Committee Restructuring

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 14th December 2000.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 2:30 pm, 14th December 2000

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-1462, in the name of Tom McCabe, on committee restructuring.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour 3:31 pm, 14th December 2000

Long before the Parliament was established in May 1999, a variety of interested bodies took time to consider how it could best function. That process culminated in the report of the consultative steering group, which gave us a framework for a Parliament that would operate in a way that was distinct from Westminster and many other Parliaments. One of our most distinctive features is our committee system. It has been said that the committees lie at the heart of the Parliament. I agree. Our model of hybrid committees, which combines the scrutiny of legislation with inquiries into various aspects of life in Scotland, has proved to work admirably.

However, it would be surprising for the world's youngest Parliament to take the view that its original structure was beyond question. Indeed, it would be disappointing if, in the light of experience, we set our face against any review. It is worth reminding ourselves that we saw merit in a system where every member can attend, speak and move amendments at all the committees of the Parliament.

The intention was to allow members to gain a wider exposure to the work of as many committees as possible and in that way allow any member with an interest in a specific piece of work to be involved in its progress. Experience has shown that all too often that has not been possible. Members who serve on two or more committees have found the burden excessive. It is also clear that the volume of legislation that falls to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee has created considerable pressure, not only in the committee's consideration of bills, but in its legitimate inquiry role. There is every indication that that will continue to be the case for the remainder of the Parliament's four-year session.

Four of the 12 Executive bills that have completed their parliamentary passage were scrutinised by the Justice and Home Affairs Committee. Three substantial bills of the nine bills announced in this session will fall to the committee's area of responsibility. The committee has also been heavily involved in scrutinising the Leasehold Casualties (Scotland) Bill at stage 1 and is expected to continue that work at stage 2. In addition, it has brought forward its own proposals for a protection from abuse bill. I am convinced that the work load in this area will grow still further and I therefore strongly recommend the creation of a second justice committee.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Does the minister agree that the function of committees is to scrutinise and that committees must take time to examine all the legislation that passes through the chamber? Does the minister agree that, if he splits a committee that has been working well, he will reduce the quality of scrutiny? Does he recognise that we might simply hasten legislation through the Parliament and that that might not be to Scotland's advantage?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

On the contrary, the purpose of the proposal is to increase the level of scrutiny. I disagree with Phil Gallie that the main role of a committee is to scrutinise Executive legislation, albeit that that is important. Committees will play an extremely important role in scrutinising a variety of aspects of life in Scotland and a variety of aspects of the administrative work of the Executive.

It is important that there is time and space for the committees to scrutinise legislation and to conduct inquiries. There is nothing to suggest that a committee of 11 members will necessarily scrutinise legislation better than a committee of seven members would.

The motion rightly proposes that the remits of both justice committees should be identical. We need two committees for no other reason than to deal with the volume of work. I have made it clear in discussions that it should be for the respective conveners to discuss the distribution of legislative scrutiny on the basis of existing work loads. Only when agreement cannot be reached will I, on behalf of the Executive, make a recommendation to the Parliamentary Bureau on the allocation of a bill.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

How does the minister interpret standing order 9.6.1? Does he agree that, where committees have the same remit, although the Parliamentary Bureau may by motion designate one committee as the lead committee on a bill, the bill would also have to go to the other committee, because it would have a legitimate interest?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

No, I do not agree with that point of view. It is the job of the Parliament to examine our existing work load. If we reach a decision that our structures need to be altered to deal with the work load, it would be only common sense to make necessary changes to the standing orders of the Parliament. In a moment, I will touch on a separate proposal for substitute members to attend committees, which would also require an alteration to the standing orders.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Does the minister know of any other legislature that has two justice committees with identical remits?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

One of the founding principles of the Parliament was that we would not necessarily follow the working patterns of other Parliaments, but create a structure and method of working that suited our purposes in Scotland.

Other changes to remits of committees merely reflect the recent ministerial reshuffle. The effect is that the remits of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee and the Transport and the Environment Committee are shared between two ministers. In practice, there should be no change to the areas that those committees cover. For example, the Education, Culture and Sport Committee will continue to scrutinise Jack McConnell in respect of his responsibilities for children and young people, in the same way that it scrutinised Sam Galbraith when he was the Minister for Children and Education. The changes to the titles and remits of other subject committees simply reflect the new ministerial titles.

