Holyrood ‘suffering identity crisis’, says reform commission

John McCormick believes the Holyrood legislature is too closely associated with the executive. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
John McCormick believes the Holyrood legislature is too closely associated with the executive. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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The Scottish Parliament must forge more of a distinct identity from the government in the minds of Scots, according to the head of a commission looking into Holyrood reform.

Former BBC Scotland controller John McCormick said both institutions are intertwined in the minds of many voters and the commission is seeking to find ways of tackling this.

The last majority SNP government was criticised for wielding too much control over the legislature, with claims that the influential committees had become too politicised.

McCormick said the commission is looking at ways to “strengthen” the role of Holyrood committees, with powerful new elected chairs being considered after these were rejected two years ago.

“At the moment they’re elected by the committees, whereas in other legislatures we’re looking at they’re elected by the whole parliament. It’s certainly one of the issues on the table,” he said. “Our aim is to make sure that the committees are strengthened – the conveners, the staffing, the work that they do.”

The commission is examining whether the current set-up at Holyrood is fit for purpose to deal with the sweeping new powers which have been devolved to Scotland in areas such as tax-raising and welfare. McCormick described it as a “safety check” on Holyrood’s founding principles of accountability, openness and transparency.

He said: “One of the tasks in our remit is to see if we can make some recommendations in the area of clarifying the identity of the parliament as distinct from the government. That’s kind of difficult because in most people’s view they kind of brigade the two, they coalesce.”

Former first minister Lord McConnell warned in his evidence to the committee that the balance between MSPs’ loyalty to their constituents and to their party has now shifted too 
far in the direction of the latter.

The mixed-member electoral system at the Scottish Parliament was widely expected to preclude the prospect of a majority government ever being elected. Critics claim the system was found wanting when Alex Salmond secured a majority in 2011 and his administration was able to “bulldoze” through unpopular legislation on the strength of sheer numbers.

McCormick said the increase in responsibility will bring the need for greater capacity, with Salmond having called for an increase in the number of MSPs when he appeared before the commission last month.

“Capacity means more than just adding numbers of MSPs – it’s how the place works, the use that’s made of the time, how the chamber operates, how the committee operates,” he added.