Many of the systems, processes, and structures of the Scottish Parliament are considerably different to those of its counterpart in Westminster, including the role of its committees.
When the Scottish Parliament was established, a conscious decision was taken not to follow the Westminster model of two parliamentary Chambers. This was partly due to criticisms that the UK structure led to a ‘weak’ committee system, which encourages executive dominance and prevents effective legislative scrutiny.
The Scottish Parliament was therefore designed as a ‘unicameral’ parliament, meaning that unlike some other parliaments it only has a single Chamber, with no second or upper House. Whereas the UK Parliament is made up of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in Holyrood the job of providing additional scrutiny to legislation falls solely to the Committees.
This system is intended to enable more public involvement, increase accountability, and encourage the sharing of power.
Parliamentary business in Scotland is restricted to Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with Committee meetings taking place in the mornings and Chamber Business in the afternoons.
Each Committee is chaired by what is known as a ‘convenor’ and is made up of either seven or nine MSPs. The MSPs that sit on a Committee are selected to reflect the balance of the political parties elected to the Scottish Parliament.
Parliamentary rules dictate that Holyrood must establish a number of mandatory committees, including the Public Petitions Committee and the Public Audit Committee. The remainder of the committees are focussed on particular subject areas, include justice, education, and health, or established to consider specific issues or pieces of legislation.
Committees can invite any person to attend their meetings as a witness to give evidence on a particular issue relating to the business of the committee. Meetings are usually held in public and while the normally take place in the Scottish Parliament, they can take place anywhere in Scotland.
Committees consider and amend proposals for new laws, and can also propose new laws known as Committee Bills. A further power of committees is their ability to hold inquiries on any area which falls within their remit and subsequently publish a set of recommendations within a report, which can then be debated by the Parliament in full. They are also able to consider and report on the policy and operation of the Scottish Government, on European legislation, on secondary or subordinate legislation, and on public petitions, as long as the subject falls within their remit.
The Scottish Parliament committee system has not been without its critics however, with some stating the members all too often act on party lines rather than providing the non-partisan scrutiny envisioned.
The outgoing Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, has been a vocal critic of the system, calling for the Scottish Parliament to consider establishing a second chamber. The Labour Peer and ex-member of both the UK and Scottish parliaments, Lord Foulkes, has even suggested turning the former Royal High School in Edinburgh into a second chamber for Holyrood. Under Lord Foulkes plans a Scottish Senate of 46 members would be established to scrutinise and revise legislation.
However you view the Scottish committee system, even its most vocal critics admit that it is unlikely to change anytime soon. The current unicameral system means that the committees are powerful entities, with expansive remits. While engaging with Scottish Parliament committees can be challenging and difficult to navigate, with the right approach it can also be extremely rewarding.