10, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 10 September 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill: Stage 1, Internal Market, Decision Time


Contents


Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The next item of business is a stage 1 committee bill debate on motion S5M-22651, in the name of Bill Kidd, on the Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill.

15:10  

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

Back in February, the Parliament agreed to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s proposal for a committee bill that would amend the Scotland Act 1998 in order 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 on 24 June. I am pleased now to invite the Parliament to agree to the bill’s general principles.

The bill aims to make an administrative change to the way in which so-called Short money payments are determined. Today’s arrangements originate from payments introduced by the Harold Wilson Government in 1974 to enable Opposition parties to fulfil their parliamentary functions. After devolution, the Scotland Act 1998 included provision for an equivalent scheme, and so Short money has been part of our devolved arrangements from day 1.

It is generally Opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament that receive payments under the terms of the current scheme, but there are coalition scenarios in which junior parties in Government can receive certain payments.

Under the current arrangements for funding political parties, payments are made according to a scheme that is set out in an order in council made under powers set out in the Scotland Act 1998. Those powers have been used only once: an order was made in 1999 and has governed our arrangements since the creation of the Scottish Parliament. It was prepared jointly by the United Kingdom Government and the then Scottish Executive, but the Scotland Act 2016 removed the UK Government’s role, leaving the Scottish ministers solely responsible for submitting draft orders to Her Majesty.

Therefore although the scheme has always been, and continues to be, administered and funded by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body—in the same way as members’ salaries, allowances and pensions are—the corporate body does not have the ability to alter the formula that determines the level of funding provided and who is eligible to receive it.

The committee considered that the Scottish Government, as the party or parties in power, was not ideally placed to determine the funding of the other political parties represented in the Parliament. In contrast, the SPCB consists of MSPs elected by the whole Parliament and acts in a politically neutral manner. As such, the committee believes that it is better placed to propose any alterations in respect of the funding of non-Government parties, which would always be subject to agreement by the whole Parliament.

According to the bill’s proposals, responsibility for setting the terms of the Short money arrangements is transferred from the Scottish ministers to the Parliament. Its provisions would give the Parliament the power to make a resolution setting out a new scheme. In this way, any changes to the current scheme would, as I have said, be agreed by the whole Parliament.

Back at the proposal stage, I reassured members that the bill’s proposals were narrow in scope, and I do so again in this debate on its general principles. Although the bill transfers responsibility for setting the terms of any future funding scheme from the Scottish ministers to the Parliament, it does not interfere with the existing scheme and formula. Those will remain in place until such time as the Parliament agrees to change them by means of a formal resolution process. As such, the passage of the bill will not itself affect the amount paid to parties.

It is envisaged that, in drawing up a new scheme, the SPCB would consult before submitting it for formal approval by the whole Parliament. In that way, any alteration to the amount of support available to eligible parties, or any change to the rules on eligibility, would be determined by all MSPs.

In drawing up plans to introduce the bill, the committee consulted with MSPs, political parties, the Parliamentary Bureau, the Scottish Government and the Electoral Commission. Their responses, which have been published on the committee’s web page, were supportive of the policy. Significantly, the Scottish Government has indicated that it is content that its responsibility in this area be transferred to the SPCB.

To summarise the general principles of the bill, it transfers responsibility for setting the terms of funding for Opposition parties from the Scottish ministers to the Parliament. The current order, which determines the current formula, will remain in place unless and until the Parliament as a whole agrees to a change.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call David Stewart to speak on behalf of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body.

15:15  

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

It does not seem that long ago that we were holding the debate on the proposal for the bill. First, I will thank—as Bill Kidd has—the committee and the supporting staff for their continued work on the bill.

In my previous speech on the bill, I mentioned that the last time the Parliament discussed what we commonly refer to as Short money was on 2 June 1999. Indeed, it was one of the first debates that the newly established Parliament had. That debate was intended to be about modifications to schedules 4 and 5 of the Scotland Act 1998, but the discussion was dominated by the subject of Short money and it is strange that, as we are nearing the end of session 5, we return to the subject.

In 1999, the debate was more about the allocation of money, but the bill is more straightforward, seeking to transfer the administrative oversight of the scheme to the corporate body. That is a move that I hope makes sense, given that, for the past 20 years, the corporate body has been funding the scheme with part of its budget.

