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Moving towards getting the corrections procedure right

IT emerged almost by accident last month that the First Minister had misinformed MSPs about the number of jobs created by his renewable energy drive.

Although corrections were recorded both on the Official Report and on the Scottish Parliament's website, these mechanisms, on their own, would have not necessarily alerted anyone to the error.

Because the incorrect figure was to his political advantage (he told MSPs the sector had produced 18,000 jobs but later corrected this to 11,000 in the Official Report), the unannounced correction left him open to a charge of deliberately failing to publicise it. More significantly, it has now led to a revision of the procedure for correcting errors of fact by MSPs.

The Official Report itself will not change the process of recording the original statement and also the corrected version. However, MSPs who want to correct an error must now write to the Presiding Officer, party whips and, the MSP who received the inaccurate information or drew attention to the need for a correction.

It is a significant step forward that the Business Bulletin on the Parliament's website is to contain a new section where any corrections will be published. Because this is a widely-read digest of all parliamentary business, corrections will be seen immediately rather than noticed only by happenstance by those searching the more obscure corners of the website.

It should be noted that MSPs rarely make corrections to the Official Report. Only six have been made this year. In March Alex Salmond overstated a rise in female employment. In September, Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse exaggerated the effect of last year's cold winter on progress to meeting climate change targets. Such mistakes are minor but can be significant in political debate. Corrections will continue to be made on a voluntary basis but a mechanism to rectify inadvertent errors is necessary. It is important that information given in the chamber is as accurate as possible because once in the Official Report it is likely to be used elsewhere. It is to be hoped that the more public procedure will result in MSPs rigorously checking their facts.

Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick and Holyrood's Standards and Procedures Committee have acted commendably swiftly to ensure a grey area of procedure has been replaced with clear guidelines and that a loophole, which could be used for quiet correction if politically advantageous, has been firmly closed.

The appointment of Ms Marwick, a former SNP MSP, as Presiding Officer following the party's overall majority was not without criticism. However, she has been notably open to reforms of procedure that increase transparency, introducing topical question to hold ministers to account more quickly. Her handling of the corrections procedure should have the same positive outcome, in keeping with a parliament that was set up to bring governance closer to the people.

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