The electoral system which has been developed whereby we will all have two votes remains a mystery to most Scots. Indeed, the Government has agreed to spend £2.5m educating voters about the system. The general level of awareness in the business community does not appear to be much better if the recent findings of a survey conducted by Market Research United Kingdom are accurate. The survey conducted interviews with the director or senior manager responsible for business development or general management in 500 private and public sector organisations throughout the UK. All major business sectors were surveyed and each organisation employed 150 or more people. Around two-thirds of the respondents confirmed that they had little or no awareness of the responsibilities of the new Scottish Parliament or how the Parliament might impact upon their organisation. Yet, of the survey sample 89% had an operational base in Scotland, 75% had suppliers based in Scotland and 92% had customers based in Scotland. Is the Scottish legal profession well placed to advise these clients who may come looking for advice and guidance?
The Scotland Act 1998 which sets out the framework for the Parliament received the Royal Assent in December 1998. Whilst the Bill received quite literally hundreds of amendments as it made its way through Parliament, the general scheme of devolution remains as set out in the White Paper Scotland’s Parliament” published in July 1997. This article will not rehearse the detail of the White Paper or the Scotland Bill which was reported in the February 1998 issue of the Journal. The Scotland Act does not spell out in detail how the Parliament will function and the legislative procedures which it will follow. It has always been recognised that the Parliament itself should take these important decisions. Equally, it has been recognised that it would not be practicable to ask the Parliament to consider all these matters from scratch. To do so would require an extremely long lead-in period before the Parliament could function fully.
To prepare the groundwork the Secretary of State for Scotland established a Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament (CSG) in November 1997. Its membership comprised senior representatives of all four major political parties as well as a wide range of civic groups and other interests. The remit of the CSG was:
The CSG was chaired by Henry McLeish, Scottish Office Devolution Minister, and its report was published in January this year. This report represents the unanimous views of CSG and demonstrates a unique level of cross-party co-operation to ensure that the Parliament has adequate operating procedures and develops a culture of public accountability.
A recurring theme throughout the CSG report is the emphasis placed on developing an open, accessible and, above all, participative Parliament. The following key principles were adopted:
The CSG recommended that equal opportunities should be mainstreamed into the work of the Parliament and the Scottish Executive. Mainstreaming has been defined by the Equal Opportunities Commission as the integration of equal opportunities into all policy development, legislation, evaluation and review practices. MSPs and all officials are likely to receive training on equal opportunities with the emphasis on policy appraisal. The Parliament is likely to establish an Equal Opportunities Committee to ensure that equality plans and targets are outlined for each Committee and effective monitoring systems are put in place.
The Scottish Parliament will be unicameral. Its Committees will therefore have an important role to play in the preparation, scrutiny and revision of legislation. The CSG report recommends that Committees be given substantial powers to initiate legislation, scrutinise and amend the Scottish Executives proposals and have wide ranging investigative functions. It is proposed to establish all-purpose subject Committees which combine the role of Westminster Standing and Select Committees. Committees would:
It is generally accepted that it will be for the Parliament, once established, to make the final decision on its Committee, their structure and remit. However, taking account of the importance of devolved matters, there will undoubtedly be important subject Committees dealing with matters such as health, education, home affairs, agriculture and fisheries, planning and environment, and economic development. At this stage it is not possible to predict the number of such Committees or how the individual remits might be grouped. In addition to these subject Committees it is envisaged that there will be a number of Committees whose functions are fundamental to the running of the Parliament:
It is proposed that the Business Committee will make recommendations to the Parliament for the establishment, terms of reference, budget, membership and duration of Committees of the Parliament. It is hoped that in making these recommendations the Business Committee will take into account the expertise of MSPs, any preferences expressed by them, requirements to ensure balance of political parties and the law in general (eg regarding equal opportunities). In addition, any MSP should be able to propose the establishment of a new Committee and this would require to be considered and reported upon by the Business Committee.
The CSG report makes the following recommendations in respect of Committees:
The CSG report deals in detail with the principles of openness, accessibility and responsiveness and the development of a participative approach envisaged by the Scottish Constitutional Convention and in the White Paper. Various methods of involving wider participation in the work of the Parliament are identified, including the establishment of expert panels which include non-MSPs, and the possibility of co-opting non-MSPs onto Committees as non-voting members. It is stated that such external appointments ought to be made on merit.
Emphasis is placed on early involvement of relevant bodies from the outset, including identifying issues which need to be addressed, contributing to the policy-making process and the preparation of legislation. The report recognises the perception that once detailed legislative proposals have been published, in whatever form, it is extremely difficult for outside organisations to influence changes to those proposals to any great extent. As mentioned, the CSG report does emphasise the need for the Parliament to be open and accessible. To achieve these aims it will be essential that relevant information about the business of the Parliament is made available promptly and in a way that is readily accessible. Here the early signs are promising.
The Scottish Office has developed excellent IT facilities which it has used to great effect throughout the devolution process. Helpful commentaries on the White Paper, The Scotland Bill and The Scotland Act have been published on the Scottish Office website and we expect that the Parliament will benefit considerably from the expertise which the Scottish Office has in using the internet to publish relevant information.
This willingness of government to consult openly is most welcome and should present opportunities for members of the legal profession who are not engaged in full time politics to play a major role in the formulation and development of legislation for the Scottish Parliament. The Law Society of Scotland has a wealth of such talent to be found on its many Law Reform Committees. The Society has over the years established a considerable reputation for its law reform proposals and the quality of the briefings which it prepares for Members of Parliament.
In the next article we will give further consideration to participation in the parliamentary process particularly with regard to the making of legislation.
Niall Scott and Alan Boyd are members of McGrigor Donald’s Scottish Parliament Group
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