Lesley Riddoch: More MSPs might be what we need

WE have no second chamber at Holyrood, but laws still need scrutiny and revision, argues Lesley Riddoch

Ken Macintosh, the Scottish Parliaments new presiding officer, wants elected chairs and a cull of committees. Picture: TSPL
Ken Macintosh, the Scottish Parliaments new presiding officer, wants elected chairs and a cull of committees. Picture: TSPL

Should MSPs increase their own number to cope with the extra workload of new welfare powers in 2017? According to former deputy First Minister Jim Wallace and former Presiding Officer George Reid, yes they should.

Wallace believes a small rise in numbers, and improvements to the way parliament works, would avoid the need for a second chamber. He told a Sunday newspaper: “Institutions need to evolve in the light of experience and it is nearly 20 years since the original devolution referendum. This would seem an appropriate time to take stock… that should include a look at how many members the parliament has.”

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George Reid thinks numbers could rise from 129 to 150 and points to Brexit negotiations as another reason to staff up.

Maybe Messrs Reid and Wallace have a point. Even though the so-called Mother of Parliaments remains imperiously impervious to change, the Scottish Parliament is younger, more flexible and perhaps more likely to need a 20 year refit since every aspect of its original functioning was the product of political compromise, not necessarily best practice. But the trouble is, few onlookers would currently put the number of MSPs at the top of any Holyrood reform agenda.

First, there are doubts about how well the current cohort operates. Would double the number of MSPs make the parliament any more efficient, as long as committees are headed by members of the governing party and peopled by a majority of their MSPs? Green co-convenor Patrick Harvie says: “There is a culture of absolute whipping which our committees were not intended to develop. The large majority of votes are in the bag before ministers even open their mouths. Committee reports split down party lines.”

The SNP leadership might easily shrug off such criticism and point out that previous Scottish Governments and most other parliaments work the same way. But even Westminster – usually a reliable bastion of all that’s fairly stale in parliamentary procedure – has a better committee system. In Holyrood each committee chair (bar one) is appointed by the Scottish Government. In the Commons, MPs elect committee chairs and that means tenacious backbenchers can make names and careers for themselves without becoming ministers. If committee chairs at Holyrood are not elected in the same independent way, pressure will mount to have a revising second chamber (though obviously not one based on patronage or hereditary wealth). Is that what Nicola Sturgeon wants?

Furthermore, parliamentary private secretaries (loyal backbenchers chosen to link ministers with MPs) don’t sit on Commons committees, but their Scottish counterparts do. Some Parliamentary Liaison Officers are even convenors and deputy convenors – managing oversight of the very ministers that employ them. As Patrick Harvie puts it: “This isn’t parliamentary scrutiny. It’s a government marking its own work.” As a result backbench rebellions are unheard of in Holyrood.

There’s also the worry that faulty legislation is getting through because committees can’t undertake detailed enough examination. Last month, the Named Persons Act was deemed to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by the Supreme Court. Was the mistake down to the government’s legal team, a compliant committee, neither or both? During the passage of the Land Reform Act the government tabled scores of amendments, leaving committee members a day or just hours to formulate a response. The Bill was passed with “strings attached” in the form of secondary legislation that will take much of this new parliamentary term to consider. Maybe that’s all right – maybe it makes a mockery of the committee process.

Another worry is that Holyrood has created two classes of MSPs (list and constituency) with the latter wielding substantially more clout. It’s hard to see how this downside of Scotland’s semi-proportional system can be fixed without a system of full PR where all MSPs are elected in the same way. That of course would call for a major change of thinking and a look at how like-sized neighbours operate. In Sweden – which consistently clocks up the world’s highest election turnouts – many MPs don’t live in their constituencies or hold local surgeries. The Swedish Ombudsman system is expected to deal with the vast swathe of complaints about state services that choke MSPs’ inboxes in Scotland, while municipal government is a powerful domain in which Swedish MPs are not expected or entitled to interfere with. Instead Swedish parliamentarians are expected to operate solely as law-makers and sit in massive multi-member constituency groupings not political party posses.

Is the SNP up for a radical rethinking of the whole British-hand-me-down structure of governance? Not a chance. If the public expects meaningful Holyrood reform to come from the SNP, they’ll be disappointed. Likewise MSPs hinting at intervention by “external forces” may also wait o’er long. It’s not that SNP supporters want a “one party state”. It’s that small countries unconsciously suppress internal difference to focus energy on big national issues.

That may be acceptable during times of crisis – and we are certainly living in turbulent times. But no polity or party can operate in permanent emergency mode. An unrebellious, douce Holyrood will eventually trigger cynicism and disengagement, as our “local” government has done over the past centralising half century.

Any agenda for change at Holyrood must be promoted by the new presiding officer Ken Macintosh. He wants elected committee chairs but also a cull to create far fewer mega-committees and they would be easier for whips to control. Indeed sceptics suggest the Labour MSP’s candidacy got SNP backing precisely because they reckoned he’d resist calls for change.

So there might be a case for having more MSPs at Holyrood. It’s just that pressing it might open Pandora’s Box. So here’s hoping someone tries.