SNP courts controversy by continuing to place advisers on Holyrood committees

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By Patience Magill

The Scottish National Party’s controversial decision to place party-appointed assistants on Holyrood committees has continued to attract criticism as well as attacks by the opposition.

The committee system at Holyrood was designed supposedly to facilitate independent scrutiny of the powers that be, but at Holyrood in recent years that has not been the case.

imagesThe SNP government appeared determined to control the committees – and therefore dissent – during the 2007-2011 and 2011-2016 administrations. But there were signs that this might change, following trenchant criticism from all sides including within the SNP, when the new Parliament arrived this summer.

However, at the weekend it emerged that several SNP MSPs, already given roles assisting SNP Ministers as “Parliamentary Liaison Officers” (PLOs), are being placed on various committees covering areas for which the same ministers have responsibility, in a move seen by many as an attempt to influence and even control committee activity.

Education Secretary John Swinney’s PLO, Jenny Gilruth MSP, is to sit on the education committee, Finance Secretary Derek McKay’s PLO Kate Forbes MSP, is on finance committee, and the pattern has been repeated across the various portfolios and matching committees.

Today, both the Scottish Greens and Labour criticised the move. Greens’ co-convener Patrick Harvie commented: “It’s amazing how the savage abuse of power suddenly becomes quite benign when the government changes.” His comment highlighted critical remarks by Culture & External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop MSP – that an MSP “cannot be servant to two masters” – made when she was in opposition and highly critical of the practice which the SNP have nevertheless continued.

Patrick Harvie MSP: Critical
Patrick Harvie MSP: Critical

Ms Hyslop’s PLO, Ashten Regan-Denham MSP, has been added to the Europe committee, which regularly calls the Minister to give evidence.

Now Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asking that he re-consider the practice, while acknowledging that it was introduced initially by her party.

Her letter says: “Dear Nicola,

“Many times you have spoken about the “new politics” that you believe the SNP and your Scottish Government are bringing to Scotland. However, your Government’s behaviour in proposing the appointment of Parliamentary Liaison Officers (PLOs) to Holyrood Committees in their own portfolio areas flies in the face of this promise.

“I accept that this was something that the last Labour/Lib Dem coalition Government in Holyrood did when we were in power. We were wrong then, as you are wrong now. With significant new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament, we cannot have MSPs who hold a position in the Scottish Government and who receive confidential Scottish Government information scrutinising the Government in their own portfolio areas.

“For Scottish Labour’s part, any future Labour Scottish Government would reintroduce the ban on PLOs being members of Parliamentary Committees in their own portfolio areas that formed part of the Ministerial Code prior to 2007. This provision was removed under your predecessor, Alex Salmond. I have attached proposed language for inclusion in the Code.

“I am urging you to reconsider the appointment of PLOs in the interests of ensuring proper scrutiny of your Government, and to reintroduce the ban in the Ministerial code. Failing to do so will make Scottish Parliament committees less independent than those in the UK Parliament and will confirm that the SNP are now beginning to make the same mistakes in power that we once did.”

Labour amendment to the Ministerial Code would add:

“Parliamentary Liaison Officers should be afforded as great a liberty of action as possible; but their close and confidential association with Ministers imposes certain obligations on them. PLOs may serve on Parliamentary Committees, but they should not serve on Committees with a substantial direct link to their Minister’s portfolio. Similarly, while they may table Parliamentary Questions, they should not table oral Parliamentary Questions on issues for which their Minister is responsible.”

 

 

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27 COMMENTS

  1. Controversial?
    Nope, don’t think so!
    Precedent had already been set by a previous administration.
    Just a pragmatic move my a ‘minority’ government
    Live with it

  2. SNP are to be treated differently from other governments in the past?

    Why?

    Why is it in Scotland’s interest to give posts to labour who demonstrate at westminster their hatred for their leader by resigning posts?

    One sharp minded SNP MSP (or Green) independently minded, is worth ten labour MSPs who can not be trusted to work in Scotland’s interests!

  3. It’s controversial because it lacks transparency and jars with well intentioned talk of a new politics.
    Surely were not going to argue that the SNP can do this because Lab / Lib used to? Or do we just leap to the defence of everything because of party politics ??

  4. Yup we just leap to the defence of everything because of party politics…… Why is this site churning out articles that you find in the Unioninist press.

  5. Committees generally consist of more than one person – who then discuss their findings. Membership of Holyrood committees would, I suggest, fairly tend to reflect the different parties’ representation in the chamber, as determined by the electorate. What’s the problem?

  6. These days the main difference between Newsnet.scot and the Herald web site is that this site doesn’t pull down critical pro Indy posts.

    • Seriously, Clydebuilt? Not aware of the Herald publishing John Robertson, Derek Bateman, Chris Silver or running the popular range of podcasts that we do here.

  7. FFS no more ESSENNPEEE BAAHD. The stuck LP is getting grating because we have had this BS since 2007. We can get this crap from the BBC or any Brit Nat Rag. As for the Dug well she change her policy in seconds and several times a minute on this.

    If this site is going to churn out Brit Nat Labour and Tory Party Propaganda then it will be cheerio from me.

  8. Newsnet. Remind me. Are you in favour of journalism or recycling UKOKian press releases? If the latter then you are headed the way of the dead tree press.

    Has John Robertson read this ATL splurge? I would like to hear his analysis.

