Pig in a poke

A third of all Scottish MSPs have lodged 158 questions regarding the impact independence would have on the country since the publication of the government’s White Paper last November.

The majority of the questions – submitted by 43 MSPs between 26 November 2013 and 16 March 2014 – centred on the hot-button issues of currency, EU membership and childcare.

But BBC research shows many of the queries address issues not covered in the 670-page White Paper such as the cross-border transplantation of organs, cyber security, and investment in Scotland’s film industry.

More than 50 per cent of the questions were submitted by members of the Scottish Labour party – more than double the number asked by MSPs from the Liberal Democrat (23 per cent), SNP (14 per cent), Conservative (six per cent) and independent (one per cent) parties.

You can see the independence-related questions that each MSP has asked during this 110-day period using the interactive graphic and searchable database I developed for BBC Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament’s online search tool was used to gather all questions lodged since 26 November 2013 which specifically referenced the terms “independence”, “independent” or “referendum”.

Parliamentary questions can be asked by any MSP and provide a means to obtain factual and statistical information from the government.

Questions related to the White Paper or independence accounted for eight per cent of all 1,873 questions submitted to parliament since 26 November 2013.
Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott posed the most questions (34) since November 2013, followed by Labour MSPs Hugh Henry (25), Neil Findlay and Drew Smith (8 each).

The MSPs who asked the most questions for the Conservative and SNP parties were Liz Smith (6) and Kenneth Gibson (3) respectively.

“It’s by asking lots of questions that you hold a government to account and discover whether they’re lying,” said Scott.

Many of Scott’s questions were related to ministerial consultations with BBC representatives on broadcasting policy, as well as the establishment of a separate media regulator in an independent Scotland.

But the MSP says he’s been dissatisfied with the answers regarding exactly who was consulted.

“You can see that they have not answered the questions. This is a government that does not want to give answers, and so I am now resorting to submitting freedom of information requests.

“They assert the White Paper was based on these consultations, but I suspect they just write the answers themselves.”

Scott was also critical of the parliamentary questions submitted by SNP MSPs.

“They don’t ask questions and, when they do, they certainly don’t ask any difficult ones.”

But SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson said he wasn’t convinced that the questions of opposition MSPs were proving any more difficult for SNP ministers to answer.

“One or two colleagues may ask questions to highlight an aspect of the White Paper and reinforce the points made in it,” he said. “This is down to individuals though or we would see a plethora of such questions.”

Gibson also explained that his party had asked fewer questions than the opposition simply because SNP MSPs were “content with the government’s purpose, objective and strategy.”

The member for Cunninghame North asked questions concerning UK debt, currency options and reports that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had contacted governments overseas seeking their support against Scottish independence.

Copyright: Scottish Parliament

The majority of Conservative MSP Hugh Henry’s 25 questions revolved around monetary issues raised by his constituents such as university tuition fees, a currency union, private pensions and savings accounts.

“People need a very detailed explanation about the implications of making a decision to leave the UK, because once we do that there’s no going back.”

Henry called the White Paper a “pig in a poke” – a document full of assertions and assurances.

“So I’ve been trying to tease out more detailed answers from the government by asking these questions.”

But other MSPs have asked the government to account for funds spent on the publication of the White Paper and how it was developed.

On 28 November 2013 Conservative MSP Liz Smith submitted three questions, one of which asked what steps the Scottish Government “took to prevent the politicisation of officials during the development of the white paper on Scottish independence.”

“When taxpayers are footing the bill the government should be utterly transparent about the publication of the White Paper, and also about what the process was to publish it,” said Scott.

“I wanted to establish exactly what agreement was made between the Scottish government officials and the SNP officials because there are some people who are criticising the government for having a manifesto rather than a white paper.”

Smith added many of the questions she’s submitted – including those unrelated to the referendum – have taken longer than expected.

Questions submitted to parliament by MSPs are supposed to be answered within 10 working days – or 20 working days if parliament is in recess.

“There is a general problem with the length of time the Scottish government is talking to provide information,” said Scott. “Although in their defence the number of freedom of information inquiries and questions are huge.”

Voters in Scotland go to the polls on Thursday, 18 September, when they will be asked the “Yes/No” question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”