Devolution at 20: The good, the bad & the ugly – Holyrood Committees. – Jackie Baillie

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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.

When the constitutional convention discussed the creation of the Scottish Parliament, over twenty years ago, they envisaged that parliamentary committees would be powerhouses, holding the Scottish Government and ministers to account in their scrutiny of legislation and policy.

Innovations like the petitions committee, amongst the very first such committees in the world and the envy of other parliaments, has since been widely copied. There is something very powerful about members of the public being able to directly address a committee of MSPs in support of their petition, where their views are not moderated or re-interpreted by someone else, but where they have direct access.

And then there is the Public Audit & Post Legislative Scrutiny Committee, leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of value for money for the public pound and where Committee members work collaboratively across party boundaries to shine a light on areas where the government is arguably failing.

In my experience the very best Committees hunt as a pack – you can’t tell which party the member is from. They care about the detail of the policy and will challenge witnesses without fear or favour. I recall the Health Committee in a previous parliament with an equal measure of fondness and trepidation. The members were all of a certain vintage and had a wealth of experience and minds of their own. Richard Simpson, Ross Finnie, Mary Scanlon, Christine Grahame – a formidable bunch of MSPs who were virtually unwhippable. They were more interested in following the evidence than they were the party line. Woe betide you if you came unprepared.

It is in this robust scrutiny by Committees that government policy can come undone or, more importantly, be improved. However, in circumstances where the Committee is faced with intransigence by government, they have the power to initiate legislation themselves.

Regretfully, this is a power that has not been much used by subject committees over the last two decades. There are however two notable exceptions – the Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act 2001, brought forward by the Justice Committee; and the Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2003 by the Education, Culture and Sport Committee. Just this month, the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee has indicated its intention to bring forward a Committee bill to remove pre-release access for economic statistics from Scottish Ministers.  Perhaps not something that sets the heather alight, but is important for the transparency and integrity of our statistics, and something which the UK Treasury, the Bank of England and the Office of National Statistics do as best practice. It is surprising that the Scottish Government has not embraced this themselves but instead will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right thing.

The ability to initiate legislation can be a very useful tool for Committees and one that has so far been under-utilised. It would certainly make Ministers pay attention to Committee reports, particularly in a situation where there is minority government. I hope that in the next twenty years we will see more confident committees making much greater use of their power to legislate.

I think the Scottish Government has too much power over their own committee members. There are examples of positions reached on committees in direct contrast to the evidence taken, and members seeking to delete or revise evidence received when drafting Committee reports. This is not good for confidence and trust in the body politic. The most striking illustration of the Scottish Government exercising power over their own members was the establishment of the Scottish Fiscal Commission.

In February 2014, the Finance Committee, led by SNP MSP Kenny Gibson, agreed a report that called for the establishment of a Scottish Fiscal Commission. The Parliament was to gain substantial new financial powers as a result of the Smith Commission, and it was necessary to have better analysis and scrutiny. It is no more than you would expect from a grown up parliament.

The evidence taken across civic Scotland supported the move; committee members agreed, and then SNP members had to vote against their own proposal in a Government whipped vote. As if that was not embarrassing enough, John Swinney, the then Finance Secretary, agreed a deal with the U.K. Treasury and as a result the Scottish Fiscal Commission was back on the table. SNP Committee members had to change their position all over again.

We should jealously guard the independence of Committees and their ability to speak truth to power.  The voices of those with expertise as well as those with lived experience must be valued and we do that by listening and then acting on what we are told. 

Overall I am a fan of the Parliament’s Committees. But they can and should be made more powerful. Just look at the authority of committees in the House of Commons and the influence of Committee Chairs like Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Sarah Wollaston and Norman Lamb. I think there is much to commend the notion that

Conveners should be elected by parliament as a whole. It would make them accountable to all members and would not be subject to the patronage of party leaders.

Whilst the D’Hondt system of allocating members to Committees should be reviewed, it has served us reasonably well so far. I do however believe that in the interests of good governance, the party of Government should not have a majority on any Committee which might be the case if there was a majority government.

A Convener elected by parliament as a whole has a strong mandate. With dedicated support for their role by enhancing the capacity of Committee Clerks and Spice you have the key ingredients for more powerful Committees. Couple that with the greater use of legislative powers and you can see the potential.

Jackie Baillie is the Scottish Labour MSP for Dumbarton.