    Please, no more attempts to undermine the independence cause disguised as impartiality. That’s impartiality in the same sense that the BBC is unbiased.

    We know the SNP government is not perfect, but it is the best shot we have for independence in the near term.

  9. I don’t really understand what the problem is. If it’s not breaking the rules, why should anyone object? Surely a party can nominate whom it wants to sit on a committee it is entitled to send representatives to?

  10. This is bizarre……have I arrived at the Herald by some strange cyber accident?
    Seriously – we have enough media producing spurious, muck racking criticsm of the SNP without you doing it as well.
    Reproducing word for word a letter from Kez!?

    The problem here is that you are following the agenda of a discredited opposition party without offering any critique of that agenda.
    I’m astonished!! Next up we’ll be hearing the myself and others who have questioned this article are “cult members”

    • Well maybe….but why omit the rather relevant fact the previous administrations did exactly the same thing. My problem is that you picked up on the SNPs hypocrisy on carrying on the practice without similarly picking up on Labour’s hypocrisy in attacking it. Surely both facts are relevant to a balanced report.
      Like I said seems bizarre for a pro-independence site to be selecting and omitting relevant facts in such a way that favours a unionist party over and against one which supports independence.

      • The report does not “omit” the fact that previous administrations did the same thing. See paragraphs 6 & 11, clearly stated.

  11. Is it not the case that the opposition parties are using these committees to stage unfounded smear investigations and accusations?
    Wasting 10s of thousands in public funds in order to try and get unfounded evidence free smears to stick.

    I don’t know what else the Scottish Government can do to stop this corruption perpetrated by the opposition parties.

    Maybe Patience can tell me?

  12. Editor

    Yes you are it always makes headline “News” in all the Yoon media.
    A case in point being Alex Salmond and his EU legal advice.

    Ive counted 8 smear attempts via Parliamentary committee which have all been quashed through inquiry.

    Tax payers money spent on nothing but deliberate smear attempts.

    Please don’t pretend you don’t know about it. It demeans you.

    • You said “corruption”. What you’re describing is petty politics. There’s a difference.

      If you ever sit through or watch a committee in progress you will know there is a lot more to it than what you describe. Some more meaningful stuff there than the knockabout stuff in the main chamber.

      The fact is the knee-jerk reaction of some on here to a simple and straightforward news report is regrettably familiar. We are not an “SNP Bad” site (whatever that is) and we are not an unquestioning party mouthpiece. Live with it.

  13. Time to return to a pro independence site and not a site casting doubt on our vehicle to independence.

    As many have stated, we have enough sites, state broadcaster and press rallied against our cause.

    • Sorry, running an item about a political spat at Holyrood means this is not a “pro indepenence site”? Seriously?

      Some of the posts on here provide evidence as to why the 45% remains just that – 45%. Unquestioning approach to the SNP and jumping down the throat of a sympathetic news site that dares to report the story – note that we haven’t commented or editorialised, simply reported the fact that the Government has been criticised for perpetuating a practice that the SNP attacked when it was in opposition. You see nothing wrong with that position, May?

      Knee-jerk responses to items posted on Newsnet do the independence cause no good at all.

  14. I have question, one not answered by the Herald or this site. What are the rules for composition of these committees? As far as I can see on the government web site they are to be made up of party representatives in proportion to the MSPs in the Scottish parliament. So are these assistants somehow EXTRA members giving SNP majorities (rather than SNP being the biggest membership but not having a majority unless supported, e.g. by Green members)? If they are extra on top of the normal membership, how is this allowed – I assume there is some reason/excuse. Please explain.

    • It isn’t a question of extra members, Stu. The issue is that the SNP has nominated as members of various committees MSPs who are already serving as parliamentary liaison to specific Ministers whose work is supposed to be scrutinised by that committee. So for example, John Swinney’s liaison is to join the education committee. In theory this means that if the Minister appeared before that committee, he would be getting scrutinised by his own liaison officer.
      The practice was condemned, rightly, by the SNP when in opposition.

  15. The Committees are there to scrutinise government. If it is possible for government to pack those committees with members strongly invested in government policy, their power to scrutinise is eroded.
    However much I support the government (very strongly) I do want to see the detail of policy properly scrutinised. A necessary condition of that is that committees contain those who will do so.
    Labour’s request here seems quite sensible grown-up politics and it should be considered carefully.

  16. Thanks ed. I can see the hypocrisy if the SNP were criticising this beforehand. However I’m not so sure what the best answer is. Surely anyone on a committee should have some knowledge/experience of the matters it covers; this kind of leads to having someone appointed (from the government side) who is close to the department concerned. What would be the best way to improve things? Have committee members voted in by the parliament (while still retaining the MSPs party ratios)? Perhaps government reps on committees should be advisory only and only non-government MSPs ask questions, or at least get the majority of questions – after all the best scrutiny usually (but not always) you would expect to come from the opposition.

  17. It is generally held that the best scrutiny comes from committees whose membership are not beholden to the party in power, even if individual members belong to that party. This is the case in Wedtminster as well as Holyrood.

    There has been concern that since 1999, Hikyrood committees haven’t been independent enough (regardless of who has been in government). All parties tend to demand better interrogation when they are in opposition! This should not be a partisan matter and some of the comments above appear to ignore that.

  18. I note that the SNP has no majority on any Parliamentary Committee and there is an SNP Chair for only a handful. How is it then you feel that the SNP is planning to steam roller legislation through parliament?

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