THE Scottish Parliament was set up to bring governance closer to the people and has rightly taken considerable pride in makings its business open and transparent.
However, it is all too easy for principles to be obscured in the processes of daily business.
This appears to be the case with corrections to mistakes at Holyrood. Guidance for MSPs states that, if they realise they have made an inaccurate statement, this should be corrected on the record immediately. If a significant error comes to light later, MSPs, including ministers, "should seek to make a statement in the chamber or committee at a later date". For more minor corrections, the guidance provides a number of ways to make the correction known including writing to the MSP who raised the matter, placing a copy in the library and copying correspondence to the Presiding Officer and other relevant MSPs.
As became clear last week, however, when Alex Salmond corrected the Official Report but no announcement was made about the alteration, a grey area seemed to emerge. The first problem is to decide whether an inaccuracy is significant and so merits a public statement in the chamber or is so minor as to simply require correction and notification to those with a known interest. Mr Salmond's error involved the number of people employed in renewable energy across Scotland. He had told MSPs the sector had produced 18,000 jobs but later corrected this to 11,000 in the Official Report, effectively designating it as a minor amendment.
Because the incorrect figure was to his political advantage, the unannounced correction left him open to a charge of deliberately failing to publicise it. This probably gained extra resonance from its timing. The mistake followed closely on the heels of an error about the level of college funding by Education Secretary Michael Russell, who later apologised to the parliament for the inaccuracy.
Opposition parties sought to make political capital of this, sparking counter charges from the SNP that opposition leaders had failed to correct mistakes of their own. This increasingly heated atmosphere takes Holyrood perilously close to the yah-boo politics it promised to eschew.
Fortunately this has been recognised as a warning light by Liz Smith, Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, and Tricia Marwick, the Presiding Officer. Following letters from both, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee is to review the transparency and understanding of the corrections process at its meeting next week. This is a welcome development.
There is an audit trail of corrections but that can only be followed if its existence is known. Unless indicated to MSPs and the general public corrections are liable to go unnoticed. That adds to the likelihood of inaccurate information continuing to be circulated, undermines trust in MSPs and potentially damages the reputation of the Scottish Parliament.
The Presiding Officer has provided an early opportunity to close what has been exposed as a loophole by making the guidance stronger and more specific. The committee must seize it.
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