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Family affairs

Brian Taylor | 15:12 UK time, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

As so often, it is the appendix which provides the innocent merriment for the citizenry.

Sir Neil McIntosh, a distinguished public servant, has conducted a reappraisal of the system of allowances for MSPs.

Not a full review by any means. Rather, as he calls it, an MoT.

In pursuit of this objective, he commissioned consultants to carry out four focus group sessions designed to test public opinion.

Their conclusion? "In general, a high degree of mistrust of politicians as a body was expressed."

You astonish me, Holmes.

The focus group members, it seems, felt that anyone going into politics was likely to be "egotistical". Given the chance, they would fiddle their expenses.

Mother of parliaments

Snag is that this opinion was, literally, ill-informed. It was based on virtually zero knowledge of the Scottish scheme.

With one exception, none of the participants had any idea that the Holyrood system is considerably tighter than the one which has prevailed to date at Westminster.

Understandably, the focus groups reviled what has been going on among some members of the mother of parliaments.

They tended to extend that revulsion to MSPs.

Intriguingly, however, when the system at Holyrood (described by Sir Neil as "robust") was explained to focus group members, they were notably happier - although there was residual cynicism as to whether the system could be adequately enforced.

Sir Neil says MSPs should no longer be able to employ members of their own family.

Currently, 26 do just that, either in their parliamentary or constituency offices.

Public concern

The McIntosh report stresses that there is absolutely no evidence of abuse.

He proposes the switch in order to assuage public concern.

There is, it would appear, "an unacceptable risk of undermining public confidence and fuelling public cynicism."

It would seem from Sir Neil's own focus groups that the present public conflagration requires little in the way of refuelling.

One question repeatedly posed to Sir Neil at the media launch was: why take so long to make the switch?

He wants to prevent any new appointments right away - but those MSPs who presently employ family members have until July 2015 to make new arrangements.

Seems a bit prolonged, perhaps. Sir Neil's explanation is that this is the duration of the next parliamentary term - plus a three month handover period.

Binding agreements

It is apparently in line with the reform timescale proposed for Westminster.

Plus it lessens the prospect of any legal challenge by disgruntled staff.

Among other recommendations, he wants "binding agreements" whereby those MSPs who have bought Edinburgh homes with public support for their mortgage will pay Capital Gains Tax if and when they flog these properties.

The mortgage scheme itself is already due to end in 2011. Sir Neil said this a way of recouping some cash for the public purse.

It won't placate everyone. For one thing, it isn't full surrender of all profit. Not practical, says Sir Neil.

For another, how will it be possible to pursue former MSPs when they sell their Edinburgh homes perhaps decades later?

One for the lawyers and accountants, suggested Sir Neil.

In practice, though, while not addressing historical anomalies, today's report may well plug the remaining gaps in the Holyrood system, at least in terms of public perception.

Given parliament's corporate body tonight accepted the recommendations in full, it would seem that further reform is now guaranteed.

Over to the focus group . . .

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