‘Satan’s Little Helpers’ (10) Concluding observations and the inevitable bureaucratic response

I sent this essay to several MSPs some of whom were mentioned but no one replied.  I also sent it to the main email offered for the public to get in touch — no one replied, and so on.  I did get one response from a person who has confused me as to what they do and indeed do not do:

Dear Mr Clark

Thank you for your e-mail to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Information Service.  Your e-mail has been passed to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments (SPPA) Committee team for a response as the team responsible for maintaining the Register of Interests.

I note that your query stems from viewing the MSPs’ Register of Interests. You should be clear at the outset that I am not in a position to comment on the content of any individual’s Register of Interests, the circumstances of the registration of a particular interest or on the interpretation of the Code of Conduct.

In your e-mail you ask whether the Parliament would be concerned with the conclusion being drawn that surveys were “being used to lobby MSPs and pass funds on to them in a roundabout way”.  Again, it is not possible to comment on this as compliance with the requirements of the Code of Conduct is a matter for each individual member.

You may wish to note the following:

•       The Code of Conduct reflects the statutory provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 (section 39) and the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006.

•       The rules in relation to the registration of interests and lobbying and access to MSPs are set out in Sections 2 and 5 of the Code of Conduct for MSPs (Volume 2).  Section 2 sets out the types of interests that members are required to register and the details that should be provided in relation to any particular interest. Section 5 sets out the considerations for members in connection with any contact they may have with lobbying organisations with further guidance for members on this being provided in Volume 3 of the Code.

The provisions of the Code set out the standards that are expected of members.  If an individual considered that an MSP had not met these standards and wished to make a complaint, the appropriate person to whom any such complaint should be directed is the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner (with the exception of “Excluded Complaints”, as set out in Section 9.1.6 of the Code).

The Code of Conduct can be accessed on the Scottish Parliament website at:http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msp/conduct/index.htm.

Kind regards,

Catherine Fergusson

Assistant Clerk

Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee

I wrote back saying:

Dear Catherine Fergusson

Thank you for you reply and for passing it on to the appropriate Committee.  Can I just clarify whether you are advising me to communicate with the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner myself, or whether this will be done by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments (SPPA) Committee?  Can I also draw your attention to the fact the the Register of Interests is not the sole focus of my enquiry as set out in the essay report.  My query does not strictly stem from this, the analysis takes several forms into several areas. I look forward to seeing the Committee’s reply.

Thanks again

Then I got this reply:

Dear Mr Clark

Further to your e-mail, there are a number of points on which you may wish to be clear.

Firstly, I am not advising you to undertake any particular action in relation to your query.  My e-mail referred to the terms of the Code of Conduct regarding how any complaint should be directed.  The matter of whether or not to make a complaint is solely for you.

Secondly, the response to your e-mail came from the SPPA clerking team in its capacity as the team responsible for maintaining the Register of Interests/Code of Conduct.  It did not come from the SPPA Committee itself and your e-mail has not been seen by the Committee.

I appreciate that this may not have been clear as the response came from the “sppa.committee” address; this address is a central mailbox used to manage a variety of correspondence.  My apologies if this created any misunderstanding.

Finally, while I appreciate that the Register of Interests/Code of Conduct is not the sole focus of your query, as I explained in my previous e-mail, I am not in a position to comment on the content of any individual’s Register of Interests, the circumstances of the registration of a particular interest or on the interpretation of the Code of Conduct.  It is also not possible to comment on the Parliament having a view on the issues you raise as compliance with the Code of Conduct is a matter for each individual member.

Having drawn your attention to the Register of Interests and the Code of Conduct, I am not in a position to comment further on your enquiry.

Kind regards,

Catherine Fergusson

Assistant Clerk

Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee

Then I wrote back:

Dear Catherine Fergusson

The reason I sent my email was that your email is the first point of contact offered by the parliament’s website that appeared appropriate.  I am now confused as to how my enquiry has been dealt with — my general impression (which is what I am left with) is that no one seems interested in having very much to deal with it.  Where should I send my enquiries?  How can I reach the SPPA Committee itself and not a clerking team who have no interest in it.  Not being in a position to comment on the content of any individual’s Register of Interests, the  content of any individual’s Register of Interests, or the circumstances of the registration of a particular interest or on the interpretation of the Code of Conduct. must make being responsible for maintaining the Register of Interests/Code of Conduct very difficult.  But in a large bureaucracy such as the Parliament I imagine this type of activity might well be the norm.  But there is no need for you to wash your hands of the affair in such a curt manner.  You have outlined what you do not do — could you tell me what you do do?  How I can reach the people I want to reach.

