Triumph of Consensus, Not Combat

By Irvine, Mark | New Statesman (1996), June 5, 2000 | Go to article overview

Triumph of Consensus, Not Combat


Irvine, Mark, New Statesman (1996)


Holyrood's committees are forging a new kind of politics that puts Westminster to shame.

Scotland's new parliament has just celebrated its first birthday and, like most infants, it had a bit of a struggle finding its feet. But the real success story has been the parliamentary committees, 16 in total, which play a crucial role in how Holyrood works. No Westminster-style all-night sittings; this is modernisation without the spin. The parliament observes daytime hours split evenly between committees and full-scale debates; the chamber cannot meet when committees are in session and vice versa.

The 16 committees shadow areas of ministerial responsibility, and more besides (see box). They are the engine room of a new politics, and their composition reflects Scotland's four-party system. committee conveners are shared out proportionately: no party has an overall majority, consensus is encouraged and minority parties get a slice of the action. As a result, the committees tend to deal with issues on merit, instead of fighting every battle on party lines. This style of work encourages participation; backbenchers are not just voting fodder, but have the job of scrutinising legislation and holding the Scottish Executive to account. The committee system makes use of their skills and divides labour efficiently. Face-to-face contact with the public is regular and routine. Committees take evidence and actively engage campaigners, who no longer have to journey to London to get their message across. Committees influence policy and monitor international developments, but they are also at the heart of the legisla tive process.

Uniquely, they can propose legislation and act as parliament's quality control. Before any bill can become law, its general principles must first win the support of parliament. A committee then scrutinises every proposal and makes recommendations to parliament.

Cross-party working has produced results that would have party managers at Westminster tearing their hair out. Take, for example, the abolition of warrant sales (the sale of a debtor's moveable goods by public auction). Abolishing warrant sales had been Labour Party policy for a hundred years, but a private member's bill in the name of Tommy Sheridan (the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party) posed a dilemma for the Executive: it gave the impression of the tail wagging the dog. But three separate committees looked at the issue in detail, and all agreed that warrant sales had to go.

The Justice and Home Affairs Committee, along with the Local Government and Social Inclusion committees, took expert evidence from both sides of the argument and decided to support abolition on moral grounds; they also concluded that warrant sales were an inefficient way of recovering personal debts. …

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