The Scottish Parliament was not just about ‘the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs.’ It was also about the subjection of the government of Scotland to democratic scrutiny and control. ‘The Scottish Government will be much more accountable to the Scottish Parliament than the [UK] Government is to the Parliament at Westminster.’ That was the claim made by Henry McLeish as the Scottish Parliament began its work in June 1999. It is a claim with a familiar Scottish conceit to it. But as the Smith Commission tackles the question of more powers for the Scottish Parliament, it is worth pausing to ask to what extent the idea of a Scottish Government that would be ‘much more accountable’ than its UK counterpart has in fact been realised.
The short answer, and an uncomfortable one for Scots, is ‘hardly at all’. Despite much well-intentioned talk in the beginning of a Parliament that would be ‘different’, the Scottish Parliament has struggled to match much less exceed Westminster when it comes to the business of holding government to account. Holyrood’s committee system, once hailed as the ‘jewel in the crown’, has too often failed to put the claims of scrutiny before those of party and government. When a row blew up over the funding of Scotland’s colleges in 2012, the convener of the Education and Culture Committee dismissed the need for a committee inquiry out of a hand, without the Committee having apparently considered the issue. One journalist’s dismissal of the Parliament’s committees as a ‘cross between a laughing stock and a downright disgrace’, and ‘little more than ministerial fan clubs’, may well go too far, but they are a mark of how far the stock of the committee system has fallen since devolution. The track record of Holyrood’s other methods of holding government to account is little better. Question time is an ineffective means of interrogating ministers. And debates seldom put government on the spot.
With a single party majority government, with its uncomfortable echoes of Lord Hailsham’s ‘elective dictatorship’, in power in the current session, the weakness of the Parliament in relation to the Scottish Government is apparent as never before. In contrast to Westminster, however, there have been few signs of willingness to acknowledge much less address the underlying tension between sustaining the Scottish Government in power and holding it to account - to ensure that the Parliament gets its scrutiny as well as the government its business.
Faced with an avalanche of criticism at the end of its third session, Holyrood embarked on what was billed as a ‘thorough MOT’ of its performance. Question time was adjusted to increase the opportunity for more topical questions, and committee conveners were said to have ‘enthusiastically endorsed a reform agenda that should enable parliamentary committees to increase their agility, responsiveness and focus.’ So far, however, the Conveners Group’s ‘programme for change’ seems to have been more about securing favourable media coverage for the work of committees than improving their effectiveness in holding the Scottish Government to account.
Left to its own devices there is little cause for optimism that Holyrood will change. The Smith Commission ought not, therefore, to address the question of more powers without at the same time addressing the question of their scrutiny. The more extensive the Parliament’s powers the more serious the lack of robust parliamentary scrutiny of those powers will become. It would be wrong to pretend there is some easy solution. The recent ‘Wright reforms’ at Westminster, which have seen committee chairs and members elected, effectively removing control of the process from the party whips, nevertheless provide a possible starting point, as the Parliament’s Presiding Officer has acknowledged. The key principle that underlies these reforms is that ‘Government should get its business, the House should get its scrutiny and the public should get listened to.’ It is a principle that should apply every bit as much to Holyrood as to Westminster. And just because Westminster has pointed the way doesn’t mean that we should reluctant to follow.
Alan Page is Professor of Public Law at the University of Dundee. This article first appeared in Scotland on Sunday.