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Parliamentary Reform & the Public Interest

Kirsty Peebles

In a Parliament that’s only just old enough to own L-plates, the decision to take a closer look at procedural reform seems a timely development. The move to streamline plenary business to the afternoons, the introduction of topical questions on Tuesday plus other tweaks here and there have helped to keep the weekly schedules relevant but there are bigger matters to determine. These were confirmed in a June interview with the incoming Presiding Officer when he said: “I think that we’re of an age as a parliament where we need to look again at ourselves, work out as an institution where we’re heading, because it would be very easy for us to become a shadow of the government, just to follow in their footsteps, and that’s not the job of parliament.

Fast forward to today and the Presiding Officer’s newly-set-up Parliamentary Reform Commission commences evidence-taking in public this afternoon. The 10 members of the commission will hear from four academics on “the role of the Scottish Parliament, its engagement and scrutiny” having already been briefed in private on the basic procedures and methods of engagement. The broader remit of the Commission (due to report by June 2017) is to consider ways in which the Parliament can:

  • be assured it has the right checks and balances in place for the effective conduct of parliamentary business;
  • increase its engagement with wider society and the public; and
  • clarify its identity as distinct from the Scottish Government.

In a Press Association interview earlier this month, Commission chair John McCormick said: “We're looking at the Parliament as it is today with the powers it has, the powers it has just been awarded in the 2016 Act and the 2012 Act, and assessing what impact that has had on the Parliament, on its engagement with the people and on its legislative programme and the scrutiny of committees. All of that is there on the table, there's a lot to discuss and take account of.”

It was disappointing to some, though not a surprise, that the Presiding Officer has already ruled out consideration of a second Chamber. He has also made plain that he considers the idea of elected committee chairs as having been investigated and ruled out by last year’s Standards Committee inquiry report. On any other issue, Labour would have been irate at the idea that a report from a then SNP-dominated committee will be used to shut down the options to an independent commission. Especially on an issue that could have been deemed challenging to the Government. But of course, Ken Macintosh is no longer a party politician, so must leave it to others to do the jumping and shouting. Prof Paul Cairney has also written about the need for SNP members and independence supporters to get much more engaged with the parliamentary reform agenda, writing: “Almost no-one pays attention to the principle that the Scottish Parliament should have a strong role independent of government, and that this role should not be subject to the whims of self-interested political parties”.

We have previously blogged about our bemusement that the Standards Committee inquiry to which the Presiding Officer refers, was (in our recollection) the only committee inquiry of the last session not to seek input from the public. Are elected members really the only opinions we consider valuable on this matter? For this reason alone, it’s imperative that the Commission doesn’t just go through the motions of public engagement but takes seriously the notion of participatory democracy in its evidence-gathering process and not just its final report.

In a month when it was alleged that the new Lobbying Registrar was appointed without so much as a job advertisement, this week’s Women 50:50 discussion on why so few women are appointed to special adviser roles was particularly timely. Along with the recent Women in PA study of party conference speakers and the work of the Parliament Project, it’s clear we can’t be complacent about the challenges of ensuring that fairness, equality of opportunity and all the associated economic enablers are embedded in the systems that underpin our politics.

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