Who holds the Scottish government to account?

In theory, elections are the voters’ chance to decide who runs the country.  But once the dust has settled who holds the government to account for the next four or five years?   No matter who represents Scotland in Westminster after 7 May, Tricia Marwick, presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, makes  a strong case for reforming the way we do things in Holyrood.

Speaking to the David Hume Institute at the end of March, Tricia Marwick suggested a series of quietly courageous changes which included reducing the number of committees so that they are bigger, stronger and more effective, introducing training and support for MSPs to cope with the responsibilities of legislative scrutiny and – most radical of all – ensuring greater democratic control with the election of committee convenors by the whole parliament. (See the Scottish Parliament report here)

Perhaps against the popular stereotype, the Scottish Parliament can look south for inspiration. The committee system has worked well in Westminster where, since 2010, the real work of holding government to account happens not in the noisy pantomime of PMQs but in much quieter wood-lined chambers. A month ago I was lucky enough to see a committee in action.

Big Ben and the clock showing 5pm

Climate Change waits for no man

I was there with a friend as guests of Mark Lazarowicz, Labour MP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith. After almost nine years of helping to organise a small, informal ‘shadowing scheme’  (Leith Open Space Opening Doors to Democracy) I was enjoying my own glimpse of a day at Westminster.

Mark had booked us tickets for PMQs and on a quick private tour of the empty House of Commons chamber – before the sniffer dogs came in for the daily security check – he agreed the rowdy ritual is a strange piece of theatre. But, he added, there is something levelling about the most powerful man in the land facing questions from all parties across the house. 

Empty green benches surrounded by handsome wood pannelling of the House of Commons
Empty chamber: screengrab from parliament virtual tours

An hour later we would see Cameron doing his level best not to answer them, batting away Milliband’s television debate challenge with a wave of a Scottish Labour election leaflet and the spectre of  “an alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Britain and the people who want to break up Britain.”

As it happened, Mark’s diary included the weekly sitting of the Environmental Audit Committee (he’s one of the Labour members on the cross-party committee). After lunch, a group of MPs were asking for evidence of progress on the NHS Sustainable Development Strategy (Sustainable Resilient Healthy People & Places) launched a year ago. The elected chair is Joan Whalley. She seems a gentler sort than Margaret Hodge whose chairing of the public accounts committee regularly makes headline news. Nevertheless the Labour MP for Stoke on Trent North is patiently, politely, persistent in her questioning of three witnesses representing Department of Health, NHS England and Sustainability Development Unit.

Answers were often frustratingly abstract – to those of us who do not speak civil service jargon – but gave a mind boggling glimpse of the superhuman task involved in inspiring ‘bottom up’ change across the health service. How do you draw up a coherent plan for a labyrinthine infrastructure, covering car parks to bottled water, air conditioning to pharmaceuticals, syringes to ambulances?  Committee members suggested some ‘top down’ initiatives.    Green’s Caroline Lucas pushed for NHS leading the way on divestment from fossil fuels.  Mark Lazarowicz asked if procurement contracts could be adapted to reduce the carbon footprint of NHS suppliers. 

And what about health care in a warming world? Does the NHS strategy take account of ‘extreme weather, floods, hotter summers, air pollution and so on?’ asked Dr Alan Whitehead.

I left the room slightly dazed by the enormity of the task, and the fact that such a fundamental discussion is going on at all, even if it is under the radar of public awareness (does it happen in Scotland? I have yet to find out).  “I very much hope,” the chair concluded “that this is not just,a case of coming before a Select Committee; that the work that is ongoing will be going on with intense pressure behind the scenes.”

Marble hallway with statues and tiled flooring: very grand!
Lower Waiting Hall leading to committee rooms upstairs

The pressure is on. Perhaps publication of the NHS Sustainability report in May will grab headlines in the wider world. But by then a new Westminster government will be in place – or a hung parliament will be frantically trying to find some kind of stability – and there is a risk that urgent information will be lost in the noise. 

And what chance of essential democratic reform in Holyrood with Scottish elections due in just over 12 months time?  At the end of her presentation to the David Hume Institute (it took place in the very civilised surroundings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in George Street), Tricia Marwick gave a surprisingly straight answer.  Asked if she favoured a second chamber to scrutinise the laws made in Holyrood, she said, yes, she did but added that was a very long term plan.

Footnote. As we left through Westminster Hall, an exhibition (The Beginnings of that Freedome) inspired by the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta reminded us that the process of democracy is painfully slow.  The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was the result of more than 20 years of campaigning and it took until 1833 to abolish slavery itself. We don’t have that long to act on Climate Change. With politics in such a state of flux, is our democratic process up to the job?

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