Enquiry into the application of the Consultative Steering Group Principles in the Scottish Parliament
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Parliament Procedures Committee Enquiry into the application of the Consultative Steering Group Principles in the Scottish Parliament. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with experience in constitutional law and of working with the Scottish Parliament.
Overall, the RSE believes the Scottish Parliament has made a reasonable start but it is still a relatively young body and needs to continue to work at winning the public's confidence. The specific issues identified in the review are addressed below:
Sharing the Power
How successful has the Parliament been in working effectively and practically to share power with the people of Scotland and the Executive?
The scope for sharing power is limited in a Parliament where the members are representatives not delegates. There will, for example, inevitably be instances where the Parliament may take a decision which does not necessarily accord with the views of the electorate e.g. on Section 28 or, if the issue were ever to arise, capital punishment. A principle of "sharing power with the people of Scotland" may be unrealistic and likely to give rise to false expectations. It is worth noting in this context, that a recent Economic and Social Research Council survey has shown the percentage of Scots who think the Scottish Parliament "will give/has given ordinary people more say in how Scotland is governed" has dropped from 79% in 1997 to 44% in 2000. Consultation with the public is more realistic and the Committees of the Parliament seem to be establishing a good record in that respect. The Parliament also seems to operate satisfactorily in its power-sharing with the Executive.
Do the remits, number and composition of the Parliamentary Committees appear to promote the efficient discharge of Parliament's business and its ability to share power effectively?
Given there is no second chamber in the Scottish Parliament, Scottish legislation needs to be particularly well examined through the committee process. It is, however, possible for more than one Parliamentary Committee to tackle an issue simultaneously, and this may result in a more thorough examination of such an issue than having its merits scrutinized by only one Committee. Good communications would need to be maintained between the members and officers of the Committees, however, to ensure it does not give rise to internal friction.
In addition, there appears to be no procedure for modifying the remit of Committees or indeed for instigating new Committees. For example, a strong case can be made out for the establishment of a Science and Technology Committee (similar to those operating effectively in both Houses at Westminster), especially given the recent launch of the Science Strategy for Scotland. However, there appears to be no established route to consider such an option.
Is the distinction between the Scottish Executive and the Parliament widely understood by the public and the press?
The distinction between the Executive and the Parliament is only gradually being understood. In the politics of devolution the distinction became blurred and it will take time to correct all misunderstanding. The Parliament's, perhaps unavoidable, early preoccupation with salaries, medals and conditions of service did members a disservice from which the Parliament's reputation has not yet recovered. The saga of the new building has not helped. Correcting these impressions will take time and sustained effort by the Parliament.
How are the financial systems and audit arrangements in place to ensure the accountability of the Executive and the Parliament working?
The principle of accountability to the Scottish people seems reasonably well served in a number of areas where the Scottish Executive has responsibility. There were problems, however, over the overall costs of the new Holyrood Parliament building, and the lack of accountability, prior to the commencement of the Scottish Parliament between branches of the UK Government (including the Scottish Office) for the overall costs of the building. The need for value for money should be an embedded principle which, if not properly discharged, could damage the principle of accountability for some time.
Greater accountability could also be sought in the area of Health, where accountability is restricted to individual Hospital Trusts, which are required to open their board meetings to the press and public. There is, however, no similar annual reporting to the public on the policies and working of the Scottish National Health Service as a whole, as there is, for example, for Scottish Enterprise National.
Accessibility, Openness, Responsiveness
Has the Parliament been successful in achieving accessibility and openness through appropriate and innovative consultation procedures?
The Parliament has been successful in achieving accessibility and openness and certainly a significant effort has been made in this regard. In this respect the Scottish Parliament has a better reputation than Westminster.
Responsiveness, however, is a more debatable matter and the impression is sometimes given that the members' interests do not always reflect the public's priorities but this is related to the earlier question on sharing power with the people of Scotland.
Is the internet site clear and easy to use?
The Parliament’s e-governance seems to be successful, with the system designed to be inclusive and approachable. The information on the Parliament web site is comprehensive and it is to be hoped that as access to the internet becomes more widespread, greater use of this facility will be made.
How far has the establishment of an Equal Opportunities Committee achieved the effective mainstreaming of equal opportunities in the consciousness of the Parliament and Scottish society?
The Executive appears to be taking this very seriously and has a programme of relevant research in hand. While the work of the Equal Opportunities Committee is no doubt useful and its existence is an important signal of the need to give attention to equal opportunities, the effect of Executive, or judicial, action is likely to be more influential.
Review, self-assessment and monitoring
Would it be useful for the Parliament itself to conduct an annual "audit" of CSG "principles into practice" in so far as these affect the Parliament?
An annual review/audit would be useful. In particular the Scottish Parliament could review what they understand by the people of Scotland sharing power, how they expect such sharing to he exercised in practice and what instances of power-sharing with the Scottish people arose during the preceding year.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: How the Scottish Parliament Should Work (June 1998)