Commission on Parliamentary Reform publishes report on Scottish Parliament

The Commission on Parliamentary Reform has now published its much-awaited report on the Scottish Parliament. The report makes a broad range of recommendations, including changes to the committee system, chamber debates and the legislative process itself, which will now be taken forward by Holyrood’s Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh.

22 June 2017

The Commission on Parliamentary Reform published its highly-anticipated Report on the Scottish Parliament on 20 June 2017. While the report stops short of recommending any change to Holyrood’s electoral system or the introduction of a second chamber, it does propose a broad range of important changes to the way in which the Scottish Parliament operates.

The Commission was established in October 2016 by Holyrood’s Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh with a remit to examine how the work of the Scottish Parliament could be improved, in order to deliver greater scrutiny and increase public engagement. The Commission is made up of figures from Scottish civic society, including religious leaders, campaigners and a range of current and former politicians. The Commission has been seeking views on the Parliament from a wide range of stakeholders from across Scotland over the past nine months.

The Report
Perhaps the main headlines from the report will be those recommendations that are not included. Many commentators had called on the Commission to recommend electoral reform, the introduction of a second chamber or an increase in the number of MSPs. The report does not make any such recommendations, stating instead that:

“it would not be justified to recommend a second chamber or an increase in the number of MSPs unless it can be demonstrated that the Parliament is currently working at peak efficiency”

The recommendations of the report are therefore focussed on improving the capacity and effectiveness of the Parliament in its current form.

The Recommendations
The report makes 75 separate recommendations, ranging from the Parliament’s media strategy, diversity and the use of emerging technologies through to the structure of committees and the legislative process itself.

Some of the more eye-catching proposals include:

  • the election of committee conveners by Parliament as opposed to selection by party;
  • a review of the resources and powers available to committees in order to facilitate greater expertise and experience and support more effective scrutiny;
  • the first question of party leaders and other MSPs at First Minister’s Question to not be published in advance, avoiding the need for scripted diary questions  (i.e. no more “What are the First Minister’s plans for the rest of the day?”);
  • the current three-stage legislative process to be expanded to five to include greater focus on pre- and post-legislative scrutiny;
  • a Legislative Standards Body, similar to that used in New Zealand, to be established to identify standards of good practice regarding the content of legislation and, in effect, provide a ‘checklist’ for parliamentarians;
  • a stronger role for the Presiding Officer in ruling on conduct within the chamber to ensure an appropriate balance between political debate and scrutiny and a mechanism for MSPs to raise a complaint with the Presiding Officer where they believe an oral answer is inadequate or inaccurate; 
  • greater collaboration between parties on the schedule of forthcoming parliamentary business;
  • the establishment of a back bench committee or group to allow backbenchers a say on the effectiveness of the Parliament’s processes;
  • where a Minister loses a vote, he or she will be required to return to Parliament to address the concerns raised in that debate within a prescribed timescale; and
  • a regular review of the Parliament’s governing rules to take place towards the end of each parliamentary session.

The recommendations of the report have been welcomed by Holyrood’s Presiding Officer, who will now work towards implementing the proposed changes in collaboration with MSPs.  It should be noted, however, that the report does not rule out the prospect of more radical change in the event that the proposed changes do not have the desired outcomes. Given the new powers being devolved to Holyrood and the turbulent political climate, the coming years will clearly be a key test of the capacity and effectiveness of the Parliament.