Our discussions on the various models of committee structures have been on-going since May. They have taken place between the major parties in the Parliamentary Bureau and with the conveners group. There is a wide consensus that change is required. The structure proposed in the motion reflects the wide-ranging discussion that has led to these proposals.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Before the minister moves the motion, would he care to reflect on the fact that it does not mention the Public Petitions Committee? I know that, in all our discussions, it was assumed that there would be a Public Petitions Committee.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

I am sorry, but I have not noticed an omission. If there is one, it will have to be corrected.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

On a point of order. If the motion contains an omission, surely we cannot continue to debate it. If there is a major omission, we should close this discussion now.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

That is correct. If there is no change, there is no requirement to mention the committee in the motion.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

So there is no change to the number of members on the committee?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

The Public Petitions Committee had and will continue to have seven members.

The proposal is that mandatory committees will have seven members, with the exception of the two mandatory committees that include a member of a single-member party or a single individual representative. Those committees will have nine members, in line with existing practice.

The subject committees vary in size. Four have seven members, two have nine and two have 11. Those figures reflect changes that have been made to accommodate the wishes of two parties and the desire to provide a space for a representative of a single-member party.

A new feature is that the Procedures Committee should make proposals for changes to standing orders to allow substitutes with voting rights to be appointed to committees.

By the nature of the discussions, no one party has had all its ambitions fulfilled, but all have obtained something that they wanted. That is no bad thing.

We should create structures that best serve the needs of the parliamentary work load, not just the political parties. We will be judged by that and by our willingness to be flexible about changing our structures when the parliamentary work load demands it. It is work load that drives the proposal for two committees on justice issues and it is the desire to create a more equitable and focused work load for members that drives other aspects of the proposals. The changes will free up time to allow members to become involved in those other aspects of committee work in which they were previously unable to participate.

I mentioned that we have been discussing the proposals for some time. I suspect that discussions on such matters will seldom be quick or easy. However, I am convinced that members themselves are best placed to make the decisions on the working arrangements that best suit their work load. Every member has an obligation to accept the need for periodical assessment. We have an equal obligation to make that assessment objectively. I give a commitment on behalf of the Executive that we will approach the issues in that way. I am pleased to say that I think there is enough evidence to suggest that a large body of opinion in the Parliament agrees with that approach.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that resolution of the Parliament S1M-37, agreed on 8 June 1999, shall be amended with effect from 8 January 2001 as follows— Name of Committee: European Remit: Unchanged Maximum number of members: 9 Name of Committee: Equal Opportunities Remit: Unchanged Maximum number of members: 9 Name of Committee: Finance Remit: Unchanged Maximum number of members: 7 Name of Committee: Audit Remit: Unchanged Maximum number of members: 7 Name of Committee: Health and Community Care Remit: Unchanged Maximum number of members: 9 Name of Committee: Justice and Home Affairs be renamed Justice I

Remit: to consider and report on matters relating to the administration of civil and criminal justice, the reform of the civil and criminal law and such other matters as fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Justice Maximum number of members: 7 Name of Committee: New Committee to be established and named Justice II

Remit: to consider and report on matters relating to the administration of civil and criminal justice, the reform of the civil and criminal law and such other matters as fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Justice Maximum number of members: 7 Name of Committee: Education, Culture and Sport Remit: to consider and report on matters relating to school and pre-school education which fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Education, Europe and External Affairs; and on matters relating to the arts, culture and sport which fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Environment, Sport and Culture Maximum number of members: 7 Name of Committee: Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector be renamed Social Justice Remit: to consider and report on matters relating to housing and the voluntary sector and such other related matters as fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Social Justice Maximum number of members: 7 Name of Committee: Transport and the Environment Remit: to consider and report on matters relating to transport which fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Transport; and matters relating to environment and natural heritage which fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Environment, Sport and Culture Maximum number of members: 9 Name of Committee: Rural Affairs to be renamed Rural Development Remit: to consider and report on matters relating to rural development, agriculture and fisheries and such other related matters as fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Rural Development Maximum number of members: 11 Name of Committee: Local Government Remit: to consider and report on matters relating to local government and which fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Finance and Local Government Maximum number of members: 7 and calls upon the Procedures Committee to bring forward amendments to the standing orders to allow substitutes with voting rights to be nominated for each of the Committees.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 3:42 pm, 14th December 2000

The SNP has tried hard to achieve consensus on the proposals to restructure the committees. It is therefore with regret that I must say that it has proved impossible for the SNP to agree to the latest proposals. The SNP group will vote against them. Consensus cannot be assumed, regardless of the proposals on the table.