It is important to stress that the corporate body sees the bill as a narrow change to the oversight of the scheme and not a fundamental reorganisation. The corporate body, as we have heard from Bill Kidd, oversees the reimbursement of the members’ expenses scheme and it is to the credit of the allowances office and indeed members themselves that we have not seen some of the issues that have impacted other Parliaments.

Similarly, the corporate body operates the members’ salary scheme and, with the Parliament’s support, we have overseen measures to detach ourselves from other Parliaments’ arrangements and establish our own, which, in my view, is a reflection of the maturity of the institution.

The corporate body’s oversight of financial assistance will mirror to a great extent what the corporate body does with salaries and expenses. As I said, at present—indeed, since the Parliament was established—it is the corporate body that has been meeting all the costs associated with the Short money scheme.

The funding, as we have heard from Bill Kidd, is based on a formula, and the annual amount is currently set at £8,926 per member of the qualifying party group. In terms of accountability, at the end of each year, all parties that have received the funding are required to provide an audit certificate signed by an independent audit professional, which is then published on the Parliament’s website, confirming that the amount spent has been for parliamentary purposes and for parliamentary purposes alone.

The order in council providing for the existing scheme has been in place since 1999. Previously, if any changes were to be made to the arrangements, such an order would have required approval by Westminster and Holyrood before being made by Her Majesty.

The Scotland Act 2016 changed those arrangements and approval by Westminster is no longer required. Only the Scottish Parliament needs to approve a Short money order. However, the corporate body considers that the arrangements provided for by the 2016 act are still not wholly satisfactory, as the power over the funding arrangements was transferred to the Scottish ministers. As the funding is provided by the corporate body, we consider that the corporate body is best placed to oversee the arrangements.

As I mentioned earlier, that would be similar to the corporate body’s responsibility for the administration of members’ salaries and the reimbursement of expenses scheme. Similar to members’ salaries and expenses, we do not think that it is appropriate, as a matter of principle, for the Scottish Government to have the power to determine funding for non-Government political parties. The corporate body, by contrast, consists of representatives elected by all MSPs and acts in a politically neutral manner.

As such, the corporate body might therefore be thought to be better placed to take decisions and to promote actions in respect of the funding of non-Government political parties. The proposal, therefore, is that the corporate body should be able to regulate the Short money provision. I am pleased to note that this is supported by the Government.

It is important to be clear that, although the corporate body funds the scheme, it is for individual parties to determine how the funding is used, provided that it is used only for parliamentary purposes.

As I said, I am grateful to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee for the work that it has undertaken on the matter, and I hope that the bill receives support today.

15:20  

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, and I propose to keep my contribution relatively short. My comments on behalf of the Government will be very much in keeping with those that I made when Parliament debated the relevant committee bill proposal some seven months ago. I suspect that other speeches will have a familiar ring to them, too. However, it is important to place matters on the record once again, at stage 1 of the bill’s passage.

As members are aware, the committee bill to replace section 97 of the Scotland Act 1998, regarding financial assistance to non-Government party groups in the Parliament, which is also referred to as Short money, was introduced on 24 June 2020. The Government’s position has always been that it is for Parliament to take the lead on matters that are relevant to its operation, which is a position that I am pleased to say was reinforced by the statutory framework that was provided for in the Scotland Act 2016.

The existing arrangements for Short money appear to be purely consequential on the need to have put in place a range of practical measures at the start of devolution and, more specifically, at a point prior to Parliament’s having been operational and in a position to take on such a role. On that basis, the Government supports the principle of Parliament having direct responsibility for Short money, and for that policy move to be delivered via a committee bill.

The proposal may be regarded as a welcome continuation of legislation that has been promoted by Parliament to govern its internal operation in a more permanent manner, including the legislation on the registration of members’ interests and arrangements for the administration of parliamentary pensions.

As the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee outlined, the bill’s aim is simply to transfer statutory responsibility for setting the arrangements for Short money from the Scottish ministers to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. I note that the bill that is promoted by the committee is admirably brief and sets out a clean and simple statutory framework, which is also to be commended.

Members will no doubt be aware that the funding, which in 2018-19 was circa £560,000, is already provided from the corporate body’s budget. The corporate body is, therefore, surely best placed to oversee future arrangements. The move will place Short money on a similar footing to that for administration of members’ salaries and the allowances scheme.

