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Committees, conventions and the case for parliamentary reform at Holyrood

Carla Sloan

There have been many hot topics during this Scottish election campaign – tax, the Named Person scheme and the small matter of the constitution, to name a few – but parliamentary reform hasn’t been one of them. The issue may not set Twitter alight, but the need for institutional change at Holyrood is becoming more urgent.

The likelihood of another majority government demands a fresh look at how procedural reform can improve scrutiny in our unicameral Parliament. And a glance at the main parties’ election manifestos suggests they tend to agree. With all this in mind, we decided to take a closer look at how the parliamentary machine could start to evolve over the next session…

The SNP’s landslide in 2011 quickly prompted a series of questions over the Scottish Parliament’s conventions. Just a week after Alex Salmond’s victory speech, the party was already ruffling feathers when its very own Tricia Marwick was elected Presiding Officer. Criticism from the opposition soon died down – perhaps when they accepted they could do without one of their now-precious numbers withdrawing from the whip – but that hasn’t stopped Labour calling for new rules to stop the same happening again. Their manifesto suggests the ruling party should not put forward nominees for Presiding Officer, as part of a return to the “democratic, pluralistic” principles of the early Parliament.

Ironically it was Tricia Marwick who led the most ambitious programme of procedural reform to-date as PO, and has been hailed by all parties for her drive to improve Holyrood further. She saved her main criticism, however, for the current committee system and despite her best efforts, nothing has changed since 2011 apart from some scheduling tweaks. The need for reform has not gone unnoticed by the opposition parties – over the last five years, the SNP has been accused of using its majority to railroad committee reports and force through legislation in a range of policy areas.

Consensus between the Conservatives and the Greens doesn’t occur often, but both parties support the election of Committee Conveners by the Parliament in their respective manifestos. Labour goes one further, stating again that the ruling party should not hold the majority of committee convenerships. The calls for change from all sides of the Chamber, as well as similar recommendations from last session’s committees, mean this could be a top priority if the new Presiding Officer is committed to honouring Marwick’s legacy.

Another look at the committees’ report cards highlight the valuable work done to keep the Parliament open, accessible and transparent as symbolised by the Chamber’s own gold and silver mace. The Greens want build on this success, advocating a much more participative law-making process through citizen juries and public scrutiny committees.

The jewel in Holyrood’s public participation crown – the Public Petitions Committee – is also offered a makeover by the Greens. Taking an unlikely cue from Westminster, the party suggests issues with an “appropriate” number of signatures should be debated with a vote. This, it says, would be the preferred method of gauging public opinion on a second independence referendum.

Before we get there, though, we have a set of new powers already on their way to Holyrood. On parliamentary reform, the SNP’s manifesto is perhaps unsurprisingly light on ideas, choosing instead to focus on how these new powers will be used and budgets spent.

But what about the mechanics? The Liberal Democrats propose a more robust Budget procedure prior to the spring and autumn revisions, in response to concerns over the Scottish Government’s recurring budget underspend. According to them, this change would allow remaining funds to be redeployed onto other projects.

Additional powers utilised by another majority mean the campaign for reform is likely to continue into session five, however quietly. As momentum – and consensus – builds between the opposition parties, and with Tricia Marwick’s outgoing call to action ringing in politicos’ ears, we can only hope Holyrood will look and act like the mature legislature that is required by the time it reaches its 21st birthday.

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