Scotland politics

Scottish independence: MSPs lodge 158 questions on independence

Main debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament Image copyright Scottish Parliament
Image caption MSPs meet in the main debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament

A third of MSPs have lodged questions related to the independence debate since the publication of the Scottish government's White Paper.

Many of the 158 questions - submitted by a total of 43 members - centred on the issues of currency and EU membership.

But BBC research found many of the queries focused on subjects not covered in the 670-page White Paper, which was published last November.

Cyber security and investment in the film industry were among the topics.

Image caption MSPs have asked 158 questions about independence since the publication of the White Paper
  • The Scottish Parliament's online search tool was used to gather all questions - using the terms "independence", "independent", "referendum", or "separate" - which were lodged between White Paper day on 26 November 2013, and 16 March 2014.

More than half of the questions were submitted by members of the Scottish Labour Party. Liberal Democrat MSPs asked 23% of the independence-related questions, SNP members 14%, Conservatives 6% and independents 1%. The Scottish Greens have not asked any independence-related questions since the publication of the White Paper.

Parliamentary questions can be asked by any MSP, allowing them to obtain factual and statistical information from the government.

Questions related to the White Paper or independence accounted for 8% of the 1,883 questions submitted to parliament since 26 November.

Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott posed the most questions (34); followed by Labour MSPs Hugh Henry (25), Neil Findlay and Drew Smith (8 each).

The MSPs who asked the most questions for the Conservative and SNP parties were Liz Smith (6) and Kenneth Gibson (3) respectively.

Mr Scott said: "It's by asking lots of questions that you hold a government to account and discover whether they're lying."

Many of his questions were related to ministerial consultations with BBC representatives on broadcasting policy, as well as the establishment of a separate media regulator in an independent Scotland.

He told the BBC: "You can see that they have not answered the questions. This is a government that does not want to give answers, and so I am now resorting to submitting freedom of information requests.

"They assert the White Paper was based on these consultations, but I suspect they just write the answers themselves."

The former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader was also critical of the parliamentary questions submitted by SNP MSPs.

Image copyright PA
Image copyright PA
Image copyright PA

Mr Scott said: "They don't tend to ask questions and, when they do, they certainly don't ask any difficult ones."

But SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson said he was not convinced that the questions from opposition MSPs were proving any more difficult for government ministers to answer.

He said: "One or two colleagues may ask questions to highlight an aspect of the White Paper and reinforce the points made in it.

"This is down to individuals, though, or we would see a plethora of such questions."

Mr Gibson also said his party had asked fewer questions than the opposition simply because SNP MSPs were "content with the government's purpose, objective and strategy."

The member for Cunninghame North asked questions concerning UK debt, currency options and reports that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had contacted governments overseas seeking their support against Scottish independence.

The majority of Labour MSP Mr Henry's 25 questions focused on financial issues raised by his constituents, such as university tuition fees, a currency union, private pensions and savings accounts.

He said: "People need a very detailed explanation about the implications of making a decision to leave the UK, because once we do that there's no going back."

Mr Henry called the White Paper a "pig in a poke" - a document full of assertions and assurances.

He added: "So I've been trying to tease out more detailed answers from the government by asking these questions."

But other MSPs have asked the government to account for funds spent on the publication of the White Paper and how it was developed.

On 28 November 2013 Conservative MSP Liz Smith submitted three questions, one of which asked what steps the Scottish government "took to prevent the politicisation of officials during the development of the White Paper on Scottish independence."

She said: "When taxpayers are footing the bill the government should be utterly transparent about the publication of the White Paper, and also about what the process was to publish it.

"I wanted to establish exactly what agreement was made between the Scottish government officials and the SNP officials because there are some people who are criticising the government for having a manifesto rather than a White Paper."

Ms Smith added that many of the questions she had submitted - including those unrelated to the referendum - had taken longer than expected.

Questions submitted to parliament by MSPs are supposed to be answered within 10 working days - or 20 working days if parliament is in recess.

She said: "There is a general problem with the length of time the Scottish government is taking to provide information.

"Although in their defence the number of freedom of information inquiries and questions are huge."

A spokesman for the Scottish government said: "Scotland has the most robust freedom of information regime in the UK and our commitment to proactive publication and sharing of information with the public is enshrined in legislation.

"In 2013 we received over 5,900 PQs. We also received 2,011 information requests - the highest number on record."

Voters in Scotland go to the polls on Thursday, 18 September, when they will be asked the "Yes/No" question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

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