Powerful government needs proper scrutiny
Daniel Johnson, MSP for Edinburgh Southern and a member of the Standards and Procedures Committee in the Scottish Parliament, says parliamentary committees need to scrutinise the actions of the SNP government, not rubber-stamp them.
It is a special experience and privilege to be elected as an MSP. The Scottish Parliament rightly prides itself on having broken the mould of traditional politics. Our political process has allowed for better representation for minority groups while keeping the people of Scotland at the heart of our decision making.
The Scottish Parliament, both in architecture and democratic structure, was built around the ideas of transparency, and bringing decisions closer to the people. In many respects the Parliament has delivered, passing responsive legislation. A ban on smoking in public areas, for example, was passed in Scotland before a similar ban was introduced elsewhere in the UK.
In other areas the Parliament has been a driver for a more outward-looking Scotland, evidenced by the introduction of free care for the elderly, and winning the opportunity to hold the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
But it isn’t just what the Scottish Parliament decides to do, but how these decisions are taken, that is important. It has become a Scottish political cliché to talk of our ‘strong committee system’, and that is exactly how our Parliament was designed. Without a second chamber like the House of Lords or a Senate, or separate select and legislative committees, the Parliament’s committees are central to balancing the power between government and Parliament. It is therefore vital that those committees have a clear separation from the government they hold to account.
That’s why I was disappointed to learn of the decision made by the SNP to appoint Parliamentary Liaison Officers (junior MSPs in a ministerial team) to Holyrood committees which relate to their own portfolio areas. The idea that PLOs will be able to scrutinise legislation impartially or hold their seniors to account does not stand up. It is broadly agreed that appointing a minister to one of these committees isn’t right, and I fail to understand how appointing someone who is effectively one of their staff is any different. Regardless of which party is in power, the process of improving our democracy must continue, and this represents a step backwards.
The SNP government of the last Parliament used their majority in a muscular way. Committees with SNP majorities were whipped, undermining both the committee as a whole and the independence of its membership. The result was poor scrutiny of government and, worse still, poor drafting of legislation, including the Police Scotland merger, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act and the Named Person legislation.
During the 2016 election the SNP ran on a platform of listening to the opinions of the Scottish people. Once they lost their majority, they promised to find common ground with other parties and to be open and inclusive. We should hold them to that standard.
I believe three things should happen to resolve this problem. Firstly, Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers should think again about the SNP’s appointment of PLOs on to committees. Secondly, Parliament should alter its rules to make sure that this can’t happen again. Thirdly, and more long term, the Parliament must strive to improve our democracy alongside the improved devolution we now have, ensuring our committees and systems are equipped to scrutinise a more powerful government.