22 December 2011

Holyrood: less transparent than Westminster?

The Westminster parliament is hardly renowned for its transparency, even after late scandals.  However, a quarter-decade ago, the House of Commons established its Register Of Interests Of Members' Secretaries And Research Assistants. I first discovered it thanks to Twitter during the ignominy of the Liam-Fox/Adam-Werritty/taking-my-mate-to-the-UK's-bomb-party-and-getting-plastered affair. Maintained by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, nowadays, it requires that...

"Those holding a parliamentary pass as a Member's secretary or research assistant are required to record on this Register, commonly called the Members' Staff Register, any other occupation or employment from which they receive income exceeding half of one per cent of a Member's salary from the same source in the course of a calendar year, if that occupation or employment is in any way advantaged by the privileged access to Parliament afforded by their pass. They also have to register any tangible gift (eg silverware) and any other benefit (eg. hospitality, service or facilities provided) which they receive, if the value of the gift or benefit exceeds that sum and the gift arises from or relates to their work in Parliament."

You can search the list by member of parliament, and see who has lobbed a job to one of their councillors; whose staff also work part-time and ad hoc for pressure groups, charities, corporations or unions; how many buzz about part-time as party political Moscas; discern whose employees is paid for by CARE or the like, and any jaunts the staff have gone on, including trips to Tunisia, Egypt, Portugal, Germany, Rwanda, Azerbaijan, St Andrews - and so on. While in most cases, the Register only lists the names of those employed who have no other outside, declarable interests, more eccentric details are revealed in other entries.  For example, Tory MP for Devon South West, Gary Streeter, unaccountably employs the director of the Christian Socialist Movement, Andrew Flannagan. Attorney-General Dominic Grieve rejoices in the company of a "self-employed political coach". While hardly densely textured information, the register at least allows one to see who is employing who on the public penny, which strikes me as no bad thing.

What about Holyrood, I asked myself? Since the institution prides itself on drawing flattering contrasts with Westminter's traditional perfidy and insular sense of entitlement, ever keen to burnish its credentials for transparency and public accessibility, I assumed I'd be able to find the parallel roster of Holyrood's parliamentary staff whippity-quick. But no. Not a sausage.  In 2010/11, under the prevailing Members Expense Scheme, MSPs' staffing costs ran to some £8,841,339, with a "cap" of £59,500 on each member. In some cases, a tiny sprinkle of information is available.  For example, Darth Murdo Fraser declares the "gift" of a CARE intern in his interests. If you look into the individual expenses claims of MSPs, which are extensively catalogued online, sometimes the payee is listed, but not if members "pool" resources and share staff through the SNP support group, and the like.  After the 2009 ban on MSPs employing family members, Scottish parliamentarians who hire the relations of other MSPs are required to declare the association.  As of November this year, this micro-register of inter-tribune child support read as follows... 

Staff member
Related MSP
Neil Bibby
Jacqueline Henry
Hugh Henry
Christine Grahame
Euan Ingram
Adam Ingram
Bill Kidd
Christopher White
Sandra White
Parliamentary assistant
Joan McAlpine
Gail Lythgoe
Humza Yousaf
Siobhan McMahon
Laura Baillie
Jackie Baillie

Late-May's list showed that the practice was rather more widespread earlier on in the year.  For the main, however, there's no simple public ledger whatsoever of who our MSPs employ, nor any public declaration system, by means of which staff's external interests which might impact on their parliamentary work could be declared. One ought to be sanguine about the practical limits of these official catalogues of connections. Absolutely. They will never exhaustively map the often undisclosed and unofficial networks of potentially influential relationships our politicians have, nor should they.  However, it does strike me that this is a modest set of data which it would be worthwhile to make publicly available.

I dare say one could contact each of the MSPs individually, soliciting the names of their employees, but that's hardly straightforward, and hardly enshrines abstract ideas of transparency by adopting practical measures effectively to realise it. If Westminster feels that it is necessary and worthwhile to publish this information about MPs' staff, it seems clear to me that the burden lies on Holyrood and its Corporate Body, to explain why conditions obtaining in London require the disclosure of this information, while transparent Edinburgh ought to be exempted from the necessity.  Colour me unconvinced.

Anyone up for a mild spot of agitation come the new year?


  1. Interesting point. I remember some years ago, the then Tory leader David McLetchie demanded that any Tory MSP who was a Freemason had to declare it in their register of interests. I too was obliged to declare my membership of the Masons even though I was simply working for a Tory MSP.

    You mention 'who has lobbed a job to one of their councillors'. This can work both ways as the staffer may have become a Cllr after being employed by the MSP and not before, which paints a different picture to the one you are perhaps trying to paint.

    I'm really not sure what the benefit would be of identifying individual MSP's staff. I am unaware of any conflicts of interest, but that of course does not mean that there aren't any.

    There are data protection issues at play here too. I know the press were looking closely at MSP's staff who had received substantial redundancy payments when their MSP retired, only for them to immediately re-appear doing exactly the same job for another MSP of the same party. I can count two on the Tory floor alone.

    This did not make the headlines as you might expect, although anodyne versions or oblique references were printed.

