Page last updated at 15:55 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Unprecedented times at parliament

Alex Fergusson
Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson acted on the face of on-going concerns

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland website

So what, exactly, is the Scottish Inter Faith Council? I must confess, I had to look it up.

For the record, it is an organisation which aims to "raise awareness of the different faith communities and to build good relations between persons of different religious faiths through dialogue, understanding and co-operation".

Yet a relatively low-profile, albeit important, organisation has been placed at the centre of one of the most unprecedented parliamentary decisions since devolution.

It all blew up after Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott used his slot at a previous first minister's questions to grill Alex Salmond on the council's future.

Redundancy notices were sent to staff there on 11 December, as it had not secured funding beyond 16 January, and Mr Scott demanded to know what was being done about it.

Mr Fergusson says the veracity of comments made in the chamber are not a matter for him, but ordered the probe because of a "growing sense of frustration" among members
Mr Salmond instantly replied that the issue had been resolved, spiking the guns of the Lib Dem leader's attack.

It looked as if that was that, until Mr Scott said a communication between the government and the council showed the funding issue was still being looked into the following week.

The issue was raised again at the following question time and came to a head with a short statement by Holyrood Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson.

He recognised increasing concerns among MSPs raising points of order on the accuracy of what ministers were saying in the chamber.

He said these exchanges were causing parliament to be "ill-served", presumably because he thinks MSPs should be getting on with the business of running a nation.

The PO referred the matter to Holyrood's Standards Committee for an inquiry - which will cover all MSPs, whether ministers or not.

It is worth remembering that accusations have flown in both directions - Nationalist MSPs have questioned the accuracy of comments made by members of rival parties on a number of occasions.

To be clear, Mr Fergusson says the veracity of comments made in the chamber are not a matter for him, but ordered the probe because he sensed a "growing sense of frustration" among members.

Funding assurance

And the inquiry will only examine the way in which the accuracy of comments are policed.

The PO stressed the matter was referred following a number of points of order raised over a period if time and not in relation to any specific issue.

And he pointed out it was a "procedural issue".

The ministerial code of conduct is overseen by the first minister - that is a separate long-running issue, and a whole different can of worms.

On that point, Mr Salmond has referred the row over the Inter Faith Council to former Holyrood presiding officers Lord Steel and George Reid, who agreed earlier this year to provide independent scrutiny on matters relating to the code.

Meanwhile, more than 40 Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative MSPs have signed a Lib Dem parliamentary motion urging the first minister to apologise.

It also urges the presiding officer to "play a constructive and appropriate role in ensuring this happens" - an implied criticism of the way Mr Fergusson has handled the issue.

Mr Salmond's response to the Inter Faith Council issue is a straightforward one - the government says a funding assurance was given to the organisation, and when a minister gives a commitment, "that commitment is met", even though the assurance needs to later be officially put down in writing.

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