As Tom McCabe said, the process of reviewing the committee system began so long ago, and there have been so many changes to the original proposals, that this final proposal has lost sight of what we were trying to achieve. The start of the process was a genuine attempt to make our committee system work more effectively. It was begun in response to concerns from members of all committees. Last October, John McAllion wrote an excellent article, which appeared in The Herald. He said:

"There are 16 different committees in the Scottish Parliament. Budgetary constraints mean that committee clerks have to double up and serve at least two committees.

This not only stretches, but weakens the ability of each committee to establish itself as a power in its own field . . . many MSPs now find themselves having to serve on two committees at the same time. This is an enormous workload in Parliamentary terms and is unheard of in Westminster."

There was unanimity throughout the parties on the need for change.

The decisions that established our current system were based not on experience, but on a best estimate of how a modern committee system would work in a 129-member Parliament. The committee system was expected to be dynamic, as it has been. The challenge for all members is to ensure that it continues to be.

It was initially envisaged that the committees would meet once a month and that being on more than one committee would not be an onerous commitment. What was unexpected was the work load of the committees and the dedication of the MSPs to making the committee system the powerhouse of the Parliament. MSPs have been committed to scrutinising legislation, holding ministers to account for their departments and actions, conducting investigations and inquiries and submitting legislation. The work load has increased beyond expectation and it is a tribute to the commitment of members to making Scotland more democratic than ever before. Eighteen months on, we know that scrutinising a bill or taking part in an inquiry does not mean one meeting a month; it can mean two or three a week.

When the review process first started earlier this year, the proposals—not only on committee numbers—were radical, as it was proposed that the whole structure of the committee system should be altered. Changes were to be far reaching, with some committees to be combined with others and some to be split, while the remit of some committees was to be absorbed into others. Those proposals found almost universal condemnation within the party groups.

What we are left with—after all that time, all those months and all those permutations—is the proposal to create two justice committees. That is the one proposal that the Scottish National Party has objected to from the outset. The SNP has argued consistently that there should be only one justice committee and that two such committees, with identical remits, would create an inherently unstable situation.

I accept Tom McCabe's assurances that decisions on what legislation goes to which committee would be decided by the conveners of the two committees. He acknowledges that, when there is a dispute between the two conveners, the bureau, with its built-in Executive majority, would decide which committee the legislation should go to. However, he has not said what would happen if the two committees decided to hold similar inquiries. That is not a matter for the bureau and it is one of the reasons why we are unable to support the proposals.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I will continue, as I am struggling for time and there are points that I feel I must make.

The SNP believes that all subject committees should be the same size, apart from where minority party representation makes that impossible. The problem that we now face is a series of subject committees of different sizes, not because of work load or need, but as a result of the concessions negotiated between the parties for party political interests and the need to get some form of committee changes through the Parliament today.

Party political interests should not be allowed to dictate committee numbers. Organisations and individuals outwith the Parliament might assume that the bigger the committee, the greater its importance—that the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee and the Rural Development Committee, with their 11 members each, are more important than the Social Justice Committee or the Education, Culture and Sport Committee. No one in the chamber believes that that is the case, but we must face the fact that that will be the perception. Without a logical reason for the difference in committee sizes, we will be open to a public perception that the priorities of the Parliament are misplaced.

At the outset of my speech, I underlined the need for reform and the expectation that reform, drawing on the strength of our collective experience, was essential. The procedure to date has involved extensive consultation with all the party groups and has had to take into account 129 different experiences of the working of the parliamentary committee system and 129 different opinions about how that system could work best. Within every group, there have been arguments for and against, with different emphases and focus.

The fact that there is no unanimity today suggests that we are too tightly bound up with the system and that it is now impossible for us to take an impartial, independent view of what the committee structure and the committee sizes should be. We are all committed to the strong committee system, but we bring to the debate our own perceptions and experience and remain unable to reach universal agreement about how what we want can best be achieved.

I suggest that consideration be given to an independent review of the committee system—my colleague Kenny MacAskill will expand on that. I hope that that will ensure that we have a solution that fits and that is genuinely impartial—a solution that will allow our committees to lead the way in a modern, democratic Parliament.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 3:49 pm, 14th December 2000

Few subjects have given rise to greater passions in the Parliament than that of committee restructuring. There is perhaps good reason why that should be so. The work of the committees in the Parliament is of great significance and—because there is no second chamber—of greater constitutional importance than the work of committees in the House of Commons. In this Parliament, as well as having a legislative role, the committees have the enhanced role of scrutiny and investigation.

