The Commission on Parliamentary Reform is a poorly conceived way to review parliamentary democracy

Written by Martin Sime on 4 November 2016 in Comment

Martin Sime, chief executive of SCVO, on why the new Commission on Parliamentary Reform is a missed opportunity

Scottish Parliament - credit: Holyrood

It might seem churlish to complain. I can already hear the accusation of sour grapes. But there is no getting away from the fact that the recently announced Commission on Parliamentary Reform is a poorly conceived way to review our parliamentary democracy.  

Of course our constitutional history is littered with examples of worthy intentions, great and good leadership and genuflections towards civil society. The Constitutional Convention of the 1990’s was a classic example - fronted by the Reverend Kenyon Wright but with politicians firmly in command.

The consultative Steering Group tells us some different truths - genuine leadership from prominent civil society leaders with much gerrymandering by the civil service. Its four guiding principles are as relevant (and under threat) today as they were when first agreed.


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All of that was 20 years ago and the world has moved on a bit since then. Our political culture has changed and matured, the politics of the Parliament are much different, and there has been much learning about how to do participation in the development of policy and legislation.

In sharp contrast to Westminster, civil society queue up every day to tell their stories to our MSPs and to share their challenges and ambitions. Despite the vexatious Lobbying Act restrictions, charities, community groups and activists continue to breathe life into the institution and fill it with people and causes from the front lines. They make sure that the voices people who’d otherwise be ignored are heard loud and clear.

There are a plethora of initiatives, discussions, lobby campaigns and petitions going on at any one time - not all focussed on the Parliament or even the Scottish Government, but reaching out through the digital world to colleagues and supporters around the world. Post-referendum, there is a groundswell of interest in a rather different kind of politics in Scotland that the Parliament would do well to tap in to.

Expectations have changed too. Our increasingly digitised and mobile culture means that we can keep an eye on the Parliament 24/7. When an announcement is made we expect to hear about it in minutes rather than days. As the traditional media have declined a whole new vista of alternatives has grown up with much greater capacity to cover everyone’s story.

Public attitudes have also shifted - as alternative political movements sweep across Europe, trust in politicians and what passes as “the establishment” has declined. There are renewed calls for transparency, for a broader notion of accountability and for bottom-up or grass roots leadership to be a more pervasive feature of public life. 

In this context, the Commission which the Presiding Officer has announced, including its terms of reference and membership, look rather old fashioned. How does it know it is asking the right questions? On what basis and on who’s authority are these individuals going to pontificate on the future workings of the Parliament? What is on the table and what isn’t and what happens to any conclusions? Oh, and how does it intend to go about its business?

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that in reviewing how the Parliament works one wouldn’t start from here. A Commission which is more grounded in the interests of those who engage with it (and with an explicit remit to increase participation) would have had a rather different character but would have had the prospect of resonating with the times and building on what works. This feels like a missed opportunity.

Martin Sime is the chief executive of SCVO

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