Reform Scotland

Devolution at 20: A Citizens Chamber would hold Holyrood to account – Jack McConnell

Two decades into devolution, with Holyrood firmly established, Reform Scotland asked prominent Scottish politicians what they would change to make the Parliament work better.

It was such an honour to be a member of the first-ever elected Scottish Parliament in 1999. Twenty years ago we arrived at its temporary home, excited and a little nervous, but ready for action. In the years since, no one can reasonably deny that Home Rule has changed Scotland for the better.

From the land reforms of the first session through the criminal Justice reforms of the second, to new rights in education and health, Scotland’s Parliament has modernised our laws and reflected our national will. Through all the ups and downs of the past 20 years, Scotland is a much betterplace today than it was then.

The early years might have been, at times, controversial, but in March 2006, when Scots the length and breadth of our country accepted the controversial smoking ban in public places, the Parliament had finally come of age and was here to stay. The success of the institution should never be measured by the policies or spending decisions of individual ministers or administrations, or indeed by any scandals as happen everywhere, often. It should be measured by the body of legislation and the way in which the institution speaks for Scotland when the need arises.

However, even successful parliaments should never become complacent. There is a clear need to refresh the debating style in the parliament and sharpen up the independence of its committee structure. The electoral system needs a review – for example, the regional lists encourage far too much loyalty to party ahead of constituents – and in London the UK Government must soon refresh and renew its approach to working with the governments of the devolved nations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. It is surely time to abolish the territorial Secretaries of State and replace them with something more in keeping with the new UK.

The Scottish Parliament has taken on many new powers, including new financial powers, over these 20 years and these extended powers – and the experience of devolution in practice – should ask questions about the accountability (or lack of it) practised in the single chamber at Holyrood. I am not in favour of an elected Second Chamber for the Scottish Parliament, and I am certainly not in favour of more elected politicians – we have more than enough already. But I do feel that some additional accountability needs to be built into the system as a check on ministers’ decision-making and the largely partisan way that backbenchers have loyally followed administrations.

Local government has a less dynamic voice now in Scotland than in the pre-devolution days. That has also been a challenge for many in wider Scottish society, including the trade unions, businesses, faiths and voluntary organisations.

So one option might be the creation of a part-time consultative Citizen’s Chamber that could include a representative of every local council in Scotland and representatives from different walks of life. Not professional lobbyists, but local people active in their organisations and communities and chosen by some form of representative selection to serve for a couple of years at a time.

Such an assembly could review the budget, comment on significant legislation and the programme for government, and be used as a consultative mechanism where difficult controversies and challenges demand a wider level of participation and involvement. The original principles have been good guide for Scotland’s Parliament in these first two decades, but no-one can honestly say hand on heart that they have been implemented consistently and effectively all the time. There is room for refreshing the way we seek to govern, and inviting more voices into the discussion might just be a good start.

Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell was MSP for Motherwell & Wishaw 1999-2011 and First Minister of Scotland 2001-2007