Since you have no wish to engage in any further contact with a member of the public who believes you have not satisfactorily dealt with their enquiry in your official capacity — then I suppose this is what’s called cutting down on red tape.  It is a pity that you have decided to have no further communication with me because I have no intention of giving up on this and I am left in a position where I will have to mention you specifically to the MSPs I now intend to send the material to directly.  I also feel at liberty to update and include your response in the essay — really because it raises a great deal of questions as to how the Register is maintained and the processes thereof and how the public can feel represented here.

Thanks for your help

As you can see we are left nowhere here.  Then a letter from D Stuart Allan the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner himself which asked for my address and talked of the most meaningless thing humans have invented: the ‘formal investigation’:

Dear Mr Clark

Thank you for your email.

As you may know, the Commissioner investigates complaints that an MSP has broken the Code of Conduct for MSPshttp://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msp/conduct/index.htm. He does this independently of Parliament and reports his findings to Parliament, but within a set of rules laid down in an Act of Parliament, the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002.

I should explain that, without undertaking a formal investigation, we are unable to state whether, in any particular case, alleged behaviour amounts to a breach of the Code of Conduct for MSPs.

If you wish your correspondence to be regarded as a formal complaint under the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Act 2002, then I would be grateful should you confirm this in writing, and sign and date your complaint (including your address).

To assist you in making a complaint, information is available from www.spsc.co.uk/.  It would be helpful if you would set out clearly which breach of the Code of Conduct you are alleging against which MSP(s).

The Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner will then consider proceeding with an investigation.

If you have any queries please contact me, by telephone 0300 011 0550 or email standards.commissioner@scottish.parliament.uk.

Regards,

D Stuart Allan
Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner

Let’s put that aside for the moment because Catherine Fergusson after having good bye did actually write back, on May 21:

Dear Mr Clark

Thank you for your e-mail.  I apologise for the delay in responding.

As your enquiry was initially sent to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Information inquiry service and subsequently passed on to the Standards clerks, our response was provided on an official level.  If you wish to raise this matter with the SPPA Committee your query should be addressed to the Convener of the Committee, Gil Paterson MSP, by e-mail to sppa.committee@scottish.parliament.ukor by letter to Room TG.01, The Scottish Parliament, EH99 1SP.

In terms of the role of the Standards clerk regarding the Register of Interests and Code of Conduct, our role is to advise members in relation to these matters.  Section 2.10 of the Code provides that

    • Responsibility for ensuring compliance with the requirements of the Act for registration of interests lies with the individual member. If a member is uncertain about how the rules apply, the Standards clerks may be asked for advice.

This reflects the operation of the Scottish Parliament’s interests regime which puts responsibility for compliance with the Interests Act on the individual member and gives responsibility for investigation of complaints that a member has failed in this regard to an independent Standards Commissioner.

Kind regards,

Catherine Fergusson

Assistant Clerk

Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee

So I wrote back:

Dear Catherine

Thanks for getting back in touch, by all means pass this on to the Convener of the Committee, Gil Paterson MSP.  I was under the impression that in saying “I am not in a position to comment further on your enquiry” you meant that you would not be commenting further on my enquiry, so I got in touch with the Standards officer; which in regard to your statements would seem to be likely to be a fruitless endeavor, as I shall outline below.

Firstly, and it is a bit confusing, but I take it, and correct me if I’m wrong here, that the reason why you decided to get back in touch is the offer that I might want to contact a committee and raise the point to them that ‘on an official level’ you have responded to me.  What would be the purpose of that?  I am the person, if I could remind you, that has got nowhere trying to communicate to committees on matters which interest me — is it because you think I feel some sort of dissatisfaction with the workings of the Standards clerks as intermediaries?  So far it has confirmed my expectations: my expectations were that I would encounter not substantive rationality but bureaucratic functional rationality and that my attempts to get someone in any position of power to even read what I had uncovered would meet with the type of discourse you offer, splendid though it may be in its own right.

Secondly let me note that you have also informed me that the members of parliament can do whatever they like with their register of interests and face no censure: they may act with impunity.  The Westminster parliament brought in the system of a Register of Interests as a result of the Poulson scandals of the 1970s which embroiled the then Home Secretary, Reggie Maudling: the idea was to stop MPs acting with impunity, the idea was to bring them to accountability by exposing the exploitation of public office for private gain.

Thirdly, your role, as you define it, comes into play when “the Standards clerks may be asked for advice.”  So some questions arise here:

(1) Has any MSP actually asked for advice in relation to payment for participating in a survey which was conducted at the behest of a private company? If so what were they told?
(2) What would the Standards clerks do if asked by an MSP if they should declare a financial transaction relating to a ‘survey’: can they keep the money or not?
(3) What discussion of surveys as lobbying has been entered into to aid the clerks in their ability to advise?

