Final Report: Commission on Parliamentary Reform

20 June 2017

View PDF version here – Final Report Commission on Parliamentary Reform

Introduction

The Commission for Parliamentary Reform opened established in October 2016 by the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh MSP, who felt that the workings of the parliament required an updated – especially considering technological advancements and the enhancement of devolution since 1999.

The Commission aims to explore three main areas:

  1. How the Parliament engages with people and organisations
  2. How Parliament can establish its own identity – separate to the Scottish Government
  3. Whether there is a need for more checks and balances

Chaired by John McCormick, the Commission comprises 11 members – five from civic Scotland and five nominated from political parties.

Engagement sessions (including one hosted by SCVO) have been held all over Scotland. The final report from the Commission will be published today and delivered to the Presiding Officer.

Findings and Recommendations

Committees

  • Measures should be put in place to support the independence, identity and role of the committee system. The Commission recommends a package of changes designed to empower committees to be more effective and active in undertaking scrutiny.
  • Committee Convenors should be elected, to loosen the control of political parties over committee membership and emphasise the independence of committees.
  • That nominees for convener would need to secure cross party support would, in the view of the Commission, encourage competing candidates to share their views and vision about the committee’s future work in order to persuade others to vote for them.
  • The idea that convenors should be remunerated and allocated resources is also explored by the Commission. This would increase the status of the role (as in the case in the House of Commons where Select Committee chairs receive £15,235 additional payment) and could be viewed as an alternative to a ministerial appointment.
  • Some have advocated that conveners should receive additional resources rather than remuneration which could support the delivery of activities displaced by convener work. Payments may also support those MSPs from under-represented groups to stand for election by enabling costs such as those arising from caring responsibilities to be met.
  • While overall committee membership should represent the balance of parties in Parliament, the Commission agrees with SPPAC’s recommendation that committees should normally have a maximum of seven members – even though this would mean smaller parties will not be represented on some committees. Critics argue that party dynamics are more likely to be replicated within larger committees and MSPs from smaller parties are forced to juggle multiple committees.
  • The Conveners’ Group takes a greater role in developing a more strategic approach to scrutiny across committees.
  • Committees should give greater emphasis to seeking the views of those who use or deliver public services and the hard to reach in their communities. Less formal evidence taking sessions in the Scottish Parliament and more sessions at a local level is one way committees can connect more directly with those who are hard to reach and should be used more regularly during committees’ evidence gathering
  • Committees should consider undertaking regionally focused scrutiny as a way to enhance their understanding of the impact of national policies or legislation at local or regional level.
  • The Parliament should review the dedicated resources available to committees to determine whether they are able to meet the future needs of parliamentary business and support more effective scrutiny. It should also review the range of mechanisms available to committees to benefit from expertise and experience other than through the formal appointment of an adviser (including secondments from external organisations).
  • Part 4 of the Commission’s Report sets out detailed proposals to improve engagement with committees. This includes the establishment of a dedicated Committee Engagement Unit – whose main purpose is to support (and challenge) committees to undertake more innovative and meaningful engagement. This team should draw on external expertise and skills where necessary. It should also develop and trial new emerging technologies and should pilot mini-public approaches.
  • Parliamentary language should be reviewed to make it more accessible and less off-putting. Good practice in relation to the consultation process (including recommended timescales) should be agreed.
  • The Parliament should work more closely with COSLA (recognising its distinctive role in local democracy) and the elected and diverse Scottish Youth Parliament to broaden the range of youth voices in the parliament.

 

Effective use of chamber time

  • The practice of using scripted diary questions at FMQs by party leaders should cease, with party leaders moving straight to their questions. As a result, the Business Bulletin would reference only the names, and not the first question, of the party leaders.
  • The opening question of other MSPs who are selected to ask a question at FMQs should also no longer be published, to ensure parity of approach. As a result, the Business Bulletin would only reference the names, and not the question, of those MSPs selected for a question at FMQs.
  • The focus of Portfolio Questions in the chamber should be on quality of scrutiny rather than the quantity of questions asked. The Commission recommends the number of portfolio questions selected and published in the Business Bulletin be reduced.
  • Relevant opposition spokespeople from each party should automatically be selected to speak, should they request to do so.
  • In light of further devolution, Parliament should review the range of portfolio and general questions to ensure more frequent scrutiny of each portfolio area.