The composition of committees should, as far as possible, reflect the composition of the Parliament. Although we recognise that there were considerable demands from within the Parliament for restructuring the committees, I have to say that the pressure for reform did not come from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist members, who would have been more than willing to soldier on with the current arrangements. That is because we considered that the committee system was working effectively and gathering momentum. We were strongly opposed to the first proposals, which would have involved a major upheaval leading to a reduction in the number of committee places to 120. We believed that that was going too far and would have involved an emasculation of the committee system.

It appeared at first that we would have about as much luck in wringing concessions out of Mr Tom McCabe as a dentist might out of a particularly unwilling patient. In fairness, however, I must admit that the Minister for Parliament, after lengthy negotiations, accepted our case for a larger number of committee places and at least one for each member of the Conservative group, the overall number being 131. That represented a considerable improvement on the original proposals.

We have always made it clear that the members of our group are determined to make devolution work effectively in the best interests of Scotland. Although we have not obtained everything that we wanted, we are prepared to accept the package, subject to reservations. In politics, when one cannot get exactly what one wants, one must fight to obtain as much as one can get. Our reservations included a request that the creation of two justice committees should be subject to early review, and indeed that the whole committee system as adjusted should be reviewed in due course in the light of experience.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Is the member seriously arguing that the kind of enhanced scrutiny role that committees in this Parliament have, particularly at stage 2 of what could be complex legislation, can be achieved properly with a committee of seven members?

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Yes, but I believe that it is extremely important that the system should be reviewed in the light of experience. There will be provision for substitutes in case anyone should fall ill or in the event of any unacceptable eventualities.

I accept that reconciling the interests of each political group in the Parliament on this subject was never going to produce unanimity, but the Minister for Parliament has been willing to amend his proposals in response to the legitimate concerns expressed on behalf of our group. I believe that he is to be commended on his efforts. I regret that the SNP has been unable to reach a similar accommodation with the minister.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat

Does Lord James agree that there is a problem with substitute members with voting rights? If they arrive during the passage of legislation or in the middle of an inquiry, they may not know what is going on. What kind of experience or background will they bring to the discussions, other than that they may have read the relevant papers?

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I absolutely accept that the system must not be subject to abuse. If a member is appointed to a committee, he would be expected to participate as a full member of that committee. However, as Mr Raffan has intervened, let me tell him that I wish to congratulate his colleague, Mr Mike Rumbles, on his great victory in having ensured that the package retained the Standards Committee. I believe that that committee will be a guardian of standards in the Parliament.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Will Lord James accept my sympathy for the fact that he was forced into a situation in which he had to get the best out of a deal was the Lib-Lab Executive was intent on railroading through? In his future dealings with the Parliamentary Bureau, will he carefully scrutinise the effects of change on the justice committees? Will he try to ensure that the legislative process in the Parliament is not weakened by the changes that are being made?

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

The short answer to my friend's question is yes. We believe in keeping such matters subject to careful scrutiny and review; the Minister for Parliament has assured us that will continue to happen. In those circumstances, as evidence of our good will and commitment to the Scottish Parliament—notwithstanding our reservations—we accept the overall package.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

If we play it by the clock, we have time for only two speeches. I shall therefore use my discretion to take up to 10 minutes off the ensuing debate, as this matter is of great concern to individual members.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 3:55 pm, 14th December 2000

I thank Lord James Douglas-Hamilton for his kind words.

To begin with, the Liberal Democrat group did not see the need for restructuring the committees. The committees were working well: they are the real success story of the Parliament. In my view, they are effective and very efficient.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I have barely started, but I will take an intervention.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

If the Liberals do not see the point of the restructuring, if the Conservatives agreed to it reluctantly, and if the SNP is against it, why on earth are we going ahead with it?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Perhaps Alasdair Morgan should not have intervened. I have been surprised by the shifting position of the Scottish National Party. I am sorry that that discordant note has been sounded. It was the previous business manager of the SNP, Mr Mike Russell, sitting here quietly, who came up with the main proposals for committee restructuring. The SNP and the Labour party worked together to produce a programme of changes, because they felt that there was pressure on members. We recognised that.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

Will the member correct his phraseology and withdraw the suggestion that the SNP was involved in deals? Some backdoor deals may have been done, but they did not involve the SNP. I would also like to make a further point—

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

That is enough, Mr Paterson. The member has only one minute left.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The process has dragged on for six or seven months, in part because of the way in which proposals emerged from the party business managers. When the Liberal Democrat group first heard of the proposals all those months ago, we decided that they would be best discussed by the committee of conveners, which could represent the wishes of the committees. The Procedures Committee should also have played a major role in the process. When the changes are reviewed, I hope that the committee of conveners will be consulted properly from the beginning and that the Procedures Committee will be able to play its proper role.

