Commentators across the political spectrum have been lined up to criticise the way in which the anti-sectarianism bill was being rushed through Holyrood.  Even the SNP’s new chair of Holyrood’s Justice Committee, Christine Grahame, expressed her reservations about the speed and lack of scrutiny with which the bill was likely to progress through the Scottish Parliament.  But it perhaps took until Celtic and Rangers themselves urged a delay that the Scottish Government took on board their concerns and decided to slow down the legislation.

While this bill is – perhaps – an exceptional case, and the speed with which it was to move forward aimed to allow it to be in place prior to the start of the Scottish football season, there is a wider point to make regarding the scrutiny of bills in the Scottish Parliament.  And that point is – do they get the scrutiny they need?  Let’s put this in context.

At Westminster, the route for a bill to become a law is quite lengthy.  Starting with the House of Commons, it has a first (introduction) and second (debate) reading, followed by a committee stage (line by line consideration), a report stage (debate, amendments) and then a third reading (and vote on approval).  Then, the same process is repeated in the House of Lords.  Then, if there are amendments at that stage, the bill is returned to the House of Commons for approval before being sent for Royal Assent.

At Holyrood, the bill is introduced at Stage one and assigned to a committee which will take evidence from experts.  The Committee will then report before the Stage one debate for agreement on general principles of the bill.  Stage two sees the bill undergo line by line scrutiny in committee, where amendments may be added.  It is then returned to the full chamber for the stage three debate (again, with potential for amendments) and vote, after which point, if it is accepted, the bill will be sent for Royal Assent.

Spot the difference?

Westminster spends twice as long legislating as Holyrood does, since the process has to be repeated in the House of Lords (or the House of Commons for bills that originate in the upper house).  That’s to be expected.  But its easy to see why – they have the ability to do that.  Holyrood is a unicameral parliament with the committees primed to take on the role of scrutiny that a second chamber does elsewhere.  At least that was the intention in the Scotland Act.

The problem is – and it is underlined by the issues arising from the Anti-Sectarianism bill – that they don’t have the time to fully scrutinise legislation prior to its acceptance.  Indeed, this isn’t a new problem – legislation has been passed by previous Scottish Executives which could use some review because of things missed or particular interpretations which hadn’t been recognised at the time they were passed.

But time is just one consideration.  Experience is another.  While I’m very happy that some (many) of our MSPs have no background in law (it means that they aren’t all lawyers) they have such disparate backgrounds that many wouldn’t know the parliamentary procedure a bill goes through in order to become a law.  Perhaps that is overstating my case somewhat, but I think you get the point – we’ve elected parliamentarians from multiple different backgrounds with different experiences (and that’s a GOOD THING) but what we gain in the richness of representation we perhaps lose in legal knowledge.  And when it comes to legislation – and specifically, scrutiny of legislation – this may well be a problem.

So if that’s really a problem, that what is the solution?  It was put to me that any politician who puts their head above the parapet and calls for fifty more politicians in Scotland might not be a politician for much longer… but it is certainly something that we should give some thought to.  Perhaps not as an elected second chamber (you’d end up with issues of who represents whom, how it was elected etc etc) but as individuals appointed according to their position.  For example, maybe the Scottish Government’s Law Officers, some of Scotland’s Law Lords (I assume someone like Jim Wallace would fall into this category?), the leader of say the six largest Scottish Councils and perhaps some of our senior judges might be the types of people we’d look for to do a job of scrutiny on legislation.

Its only an idea – and, I imagine, most of the democrats on here will rage about the idea of appointed officials making laws.  Except that they wouldn’t be making the laws, simply scrutinising and suggesting room for improvements – the actual law-making would still be done by politicians.

By all means dispute my outcome – but consider the problem as well.  Do you think we need more scrutiny of legislation?  Or are you happy that the legislation we get from Holyrood is as good as it could be?

By the way, I’m not writing this because we have an SNP majority – as I mentioned above, this system was wrong before the SNP entered majority government.  I’m just trying to think of ways we can make better laws in Scotland – and that’s surely something the SNP, and their activists, want too.