Why was a committee system established?
The Scottish Parliament is a unicameral, committee-based legislature. A conscious decision was taken not to follow the Westminster practice where the committee system was criticised as weak, encouraged executive dominance and did not allow effective legislative scrutiny.
A committee system was preferred because it was felt that this was in line with the key principles outlined in Shaping Scotland's Parliament. In particular, the committee system was designed to:
- encourage significant public involvement in the Parliament's activities. For example, individuals as well as members of organisations and groups can appear before committees or write to them to give evidence.
- enable the Parliament to hold the Scottish Government to account effectively. Part of a committee's work is to scrutinise the work of the Scottish Government. The ministers in the Government do not sit on committees but can be asked to appear before the committee to answer questions.
- encourage the sharing of power. Committees can investigate any item which falls within their remit, hold inquiries and make recommendations to Parliament and the Government. Committees also have the power to initiate legislation themselves.
The committees have various powers which allow them to do this.
Committees carry out inquiries and call on witnesses to give evidence. These witnesses can be from pressure groups, professional groups, Government ministers or any individual or organisation that can offer information or advice.
There is also a special committee known as the Public Petitions Committee which gives anyone living in Scotland direct access to the Parliament. Any individual or group can make a request (petition) for the Parliament to:
- take a view on a matter of public interest or concern; or
- change existing legislation or introduce new legislation.
The PPC will consider each petition and make a decision on the course of action to be taken in each case. The PPC has several courses of action it may take. Basically, it decides whether the parliament as a whole should debate the issues, a specific committee should deal with it or whether it is more appropriate for another body to consider the petition. Provided the subject matter is within the Scottish Parliament's remit (i.e. refers to a devolved matter) the PPC must consider the petition.
Committees scrutinise (examine closely) the work of the Scottish Government and have the power to question ministers on all aspects of the policies of the Government. Ministers must answer the questions.
Committees have the power to carry out inquiries and then make recommendations to Parliament. This allows the committee to question the people who will be affected by changes in the law and ensure that their views are heard before changes are made. Committees also have the power to introduce new legislation. This means that it is not just the Government’s ideas which are debated by Parliament. Committees are allocated time in the Chamber to debate issues and introduce bills (see Case Study - Children's Commissioner for Scotland).
The structure of the committee system
Committees usually have between 7 and 11 MSPs as members. Members of the Committees are selected so that the balance of the political parties in Parliament is retained.
Some key committees are required by the Standing Orders (rules of the Parliament). These are:
Subordinate Legislation Equal Opportunities
- European and External Relations
- Public Audit
- Public Petitions
- Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments
- Subordinate Legislation (which became the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee in June 2013).
The Parliament can create other committees to deal with a particular subject or area. These are known as Subject Committees.
See the Committees pages for details of the current committees and their remits.
How do the Committees Work?
Each committee appoints one MSP to be the Convener who chairs the meeting and will call Members and witnesses to speak. Proceedings are relatively informal and the MSPs normally address each other by first names. MSPs who are not members of the committee are free to attend and may speak at the meeting with the Convener’s agreement, however they cannot vote. Each committee has at least two clerks. The clerks will sit next to the Convener during the meeting and advise on procedure. You will also see two Official Reporters sitting at the table. The Official Reporters prepare a report of the meetings which is published within a few days of each meeting. (Find out more about the Official Report) A committee can invite any person to attend a meeting as a witness. This means giving evidence or producing documents relating to the business of the committee. Generally MSPs who are not members of a committee can participate in its proceedings but they are unable to participate in a vote.
Want to see a Committee in action? Contact The Scottish Parliament Visitor Services Team on 0131 348 5200.