I know that we do not have much time, so I will cut short my speech. Like the Conservatives, we are relatively happy with the way in which the committee system is working. I regret Phil Gallie's comment about the changes being pushed through by a Lib-Lab Executive. Nothing of the sort is happening. The Liberal Democrat group took the position that there must be consensus on the proposals. We regret that the SNP was unable to reach agreement with the other parties. Because of the needs and wishes of others, the majority of Liberal Democrat members decided that they would support the proposals to put an end to a six or seven-month drag on the committees. The process is having a drip-drip effect on the committees and if it is not stopped there is a risk that their work and the success of the Scottish Parliament will be seriously affected.

A minority of Liberal Democrat members feel that we should not proceed with the changes. However, a majority of us has decided to back the proposals. We want to seek consensus in the Parliament. It is a matter of regret that the SNP, of all parties—it initiated the process—is now taking such an amazing position.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 3:59 pm, 14th December 2000

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. I am committed to making the committees work. They should work in the interest, not of those who sit on them, but of the democratic process in Scotland. The committees provide the most powerful vehicle for members of the public to make their voices heard in the Parliament. We must not forget that.

A great deal of nonsense has been talked in the debate. We see people clambering on to the moral high ground and ascribing the worst of motives to those who seek change. There is no right and wrong on the issue. It is a matter of managing competing demands. It is healthy to review the situation and make change where it is needed. The size of the committees was not written in stone. I was not born a member of the Local Government Committee. We all have the capacity to do different things in Parliament.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I find it depressing that some members want to be so conservative; they want the comfort of what they already have. Committees are at their best when they are uncomfortable and challenging places. I also find it depressing that members see the size of committees as a sign of status. Status comes from the quality of a committee's work, not its size.

We know that the problem of clashing committee meetings must be addressed. I was not able to represent my constituency on a social justice issue when I was not on that committee. We know that there is a problem in relation to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, because its convener, Roseanna Cunningham, told us so time and again. She said that it could not get through the business.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

As a woman I understand the importance of the justice agenda to women and I am not prepared to have members using boring and dull arguments about having only one committee to prevent that work from being done. That is a piece of nonsense. Justice is crucial.

Smaller committees will allow members to attend a variety of committees. It is important to ensure that the model is closely monitored. If it does not work, we can review it. That is what a modern, living, breathing Parliament does. It examines what it is doing, works out whether there is a problem and changes it. What SNP members want to do, because they cannot agree among themselves, is to stick with a tradition that is 18 months old.

I hope that members will support the changes to ensure that the committees work. If there are problems, we can come back and sort them out.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party 4:01 pm, 14th December 2000

There is no question but that we need reform of the committee system. However, I suggest that members consider a number of points.

We found out early in the process that there was a work-load problem in the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, but it is far too early in the process to make such sweeping changes. If we are to make changes—and I have said that they are required—why do we not, instead of accepting the proposals that are before us today, sensibly consider the European structure? The committee structure would then reflect the programme for government and we could form committees of inquiry to examine the issues properly. I have spent the past year on a committee inquiring into what was—

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

No. Johann Lamont did not give way and I have very little time.

It is too early in the process to make such changes. We must work it through rather than make a judgment on the basis of one convener's complaints. We must examine the European model and consider the offer in the original CSG report—

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Thank you. It is interesting that one of the Government whips got up to speak, because I was about to say to back-bench members that the restructuring of the committees will be used to keep them in line. It will be used to prevent people who would cause trouble from going on committees. That will happen in every party in the chamber, as it currently does.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Did Mr Quinan not get his committee of choice?

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Oddly enough—to answer that sedentary intervention—I got the committee that I wanted, thank you very much. I would happily swap my place on the Audit Committee with Jackie Baillie.

It is vital that we do not leap intemperately to seek solutions. Eighteen months into a fresh legislative programme is far too early to make such sweeping changes.

On the suggestion that there should be two justice committees, it is not simply because no other legislature on the planet has two justice committees that it would be a backward step; there is a clear necessity that justice matters should be dealt with by the same people, in the same place, at the same time.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 4:04 pm, 14th December 2000

It is an open secret that the Conservative party's original inclination in respect of the committee changes was to retain the status quo. We based that on the fact that the committee structure had been working effectively, despite the somewhat optimistic CSG outlook that the committees would meet monthly.

