Parliamentary sketch: Brexit under the microscope

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 9 March 2018 in Comment

Sketch: A meeting of the Delegated Powers committee sees MSPs scrutinise the concept of scrutiny

Image credit: Iain Green

One of the nice things about Scottish Parliament committee sessions is that they give MSPs the chance to leave the party political screaming that constitutes much of Scottish politics behind them. Instead, committees allow them to make their party political attacks more quietly.

But this was not an occasion for party political bickering. The Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee was considering the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill and, with the clock ticking on Brexit, as well as in the same way it normally does, there wasn’t much time.

Tory MSP Graham Simpson, the convener, had opened proceedings, introducing Brexit Minister Mike Russell while continuing to look an incredible amount like Willie Rennie’s evil twin. It’s actually quite troubling – once you’ve seen it, it’s really hard to unsee. He’s the Wario to Rennie’s Mario.

But maybe it was fitting that a man resembling a parallel universe, Bizarro-world Willie Rennie was leading scrutiny of the bill – which in itself is an odd, almost-the-same-but-slightly-different replica of legislation introduced to the Commons.

Basically, the Scottish Government, increasingly nervous about the prospect of the two administrations never agreeing on the UK’s Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill, has felt compelled to devise similar emergency legislation of its own, as a fall back, so everything doesn’t collapse after Brexit.

Tory MSP Alison Harris started the questioning, explaining that she was concerned the rushed timetable made for “a lack of scrutiny”.

“I am sure you appreciate that a three-week timetable does not allow for proper scrutiny,” she said. “Committees are required to scrutinise in order to allow parliament to function correctly.”

Russell rejected this, arguing that the reason they didn’t have more time for parliamentary scrutiny was because they were spending all their time discussing how there wasn’t enough time for parliamentary scrutiny.

“From looking at my diary over the next three weeks, it seems that the committees of the Parliament will be doing little but scrutinising the bill,” he said, before suggesting: “Instead of simply talking about the lack of scrutiny of the bill, perhaps it would be useful if we got down and scrutinised it.”

And anyway, he explained, the only reason they had so little time to scrutinise the bill was because of the UK Government. “When I am not talking about the bill here, I’ll be talking about it in London, along with the Welsh and UK Governments, so perhaps we should go on and continue to scrutinise it. There’s a choice to be made. You may not wish to scrutinise it in the circumstances but, if you wish to scrutinise it, I am at your disposal.”

No one likes scrutiny more than Mike Russell. The more scrutiny the better, as far as he’s concerned. Unfortunately, though, Simpson didn’t appreciate his tone. “Minister, you do not need to tell us what our job is. We know what our job is – we are here to scrutinise – but members are free to ask whatever they wish.”

By this point it was becoming quite confusing. Everyone was talking incessantly about how much they wanted to scrutinise the bill, but none of them could do so because everyone was too busy talking about scrutiny. It was like watching a group of cartoon characters so desperate to get through a doorway that they rushed in together and got stuck.

Someone had to do something. Someone had to say something – anything – that didn’t relate to the concept of scrutiny.

Fortunately, Alison Harris was at hand. “I need to bring you back to the scrutiny role, minister,” she said, though ‘need’ seemed a very strong word.

“The fact remains that having three weeks for the bill does not allow members of this committee enough time to scrutinise. That’s my point. I do not appreciate the patronising response.”

Oh great. Suddenly it was clear: Harris was talking about scrutiny. But Russell was now unhappy at being called patronising. “I am not trying to patronise you, but I disagree with the point,” he said. And it was true – he wasn’t trying to patronise, it was effortless.

At this point it looked very much like Harris was going to start talking about scrutiny again, and so it was something of a relief to see Labour MSP Neil Findlay step in.

So, keeping in mind that time was running out, what did Findlay have to say?

“Any reasonable person would say that this level of scrutiny of such an important piece of legislation is not the way that things should be done, and it would be churlish for anyone to suggest that it is,” he argued.

For the record, it was probably around this point that scrutiny stopped sounding like a real word.

Continuing somewhat grandly, Findlay said: “I hope that you’ll agree that not everything that we do is for a narrow party political reason. I wish that more people would understand that, irrespective of our party position, we have a role as parliamentarians to scrutinise the bill.”

Well, indeed, and so they do. Sadly, though, the session eventually had to come to an end, with Russell looking somewhat relieved to escape the gaze of the committee’s collective scrutiny.

Not so much a man under the microscope as through the looking glass.




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