Committee conveners ‘could strengthen Holyrood’

Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick. Picture: Jane Barlow

Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick. Picture: Jane Barlow

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INFLUENTIAL heads of Holyrood committees are facing an overhaul in the way they get the role, amid concerns the system is too heavily under the yoke of the SNP government.

The conveners of the once-powerful bodies are poised to be elected by a secret ballot of MSPs to inject the same kind of bite which Westminster committees have shown in recent years with a series of scathing inquiries.

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It is feared the SNP majority at Holyrood and the party’s strong internal discipline has blunted the way many committees hold the government to account

The Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer, Trisha Marwick, said yesterday that the current system, which sees conveners appointed by party chiefs, needs to change.

“If conveners were elected by the whole parliament, they would derive their authority and mandate from the parliament itself,” she said. “This would support conveners in their scrutiny role and would contribute to enhancing the impact and profile of our committees.”

Nationalist Christine Grahame, often regarded as a Holyrood maverick, is seen as a positive, but rare, example of a convener who has been prepared to criticise her own party in government during her stints at the helm of the health and justice committees.

The committees are charged with holding the government of the day to account in the scrutiny of legislation and holding inquiries into issues of public concern. Their independence from government influence and interference is crucial but concerns have emerged in recent years that the SNP is using it’s Holyrood majority to “steamroller” policies through.

Earlier this year Holyrood’s public audit committee was forced to publish two versions of a report on the introduction of Scotland’s single police force – one backed by the SNP majority on the committee while the second “minority” report contained additional criticisms of the change.

At the time, the Labour convener Hugh Henry warned that a cult of “obedience and slavishness” was developing.

Westminster’s committees have acquired a fearsome reputation in recent years after a series of hardhitting evidence sessions which have seen major corporations like Starbucks and Amazon grilled over their tax arrangements, while Rupert Murdoch faced tough questions over the phone hacking scandal.

Green co-leader Patrick Harvie, a former convener of Holyrood’s transport committee, said in an article for The Scotsman today than Holyrood could “learn” from this example.

Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont MSP added: “Committees in the Scottish Parliament must have the teeth to properly scrutinise legislation and hold the Scottish Government to account. As of right now it is widely accepted that they are failing in this.”

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