Quite clearly, the committees have become a vital part of the Parliament's activities, if not the most vital part. We also recognise that committees have a vital input into legislation and it is particularly important that, with our unicameral set-up, committees get it right. We must also consider that point.

Furthermore, we are aware of the problems of an overworked Justice and Home Affairs Committee and of committees such as the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee which, from time to time, become overworked.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

At last.

I fully admit that there was an enormous amount of legislation in the early months of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee. A backlog built up over a long time before the Parliament came into being and then we had to deal with emergency ECHR legislation. However, that situation has levelled off and there is now no requirement to do that kind of work. My committee colleagues would agree on that point.

Three parties in the chamber do not want the changes. Two justice committees are not required for the work load, so why are we doing any of this?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

All I can say is that there seems to be contradictory evidence on the issue.

I want to move to our reasons for agreeing to the changes that are being put to the chamber. Given Christine Grahame's intervention, it is ironic that we were in a minority of one at the Parliamentary Bureau in wishing to preserve the status quo. The fact is that the changes were initiated by members of Christine Grahame's party. In line with the consensual approach by which the Parliament has underwritten its processes, we agreed to go forward with the proposals before us today. Most of our concerns have been met, although we still have some difficulty with the concept of two justice committees and acknowledge that there would be problems with such a system.

However, we must recognise that we are only 18 months down the road and are now initiating change. The fact is that, if we find problems another six months or a year down the road, we can revisit the situation. The normally intransigent Mr McCabe has been a bit more realistic in recognising that such difficulties could arise and has given that particular undertaking. On that basis, we are prepared to agree to the changes.

I take no satisfaction in the fact that the SNP is discomfited by the changes. However, SNP members must look to their own ranks as they were the people who initiated the process.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour 4:07 pm, 14th December 2000

On Bill Aitken's last point, I do not know whether the SNP started this business; however, I very much regret that the SNP is the reason why we have division today. I take members back to the conveners committee meeting five weeks ago—attended, I think, by Kenny MacAskill—at which the SNP said that it would support the proposed plan for the revised committee structure only if there were unanimity across the parties. That unanimity did not exist at the time and when we came back to consider the matter—lo and behold—the SNP position had altered.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

I have very little time. It is a fact that the SNP position has changed and Mr MacAskill can address that in his summing-up. I understand that the SNP has had internal difficulties. However, the irony is that the SNP is causing division when everyone else has sought to avoid it.

It is self-evident to anyone who has been involved in or given evidence to a committee—or who has simply observed one from outwith the Parliament—that there is not enough time for the committees, as structured, to take on all their work. We talk about the dual investigative and scrutinising roles of committees. In fact, committees have five roles, as they also have to examine Scottish statutory instruments and consider petitions; they also have the ability to initiate legislation. However, not one committee was able to fulfil that fifth role until the Justice and Home Affairs Committee recently inaugurated its own legislation. I want more committees to have the time to do that, and the restructuring will give them that opportunity.

Another committee role has not been formally set out but was suggested in the CSG report. Wherever possible, committees should go furth of Edinburgh to meet, not just to visit or to hold fact-finding sessions. The current structure makes that extremely difficult. If such meetings can happen more often, the people of Scotland will welcome that.

The question of committee size is a bit of a red herring. I am sure that I am not the only MSP to have received a letter from Shelter Scotland urging MSPs not to adopt the plan as it will mean that the number of members on the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee will fall to seven and it has the housing bill facing it. I have just come off that committee, and although I would have liked to have been part of the consideration of the housing bill, the members left on the committee will give the legislation more than adequate scrutiny. The restructuring is about quality, not quantity, as members have pointed out, and if the bill does not receive adequate scrutiny, that will be an issue for the Parliament. However, I do not think that that will be the case.

My final point concerns the idea of having substitutes, which has hidden pitfalls. I am already unhappy that, after some committees recently changed their membership, the new members voted on reports on lengthy inquiries with nothing more than cursory knowledge of what those reports involved. That may be constitutionally correct, and permissible under standing orders, but I do not think that that should happen. I am therefore also concerned about the idea of a substitute joining a committee—perhaps legitimately, because a member has fallen ill or is involved in other business—who knows nothing about a piece of legislation or a decision that has been made, but who can vote on that issue. I hope that the substitutes will be fixed, and that they will shadow their committee's work so that, if they have to join the committee, they will be able to do so on an informed basis.

