Scottish Parliament debate on register of judicial interests. ON Thursday 09 October 2014, the Scottish Parliament’s main chamber held a detailed ninety minute debate on calls to require judges to declare their significant financial and other interests, as called for in Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland's judiciary. On conclusion of the debate, MSPs overwhelmingly supported motion S4M-11078 - in the name of Public Petitions Convener David Stewart MSP on petition PE1458 and urged the Scottish Government to give further consideration to a register of interests for judges.
The public petition, submitted to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee in late 2012 envisages the creation of a single independently regulated register of interests containing information on judges backgrounds, their personal wealth, undeclared earnings, business & family connections inside & outside of the legal profession, offshore investments, hospitality, details on recusals and other information routinely lodged in registers of interest across all walks of public life in the UK and around the world.
In a move aimed at widening public awareness of the undisclosed interests of Scotland’s judiciary and details contained in the recent debate by MSPs at Holyrood, each day this week, Diary of Injustice is publishing the official record of the speeches given by individual MSPs who participated in the debate along with video footage.
This article focuses on the speech given by Neil Findlay MSP (Lothians) (Scottish Labour). Neil Findlay is a member of a number of Cross Party Groups in the Scottish Parliament.
Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab): The referendum campaign that we have just had has developed in people a new and healthy interest in all things political, which has to be warmly welcomed. However, with that comes increased scrutiny of politicians, political institutions, the decision-making process and those who make decisions on behalf of the people. The public have every right to know what is going on in their name and to hold institutions and people to account for their actions.
This particular institution, which claims to be open and accessible and transparent in all that it does and to operate with the values of accountability, openness, power sharing and equal opportunities, has a long way to go until it and the society and institutions that we legislate over can claim to live up to those values. According to the mace in the well of the chamber, we are supposed to operate with wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, and the proposal that we are discussing is part of a wide range of changes that we need to make if we are to live up to those supportable aims.
I fully support the proposal for a register of interests for members of the judiciary. After all, we have the right to know whether those who are involved in determining whether a man or woman loses their freedom have any financial, business, social, political or other relationship that could influence any decision they might make. Currently there is no compulsion to declare such an interest and we rely on what is known as the fair-minded observer test. That, to me, is wholly inadequate. Through history, we have heard allegations of religious, class, financial and political bias or of members of certain organisations being helpful to each other during trials. I can think of many industrial and other disputes that have gone to court where claims of bias and collusion have been made—and, I believe, with justification.
That situation has to end, and we should have a register with clear rules that leave no one in any doubt about who and what should be registered. Is it really a surprise to people that the legal establishment does not want such a register, and is it not an outrage that Lord Gill had such contempt for this Parliament that he refused to attend a particular meeting? Does that not make people even more suspicious of his motives?
Let me give the chamber some more examples of how our politics maintains its secrecy. When I recently asked a cabinet minister a question about who had advised him on certain key areas of policy, I was told that that information could not be revealed because information about a third party would be provided. We cannot find out, for example, whether people with links to the fracking industry advise the Government on energy or whether people with financial interests in the drugs industry advise the Government on new treatments. Those are very important issues. I am not saying those people are advising the Government but we simply do not know and cannot find out, and I believe that that is fundamentally wrong.
What about when the Government appoints people to conduct inquiries or to write reports that are paid for by the public purse? Why are those people picked? Is it because they are experts or particularly knowledgeable in their field, or are there other influencing factors? How are contracts secured and why are they won? Who influences changes in Government policy, and why? The public should, if they wish, have the right to know what is being done in their name.
What about the workings of this Parliament? Why do our committees discuss so many issues in private session when there is no reason to? For example, why can we not find out why the Health and Sport Committee refused to invite the former Auditor General for Scotland to give evidence on the budget? Who stopped him coming? Why can we not find out these things? Surely the public have a right to know.
As Anne McTaggart pointed out in her speech, 16 months ago the Government said that it was minded to legislate on my proposed lobbying transparency bill. To date, however, no legislation has come forward. Why not? I say to the Government that if that legislation is not in the legislative programme, I will bring my bill back to Parliament and then we will see this Parliament’s commitment to openness and accountability.
We need to do much more to make our society less secretive and less closed, and I think that the register that we are discussing is just one step towards that end. I, for one, give it my full support and urge other MSPs to do the same.
Previous articles on the lack of transparency within Scotland’s judiciary, investigations by Diary of Injustice including reports from the media, and video footage of debates at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee can be found here : A Register of Interests for Scotland's Judiciary