 

Enhancing legislative scrutiny

  • The current three stage legislative process should be replaced with a five stage process to include pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny. While the existing three stage legislative scrutiny process would remain at its core, committees should include pre- and post-legislative scrutiny in their work programmes.
  • The Scottish Government (or another relevant public body) should be required to provide the Parliament with a post-legislative statement a set period after a bill is passed
  • To improve the quality of legislation and to reduce the passing of needless legislation, provide the Parliament should establish a Legislative Standards Body. This should be based on the New Zealand model.
  • Part 2 of the Commission’s report sets out how capacity for scrutiny can be enhanced. This includes suggestions that parallel debates could be held in Committee Rooms (similar to Westminster Hall debates). Flexibility around committee meetings (including meeting during chamber time) is also explored.
  • The Scottish Parliament should play a greater role in identifying and discussing long term issues, which persist over sessions. The Commission proposes this could be achieved through working with the Scottish Future’s Forum.
  • Parliamentary Bureau proceedings should be more transparent. A back bench committee should be established to provide these MSPs with a voice in how parliamentary business is determined.
  • Chamber time should be set aside to allow committees to announce the launch of significant or urgent inquiries or to set out the findings from a recently published committee reports. Equally, Ministers should have the opportunity to announce when they receive Scottish Law Commission reports proposing law reform.
  • In response to losing a vote in the chamber, the relevant minister should be required to return to the chamber to address any concerns raised in the debate within an appropriate timescale agreed by the Parliamentary Bureau.
  • MSPs should be supported to develop and offered training (and potentially additional resources) to help them fulfil their role as parliamentarians.

 

The Presiding Officer

  • A mechanism should be provided to enable MSPs to raise concerns with the Presiding Officer about any answers to written or oral questions which they do not consider meet the expectations of being accurate, truthful or where the response is inadequate.
  • The Presiding Officer should have a stronger role in ruling on the conduct and content of parliamentary business and, in particular, oral questions and answers in the chamber to ensure a better balance between political debate and scrutiny in parliamentary business.
  • Each party represented on the Parliamentary Bureau should submit proposals for the programme of business for the forthcoming weeks to the Presiding Officer before such proposals are then considered by the Bureau. This would replace the current practice where the Scottish Government proposes the programme of business for consideration by the Parliamentary Bureau. This would strengthen the Parliament’s identity as one unique from the Scottish Government.

 

Supporting diversity

  • Currently only two MSPs have a black and minority ethnic background, (1.6% compared with 4% nationally). The Parliament has one MSP out of 129 self-identifying as having a disability (compared with 1 in 5 nationally) and, although still comparing well with many other parliaments, only 35% of MSPs are women.
  • Whilst candidate selection is a role for political parties, Parliament should take a greater role in promoting the policies and behaviour others should adopt and can take a lead by encouraging all political parties to work on increasing diversity amongst their candidates.
  • Standing Orders should reviewed to ensure that it is diversity sensitive and inclusive to facilitate equal and effective participation by MSPs in all business.
  • Committee membership should reflect the gender balance of MSPs in the Parliament. This approach should then be expanded to other protected characteristics once better diversity in representatives is achieved.
  • The Parliament should ensure that additional diversity expertise is available for a fixed period to enhance committees’ awareness of diversity issues when undertaking scrutiny work.
  • The Parliament should report on the diversity of all those who have special access to the Parliament through the provision of parliamentary passes

 

Human Rights

  • The Scottish Parliament should move on from its early achievements to keep pace with the increasing recognition of the importance of parliaments and parliamentarians in the implementation of human rights standards and judgements.
  • The Scottish Human Rights Commission argues that Parliament should have a role as a human rights guarantor. Due to the complexity of the matter, this has been referred to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee.

 

Next steps

  • The Parliament should establish an Implementation Group to provide the necessary institutional impetus to deliver the report recommendations across the Parliament and should be led by the Presiding Officer.