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In Context: Inquiry into Scotland’s Commissioners

The Finance and Public Administration Committee

In Context: Inquiry into Scotland’s Commissioners

Why is the Committee holding an inquiry into Scotland’s commissioners? 

Scotland already has seven commissioners, with the office of an eighth set to be established and a further six mooted. However, the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Public Administration Committee is investigating whether a more “coherent and strategic approach” is needed for the creation of any further commissioners.

Specifically, it will assess the role, cost and plans to have more commissioners. 
Announced in June last year, the inquiry aims to answer whether a more strategic approach is needed towards creating any new commissioners. The Scottish Government says there is little research in Scotland, or the UK, on commissioners that evaluates their powers or ways of working. 

What stage is the inquiry at? 

The finance committee concluded its call for views last month. It asked a range of questions on the commissioner landscape, governance, accountability and scrutiny, and value and effectiveness of the current approach.  

It has since published 23 submitted responses from commissioners, charities, local authorities, and non-governmental organisations. 

This week the committee had its first evidence session, which will be followed by a second session next week. The committee will then publish its report in May or June.

What does a commissioner do? 

Usually a commissioner is appointed and given a budget by the parliament to give representation to certain groups or focus on a specific reason.   

Last May, the Scottish Government described the role: “Parliamentary commissioners and ombudsmen are typically responsible for safeguarding the rights of individuals, monitoring and reporting on the handling of complaints about public bodies, providing an adjudicatory role in disputes and reporting on the activities and conduct of public boards and their members.” While their powers vary, current commissioners speak for under-represented groups such as disabled people, victims, older people or children. They also speak on issues such as biometrics, domestic abuse, ethical standards, health, and social mobility and disadvantage. 

Normally, the role and responsibilities of a commissioner are set out in law. Each office-holder has a team that they have employed to support them. They operate independently of the Scottish Government and often serve to hold it to account.

How many commissioners are there now?  

Scotland has seven commissioners, with an eighth, a patient safety commissioner, agreed by parliament last year.  

However, by the end of the parliamentary term, this could rise to 14 as a further six commissioners have been proposed or are being considered.  

The seven officeholders that are responsible to the Scottish Parliament are: the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland; the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner; the Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People; the Scottish Human Rights Commission; the Scottish Information Commissioner; the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman; and Standards Commission for Scotland. 

What is the cost of these officeholders?  

Budget figures from 2023-24 show that the current commissioner bill is £16.6m. However, this will rise by 10 per cent to £18.3m in 2024-25. 

What are the plans for new commissioners? 

The Scottish Government’s Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which is at Stage One, will establish a Victims and Witnesses Commissioner if passed.

A further three roles – Disability Commissioner, Older People’s Commissioner and Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Commissioner – could also be established if the relevant draft proposals for member’s bills are passed.  

The Scottish Government is also exploring the creation of a Future Generations Commissioner and a Learning Disability, Autism and Neurodiversity Commissioner. 

What concerns have been raised about the plans to expand the commissioners? 

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) has “significant concern” that a “proliferation of [commissioners] is undermining the ability of parliament to hold government to account”. 

The SPSO said: “As part of the complex scrutiny and oversight landscape, there is a significant risk that further commissioners will add to that complexity.” 

She added: “I am also very concerned that those most in need of the services will simply fall through the gaps that an increasingly complex environment creates. The more boundaries are created, the more likely people and issues are to fall between organisations.” 

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