As we have heard, the bill does not seek to affect the amount that is paid to parties, to make changes to the existing scheme or to alter the formula that is applied for disbursement of funds. Rather, the bill provides for the arrangements for Short money, including the amounts that are paid to parties, to be determined in the future by a resolution of the Parliament as a whole. That seems to me and the Government to be an entirely sensible basis on which to proceed. It will enable Parliament to set its own timetable for any future review of Short money, or to assess the merits of any specific reform proposal. Finally, I note that the current order will remain in force until the first resolution is made under the new framework.

I ask Parliament to agree to the general principles of the bill.

15:23  

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

As a member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I am pleased to speak in the stage 1 debate on the bill. I am glad that we have allocated only a short amount of time to the debate, because it is, I hope, one of the least contentious pieces of legislation to have come before Parliament. As others have said, the bill simply seeks to bring responsibility for setting the terms of funding for registered political parties within the responsibility of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, by transferring that responsibility from the Scottish ministers.

It is really quite surprising that, under the Scotland Act 1998, payments to political parties are provided for by an order in council rather than by the SPCB, but today we seek to start the process to rectify that. We are talking about the funding to assist Opposition parties in carrying out their parliamentary business, and today we debate only the transfer of responsibility, and not the funding itself. I am sure, Presiding Officer, that if we were debating the funding, you would have a queue out the door of members wishing to speak.

When the committee first saw the paper on the subject, it included the term “short money”, with “short” having a small “s”, and I was somewhat puzzled as to what we were talking about. When I realised that it should have had a capital “s”, to reflect the initiator of the concept, I thought, “I know something about this.”

Sir Edward Short, the then Leader of the House of Commons, was tasked by Harold Wilson with implementing a commitment that was made in the Queen’s speech of March 1974 to provide some money to Opposition parties to help them to do their work. It was mainly for the work of shadow ministers and the offices of the whips. Naturally, on that occasion, it was vital to consult the other parties in the Commons.

Progress was delayed by the second election that year, in October 1974, but someone who was deeply involved in the discussions throughout the process as chief whip of the Scottish National Party group of seven, then eleven, was one Hamish Watt. He was very enthusiastic about the move, especially as it would ensure not only that the number of seats that a party had in the house would be taken into account, but that the number of votes that were cast for each party in the election would be used in devising the formula.

As members who know my father can imagine, I was subjected to a running commentary on the machinations of those who were involved in considering the proposals, but he was immensely proud to have been part of that process. All those who are listening to the debate in parties’ central offices in the members’ block will now know where the origins of their posts and the money for them comes from. It is difficult to believe that Short money for Opposition parties did not exist earlier than the 1970s, but there it is.

That explains my ability to correct the term “short money” in the original paper by giving it a capital “s” and my eagerness to speak in today’s debate. Here endeth the history lesson.

15:26  

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am delighted that I do not have to tear up my speech and that this is the consensual debate that I thought that it was going to be.

I welcome the progress of the bill and offer my thanks to those who have been involved—in particular, the members of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and its staff. Bill Kidd has laid out the detail of the provisions, so I will not go over that again.

When I spoke briefly in the debate on the proposed bill back in February, I provided some background on the history of payments to political parties in the United Kingdom, as Maureen Watt has just done. I will not rehash those points, but it is important to reflect on the role that such payments have in enhancing our parliamentary democracy.

The bill might serve as a reminder that democracy is about more than just elections; it requires active and functioning Opposition parties, informed debate, an informed electorate and involvement in the wider processes of how we are governed. In a healthy democracy, we should constantly reflect on how to enhance and improve our democratic engagement and procedures.

In many ways, not a lot has changed since last I spoke on the subject. Because the bill is a committee bill, the familiar process of preparing a stage 1 report for Parliament to consider has been bypassed. Much of the scrutiny and engagement work has already taken place, as the committee outlined its proposals. However, the rather straightforward sections of the bill and its documentation have been examined by the Finance and Constitution Committee, and its call for views did not receive any responses; its report reflects that fact. That should not come as any great surprise, given that, as the financial memorandum notes, the costs of shifting responsibilities from ministers to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body will be “minimal”.

However, it is right that such processes take place and that proposed legislation—particularly proposed legislation that seeks to amend our foundational statutes—is given the full scrutiny that it deserves. That said, when we introduced the bill, the committee did not foresee there being any great controversy regarding what we proposed. As has been set out, the bill presents a small but sensible change of responsibilities. Consultation responses have welcomed its provisions, and its principles have been well received across Parliament.

