The Committee system enhances democracy in the Scottish Parliament. Discuss.
The Committee system enhances democracy in the Scottish Parliament. However, it can be argued that the committees are not proportional and are not listening to other parties’ views within the Parliament due to an SNP majority and therefore do not enhance democracy in the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Parliament has many committees that MSP’s can join. Committees have between 5 and 15 members which are made up based on the proportion of seats each party has overall. An important job of the committees is to uphold the Founding Principles of the Scottish Parliament. They do this by holding the government to account and scrutinising different legislation. An example of holding the government to account would be when the Justice Committee conducted an inquiry on the possible release of Al Megrahi, the Lockerbie Bomber on compassionate grounds. MSP’s took a symbolic vote which most voted against it and the committee denied involvement in the release. Many countries were against the release and voiced their opinion to the Scottish Government but Alex Salmond stood by the decision and told BBC Radio 4, "I think it was the right decision. I also absolutely know it was for the right reasons." This shows that the committees and the Scottish Government are held to account over the decisions they make. The committees also scrutinise legislation, for example Margo McDonald’s End of Life Assistance Bill (2010). A committee was set up with the same name to investigate and take evidence on the matter. This bill would have allowed people whose lives became intolerable through a progressive degenerative disease, a trauma or a terminal illness to seek a doctor’s help in dying. Experts, doctors and specialists were brought in to give evidence for the bill. However, it was rejected and defeated by 85 votes in Parliament. Given these facts, one can say the committees enhance democracy in the Scottish Parliament and uphold the democratic process.
On the other hand, many would argue that the committees do not enhance democracy as the committees are not proportional. Committees are made up of various MSP’s for different parties depending on the seats each party has in the Parliament. However, the SNP have a majority government and a majority on all the Scottish Committees. The Presiding Officer is also an SNP MSP. Moreover, SNP chairs 10 committees including the most important and powerful – Finance. Opposition MSPs are growing concerned that one party is dominating and this should never happen due to the Founding Principles of the Parliament. Other parties believe there are no longer the necessary checks and balances to ensure a fair government. The Scottish Labour Leader, Johann Lamont has complained that discussion has been “shut down” and that the current government is obsessed with the upcoming Referendum of 2014. She claims that the committees Convenors are reluctant to criticise Government policies and that opposition MSP’s are not being listened to. SNP retaliated by saying that when the Scottish Labour/Liberal Democrats had a majority, they too convened and had a majority in most of the parliament’s committees during its period in government. It is therefore clear that Committees do not enhance democracy in the Scottish Parliament all of the time as the committees are not proportional.
In comparison, the Committees enhance democracy in the Scottish Parliament as they allow for the participation of as many people as possible in the democratic process. The Committee System allows for accessibility, openness and participation. The Committees will normally meet in public and can do so anywhere in Scotland, they do not just meet in Parliament. Since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, around 100 committee meetings have been held outside Edinburgh which shows that the committees are upholding the Founding Principles of the Parliament. Most will allow public members to attend and this is an example of true democracy in action. There are also different types of Committees – Mandatory and Subject. A Mandatory Committee is likely to last a long time and works on matters such as finance, equal opportunities and public petitions. The Public Petitions Committee is vital as it considers petitions that have been submitted to the Scottish Parliament and are a key part of the committee openness. Petitions can have a positive impact and can lead to changes in the law. A Subject Committee reflects the Ministerial departments of the current Scottish Government. Ministerial departments can be changed or merged and therefore, the Subject Committees would be changed to reflect the new Ministerial departmental structure. For example, the SNP Government replaced the old Transport Committee with the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee. This is more than a name change and reflects the Scottish Government’s support for large capital projects such as the new Forth Bridge to generate economic growth and jobs. Therefore, it is clear that the Committee system enhances democracy in the Scottish Parliament by maintaining the Founding Principles such as accessibility and participation.
To add to this argument, it could be said that the committees do not enhance democracy as despite the fact they can propose legislation, majority of bills are executive. An example of an Executive Bill would be the Alcohol Etc (Scotland) Act 2001. This introduced a minimum price for a unit of alcohol and introduced further restrictions on off-sales promotional activity. This bill was passed to try and improve Scotland’s shameful health inequalities. An example of a Committees Bill would be the Scottish Parliamentary Pensions Bill in which rules were set out to govern the Scottish Parliamentary Pension Scheme and to provide for the payment of resettlement grants to individuals when they stop being members of the Scottish Parliament or holding certain offices. Numerous bills are proposed every year by the Government yet very few are proposed by the Committees yet they have the power to do so. One can conclude that Committees therefore do not always enhance democracy as they do not propose as many bills as they perhaps should.
In conclusion, the Committee system enhances democracy in the Scottish Parliament. However, it can be argued that the committees are not proportional and are not listening to other parties’ views within the Parliament due to an SNP majority and therefore do not enhance democracy in the Scottish Parliament.