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Public Services Reform (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:08 pm on 25th March 2010.

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Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative 4:08 pm, 25th March 2010

It is ironic that we all think that this is the end of the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Bill, because public service reform will probably be one of the dominant issues of the next five to 10 years in the Parliament.

I take the opportunity to thank the clerks to the Finance Committee for their forbearance given the number of amendments that I lodged with them, most of which found their way to a vote, although some did not. It was interesting for a member of a committee who does not often get the opportunity to amend bills to find out just how liberating it can be for Opposition members to have the freedom to amend legislation so easily. I encourage the Scottish Government to create other opportunities for us to amend legislation. It has been a constructive process and, I am sure, the Government will reflect carefully on that.

Mr Whitton mentioned the Government going "further and faster" in relation to public service reform. If we look back to the unanimous report that the Finance Committee published following its consideration of the bill, our assessment was that the bill did not go far enough. The issue of whether the bill delivers fundamental public service reform was well debated.

The test in reality will be how and where the Government chooses to exercise the powers that it will have, especially under part 2 of the bill. When we take a view on how we will vote on the sunset clause that we have inserted, our judgment will be based partly on the extent to which the Government has demonstrated a need to use the powers and partly on the way in which it has exercised them. Given that the sunset clause will not come into effect for five years, it may not be the same Government that will exercise the powers at that point.

We need to think about the bill in the context of the spending squeeze that we all know is inevitable. Members will not be surprised to learn that I think that the transparency provisions that we have inserted in part 2A will help to bear down on spending by forcing people to realise that they need to defend spending decisions in public.

Conservative members support the creation of creative Scotland; there will be broad support for the eventual establishment of that body.

I turn to an issue that Malcolm Chisholm raised at stage 2. Initially, I did not have a great deal of sympathy for his position but, as time has gone on, I have come around to his way of thinking, which is probably very rare. Because the bill covers so many different areas of policy, from the Mental Welfare Commission and creative Scotland to matters that might more normally be considered to be part of the Finance Committee's remit, there was a scrutiny issue when we came to consider amendments at stage 2. We need to reflect more generally on whether the skills of other committees, especially specialist committees, can be harnessed when the lead committee at stage 2 does not typically deal with all of the issues to which a bill relates.

Scrutiny of the provisions relating to non-finance areas would have been strengthened if we had been able to square that circle. That is not an issue for the Government, but a consequence of the fact that the bill is a collection of different provisions. Parliament should reflect on whether there is a better way of proceeding, to ensure that we harness specialist scrutiny earlier in the process, especially at stage 2, instead of referring bills to only one committee. At stage 1, there was a powerful scrutiny process in which, as has been mentioned, many committees were able to assess the bill.

I will close, as I have no desire to detain members any longer. We will support the bill at decision time, but the test will be for the Government to deliver on the promises that it has made in relation to public sector reform. Given the extent to which it has hyped up the order-making powers for which the bill provides, we will see how much it delivers.