This brief paper examines the current role of the Scottish Parliament, to help examine how it might oversee the security functions of the Scottish Government in an independent Scotland. I prepared it for the seminar series ‘Security in Scotland, with or without constitutional change’ convened by Andrew Neal.
- The Scottish Parliament was designed to be distinctive when compared to Westminster – with powerful, business-like, committees at its heart. This approach sounds well-suited to security oversight, which may require unusually high levels of cross-party cooperation and discretion.
- Yet, the Scottish Parliament remains part of the ‘Westminster family’ and committees suffer the same limitations – limited resources, high turnover, and a strong party whip – which undermine their independence, expertise and ability to secure information.
- Indeed, the Scottish Parliament may have more limitations than Westminster, including a smaller pool of recruitment and less-developed backbench career path.
- Independence could exacerbate these problems. We face the prospect of an already-stretched Scottish Parliament with more responsibilities but the same resources.
The Scottish Parliament was designed to be distinctive when compared to Westminster
The Scottish Parliament was designed, in some ways, to be a powerful and effective legislature with committees at the heart of its work.
- Committees were designed to combine standing and select committee roles, to foster expertise among their members.
- The idea was that committees would become relatively independent from government. Most committees are permanent and not subject to government dissolution. They have relatively few members, to allow them to develop a ‘businesslike’, not partisan, culture. The number of convenors (chairs) is proportional by party and they are selected by each committee.
- The hope was that MSPs would, to some extent, leave their party affiliations at the door, to engage in relatively consensual scrutiny without the same potential for grandstanding in public.
- It was invested with further powers and functions that we associate with relatively strong legislatures. Committees consider each stage of the legislative process before plenary. They can invite witnesses and demand government documents. They monitor of the Scottish Government’s pre-legislative consultation. Further, if all else fails, they have the ability to initiate their own bills.
Yet, the Scottish Parliament remains part of the ‘Westminster family’
The Scottish Parliament was not designed to be a powerful legislature in the way that we associate with political systems such as the United States. There are not the same divisions of powers and checks and balances between executive, legislature and judiciary. Instead, the executive operates at the heart of the legislature and, when enjoying a single or coalition party majority, has the ability to control its procedures. There is an expectation that the Scottish Parliament will not ‘share power’ in the way we would understand that phrase in the US. Rather, this is a traditional Westminster-style relationship in which the Scottish Government is expected to produce most policy, including legislation and amendments to legislation. The Scottish Parliament generally performs a scrutiny role to legitimise the outputs of the Scottish Government.
In practice, its distinctive elements are overshadowed by ‘universal’ constraints to Westminster-style Parliaments. Scottish Parliament committees:
- Operate in a system in which the party whip is strong, which limits the kind of independence of MSPs necessary to perform a business-like role. From 1999-2007 and 2011 onwards, the governing party or coalition enjoyed a majority of MSPs on all committees.
- Possess insufficient resources to perform an effective scrutiny role. Committees have 2-3 staff and 7-9 MSPs, and meet infrequently (Tuesday, Wednesday and/ or Thursday morning, during each session).
- Struggle to generate expertise – a problem exacerbated by (a) the other demands on MSP time, and (b) periods of high committee turnover.
- Struggle to gather information from the Scottish Government and public bodies. Public sector accountability is focused on ministerial accountability. Committees may struggle to secure detailed information directly from bodies such as health boards, while local authorities may ‘push back’ and assert their accountability to the public via local elections.
- Perhaps the most relevant example is the European (and External Relations) committee, which demonstrates the potential for a Scottish Government to be openly reluctant to share information. In the past, it has withheld information, using a new variant of the convention of collective cabinet responsibility. The committee also does not seem to have the ‘scrutiny reserve’ afforded to Westminster.
- One would expect the security services to be better equipped at withholding information, and more reluctant to share relatively sensitive information. The Scottish Parliament has not yet demonstrated a way to address this problem.
The Scottish Parliament may have more limitations than Westminster
- It has only 129 MSPs, which limits the pool of recruitment for committee members – a little over 100 MSPs cover 17 committees.
- Approximately half of those MSPs may be in the party of government (with the exception of minority government, 2007-11, in which the SNP had 47 MSPs in total).
- The ‘party whip’ is strong – and perhaps made stronger by the chance, eventually, for most MSPs of the governing party, to play a role in government.
- There appears to be no direct equivalent in the Scottish Parliament to the idea of a career backbencher occupying a senior role in committees.
Independence could exacerbate these problems
- The Scottish Government White Paper Scotland’s Future devotes very little time to the Scottish Parliament, and largely expresses satisfaction about its current role.
- The Scottish National Party suggests that its membership may remain at 129. Dave Thompson MSP received minimal SNP support when he proposed an increase of 70 MSPs. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears to advocate the maintenance of 129 MSPs (see the Youtube video here). Of course, SNP policy may not mean Scottish policy, but no opposition party has expressed an interest in this topic.
- If the number of MSPs remains at 129, the Scottish Parliament’s responsibilities will rise profoundly, without any guarantee that its resources will follow suit.
- We face the prospect of an already-limited Scottish Parliament being stretched further – given a large number of extra responsibilities but not the resources to perform an effective scrutiny role.
 Drawn from these papers and blog posts: How Can the Scottish Parliament Be Improved as a Legislature?; What is the Role of the Scottish Parliament?; The Role of the Scottish Parliament in a Devolved or Independent Scotland; If the Vote is Yes: What Will Be the Size of the Scottish Parliament?
 See pages 355-6: “The Scottish Parliament. Scotland already has a modern, accessible parliament, elected on a proportional representation system. It will remain the parliament of an independent Scotland. The Scottish Parliament has set an example within the UK on how a modern legislature should operate. In line with its founding principles of power sharing, accountability, access and participation, and equal opportunity, the Parliament has successfully put into practice the principles on which it was founded: the petitions system makes the Parliament accessible and improves accountability; the legislative process gives civil society and individuals significant opportunities to participate before and during the formal Parliamentary processes parliamentary committees and, since 2008, the Scottish Cabinet take the process of government to all parts of the country – during the summer of 2013 alone, for example, the Cabinet has convened in Lerwick, Hawick, Campbeltown and Fraserburgh; participation and engagement is built into the work of government, parliament, local government and the wider public sector”.