It is unlikely that this afternoon’s debate will feature heavily in tomorrow’s newspapers, but it is welcome that this parliamentary housekeeping is taking place, because it is a necessary part of what we all do. I support the bill, and the Scottish Conservatives will give it their backing again today, as we have done in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

15:29  

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and Dave Stewart from the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body for opening the debate.

I think we all recognise that the funding of political parties is very important to the running of our democracy. If we want to have a thriving parliamentary democracy, we need to invest in it by providing financial support for things such as research, policy development, stakeholder engagement, communications and all that goes along with the work of political parties. A functioning, effective and accountable democracy costs money.

The bill—let us be honest—is a pretty dull one. It is process driven, dry and bureaucratic. It is not the sort of bill that gets us jumping out of bed in the morning, but it is without doubt an important piece of legislation as it will transfer responsibility for Short money from ministers to Parliament, where it should probably always have sat, in my opinion. We should never see control over this important budget line in the hands of ministers of any political party, so the bill is a good move and a democratic one.

In effect, as other speakers have said, the bill tidies up or cures a hangover from the era before the Scotland Act 2016. It will transfer the responsibility to the corporate body. It does not seek to change the existing scheme or formula for the disbursement of funds, so it will not affect the amount that is paid to parties. To me, however, that is an issue, and although it is not addressed in the bill, it will need to be addressed in the longer term.

At the moment, the governing party or parties—this is not a party-political comment; it applies whoever is in government—have the civil service, special advisers, legions of policy specialists and an army of press officers. Opposition parties have just a few researchers and a few press officers to rely on—a handful of staff to shadow all the work of the civil service and the Government. That serious issue lies at the heart of the matter.

I hope that members will reflect on that in the round, because things can change quickly. That is the appeal that I would make to people when they look at the issue. The formula has not changed for a very long time and there has been no recognition of the increased powers and responsibilities that have come to this Parliament over time, which require more research, advice, work and consultation.

Scottish Labour supports the bill and we hope that it will be passed without any problems.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Mark Ruskell to wind up the debate on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.

15:32  

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I am delighted to wind up the debate as the committee’s deputy convener. I thank the clerks and members who spoke in the debate.

In effect, the Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill corrects an administrative abnormality or, as Neil Findlay called it, a hangover that we have had since the Scotland Act 2016. It is long overdue that that is corrected. It is a technical bill and it does not deal with levels of funding or the formula that is applied to different political parties, although that is a live issue. Neil Findlay and others alluded to the fact that, if the bill is passed, there will be a debate to come about re-examination of the formula, but that is not a matter for decision today. Today is about—I hope—passing a bill that will make a technical change to how Short money is distributed in this Parliament.

David Stewart told us a little of the history of Short money, and Maureen Watt offered a fascinating personal history around the subject. Her contribution underlined just how important Short money is, particularly for smaller political parties that are trying to find their feet in institutions and scrutinise Government. When the Government has so many resources in the form of the civil service and party staff working for it, it is really important that smaller parties have the financial support to enable them to do the work of scrutinising Government.

Of course, back in the day, in the 1970s, even the SNP was a small party, if members can believe that.

I would like to briefly note the difference in procedure for a committee bill. At stage 1, a committee bill is not referred to a lead committee for a report on its general principles, given that the Parliament has already debated and agreed to the committee’s initial policy proposal. In the case of this bill, we had that debate back in February.

As Jamie Halcro Johnston pointed out, the Finance and Constitution Committee has now considered and reported on the bill’s financial memorandum. No responses were received following the committee’s call for views, and the committee concluded that it had no comment to make on the financial memorandum.

Meanwhile, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee was also required to report at that stage. It examined the resolution-making process in section 1 of the bill, which replaces the current provision for payments to registered political parties. The committee indicated that it was content with the proposed resolution-making power.

There is strong consensus on the general principles of the bill. Namely, those principles are that it is appropriate for responsibility for setting the terms of funding for non-Government political parties to be transferred to the Parliament; that it is logical and consistent that the Parliament should have that responsibility, because the scheme has always been administered by the SPCB; that, as a politically neutral body, the SPCB is the most appropriate body to propose any alteration in respect of funding—I welcome the support from the Government on that position, too—and, finally, that any change in funding should be subject to the agreement of the whole Parliament.

I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. I am delighted that we have had the opportunity to take the bill through stage 1. I confirm that I seek the Parliament’s agreement on the general principles of this committee bill.