The Scottish public affairs professional starts the day with a coffee and the business bulletin. It’s the bread and butter, the Holyrood routine. But over the last few years, the heed I take of the Scottish Parliament has declined. It’s personally and professionally disappointing. It’s now common to hold the view that the stock of this institution has fallen and the pace of the fall has increased in recent years.
In session four we have seen one of the greatest democratic moments in Scotland’s history, with more powers delivered and further powers to come. But Holyrood and its powers of scrutiny has been somewhat forgotten or brushed aside. It has left the parliament looking rather stale.
Interventions and comment by MSPs and Committee reports just don’t have the same bite. Holyrood is a whipped Parliament where MSPs generally do not veer from the party line. The culture is obedience, not protest. At least there used to be collective pretence that the party rosette was set aside when it came to Committee sessions. Now, ‘following the line’ is flagrant and loyalty is sickly.
MSPs’ views absolutely hold weight; they are the representatives of the people. But when the institution comes into question, the value of those voices decline. The weight a parliamentarian voice carries is generated through critical interrogation of power and holding Government to account. Pointing out wrongs where they exist without fear or favour. Call me idealistic – this is politics – but when this slackens, the quality of democracy declines.
The recent decision by members of the Finance Committee to reverse their position on bolstering and formalising powers of the Scottish Fiscal Commission through tax forecasting and scrutiny of long-term public finances, gives no confidence that with new powers there will be renewed vigour of inquiry. Members of the existing Scottish Fiscal Commission have already questioned missing elements of the forecasts for the Land and Building Transaction Tax.
This isn’t party political; majorities have done it before at Holyrood. But this is the tail-end of a Parliament littered with examples of Committee activity which have often taken the breath away. Conveners ruling out inquiries without due consideration with Committee members; minority reports of the public audit committee over Police Scotland’s troubled start; the petitions committee losing its shine because of unclearly rejected petitions before consideration by MSPs; impartial clerk reports sent back for a rewrite and the list goes on.
Of course, cultural change isn’t enough, structural reform is required. But what is to be done? In 2011, new measures backed by the Presiding Officer (PO) were introduced to combat what Jackson Carlaw MSP described as the “straightjacketing of spontaneity” at Holyrood. Measures including the introduction of Topical Questions were deemed a success. But Committees were largely left untouched.
In March 2015, the PO delivered a speech questioning whether Committees had lived up to their pre-devolution ideals. It was a conversation starter with some suggestions which included the introduction of elected conveners, the need to conduct some post-legislative scrutiny and an interrogation of why a Committee had not proposed a Bill since 2002. The message was clear – this isn’t working and things need to change. She said there was a “unique window of opportunity before our next elections in 2016”, adding that she wanted “to hear the views of others”.
After rejecting the idea of elected conveners in a short inquiry, the Standards Committee dutifully decided to look at Committee reform in the round. Many of the ideas, including elected conveners, were shelved. The Committee’s inquiry took no evidence from outside Parliament or Government and received three written responses to its call for evidence.
MSPs were even-handed in their responses, including John Mason who suggested that the attitude of SNP backbench members had to change. Mike Russell said committees were “not yet resourced adequately or enabled” to effectively challenge the Government. Patrick Harvie poignantly highlighted that – at that time – every single Parliamentary Liaison Officer (PLO) served “on the subject committee that scrutinises their appointing minister” and that the First Minister’s two PLOs were both committee conveners. A prescient point summing-up the challenge of robust parliamentary scrutiny in an era of majority Government and a small parliament.
The Standards Committee report is a light-touch legacy report, which may or may not be dusted off in the sixth session. (It’s probably best left on the shelf.) But the importance of effective Committee scrutiny in a unicameral Parliament cannot be underestimated.
With the largest influx of new MSPs since 1999, will there be a desire to tackle parliamentary reform in favour of getting to know the ropes? Due to its expected size, the SNP Group is likely to pick up the PO spot. Is there a reformer with a radical plan waiting in the wings?
In 1998, there was much hope for a different Parliament which would lead the way in the UK, exceeding Westminster in its democratic rigour. Holyrood is now trailing behind. The Wright reforms in 2010 – which defined parliamentary change at Westminster – came in response to the expenses scandal and very low-levels of public confidence in the UK Parliament. Holyrood needs to reform and restore confidence before it is forced to.