The last question here really tries to get at: if it is your position to advise — what would you base your advise on?  This is where I come in by offering a report that points out features of the system.  I estimate that over £30,000, possibly much more money (perhaps ten times that) has changed hands between private business and MSPs over the past few years, and I have shown that a great deal of MSPs have made no mention of this in their register and that this money also funds political parties.  I also demonstrate that this system was devised to obviate what meagre scrutiny existed.  I did this in an unpaid capacity, as a citizen.  I have tried to go through the ‘procedures’ and found them de facto complicit in apathy and recalcitrance.  But this is what I expected — for how could such a system arise if there was supervision and accountability proper to holding them to account?  As I see it — I’m trying to help you i.e. what if you have given misleading advice to MSPs?  How could we tell?  Contradictions abound in how MSPs have recorded these transactions where they have done so: how would you account for why some MSPs have included these transactions and others not?  You feel that does not concern you but tell me you have advised on the system.  I have shown that the register gives a distorted picture: you have no interest in what I have to say.

Let me close by returning to the role of the Standards Commissioner.  If as you say, the “interests regime” (too strong a word to my mind there) puts responsibility for “compliance with the Interests Act on the individual member” what would the Standards Commissioner be doing in any subsequent investigation apart from quoting Section 2.10 of the Code back to whoever was minded to contact them.  But we shall see.

Yours Sincerely

William Clark

Ok now its gets a bit confusing: having copied in to the correspondence, an email appears from the Office of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, which struck me as misleading:

Dear Mr Clark

Thank you for your email.  I have passed the information to the Standards Commissioner.

Should you have any queries please contact me by telephone 0300 011 0550 or email Standards.Commissioner@scottish.parliament.uk

Yours sincerely,

Fiona Macdonald
Administrator

Office of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner

I assumed that nothing much had been done here and replied on May 24:

Dear Fiona Macdonald

Thank you for your email.  Can you tell me what information you have passed to the Standards Commissioner: do you mean my report on how surveys are being used to lobby and pay MSPs, which outlines how they fail to register these payments and the purposes for which they were made, or some other information perhaps regarding the convoluted bureaucratic response to this that I have received.  Could you clarify this here.  Also, what is likely to happen now that the aforementioned information has come under the Commissioner’s purview —what will the Commissioner purvey?

Yours Sincerely

William Clark

Sure enough nothing had happened and on May 25 the reply came back:

Dear Mr Clark,

I confirm I have given the Standards Commissioner a copy of the email you copied to our office on 21 May 2010 addressed to SPPA Committee.  As the e-mails are directed to the SPPA Committee and not the Office of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner we will keep a record of this e-mail for information only.

Regards,

Fiona Macdonald
Administrator

Office of the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner

Then Catherine got back in touch:

Dear Mr Clark,

Thank you for your e-mail.  Just to clarify, in my e-mail of 20 May I was providing you with the contact details of the Convener as the person to whom you could address the points contained in your e-mail of 23 April (which also referred to your essay) should you wish to raise those points with the SPPA Committee.

If you are content with my doing so I will pass your e-mail of 23 April to the Convener of the SPPA Committee.

Kind regards,

Catherine Fergusson

Assistant Clerk

Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee

To be continued… but the next time you hear anyone in the Scottish parliament saying anything about cutting down on red tape…

(1)  A system of conflict of interest underlies the present widespread system of surveying MSPs and arguably other MPs. A system of using surveys to lobby MSPs has been designed to obviate the rules on lobbying and possibly those on party political donations.

(2)  The public do not know the extent of this and the official reporting process presents a distorted, incomplete and misleading version of events.  It does not adequately record who has been surveyed or on whose behalf or for what purposes.  It is entangled in the process of lobbying by outside organisations of behalf of their clients, mostly big business.

(3)  The amount of money that has been sent to political party associations is comparatively large in total although this is not transparent in the Register.  It is possibly in excess of £300,000, yet would appear as unsolicited donations.  This has been provided on a regular basis for several years without any real public scrutiny or discussion in the Parliament at a time when hundreds of political representatives have been disgraced over financial irregularities and politicians generally are trying to win back public confidence.  Very little willingness, on the part of Parliament concerning discussion of the nature of what amounts to a long-standing business relationship is in evidence.

(4)  Underwriting of charity work by MSPs by PR companies has become a form of self-promotion for particular MSPs when in reality it contains elements of a disguised form of influence by business lobbies.

(5)  Political connections of survey companies are surprisingly one-sided.  The extent of the lobby represents a convoluted money flow using a wide ‘public affairs’ nexus which MPs and MSPs actively contribute to by forming private companies offering access to parliament.

It would be of general interest to hear how those involved in this system would defend it against the critique offered here and an idea for them to stop being so cowardly and snide.  I would also request that readers who were interested in what I have had to say here make a comment here and/or draw these matters to a wider audience.

William Clark

March 2010

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