With that proviso, I think that the proposed new committee structure represents an evolution. The Parliament must be a can-do Parliament, and if we feel that we cannot work best with the structure that we will vote on today, we should return to change it in future. The people of Scotland should expect no less from us.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 4:11 pm, 14th December 2000

Some members clearly feel under pressure because they have too much work, and that must be addressed by the Parliament. However, it is wrong for the Parliamentary Bureau to stitch up a convoluted solution to that problem. We must prioritise our work. Members will find that, as their staff gain more experience, they will be able to help more with case work, and their work load will differ.

The pressure is greatest, for statistical reasons, on Labour members. Labour members who are members of committees sit on an average of 1.9 committees. Since the summer recess, that has meant attending one and a half meetings a week and three meetings a fortnight. That does not seem unreasonable.

Wherever we go, we tell people that the committees are the greatest aspect of our Parliament. That has also been said in the debate. We are, however, demonstrating our support for the committees by reducing their membership by 23 per cent, from 164 to 126. What sort of message does that give out? Wherever we go, we say that education is the greatest thing. However, we are reducing the number of members who deal with education from 11 to seven. What sort of signal is that sending out? The number of members dealing with social justice is similarly being reduced from 11 to seven. The Local Government Committee, which will shortly deal with a very important bill, is being reduced from 11 members to seven members. The justice bills will each be considered by seven people.

I challenge any convener to say that his or her committee would work better with seven people than with 11. The committees work through the accumulated wisdom, skill and energy of their members. If their energy is reduced by a third, their results will be reduced by a third. That will demean and downgrade the committees, which are the great strength of the Parliament, and it will allow members to be rubbished by ministers.

Finally, I object strongly to the way in which the restructuring has been carried out. The Parliamentary Bureau has greatly exceeded its remit. Soon, members will not need to attend committee meetings at all: it will be necessary only for the Parliamentary Bureau to come along and fix everything up. I am not interested in that sort of Parliament. We are destroying the Parliament as we know it, and we should oppose the measure tooth and nail.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 4:13 pm, 14th December 2000

I begin with two short questions. Is there a problem? Yes, there is. Is this the solution? No, it is not. That is the position of the Scottish National Party.

Many things have been said that I and the SNP would agree with and, notwithstanding Johann Lamont's intemperate tone, I accept that there is a problem. The Minister for Parliament has not been trying to railroad matters; he has genuinely gone out of his way to reach a compromise. The problem is that this is not the right solution. It is being viewed as a quick fix and will create problems that will have to be addressed further down the line.

Other SNP members have commented on why we believe that the new system does not fit. We certainly believe that the idea of having two justice committees is not right, as that would cause a major problem. Having two justice committees might create a precedent for dealing with committees that have an overload of work in future. For example, if there were a problem in health, would we create two health committees? If there were a problem in social justice, would two committees be created to deal with that? There is a danger of setting a precedent here.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

Mr MacAskill is correct when he says that we are setting a precedent today. We are setting a precedent that says that our structures should suit the work load of the Scottish Parliament, not just the political parties. I think that the Parliament will be stronger for the setting of that precedent.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I do not believe that setting a precedent for having two Justice and Home Affairs Committees or two Health and Community Care Committees would be a good or sensible way to go. The real question is, where do we go from here?

I was not at the meeting to which Mike Watson referred, but I am advised that the position was that all committees would have seven members. There has been a fundamental change—what was before the conveners group five weeks ago is not what is before the chamber today. It is not as if the SNP is reneging on its word. There is a genuine acceptance that there is a problem.

What is the solution? I welcome what the Minister for Parliament said at the outset about how the committees came into existence. They did not come about simply because we voted them into existence, although we did so when we established their powers, but because the consultative steering group and others examined, analysed and discussed the issues and spoke to the people of Scotland—not only the great and the good but also the ordinary man and woman on the street—to decide what we required the committees to do. I believe that we need to follow that route now, as Lloyd Quinan and others mentioned.

We have reached a point at which there is no agreement and further discussion is useless. I can understand why the motion is before us today, but I do not believe that forcing this through Parliament is the best solution. We should do what we would do if we were another type of organisation. If the Scottish Parliament were a company with a similar problem, consultants would be instructed to investigate the matter and decide whether each committee could justify its existence, whether its work load was adequate, whether its remit was appropriate and whether it was delivering what it was created to deliver. A voluntary sector organisation would do the same thing, although it might not pay the same price for the same consultants. We should get an external person to examine the committees.

