Tricia Marwick, the retiring Presiding Officer, has been making again a case for a review of the structure of committees in the Scottish Parliament. Because there is no second chamber (unless we count the UK parliament in Westminster as one), the scope for initiating, revising and monitoring legislation is limited. In principle, the Committees have that role. Marwick argues that there are too many committees for the number of members, committees have been dominated by supporters of the government and the role of committees has often been reactive.
There is a real problem here, but her proposed solutions have not attracted much support. Reducing the numbers of committees leads to some topics eating time from the scrutiny of others – Health and Sport, Education and Culture, Rural Affairs and Climate Change. Besides, extra committees are still needed in Parliament for the scrutiny of particular legislation, so there is no way of ensuring that MSPs only serve on one committee. There just aren’t enough of them to go round.
There are several alternatives which might be considered. One might be to appoint a body, like the French Conseil d’Etat, to consider the technicalities of legislation. (The French model combines that function with the judicial branch, which is not wise – it violates the separation of powers, and it gives too little attention to the substance of policy. The principle to take away is that legislation can sensibly be reviewed by an appointed external body, reporting back to elected officials.)
Another option would be to create an external support structure for the committees, allowing committees to delegate the process of evidence gathering, monitoring and expert judgment to appointed sub-committees, whose reports and work would then be scrutinised by the elected politicians. At present, that kind of scrutiny and support is not available to the Committees; it is only available to the Scottish Government through the civil service.