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Be careful what you wish for

Brian Taylor | 16:21 UK time, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Intriguing developments at Holyrood. The presiding officer Alex Fergusson has announced an inquiry into "veracity" in the chamber.

I know, I know, you wicked guys out there think that politicians and the truth are strangers. Or, more precisely, you think that of politicians who don't pursue your own partisan allegiance.

Let us be clear what has - and has not - happened here.

Firstly, the PO is not conducting his own inquiry. He has asked Holyrood's Standards Committee to have a think.

Mr Fergusson has repeatedly - and, boy, do I mean repeatedly - had to advise MSPs that he is responsible solely for good order.

He is not, repeat not, repeat not responsible for the content of contributions, whether from ministers or others.

He has had to do this in response to frequent claims that, in his chamber utterances, Alex Salmond in particular dodges questions/is economical with the truth/choose any phrase you like.

Wise course

At which point, one enters the realm of partisan politics. Critics of the first minister say he is a serial offender who shoots from the lip.

Supporters of Mr S say it is scarcely his fault if his opponents are unable to catch him out in debate or at question time.

To be clear, secondly. This is not an inquiry into Mr Salmond. To understand that, we should perhaps use the full title of the committee - which is Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments.

On this occasion, it's the procedures bit which counts.

Alex Fergusson wants to know if or how new procedures might be implemented to allow him to rule upon the veracity or otherwise of parliamentary contributions.

To repeat, he does not appear to believe such a change would be a wise course.

He told MSPs he "never has been, is not and cannot" be responsible for veracity.

Who's right?

Not that word "cannot". That implies he believes that this position continues and must be sustained.

Exasperated by repeated points of order on this issue, he has asked the committee charged with examining procedure to guide him.

The background here? A specific complaint by the Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott that Mr Salmond misled parliament by saying that a funding concern with regard to the Inter Faith Council had been resolved when, at the precise moment the statement was made, it had yet to be concluded.

Who's right? Mr Salmond is relying upon the fact that Ministerial "assurances" were offered to the council before he gave his reply to Mr Scott on the 8th of January.

Mr Scott points out that the detail had yet to be resolved. The assurance had yet to be translated into practical action.

Mr Salmond replies that, in government, it is the "assurance" that counts. And so the long day wears on.

There is, of course, much more here than that particular case. Labour MSPs in particular have been pressing the PO to demand answers from Mr Salmond.

Feeling obligated

Just as vigorously, the PO has been insisting that the content of Mr Salmond's replies are nothing to do with him - as long as he observes order. It was notable that, today, the PO appeared to chide Mr Salmond for seeking to pose questions to Iain Gray, contrary to procedure.

In other words, the PO is feeling under pressure - and feeling obliged to respond. He has ruled - repeatedly - that he is not responsible for content.

In essence, he is now challenging his critics. If you think my rulings are wrong, show me why - and how. Not vaguely - but precisely, within the Parliamentary rules.

Yet more. In the ministerial code, we are told "that it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the parliament."

It is, however, the responsibility of the FM to ensure that this is observed.

That has caused controversy in the past - moving Mr Salmond to invite the two former Presiding Officers, Sir David Steel and George Reid, to advise him privately on such matters.

Another tiny point. If the PO is to be made responsible for content in parliament, is that likely to reduce the number of points of order - or might it rather increase their frequency?

Is it not likely that every time an MSP dislikes an answer, they will leap to their feet and demand a ruling from the PO on its veracity?

As ever, be careful what you wish for.

***Update***

Retaliate first. A fine political principle being followed tonight by Alex Salmond.

Aware of a pending formal complaint from Tavish Scott, he's invoked a procedure whereby the two former Presiding Officers are asked to investigate and rule on matters of probity affecting the First Minister in his dealings with parliament.

So, Sir David Steel and George Reid will conduct an inquiry into the claim that Mr Salmond misled Holyrood over funding for the Inter Faith Council. This is their first such inquiry since they were given the role by Mr Salmond last summer.

The underlying issue is "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" Who guards the guardians, who pronounces on Ministers?

The answer is the FM, who is the keeper of the Ministerial code. If they breach the code, he can sack them.

So who judges the FM? Well, aside from the voters, nobody - until Mr Salmond revised the system and gave the job to a tribunal comprising Sir David and Mr Reid.

We now have two inquiries. The Steel/Reid investigation into Mr Salmond's comments.

And the Procedures Committee inquiry, prompted by the current Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson, into the wider question of his powers.

Bet the Inter Faith Council never thought they would cause such a fuss when they asked for a hike in their funding.

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