In 2003, the members in this chamber will be put to the test when they go back to the electorate. Political groups will be put to the test in the same way. I fundamentally disagree with the Minister for Parliament's suggestion that the members are best placed to decide the role, remit and size of the committees. I do not think so. The public, the people whom we are elected to serve, are best placed to do so. That is why I think that we should remit the matter to the CSG or some other organisation that is capable of reviewing and scrutinising the system before giving it back to us for us to implement.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 4:18 pm, 14th December 2000

I want to respond to as many points as I can in this short debate.

To Kenny MacAskill, I say that remitting the matter back will take us another seven months further down the line. No one who has been involved in the give and take of the issue, to use Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's words, would suggest that the process is perfect, but we have to move on.

Tricia Marwick was quite right to point out that change is necessary and that members of all parties should be involved in thinking of ways in which that change can be made. She made a fair point about work load, which was repeated by other members. Work load is the reason why this debate is taking place.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I want to make some progress.

The main cause of concern today appears to be the situation with regard to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee. I cannot conceive of the circumstances in which two conveners would not be able to talk about their work load. To Alasdair Morgan, I say that for the Parliamentary Bureau to have to consider what will be the lead committee on an item is not unprecedented. That happens at the moment.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

On the issue of inquiries, which are not in the gift of the Parliamentary Bureau, how would a situation be avoided in which two committees decided to undertake inquiries on the same topic, or a similar one, because the topic appeals to both conveners and both sets of members?

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I cannot see why two committees would not be able to work out a sensible working relationship. It is somewhat bizarre to suggest that two committees in this Parliament would spend time conducting an inquiry into exactly the same issue.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

No, I want to finish this point first. On work load, it has been suggested—Christine Grahame made a point about this in an intervention—that the Justice and Home Affairs Committee's work load is declining considerably. I am sure that Christine—as well as Phil Gallie and others—is aware that three of the nine substantial bills in next year's programme are justice measures. The committee also has its own bill, promoted by Maureen Macmillan, and there is the Leasehold Casualties (Scotland) Bill. That work is additional to any other issues that may arise. I cannot conceive that the Justice and Home Affairs Committee—or rather two justice committees—will not be extremely busy.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

The minister is missing the point. The committees do the work of bill committees—the standing committees, to make a comparison with the House of Commons. They do the detailed scrutiny of major legislation. Quite honestly, to say that seven members rather than 11 members could carry out that level of scrutiny better is wrong. There is a shared role among members, and the minister is missing that.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Before Mr Scott replies to that, I would point out that I have been very generous in allowing an overrun, but that this debate cannot be open ended, because there is another debate to come before decision time.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Let me deal with the question of the size of committees. The logic of Phil Gallie and of my colleague Donald Gorrie is that the Westminster model, in which there are reams of members sitting in the committee rooms, is the correct way of doing things. However, as a former researcher, having walked into those committee rooms to deliver pieces of paper to members, I can say that, when members are attending standing committees to scrutinise legislation, they are also doing their constituency mail. Are we suggesting that we have lots of people all sitting in a committee room, not paying attention and not doing the work that we want them to do?

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

There are two ways of looking at the issue. I want that to be taken—

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Yes, we must make progress. Otherwise, the other debate will be so tight as to be impossible.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

The primary function of a committee is to scrutinise the policies and administration of the Executive. The new arrangements being proposed today will enable committees to pursue a range of other matters besides Executive legislation. The proposals involve change, but however and wherever possible, it seems sensible to take them forward on a consensus for change.

A range of options has been explored. The proposals have a wide measure of support, as well as offering the minimum that is required to achieve improvements in critical areas. As I have already pointed out, the system—

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek the guidance of the chair on whether, under the standing orders of the Parliament, it is possible to extend this debate by extending today's sitting.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

That falls within the discretion of the chair, and I am not prepared to accept that proposal.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I believe that the Parliamentary Bureau's motion, without major disruption to the overall structure and roles of the committees, and without affecting the overall balance, makes a considerable change. The proposals follow careful analysis of where change is necessary. Important points were made by members through the conveners group, chaired by Mr George Reid, which has an important role in this process. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton also made that point about the effects of the proposals when he spoke. This is an evolving process. Careful reform can continue as the Parliament seeks to strengthen and build the committees of our continually evolving institution.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I understand some of the views that have been expressed on this, but everyone who originally asked to speak was included in the debate. Those who tried their luck later failed, I am afraid.