    That said, there may be a place for such a register.

  2. Ha ha LPW you must know fine well that it is all a job creation scheme for the various MSPs concerned. When they were banned from employing their own relatives they just swapped them all about.

    When has anyone ever seen an advertisment for a political researcher or constituency office manager in the papers? Doesn't happen.

    Part of me rebels at that, because these are all publicly funded positions & why should the political class just be able to hand them out as sweeties to people they know?

    But the reality is that I think they hand them out as sweeties to people that they trust. Plus political staff are on call 24/7 & are expected to drop everything, even Christmas, at a moment's notice if politics demands it.

    So I would just say leave well alone, let the political anoraks get on with it - they are not exactly getting paid a fortune & most of them work extremely hard for what I regard as peanuts.

  3. Observer has a point regarding being on call 24/7. I was on honeymoon earlier this year and was contacted to write a speech whilst cruising up the Yangtze River.

  4. The pay differential is interesting. We know MPs are paid more than MSPs and that is obviously reflected in the staffing as well because while MSPs have £59,500 to pay all their staff, MPs seem to have upwards of £100,000 for the same purpose. You could argue that MPs have larger constituencies so have more constituents to deal with but on the other hand in Scotland MPs have less to do because so many of the issues which constituents might raise are devolved and they would therefore be more likely to go to their MSP for help rather than their MP. And if we look at the position of councillors in this (as MSP staff can also be councillors) the kind of hierarchy of esteem becomes even more noticeable because councillors get paid about 15, 16 grand which is very much less than MPs and probably less than MP staff. But if you did an external analysis of how much work people actually do it wouldn't surprise me if many councillors actually worked as hard as many MPs - in Scotland anyway, obviously the situation is different down south becasue MPs deal with all issues there, not just the reserved ones.

    The other point I would make is that it is a bit invidious to assume that relatives and spouses of MSPs are employed simply on that basis. If you take Gail Lythgoe for example, she has been an SNP activist in her own right for many years. It's not as if she only came into the SNP fold when she married Humza. So she would be employed because of who she is not because of who she is married to. It's actually quite normal for SNP activists to marry each other and it's often the case that parents and children share the same political commitmemt. It would be a bit harsh to say that someone could not work in politics simply because their parent or spouse was also involved professionally in politics. People wouldn't say that about any other sphere of life so I am not sure why it seems to be such an issue in politics except in the sense that people may buy into the idea that politicians and their staff have a cushy number and get loads of expenses to spend on duck houses etc. But that's never been the case in the Scottish Parliament.

  5. Indy havered:

    "But [cushy numbers and loads of expenses] has never been the case in the Scottish Parliament."

    So you mean the likes of the six-figure tax-payer subsidised MSP profiteering on those Edinburgh flats is just an inconsequential detail, or have you just conveniently forgotten that, Indy?

    Not to mention the kind of allowances and pensions that MSPs vote through for themselves and that are ocassionally mentioned in the likes of the Sunday Post but I'm just too blase about (he says slightly ironically) to even read about?

    "It would be a bit harsh to say that someone could not work in politics simply because their parent or spouse was also involved professionally in politics."

    Who's saying that? There's a big difference between "working in politics" per s and being employed under the kind of arrangmeent in question.

    As for your crude comparisons of working hours etc, I really don't think there's much point in doing that because it seems self-evident that some MPs/MSPs/councillors can get away with doing next to nothing while no doubt others put a lot of hours in (I'll avoid these extremely irritating and cliched soundites like "working hard").

    Mind you it might be better for us taxpayers if we paid some of them to actually do as little as possible.

  6. Indy

    'If you take Gail Lythgoe for example, she has been an SNP activist in her own right for many years. It's not as if she only came into the SNP fold when she married Humza. So she would be employed because of who she is not because of who she is married to.'

    Hmm - I've heard the same said of Central Belt Labour. Those who support Labour will argue that Labour wives and nephews are there on merit, those who support the SNP will do the same for their ain - just so in Skye and the Western Isles where the Kirk and FPS and their schism members only appoint their kin and kind on merit: just so with the Rotarians and masons who have their own circles.

    The more Scotland changes, the more it stays the same.

  7. Edwin - it is actually not that unusual for people in politics to marry each other. Off the top of my head - Jim Sillars and Margo MacDonald. Stewart Hosie and Shona Robison. Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell. Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls. Johann Lamont and Archie Graham. It happens a lot because people in the same parties tend to socialise as well as work together, people fall in love, and in many cases they get married. It would be harsh - and possibly immoral depending on your point of view - to say sorry you can't get hitched in case people draw the wrong conclusions!

  8. Again you seem to be (missing) or at least ignoring the point, Indy - it's not politicians having relationships that's the problem, it's the impression that in certain situations it looks like people are being appointed to certain positions on other than merit.

    Puting it crudely, it looks like cronyism.

    If MSPs were bothered about the impression created by such things then they'd take stepts to rectify the situation and to that extent avoid the impression that there's a conflict of interest, but clearly they're not that bothered.

    Possibly because it's a cross-party issue, thus as usual the party oligarchy looking after itself.