Devolution at 20: Free Holyrood’s committees from party control – Alex Neil

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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 is now two years since the Commission on Parliamentary Reform published its report on how the Scottish Parliament should be reformed, to make it more open and accountable to the Scottish people.

Although the Commission made a number of useful suggestions, it was far too timid in dealing with the crunch issue of how the parliament’s work is overly dominated by the diktats of the party bosses.

Prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland, set up a Consultative Steering Group (CSG) to make recommendations on how the new institution should operate. The CSG set down five founding principles, namely power sharing, accountability, openness, participation and equal opportunities.

From the beginning, the new parliament far excelled Westminster by implementing these founding principles. The Scottish Parliament would never become the kind of incestuous “gentlemen’s club” that Westminster had always been. It would genuinely operate as a people’s parliament.

Twenty years on, we need to adhere to both the letter and the spirit of these founding principles.

That means reforming some aspects of how the parliament currently conducts its business.

A priority for action is the election of committee conveners.

This reform is important for two reasons. Firstly, it removes the power of appointment from party leaders and transfers it to the parliament. Elected committee conveners are much more independent of party than those who rely on the patronage of the party leader for their position.

The role of the legislature in scrutinising the work and policies of the executive will be strengthened by having elected conveners who are then accountable to parliament, not the party. That is good for democracy. It would also enhance further the reputation of the Scottish Parliament.

Secondly, providing a more powerful role for parliament will encourage more MSPs to pursue a career as a parliamentarian and to exercise more independence of mind than is currently the case. If the only career progression open to MSPs is that of climbing the greasy pole as a government minister then obedience and deference to the party hierarchy will be the order of the day. If members are able to think aloud and speak much more openly without the spectre of disciplinary action by the party whips hanging over them that helps make a reality of the five key principles
identified by the CSG.

It is now two years since the Commission on Parliamentary Reform recommended that the Scottish Parliament follow the example of Westminster by introducing a system of election for committee conveners.

The party leaderships have been successful in delaying the implementation of this proposal. They should desist. This proposal should be implemented with immediate effect, so that any time a vacancy arises for a convener, the new person should be elected, not anointed.

Another reform which would enhance the power and effectiveness of the Parliament is giving committees the power to vet ministerial nominees for senior public appointments.

While the public appointments system has been opened up and modernised by the Scottish Parliament, it is still by no means perfect. The parliament and its committees should have a much more pro-active role. The system itself needs updated and modernised to ensure that public appointees are more reflective of the make-up of today’s Scotland than is currently the case.

Individual appointments for the most senior positions need to be subject to powerful scrutiny, with the committees having the power of veto if they think a particular nominee is not the right person for the job.

These reforms would further strengthen the Parliament’s ability to properly hold the government to account.

Another overdue reform is the abolition of the very bad practice started by the first Presiding Officer, Sir David Steel, whereby the whips from each party provide speaker lists for every debate.

These lists, which include the pecking order for calling speakers, are sometimes used by party whips to “punish” certain MSPs and to promote others. This means that MSPs who do not rigidly follow the party line can find it very difficult to get an opportunity to speak in the chamber.

Although the current Presiding Officer, Ken McIntosh, has been more prepared than his predecessors to call people who are not on a party list, this practice is alien to the founding principles of the Parliament and should be stopped. MSPs wishing to speak in debates should put their own names forward to the Presiding Officer. The Presiding Officer can then ensure that all get a fair chance of being called.

The Scottish Parliament has a good reputation but, like all institutions, it occasionally has to evolve and reform to keep up to date with best democratic practice. Implementing these reforms will help achieve that objective.

Alex Neil is SNP MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, and a former Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, and for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights