Patrick Harvie highlights close links between ministerial aides and parliamentary committees

http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/scrutiny-at-holyrood-amounts-to-no-more-than-a-government-marking-its-own-work.122243811 This recent piece on the problems of parliamentary scrutiny in Scotland is by Patrick Harvie MSP,  Leader of the Green Party in Scotland.  Harvie highlights that Parliamentary Liaison Officers (MSPs assigned as ministerial aides in Scotland, known as Parliamentary Private Secretaries at Westminster) routinely sit on the scrutinising committee for their Minister’s particular subject area.  Sometimes they even chair them, not just blurring the line which separates the roles of government and parliament but more or less rubbing it out. The Scottish Parliament describes a PLO as:

A person appointed by the First Minister on a recommendation from Cabinet Ministers. A parliamentary liaison officer assists the Minister in discharging their duties. PLOs are unpaid and are not part of the Executive. Their role and the arrangements for their appointment are set out in paragraphs 4.6 – 4.13 of the Scottish ministerial code. The functions of PLOs are broadly similar to those of parliamentary private secretaries at Westminster.

The Westminster Parliament explains that:

A Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) is appointed by a minister to be his or her assistant. He or she is selected from backbench MPs as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the minister in the House of Commons. It is an unpaid job but it is useful for an MP to become a PPS to gain experience of working in government.

The Westminster Ministerial code (but not the Scottish one) quoted here adds:

Parliamentary Private Secretaries should not make statements in the House or put Questions on matters affecting the department with which they are connected. They are not precluded from serving on Select Committees, but they should withdraw from any involvement with inquiries into their appointing Minister’s department, and they should avoid associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the Government. They should also exercise discretion in any speeches or broadcasts outside the House.

See below for a list of the current PLOs and their committee roles. The most striking case is Bob Doris, who is both parliamentary aide to the Health minister and deputy convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee [correction to original post:  Mr Doris previously noted here as convenor], which subjects that Minister to scrutiny.  Both the First Minster’s aides chair significant committees, and the deputy convenor of the Welfare Reform Committee is an aide to the Social Justice minister.  All other PLOs sit on the relevant scrutinising committee at Holyrood. [Update: There are four committees which have 2 PLOs as members, one of whom is either convenor or deputy convenor.  They are Local Government, Welfare Reform,  Infractructure and Health.  The first three of these only have seven members in total. One further committee, Education,  has two PLOs: it is chaired by an SNP member who is not a PLO.] This may all be well-known within the Holyrood bubble, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it brought to wider attention – credit to Patrick Harvie for bringing it out. Even in the relatively small Scottish Parliament it should be possible to put those MSPs with PLO responsibilities on different subject committees,  and it’s pretty astonishing to find there is not already a rule preventing them from being committee convenors, particularly in their own area. One further point to note is that although there has been much focus on the gender balance in the ministerial team,  out of the ten rather less high-profile PLOs, only one is a woman.  There are however normally only six women SNP backbenchers who are neither a Minister or a PLO, and one of those is currently providing maternity cover for Aileen Campbell MSP’s ministerial brief, so achieving gender balance would be difficult, though not technically impossible.

Update: More on Holyrood’s committee system here: http://sceptical.scot/2015/04/parliamentary-reform-is-holyrood-brave-enough-to-follow-westminster/

Ministerial Portfolio Parliamentary Liaison Officer Committees
Office of the First Minister Jim Eadie MSP Infrastructure and Capital Investment (Convenor); Public Petitions (Substitute member)
Kevin Stewart MSP Local Government and Regeneration (Convenor); Justice Sub-Committee on Policing; Welfare Reform
Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Economy Mark McDonald MSP Devolution (Further Powers); Finance
Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities Mike MacKenzie MSP Health and Sport;   Infrastructure and Capital Investment
Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training Gordon MacDonald MSP Education and Culture; Economy, Energy and Tourism
Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning George Adam MSP Education and Culture; Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments
Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Sport Bob Doris MSP Health and Sport (Deputy Convenor); Finance (substitute member)
Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights Clare Adamson MSP Local Government and Regeneration; Welfare Reform (Deputy Convenor)
Cabinet Secretary for Justice Roderick Campbell MSP Europe and External Relations; Justice
Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment Angus MacDonald MSP Public Petitions; Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment

Sources: PLOs from this Scottish Parliament briefing note; Committee memberships from individual MSP entries on the Scottish Parliament website.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: New Special Adviser appointment to Education and Lifelong Learning portfolio | Adventures In Evidence

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