As the Commission on Parliamentary Reform begins to comb through the evidence procured from 100 written submissions and over 40 workshops, conferences and meetings, a parliamentary Easter recess provided ample opportunity to ponder the published evidence it has received and what priorities for reform emerged from the submissions.
The Commission itself was established last October by Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh, to evaluate the Parliament’s effectiveness as a legislative body. Considering this remit, it is no surprise that a cursory glance through the submissions reveals a multitude of individuals and organisations invested time and thought into its work, all with different relationships and demands of the Parliament. Such a diversity of perspectives also led to a diversity of recommendations. Some focused on the Parliament’s employee procurement strategy, others on establishing a training curriculum for MSPs based around debating and scrutinising. There was even a recommendation for a return to Athenian democratic roots with volunteer citizen MSPs.
Among these disparate submissions, though, consensus does emerge as to what change the parliament needs to pursue. Chiefly, public engagement was constantly highlighted as an area the Parliament could improve upon, a fact the Commission itself acknowledged by declaring this to be a key remit of its work.
With regards to the present situation, regular praise was espoused within the submissions for the conducting of committee and Cabinet business outside of Edinburgh, and the role of the Public Petitions Committee in giving the public a direct means to voice issues of concern. Despite these institutionalised efforts, however, recent data from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggest that, after an initial peak of optimism in 1999 when 65% of people felt more empowered due to the Scottish Parliament, there has since been significant periods where the majority view was that it made no difference to the level of input ordinary people had in the political process. Even now, public opinion has still not returned to those more optimistic times.
Issues of engagement were pertinent to both politics-centred entities, such as the Association for Scottish Public Affairs, and advocacy groups, such as Inclusion Scotland. Both emphasised that there was a lack of effort to facilitate engagement from members of the public with regard to committees in particular, with the general weekday morning session times during working hours giving little time for the general public and particularly those with complex transport needs to attend. To meet this challenge, many of the recommendations centred around moving away from formal consultative processes and regimented meeting times, with a greater openness to going out and seeking the views of these groups who were unlikely to engage themselves with the business of Parliament.
The other key theme to emerge was the extent to which the ability of Parliament to effectively legislate and scrutinise the work of Government was now being undermined. The need for an increase in the capacity of Parliament, whether it be through longer working hours as the Royal Society of Edinburghrecommended or through increases in the number of MSPs, was felt a necessity for Parliament to cope with the workload it faces now compared to its inception. Even in submissions from public bodies such as Audit Scotland, the lack of post-legislative scrutiny of Government policies was highlighted as a concern, particularly due to the Government legislating based on expected or hoped for outcomes which require such scrutiny to ascertain if they have been achieved.
Increases in a parliamentarian’s current workload through further devolution, Brexit and a second independence referendum were also noted. Whatever sympathy (or lack thereof) you have with the notion of overworked parliamentarians, we are already seeing the results of these pressures, with important debates such as that to mark International Women’s Day debates being reduced in order to allow for questions on current events. Changes to a Parliament designed to legislate on the powers devolved in 1999 must ensure the powers it has in 2017 are adequately utilised and scrutinised.
With regards to how the Commission should proceed, it does need to be emphasised that these are important issues which are raised. That fundamental issues, such as the ability of the public to engage and in turn feel empowered by Parliament and for MSPs to fulfil their role in the legislative process, were raised suggests that the Commission cannot merely tinker around the edges. These challenges also require specific solutions.
Increasing capacity may give more time and space to consider the views of the public, but it offers no guarantee that engagement will increase. Conversely, more informal evidence sessions which are open to the public can only take place once efforts are made to ensure such activities do not detract or take time away from MSPs’ main role as legislators and scrutinisers of the government.
It remains to be seen whether the Commission will avoid these pitfalls and proposes changes which would effectively meet these challenges. The final report is due out in June.