NICOLA Sturgeon has abandoned the “power grab” that saw SNP MSPs given jobs as aides to the same ministers they were supposed to hold to account at Holyrood.

The First Minister announced the U-turn after growing pressure prompted by series of revelations in the Herald.

She said she had “listened carefully to the case made by those calling for change”.

Loading article content

Ms Sturgeon was accused of undermining democracy and trying to “block scrutiny” last month after it emerged she had chosen a raft of ministerial aides, known as parliamentary liaison officers (PLOs), from the same Holyrood committees associated with their bosses.

Jenny Gilruth, a member of the education committee, was made PLO to Education Secretary John Swinney, while Kate Forbes, who sits on the finance committee, was made an aide to Finance Secretary Derek Mackay.

The pattern was repeated across every Cabinet brief.

Opposition parties said there was a clear conflict of interest, with PLOs acting as the “eyes and ears” of their ministers in parliament, while also sitting on the committees meant to scrutinise the same ministers, amend legislation and issue reports.

At Westminster, the equivalent of PLOs, Parliamentary Private Secretaries, are banned from sitting on the committees which scrutinise their ministers.

The same rule also applied at Holyrood until 2007, but it was quietly dropped by Alex Salmond when the SNP first came to power.

Ms Sturgeon has now published an updated edition of the Scottish Ministerial Code, which says “PLOs may serve on Parliamentary Committees, but they should not serve on Committees with a substantial direct link to their Cabinet Secretary’s portfolio”.

Ms Sturgeon last updated the Code just over a year ago, in June 2015.

The SNP had previously insisted that the dual role had “in no sense” prevented PLOs from participating fully in the scrutiny of legislation and of government.

The change means a shake-up of committee memberships when Holyrood returns next week.

The First Minister said: “MSPs who serve as aides to ministers do a vital job in terms of the required liaison between Parliament and Government.

"As such it is important that they are able to carry out that function with the full confidence of both ministers and the parliamentary committees on which they serve.

"I believe that the Parliamentary Liaison Officers who are currently in post fulfil that requirement admirably, and there has been no evidence of any conflict of interest.

"At the same time, I have listened carefully to the case made by those calling for change.

“The updated guidelines will remove even the perception of any conflict of interest in the role.

“The change is part of the updated Ministerial Code, which sets the highest standards of propriety and transparency for Scottish Government ministers.

“I will continue to lead by example in following the letter and spirit of this code, and I expect that all ministers will do likewise.”

Justice committee convener Margaret Mitchell, one of four Tory committee conveners who wrote to Ms Sturgeon about the conflict, said: “I’m glad that Nicola Sturgeon has finally seen sense on this issue and removed these ministerial aides from their committees.

“Serving on a committee that scrutinises your boss is a clear conflict of interest, and in the interests of the integrity of the parliament the situation had to change.

"However it is deeply concerning that the SNP thought it was acceptable for these PLOs to be on committees in the first place.”

Scottish Labour business manager James Kelly said: “This is the right decision by the SNP and one that should have been taken from the very beginning.

“These PLOs would in effect have been scrutinising themselves.

"This U-turn confirms that the SNP won't get things their own way.

"Having lost their majority in Parliament it's clearer than ever that the SNP cannot simply impose their will and instead must earn the support of other parties."

Liberal Democrat business manager Mike Rumbles MSP said: “Committee MSPs are there to serve the Parliament, not the Government.

“The idea that a Parliamentary Liaison Officer should help brief their Minister for a committee hearing before crossing the floor and asking questions of them is patently ludicrous.

“The fact that the SNP had to be shamed into taking this basic step to preserve the independence of the committee system speaks volumes about their attitude to transparency and accountability.”

Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie said: "It has taken persistent pressure to challenge this practice, and I am pleased to see that Nicola Sturgeon has finally agreed to end this practice.

"I hope the Presiding Officer will take the view that PLOs should not be called to hold their own bosses to account in the Chamber – when the public sees MSPs called from the government benches at First Minister’s Questions for example, questions should come from actual backbenchers, not from those working for the First Minister."