Time to wake up to the stale state of Holyrood’s democracy
Whatever you think of the prospect of Lady Mone, one thing should be clear by now.
Every country deserves a system of government that is accountable to the people, and as long as an unelected House of Lords exists, the UK will not be truly democratic. We simply cannot trust legislative scrutiny in the hands of a body dominated by the rich and privileged, far removed from the daily reality of life faced by the people over whom they exercise power.
When Holyrood was first opened in 1999, it was seen as a new kind of decision-making body in the UK - one that was wholly accountable to the views and needs of the people it serves. And for a while, it really did blaze a trail with innovative new ways of working.
The first time I set foot inside, it felt like the Scottish Parliament really would live up to its ideal. This was three years before I was elected as a member, and I was there to give evidence to a committee of MSPs on behalf of the youth group I worked with. I was struck by the inclusive and open culture of the institution. Back then, Holyrood’s online presence and mechanisms like the Petitions Committee and the Civic Forum made it feel miles ahead of the elitist Westminster relic.
But the fact that we started off well doesn’t mean we’re still on the right track.
The purpose of a Parliament is to make sure the Government doesn’t just run around doing whatever it wants. It is meant to hold power to account. Unfortunately, the stale culture and old structures of legislative scrutiny we have are now so outdated, that the SNP majority now faces next to no resistance to its decisions.
This problem is clear as day if you look at the work of Holyrood’s committees.
The committees are a crucial check for all new Government legislation. Their job is to scrutinise proposed laws before they go to a vote, and to make some noise if the Government gets it wrong. This is an extremely important role, but at the moment, very few people think our committees are working as they should.
First, there’s the workload. MSPs often sit on committees with remits that span a huge range of subjects. Their workload is dictated by the timescale of government business, when it should be the other way around. Their ability to put new laws through a detailed inspection is limited at best, non-existent at worst.
And then there are the whips. Think of Westminster what you will, but at the moment, there is far more rebellion and independent thought in its debating chamber than there is on the back benches of Holyrood. This problem extends to committee work - many members seem to have forgotten that their job isn’t to push the party line, but to take a long, critical look at Government proposals.
For example, when a row blew up between college bosses and the education secretary in 2012, the convener of the Education Committee dismissed the need for an inquiry out of hand.
In 2013 an Audit Scotland report into the creation of Police Scotland concluded that although the Public Audit Committee had received an assurance from the Scottish Government that a full business case would support the need for the single service, this had not been carried out.
And just this month we learned that barely a quarter of requests for action were accepted by the public petitions committee. In fact it's rare these days that committees undertake work on any issue that the governing party would rather was left alone. Even in setting the scope of inquiries, we often find that some members only want to focus on UK Government failings, rather than seeing the full picture.
The blurred lines between the SNP in Government and the party in Parliament mean that committees are simply echoing whatever the Ministers want. Many committee members, and even some Convenors and Deputy Convenors, actually work for the Ministers they are there to scrutinise. It’s almost as if the Government is marking its own homework.
Earlier this year, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament Tricia Marwick called for the committee system to be shaken up. She was absolutely right to do so.
The trouble is that her proposals are just tinkering around the edges of what’s really at stake here. Cutting back the number of committees will only increase the already broad remit of their work, while electing committee chairs won’t prevent the ruling party’s candidates from being whipped into shape by their leadership.
To really make Holyrood answer to the people, as it was always meant to, we need a proper overhaul of who gets a say in law-making. With Scotland soon getting control over new areas in taxation, welfare and energy among others, there’s also a need for additional capacity at Holyrood. For the Scottish Greens, this means opening legislation to public debate.
Both traditional and online techniques could let us “crowdsource” ideas to improve laws and put public questions directly to Ministers. With more ambition, we could develop new scrutiny forums involving community representatives, local councils, trades unions, and even jury-style random selection.
We’ve got to be honest with ourselves. There may not be unelected millionaires taking decision in our Parliament, but we’re still far from the ideal we started off with; the idea of a parliament that shares power with the people.
This week Scottish Parliament business resumes following the summer break. With those new devolved powers coming and an election just around the corner in May, we need to get our democracy working properly, and we need to do it now.
Patrick Harvie has been Scottish Green MSP for Glasgow since 2003 and is a member of Holyrood's economy, energy and tourism committee