Committee in session“So when the music stops, you all rush round to a committee room and grab a chair. First to the convenor’s gets it.”

Well, it might have made the appointment of committee convenors a bit more exciting, and much as there are some good folk appointed, Margo Macdonald has a point. Why should these parliamentary appointments be decided by party leaders and not by MSPs? Even Westminister does it this way now and it seems to make for a better system in which everyone can trust.

Not that there is anything untrustworthy in any of the convenors appointed yesterday, it’s just that the immediate reaction to them is to try and work out why the First Minister, the LOLITSP and leader of the Tories chose that particular person for that particular berth. We start to look for conspiracy theories when there aren’t any. Probably.

Anyone or anything notable then?

The apportionment of committee convenors doesn’t half show up the size and scale of the SNP victory in all its glory. They got nine convenorships, Labour four and the Conservatives one. Wow.

And in a wholly unconsensual move, they bagged all the biggies and potentially controversial ones for themselves – finance, education, justice and local government. But nice of them to be magnanimous enough to offer health to Labour. To be honest, if it was me, I’d have done the same. Nicola Sturgeon is teflon-coated and it will be hard for the opposition to land a blow but the other areas do require some degree of protection.

But what goes on in committees is not just down to their convenors – if Labour places the right people in the right seats then they could still have some fun unpicking the budget, the McCormac review, the anti-sectarianism bill and public sector reform.

Moreover, Christine Grahame in the justice hot seat has proven herself independent enough in the past to marshall an effective and troublesome committee. Her legal knowledge will stand her in good stead here too.

Kenneth Gibson is also a wily character and while he will ensure there are no public fall-outs, expect him to be spending a lot of time behind closed doors making plain his committee’s views on things. Stewart Maxwell had a junior ministerial brief for a time so has plenty of experience, though not much of it on education matters. He will be a safe pair of hands for what is likely to be a big and at times controversial policy area. Reflecting the creation of a new ministerial portfolio, we now have a committee for infrastructure and capital investment. And I’m liking Maureen Watt’s ying to Alex Neil’s yang.

As for the Labour appointments, Duncan McNeil, who did a very good job at local government last time, is rumoured to be headed to health. Let’s just say that I hope his views on parental substance misuse have mellowed so that we get some sensible policy deliberations on this very important area and not just salacious headlines.

Otherwise Labour is left with what is seen by many as the rump of mandatory committee chairs to choose from. Though audit and equal opportunities, in particular, can cause a lot of problems if handled in the right way, as Hugh Henry demonstrated ably in the last parliamentary session. Either Claudia Beamish or Siobhan McMahon at the helm of equal opportunities could do a good job: the wide-ranging remit of equalities legislation allows this committee to poke its nose into a whole host of issues. For example, the recent spate of care scandals has both an age and a disability related link.

A key thing this committee could do immediately is get its remit widened to include a human rights brief. Enacted after the structure of the Parliament was set up, there is no one committee with an overarching brief here, and the law is now beginning to have a tumultuous impact on other policy areas.

The role of the committees has never really developed as was originally intended, particularly in relation to their powers to act as an effective revising body for previous legislation. Few committees have had the time nor the inclination to rake over previous stuff but it is needed. Such has been the Parliament’s rush to legislate in previous sessions that we have laws that contradict, powers that everyone has forgotten now exist, incompatability across a number of areas, unintended consequences and some that simply have not worked the way they were intended to. Others represented a compromise at the time because parliamentary arithmetic did not allow for the original intention to be enacted. Spending a bit of time sorting some of these issues out would be a good thing.

Committees too have powers to introduce their own legislation and while it is unlikely that SNP Convenors will want to cut across their ain Programme for Government, again this is where a bit of common sense and wily tactics from the opposition could prevail, particularly for the small groups of Liberal Democrats, Greens and of course, Margo. The committees (and members’ bills) represent their best opportunity to influence the parliamentary agenda.

But for the most part, the committees will not offer up that much excitement, especially for any newbies keen to make their mark. To do so, they should look outwith the official furniture of the Parliament and find themselves an issue, that with the right approach, could attract headlines and resonate with the wider public. More on that in the next post….