By Michael Cole
Recently, an intensive spotlight has been thrown on Scottish government and politics. First, almost 45% of the voters supported leaving the UK and, second, a consensus has emerged that the Scottish Parliament should acquire additional powers. Third, in May 2015 the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats in the UK General Election and now opinion polls suggest that they are likely to increase their majority in the Scottish Parliament. These contemporary events provided a good context for research I have been undertaking over the last few years on scrutiny in the Scottish Parliament. The central themes perhaps being is this resurgent self-confidence in Scottish institutions justified? And how do they differ from those at UK level?
In my recent Policy & Politics article entitled Committee scrutiny in Scotland: a comparative and bi-constitutional perspective, I looked at the nature of the committee scrutiny at the Parliament in terms of the selection of committee members and agendas; evidence-gathering; and the evaluative process and drew on an extensive literature relating to similar exercises at nation state and devolved governance level around the world. The focus was on trying to establish a broad sense of the characteristics of committee scrutiny at the Parliament, an objective that would help place into context the wider movement of events. Specifically, the impact of independence or some other configuration of enhanced devolution on the scrutiny and accountability of Scottish government and the public policy decision-making process. This matters, of course, because the argument that Scottish government wasn’t sufficiently accountable or adequately scrutinised was (and still is) a powerful driver of devolution.
After undertaking interviews with Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), parliamentary officials and committee witnesses and extensive documentary research, I related my findings to a bi-constitutionalism thesis which drew on work of Arend Lijphart and, more recently, Matthew Flinders. I addressed the central question of the extent to which such political institutions and cultures reflected a majoritarian or consensual model of democracy. Again this is a theme central to Scottish governance given that devolution has been justified, partly, on the grounds that the Westminster model is too majoritarian and hence insufficiently democratic or capable of delivering effective scrutiny and accountability.
However, in contrast to the standard devolutionary critique, this research suggested that in some key respects, committee scrutiny in the Scottish Parliament is more majoritarian than its House of Commons counterpart. In particular, from 2007-09 committee scrutiny at the Scottish Parliament was affected by the intensive partisanship pervasive following the election of the first Scottish National Party (SNP) government. In contrast to the practice of House of Commons select committees, many non-legislative inquiries suffered from politicians engaging in party posturing rather than developing more constructive agendas, and similarly the scope of such committee agendas narrowed. This partisanship meant, therefore, that committees struggled to be even as effective in challenging executive power as the House of Commons select committees. This deficiency was augmented by the amalgamation of legislative and non-legislative scrutiny into single committees (the Parliament has no public bill committee equivalents), which reduces capacity to undertake substantive non-legislative inquiries. Similarly, the patronage-based method of appointing committee members appeared dated in comparison to the election-based approach adopted by the House of Commons in 2010. Furthermore, geographic jurisdictional limits also weakened Scottish committee scrutiny. The only core aspect where practice implied more effective scrutiny than at Westminster was in relation to ministerial questioning, which was much more frequent at the Scottish Parliament.
The findings outlined in this article thus make a pertinent contribution to the wider debate on devolution. They suggest that politicians and policy-makers should look at the effectiveness of the parliamentary committees; otherwise shifting responsibilities from London to Edinburgh might impact negatively on governmental scrutiny and accountability.
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