Options for Holyrood's MOT

Published: 1 November 2016
The Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh doesn’t think that Holyrood is broken, but ‘in need of an MOT’.  Car owners know all too well that sometimes an MOT ends up identifying major problems that need significant – and expensive – work.
When the Scottish Parliament was re-established in 1999, it had four key principles assigned to it by the Consultative Steering Group: accountability, participation, equal opportunities and power-sharing.  Laudable ideals which, largely, the parliament has achieved, at least to a degree.  However, the principle of power-sharing – that power would be divided between the government, parliament and the people – has seen the least success.
Most democracies experience problems with how to involve the legislature in decision-making, especially if the government has a majority.  This problem is exacerbated when the institution is small and unicameral.  The Scottish Parliament, with 129 members and no second chamber, is a prime example.  Its committee system, which was designed to introduce as well as scrutinize legislation, is unable to fulfil either role effectively.  Size is an issue: ignoring government ministers and opposition leaders, you have around 80 MSPs to populate 15 committees.  Add the new powers that the Scottish Parliament has obtained since 1999, and there is a need for more committees to scrutinize work in those areas.
There are, broadly, two ways to deal with this. One option is to increase the number of MSPs (about 175 MSPs would conform to Rein Taagepera’s ‘cube-root’ rule) which would allow the committee system to expand capacity to deal with the increasing workload while at the same time retaining the committees as the scrutinizing body of the institution, putting a brake on legislation until it had been fully considered.  A second, more radical, option would be the establishment of a second chamber in the Scottish Parliament.
There are a number of ways a second chamber could be populated.  We could utilize the regions of the Scottish Parliament to elect 5 ‘senators’ for each region.  Adding further elections to an already packed electoral calendar might, however, not be advisable.  A ‘citizen’s assembly’, where members of the population are invited to serve for a limited period – as we do with juries – might be considered, widening access and participation.  A second chamber would provide more checks and balances, and avoid some of the problems which hastily-passed or under-scrutinized legislation can have.
It is unlikely that the remit of this parliamentary MOT will extend to increasing the parliament’s membership – though it should consider all options.  There would be a significant cost associated with increasing the number of MSPs or instituting a second chamber.  However, as with a car MOT, spending money now to fix your brakes avoids disastrous consequences further down the road.