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Sunday, October 31, 1999 Published at 12:50 GMT

UK: Scotland

'Sleaze czar' for parliament

Donald Dewar says an independent judge could help

Scotland looks set to get its own independent commissioner for parliamentary standards following the controversy surrounding the so-called Lobbygate affair.

First Minister Donald Dewar is keen to have a standards investigation process similar to the one which operates at Westminster.

Donald Dewar: "All those named in what was after all an over-exaggerated sales pitch were exonerated"
Mr Dewar told BBC Scotland's Holyrood programme on Sunday that the idea behind the new role would be to improve the present standards system.

He said: "There is a strong feeling among MSPs that present proceedures are clumsy.

"If we had had someone to look at the information before the committee's inquiry then I am sure we would not have had the kind of speculation we did have."

Other political leaders are enthusiastic backers.

Iain Macwhirter: "Should the inquiry have happened at all?"
Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie said: "Lobbygate has shown us that there is room for an independent commissioner who can look at information before the matter comes to committee.

"The problem with Lobbygate was that a lot of allegations were being bandied about, back and forth, some with no substance at all. That is not fair to ministers."

The SNP's Andrew Wilson welcomed the idea and said he believed the Standards Committee would also embrace the notion of an independent adviser.

[ image: Donald Gorrie: Word of caution]
Donald Gorrie: Word of caution
But Liberal Democrat Donald Gorrie offered a word of caution on the matter.

He said: "There might be justification in having an independent commissioner, but the idea of a full time post is ridiculous.

"If you have an energetic person in the role and MSPs are doing not much wrong then he will find work for himself. We have to look at this very carefully."

The willingness to appoint a "sleaze czar" comes in the wake of the parliament's inquiry into allegations that lobbyists had influence over minister's diaries.

BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor: "The new czar will not stop standards committee investigations"
The new system would mean that allegations against MSPs would first go before a legally-trained official - to weed out the trivial, malicious or politically motivated claims.

This would not stop the Standards Committee from investigating serious allegations.

It could still scrutinise anything it chooses. But - as at Westminster - it is felt there should be a process of pre-scrutiny.

The plan follows the decision of the parliament's standards committee to acquit Finance Minister Jack McConnell - and all other members investigated - of having improper links with lobbyists.

[ image: Mike Rumbles: Committee Convener]
Mike Rumbles: Committee Convener
The inquiry was sparked after a reporter from the Observer newspaper posed as a businessman and secretly taped a conversation between Kevin Reid and Alex Barr - two lobbyists with PR firm Beattie Media.

Mr Reid told of his links with the Secretary of State for Scotland, John Reid, who is father.

And Mr Barr implied strong links with some Scottish Parliament ministers.

The tapes were made public and Mr Dewar launched an investigation.

The Standards Committee, headed by Mike Rumbles MSP, conducted an inquiry which saw Mr Reid, Mr Barr, the head of Beattie Media, Gordon Beattie, Mr McConnell and his secretary, Christina Marshall, all giving evidence.

Members have now finished the substantive inquiry and found that no MSP was in breach of the parliament's rules.

It will now move on to drafting a code of conduct for MSPs and, if possible, regulating lobbyists.

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