Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Impartiality in question as Holyrood Presiding Officer mired in conflict of interest allegations

Appointing Alex Fergussin MSP, a Conservative Presiding Officer to the Scottish Parliament, when it now looks like the Conservatives did a deal with the SNP on propping up their government on certain parts of legislation, while arranging deals on others, raises questions of how honest the political process in Scotland really is under the 'new' regime ....

Since the Presiding Officer himself is facing allegations of lack of impartiality & conflict of interest, how can he be expected to deal fairly with issues in the Parliament chamber, which seem to be being handled rather favorably for the current SNP Government, than has been the case in the past ...

The Sunday Herald reports :

Presiding officer faces accusations of bias after paying Tories £3500 for ‘services’

HOLYROOD'S PRESIDING officer is facing accusations of political bias after it emerged he was handing out taxpayers' money to the Tories and allowing former party colleagues to use his office.

Alex Fergusson, whose role chairing the Scottish parliament requires strict political neutrality, arranged for £3500 of his publicly funded allowances to be paid into a Conservative cash fund.

He has also left himself open to further charges of impartiality by: Allowing a senior Conservative politician to use his constituency office and sharing part of it with a Tory MSP; Employing a party councillor to help run the same office; Holding surgeries at the local Tory association; Having pictures of himself with Conservatives politicians on his website; Featuring in joint press releases with the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, David Mundell.

The presiding officer (PO) is the most senior MSP at Holyrood, as he chairs all parliamentary debates as well as other key bodies. As a result, the post-holder is expected to suspend party political activity for as long as he serves in the role.

Fergusson, who was elected as the Conservative MSP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale earlier this year, said he would "reluctantly suspend" his party allegiance after being voted PO in May.

But Fergusson, who is paid £92,000 a year and claims around £40,000 in allowances, has directed £3500 of his publicly funded expenses into the Tories' Policy and Research Unit (PRU) for "services".

A Holyrood spokesman said the cash was for "administrative and research support" in carrying out constituency casework.

The spokesman refused to comment on why these duties had to be carried out by the Conservatives, but did confirm that the two previous presiding officers, David Steel and George Reid, did not divert cash to their former parties.

Fergusson allows a local Tory MSP to use part of his constituency office for £130 per month, while also allowing Conservative MP Mundell to work there.

Mundell said: "Yes, I do work there. It's a sort of outpost for my constituency. It's handy to have the ability to pop into that office. The office is politically neutral, and as a member of the Westminster parliament I am politically neutral."

In addition, local Tory councillor Gillian Dykes runs Fergusson's constituency office. The MSP's website also states he holds surgeries at 2 St Andrew Square in Castle Douglas, which is home to the local Tory association.

The same website, far from being a party politics-free zone, also contains photographs of Fergusson with fellow Conservative politicians. Among the photographs of Fergusson with members of the public are pictures of him with Mundell, MEP Struan Stevenson, councillor John Dougan, and John Scott MSP.

Mundell's website also contains two joint press releases with Fergusson that were issued in the past four weeks.

Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald said Fergusson's actions left him open to accusations of political bias: "Whether he is impartial, he can't appear to be impartial with these close working links with the Tories.

"There is a code of conduct for ministers, so maybe somebody needs to draw up a code of conduct for people who sit in the chair. With Alex keeping such close working ties with the Tories, that may have devalued the symbolism of giving up party membership to do the job."

Another MSP said: "It's a bit rich for him to sit there and tell MSPs what they can and can't do, while at the same time giving £3500 of public money to the Tories."

A parliament spokesman said: "Fergusson is a constituency MSP with a duty to his constituents. He is entitled to the necessary administrative and research support required in carrying out constituency case work.

"Part of this is obtaining services from the pooling arrangement with his colleagues. He pays a reduced contribution which reflects the impartial office of PO which he holds, and the fact that he receives no political briefing from the party's research unit.

"The PO contributes the reduced amount of £3500 per annum to the party group pool, which reflects the limited service he receives. Other members of that pool pay £7000pa."

"Fergusson discussed and agreed this approach with senior parliamentary officials on his election as presiding officer."

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