Brian Wilson: The problem of ruling by committee

First Minister's Questions is as close as Holyrood gets to holding-to-account. Picture: Ian Rutherford
First Minister's Questions is as close as Holyrood gets to holding-to-account. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Democratic interest is badly served by the Nats’ domination of Holyrood’s discursive chambers, writes Brian Wilson

WHEN the Scottish Parliament was established, one of its supposed strengths was to be its committee system. In the absence of a revising chamber, Holyrood committees were to be hothouses of scrutiny and holding-to-account, far superior to stuffy old Westminster.

This has proven to be a risible fiction. Committees are only as good as the people on them and Holyrood has not been particularly blessed in that respect. When the SNP won in 2011, they took control of all the committees, bringing any vestige of independent thought to an abrupt end.

Nationalist discipline tolerates no dissent from within its own ranks. The result has been a track record of deeply flawed legislation, in terms of simple competence, and a culture of government by decree, backed up by a politicised civil service and a propaganda machine. This is an administration crying out for parliamentary scrutiny although it has – logically, from its own point of view – taken steps to ensure that virtually none exists.

The unedifying exchanges at First Minister’s Questions is as close as Holyrood gets to holding-to-account; in other words, not very close at all.

There is nothing resembling a public accounts committee with the gravitas to be taken seriously. There is not the slightest trace of bipartisanship in protecting us from the abuse of power or misuse of public funds. We have instead the shell of a committee structure controlled by a centralising administration which lives by its own rules.

Take the issue of NHS funding. In the run-up to the referendum, the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) produced a report showing that the Scottish Government has spent £700 million less on the NHS over the past five years than was available to it for that purpose through Barnett consequentials, so that NHS spending has increased more slowly in Scotland than in England and Wales – 1.2 per cent against 4.4.

That is an indictment of major political proportions, particularly given the SNP’s efforts to portray itself as sole guardian of the NHS in Scotland. The IFS report was met with denials by the Scottish Government on grounds which were promptly rebutted by the authors. Ruth Davidson had a go at reviving the issue this week, but, in the absence of any avenue for parliamentary follow-through, that is as far as it will go and the Nationalists will be off another hook.

Yet this is classic territory for the work of a diligent parliamentary committee. The Scottish public is entitled to a definitive view on a matter of exceptional importance. At Westminster, such an investigation would be possible and the resultant cross-party report would probably be unanimous. At Holyrood, every sinew of the SNP’s being would be devoted to stopping any such thing happening.

Or let’s consider the fiasco over the arming of Scotland’s police force. A genuine committee of parliamentarians would give its eye-teeth to take evidence, produce conclusions and pinpoint responsibility for a highly contentious episode which flows directly from the way a national police force has been created, under political control.

The absolute certainty is that police officers would not have been marching around rural Scotland with guns to the fore if there was still a structure of police boards and relatively local accountability. Instead, we have a particularly feeble quango called the Scottish Police Authority which was appointed by the minister and has given him absolutely no trouble.

Instead of a regional police authority made up of elected, accountable councillors, the Highlands and Islands – where much of the controversy has centred – has precisely one resident who is a member of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) board: a Mr Ian Ross, who is also chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage. The SNP’s tame quangoteers are nothing if not polymaths!

And, incidentally, whatever happened to the rules about quango members not taking part in politics for the duration of their appointments? Another of those who is supposed to hold Kenny MacAskill to account via the SPA board is one Jeane Freeman, who has rarely been off our screens as an advocate of independence, during and since the referendum campaign. Scrutiny? As the kids would say: “Lol”.

Or how about the remarkable story of Ferguson’s shipyard in Port Glasgow? It is welcome, of course, that it is to be resurrected. But a nimble industry committee of the Scottish Parliament might now be holding a short, sharp inquiry into how these circumstances arose in the first place, leading to Jim McColl’s highly politicised emergence as saviour of the stricken yard, and the lessons which can be learned from them.

Could liquidation of the long-established company have been avoided through earlier Scottish Government intervention? Fortunately, there was UK legislation in place which paid the Ferguson workers’ redundancy money and protected their pension rights. Let’s hope that more of them can return to work soon, with secure future prospects.

But clearly there is a continuing public interest in finding out exactly what happened with such an uplifting outcome at a politically sensitive time. Would the Scottish Government welcome a quick investigation by a committee of MSPs? I very much doubt it – but the question should certainly be put to the test. It’s exactly the kind of occurrence that merits retrospective parliamentary scrutiny.

The decision to award the £12 million contract to the new owners of the Ferguson yard was taken by another quango, Caledonian Maritime Assets, which owns the ferries and infrastructure that Caledonian MacBrayne operate. Neither its board nor that of CalMac contains a single individual from the communities which these organisations exist to serve.

This is a matter of particular relevance since there is a widespread expectation that CalMac privatisation will soon be back on the agenda. The tendering process was kicked into touch until this side of the referendum, but the dogs in the Hebridean streets know that Serco is waiting in confident expectation. A pro-active Holyrood committee could be getting the defences in first by examining the case for an integrated, public-sector ferry company in advance of any decision. I won’t hold my breath.

In other words, on every front, we could have lively democratic scrutiny of government, its actions and intentions, if the Holyrood committee system was not a wholly owned subsidiary of the SNP. The challenge for opposition parties is to find a way of challenging that, making Holyrood’s committees work and thereby transforming the whole political agenda.