SNP confusion in 'soft opt out' debate misunderstands 'general principles'

Written by Tom Freeman on 10 February 2016 in Comment

Has the SNP been gripped by a culture of obedience, asks Tom Freeman

Whether you agree with the general principle or not, yesterday’s vote on Stage 1 of Anne McTaggart’s organ transplantation bill was confusing for those who follow the progress of legislation through parliament.

The aim of a Stage 1 vote is to determine whether parliament supports the general principle of a piece of legislation before the details and amendments are thrashed out.

In this case, the bill was about whether MSPs agreed with the idea that Scotland should adopt a ‘soft opt-in’ register for organ donations, such as in place in Spain, and more recently Wales.


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The system would see people have to actively opt out of the NHS Organ Donation Register if they did not want their organs removed after death.

Minister Maureen Watt had previously told the Health and Sport Committee the Scottish Government wanted to wait to see what evidence came out of the adoption of the scheme in Wales.

Yesterday, the Government shifted its position, opting to commence a consultation now which will lead to further legislation down the road.

“Although we previously wanted to wait for a full evaluation of the new opt-out system in Wales before considering Scottish legislation, we have reflected on the level of public interest and the views of the committee. To an extent, the system in Wales reflects the same culture that we have,” she said.

She concluded: “We recognise the positive aims of the bill but there are many significant issues with the drafting that mean that we cannot support it.”

However, the drafting of a bill is what is dealt with in Stage 2. The government’s land reform bill has seen 330 amendments, for instance.

What was stopping the minister, for example, introducing an amendment which included a timescale which reflected the need for a consultation, or evidence from Wales?

What is even more surprising is the minister, along with her colleague in the health team Jamie Hepburn, signed a member’s motion in 2011 supporting the general principle of a soft opt-out register. Several other SNP MSPs joined them.

In total, 24 MSPs voted against the general principle of something they supported at the start of this parliament.

Yesterday however, the general principle of soft opt out was defeated by just three votes. Given a free vote on the matter, it seems several SNP MPs voted with the government to delay, rather than amend.

Cries from the opposition that people “will die” as a result of the vote seem perhaps a bit over blown, especially considering evidence to support the effectiveness of opt out is inconclusive.

But whether the SNP applied a secret whip, that many MSPs genuinely changed their mind on the matter or a culture of obedience has gripped the SNP group, on the surface it looks as though political point-scoring was placed before a willingness to explore options and develop an idea.

This would appeared to be confirmed by John Mason MSP, who tweeted he thought SNP MSPs voted against because “1 Labour whipped, 2 Labour's aggressive tone, 3 Jackie Baillie”.

When the idea returns, as it now will, as a Scottish government bill in the next parliament, it will be interesting to see how many MSPs support its general principles. 

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