Background

The Finance Committee at Holyrood published its long awaited Report into Accountability and Governance last month.  Its conclusions, and especially its strong criticism of the current structure of independent bodies in Scotland, have raised a few eyebrows among those with an interest in public administration. 

The Report follows a lengthy inquiry which began in March this year, looking into the growth of independent regulatory and investigatory bodies in Scotland since devolution.  These bodies have been established in a number of forms; there are currently six Ombudsmen, Commissioners or Office Holders that are accountable directly to the Parliament and a number of bodies that are accountable to the Executive as Non Departmental Public Bodies, Executive Agencies or Non Ministerial Departments.

The Report's key findings

Broadly the report finds that the current arrangements surrounding the establishment of these bodies are not satisfactory and that plans for the establishment of any more should be put on hold pending the resolution of these outstanding issues.  The report flags several concerns with financial accountability and value for money.  In particular, the Committee was not convinced by Scottish Executive assurances that value for money was a top priority in developing proposals for new independent bodies.  It recommended that the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB) be provided with powers by the Parliament to set budgets for the bodies going forward.  The Committee has also raised concerns with overlaps between existing and proposed bodies and has recommended that no body be proposed unless it can be demonstrated that an existing body cannot carry out the function.  In this connection, the Committee stated that it saw a strong case for integrating the proposed Human Rights Commission with the existing Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and that it was concerned by the existing proposals to create four other new Executive-sponsored bodies.  The Committee was of the view that the resources of such bodies should be pooled and existing bodies amalgamated where possible.  Further, if bodies' roles are related but not overlapping the Committee recommended the signing of memoranda of understanding between the bodies. 

The Committee was also concerned by the current classification of bodies into categories such as Non Departmental Public Bodies and Non Ministerial Departments, as well as Commissioners and Ombudsmen.  The Committee suggested that the Executive review the classification with a view to simplifying the models to ensure greater transparency.

What does this mean for the future?

The Report made specific comments with respect to the Scottish Commissioner for Human Rights Bill.  That Bill had effectively stalled in the Parliament following the Justice 1 Committee's failure to recommend the Bill in its Stage 1 Report in February.  However, the Executive proposed a number of amendments to the Bill in advance of Stage 2 in September (before publication of the Finance Committee's Report) and the Bill now awaits consideration by the Parliament as a whole for Stage 3 in this month.  A number of further amendments were proposed at Stage 2, subsequent to the Finance Committee's Report being published – including a number by Des McNulty, who chaired the Finance Committee's investigations – but none appear to go as far as the recommendations proposed in the Finance Committee's Report.  Proposed amendments to effect integration with the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman were voted down.

Despite this, the Report's criticism of the arrangements concerning these bodies as a whole could have wide-ranging effects, not least on the bodies themselves.  The changes proposed could lead to fundamental restructuring of these bodies' own accountability arrangements, although any progress on the matter will probably be delayed until after the publication of the Executive's own independent review of the regulation, audit, inspection and complaints handling of public services, which is not due to report until June 2007.  Professor Lorne Crerar, who is heading this review, will undoubtedly need to take account of the Finance Committee's views in producing his report.

It remains to be seen what the outcome of this Report will be and it will be particularly interesting to see how the competing interests are balanced of the independence of these bodies on the one hand, and their financial accountability on the other.  However, while the Report will lead to uncertainty in the short term for both these bodies themselves and those that deal with them, its conclusions are to be welcomed.  The Executive needs to improve its consideration of proposals to establish new bodies, including their impact on existing bodies operating in Scotland.  In addition, clarification of the classification of these bodies would help to improve transparency in this part of the public sector.  The Finance Committee's report has highlighted a number of matters that require further, detailed, consideration and must be seen as a step in the right direction.

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