Brian Monteith: Watchdog pays for partisan members

Thanks to SNP loading, Scotland’s public audit committee has had its credibility undermined, writes Brian Monteith

The public audit committee has had members including the now justice secretary Kenny MacAskill. Picture: Julie Bull
The public audit committee has had members including the now justice secretary Kenny MacAskill. Picture: Julie Bull

Although rarely, if ever, the subject of discussion down the pub or after dinner, there can be little doubt that the public audit committee (PAC)of the Scottish Parliament has been one of the most successful aspects of devolution.

I do not say this because I was its convener for four of its 15 years of existence, or because there are fewer devolution success stories than are regularly claimed, but because it has beyond question been more successful than any other institution at bringing transparency and accountability to the rule of the executive government.

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That is, after all, its prime function – so much so that it is always chaired by a member from an opposition party.

It is all the more regrettable, then, that through the actions of nationalists, the credibility and force of the PAC has now been thrown to the dogs. This has been achieved by the SNP – who by virtue of its absolute majority at Holyrood also enjoys an unprecedented majority on the committee and is thus able to control what is published in any report.

In the past, when there were coalition or minority governments, no single party could dictate the outcome of a committee inquiry and report. There was always a need to find consensus across at least two parties and this gave the committees a degree of respect, for it meant that decisions were more often evidence-based and bipartisan.

Tasked with considering the financial and policy performances of government departments and agencies, the PAC went further, however, and always sought to establish unanimity in what it said – and has astonishingly managed to achieve this for some 15 years, even though it has had among its members many strong and single minded characters – such as Kenny MacAskill, Fergus Ewing or Murdo Fraser, not normally given to bending with the prevailing wind.

That such consensus has been consistently achieved has made the committee’s criticism of all governments all the stronger, and all the more damning.

Such has been the success of that criticism in holding public officials to account and forcing change upon government that the opposition members have a vested interest in maintaining the consensus that brings such credibility and therefore always need to find some compromise – otherwise they risk looking partisan and self-serving. In the case of unionist members, there is also a benefit to be had in trying to bind with the nationalists, for by disagreeing and going it alone, their argument is weakened and one of the great successes of devolution diluted.

Of course, the converse is true: SNP members realise they lend credibility to criticism of their government (or more normally its officials) and the processes of the devolved parliament – and therefore look to find some leverage to limit what damage the committee’s conclusions may say.

An agreement must be found but because the PAC relies upon independent visible reports provided by the Auditor General through the work of Audit Scotland, and then takes further evidence in public hearing, it is very difficult for individual members to reach different conclusions from what the open evidence has said. This makes the PAC the epitome of the Scottish enlightenment’s philosophy of seeking rational decisions based upon evidence. How could nationalists traduce that?

Until last week every report of the PAC had managed to find a consensus, but not now – not with an SNP government approaching the independence referendum where public embarrassment is to be avoided at all costs. Party discipline must come first and the latest casualty is the reputation of the PAC when its convener, deputy convener and two other opposition members were forced to produce a minority report after consistently facing being outvoted on the wording of the draft by the five SNP members.

The subject of the report was the centralisation of the eight police constabularies into one and whether or not the policy outcomes and financial targets were being achieved. Standard fare for the PAC, but this still proved too sensitive an issue, so references to government shortcomings in the original draft – prepared by committee clerks following in-camera discussions by the committee – were expunged. These included the failure to produce a business case that could test the accuracy of predicted savings; worsening relations between Police Scotland, its governing body and the government; the hiring of more interim staff than anticipated – producing additional costs that will make the achieving of savings targets more challenging; and a need to find savings of £1.1 billion from the Police Scotland centralisation by 2026 – a higher figure than forecast by the First Minister.

All fairly humdrum to most citizens, no doubt. It is because it is dry administrative detail of government that the establishment of consensus has been possible previously, but not any more. Now the government has to be defended at all costs. If such partisan behaviour had happened at Westminster’s public accounts committee, it would be treated as a national scandal. So much for claims that Holyrood shows how its committee system is a lesson for the Mother of Parliaments.

That a committee convener should be moved to put his name to an unprecedented minority report, and that he and the three other members of the opposition that signed it off should hold their own press conference to explain their actions, illustrates the scale of the breach in trust that now exists with their SNP colleagues.

Trying to restrict criticism of the SNP government by holding back information that might contradict official statements or cause embarrassment is not new – the SNP has form. Whether it is trying to fight Freedom of Information requests – or claim legal advice exists that cannot be made public, and then go to court to prevent its release, only to find no such advice exists – is the stuff of the SNP’s secretive Scottish state. That such politicians wish even more power is a frightening prospect.

If this is how the SNP treats the most successful example of bipartisan committee working in a devolved Scottish Parliament, what should we expect of the nationalists under independence without a second chamber? The PAC may not have the obvious appeal of the health, justice or education committees, but we ignore how the SNP and its placemen have treated it at our peril.