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How effectively does the Scottish Parliament scrutinise the Scottish government?

Scotland’s Parliament was set up with the partial intention of creating for Scotland a superior system of Government than was enjoyed at the UK level. But how effectively does is scrutinise its executive? In advance of the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, which the SNP are expected to dominate, Peter Lynch looks at some of the problems associated with the size of the Parliament, and the way its committee system interacts with the rest of the legislature, and the Scottish government.

In all likelihood, the next Scottish election in May 2016 will deliver a majority government in the shape of the SNP: pretty much exactly what the electoral system was intended to avoid. The post-referendum political environment, the SNP’s unprecedented Westminster triumph and its huge opinion polls ratings seem set to deliver a third term government, with a majority. What will this mean for Scottish democracy and the operation of the Scottish parliament after 2016?

Well, first of all. This is Scottish democracy. Turnouts at Scottish elections may be modest, but they have elected different forms of government: two coalitions from 1999-2007, a minority government from 2007-11 and then the unforeseen majority SNP government in 2011. Votes, more or less, have translated into allocations of seats, at least until 2011. Next time around, it’s not impossible to imagine the SNP winning almost all of the FPTP seats and, if it’s list vote is high, picking up some regional list MSPs too. Second, some of the problems faced during the period of majority government are problems for most legislatures but also, significantly, for the small unicameral Scottish legislature, with its unitary committee system. These latter attributes – which were designed into the Scottish Parliament structure in 1998-9 and partly legacies of the Scottish Constitutional Convention before then – are more problematic to fix.

Whatever government has been in office in Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament has not been lacking in self-reflection and efforts to critically examine its operations. One of its first tasks in 1999-2000 was to design/augment the parliament’s standing orders and on several occasions, it has amended its own processes and procedures to make the institution function more effectively. Initially, the parliament was founded on the principles of access, participation, powersharing, accountability and equal opportunities: the values given to it by the cross-party Consultative Steering Group (CSG) that reported in 1998. The CSG report sought to provide the parliament with an ethos – a set of guiding principles to guide its processes and functioning. The operation of these principles was reviewed by the parliament’s Procedures Committee, with a report back in 2003. Parliamentarians still refer to them today and are aware of their institution’s ideals as well as its flaws.

Since 2003, numerous aspects of the parliament’s activities have been reviewed, often on an annual basis through the various incarnations of the Procedures committee. For example, in 2011, the committee examined changes to parliamentary business and the organization of the parliamentary week, to create more debate time in the chamber. The Presiding Officer – Tricia Marwick – was heavily involved in steering through these changes, listening to backbenchers to create more opportunities for them and for things like topical questions at First Minister’s question time. These changes were instituted in September 2012 – partly to redress the majority government. In addition, in 2012-2013, the parliament held a series of inquiries into the effectiveness of parliamentary functions like post-legislative scrutiny, committee substitutes and cross-party groups.

Currently, in 2015, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee (SPPAC) is undertaking a wide-ranging inquiry into the operation of the parliament’s committee system. It is doing so at a time of significant devolution reform, in which the parliament’s organizational limitations will be exposed. Amongst other things, it is set to examine:

  • The impact of new devolved powers
  • The number and size of committees
  • The remits of both mandatory and subject committees
  • The selection of conveners and members
  • The use of sub-committees
  • Party balance
  • The role of Ministers and opposition
  • Pre and post legislative scrutiny
  • Meeting times
  • Resources/support for committees

As you can tell from this list – there are a huge number of issues for the committee to chew over. Earlier this year, the SPPAC published its report on elected committee convenors. The idea of elected convenors derived from changed Westminster practices after 2010 – specifically, that the chairs of Westminster select committees were elected by backbenchers through a secret ballot. This change was intended to reinforce the independence of the committees and give the chair a level of enhanced status that would improve the committee system in the eyes of the media: chairs would have independent authority and be more visible.

However, Westminster is not Holyrood for the simple reason that the committee system is entirely different. Westminster has separate committees for bills and government scrutiny. Whereas Holyrood has merged, permanent, multi-functional committees: which conduct inquiries, scrutinize government, private and backbench bills, consider public petitions and look at subordinate legislation. So, an independent, elected convenor for an inquiry into government policy is not necessarily suitable for chairing a government legislative bill. Now, this is not an unsurmountable problem but the reality of the Scottish committee system – and lack of a revising chamber generally – led the committee to ‘pause’ when it came to considering its position on elected convenors: in essence, it realized this issue was wrapped up with some basic questions about the parliament generally, as well as future changes after 2016.

Instead, it proposed to revisit the issue after conducting a wider inquiry into the operation of the parliament’s committee system to be completed by the end of 2015. There will be little time to institute this set of proposals in early 2016 (Holyrood effectively wraps up at the end of March 2016), so the changes will likely prove a ‘legacy’ report for the new SPPAC created after the 2016 Scottish election: will there be the political will to pick up its recommendations, at a time of significant turnover of MSPs (some of the original 1999 members are retiring).

What’s going on here is a search for cross-party consensus on a set of thorny institutional issues. First, the Scottish Parliament is small. It has 129 members and yet, given the size of government and opposition, it leaves only 80-odd MSPs available for service in a committee system of 16-19 committees and growing. This reality led to the original system of large membership committees in 1999 being scaled back afterwards. Even then, there is a need for committee substitutes to make the system work. At one stage there were two Justice Committees because of the amount of legislation in that policy area. Currently, there is a Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments committee whereas in times past, this involved two committees. Second, there is the issue of the new committees required due to devolution: meaning a need for a proper taxation/treasury committee as well as a welfare committee (so far, Holyrood has had a Welfare Reform Committee so it’s part of the way there). New committees need new convenors and new members and, if they’re to function effectively, you need permanent members who can master the policy area involved. How you can manage that with only 80-odd MSPs spread across more committees is the problem.

Indeed, arguably, the small size of the parliament is the problem before you even get to majority government generating pressures on committee independence, legislative revisions and party balance. The SNP majority 2011-16 only illustrated that the committee system was not that independent – but subject to party influence, just as it was in 1999-2007, something that the opposition parties seem to have forgotten. Finally, the choice of Presiding Officer will be important. SNP success will probably mean the party chooses the position for one of its own MSPs. However, it’s not their partisanship that matters so much as whether they see themselves as a parliamentarian and a reformer willing to enhance committee autonomy and scrutiny and the role of the backbencher and work in a cross-party manner.

Note: this post represents the views of the author, and not those of Democratic Audit – Scotland or of any institutions associated with it. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Lynch-1-220x300Dr Peter Lynch is a Senior Lecturer in History and Politics at the University of Stirling

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