Presiding Officer calls for Reform of Holyrood’s Committee system

31.03.2015

Cultural and structural change is needed to strengthen Holyrood’s committee system, says Scottish Parliament Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick.

In a lecture to the David Hume Institute, the Presiding Officer called for a fundamental look at how the committees operate and for committee conveners to be elected by their peers in order to derive their authority from Parliament.   

Citing limitations on working capacity across the committees, Mrs Marwick set out reform proposals that would see fewer, but larger, more powerful committees in operation, based around greater policy cohesion.  

The Presiding Officer also questioned whether committees lived up to their pre-devolution ideals.  

In her lecture, the Presiding Officer said: “I have now come to the view that changing our culture is not enough and we need to consider structural change.  Does our current committee structure serve us well enough?  Why has no committee proposed any committee legislation since 2002, apart from procedural legislation.  Why have we carried out virtually no post-legislative scrutiny?”  

Advocating a model of fewer committees where MSPs would sit on only one committee each, rather than two or three at present, she said: “Larger committees could provide a better overall policy fit, bringing together some subjects that, although separate just now, may work better under one larger committee.  These larger committees could be focussed on what is important to the Parliament in terms of policy fit.”  

The Presiding Officer continued: “I think the Parliament should actually be clear in setting out its own policy priorities, and as such, shape its own committees according to its own needs.” 

“Larger committees would be able to break into smaller sub groups … meeting to discuss in a more flexible way … it simply doesn’t need all the committee members to be working on all the committee business, all at the same time.  We need to be more creative in how we work.” 

On a new committee structure she concluded:  “Being more radical in how we set ourselves up by allowing more flexibility within a structure of fewer, but better policy-aligned committees will benefit Members.”  

The Presiding Officer also restated her support for the introduction of elected committee conveners as part of a cultural shift within Holyrood: “I see elected conveners at the heart of this sea-change in the way we approach committee business… What I am setting out is no different to what is operating within the UK Parliament, some would say with real success.” 

The Presiding Officer emphasised that parties would still have a proportional share of committee conveners through D’Hondt, the system of allocation at Holyrood, but that Conveners would now be directly accountable to Parliament as a result of a secret ballot of all MSPs.  “I believe that by being directly appointed by your peers will create an important cultural shift … with conveners deriving their authority directly from the Parliament”, said Mrs Marwick.   

The Presiding Officer added: “I want to see more powerful conveners with a stronger voice, not feeling driven by any government’s legislation programme.”  In time, she believed, elected convenerships would be seen as an alternative parliamentary career to the “pursuit of Ministerial office”, with MSPs seeing themselves as parliamentarians and not simply politicians.     

On the challenge of delivering further parliamentary reform Mrs Marwick said: “I have already started discussions with conveners, Business Managers, and MSPs, and I look to them to work with me to deliver what is required by the Parliament.”  

She concluded: “As Presiding Officer it is my job to set out a positive reform agenda, on behalf of the entire Parliament.”  Recognising that others will hold different views, she said: “I don’t have all the answers.  I know there are some who may not see further reforms in exactly the same way or style that I do - or at all.  But I know that many MSPs across the Parliament believe, as I do, that further change is not only desirable but necessary if we are to deal with the current workload and also the further powers which may come to the Parliament.” 

Background

The Scottish Parliament currently has 17 committees, seven are mandatory with the rest as ‘subject’ committees which mirror government portfolios, plus a further four private bill committees.  The Presiding Officer set out an argument for reducing the number of committee to 10 or 11, with greater flexibility in how they operate.  Under the present structure, there are 132 committee places in total, shared amongst 80 MSPs, which affects work capacity and limits flexibility, according to the Presiding Officer (page 32 of text of lecture refers). 

Presiding Officer’s lecture

Read the full text of the Presiding Officer’s lecture to the David Hume Institute:

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