Scottish Daily Mail
Iron discipline of SNP ‘lets Holyrood ministers off hook’
HOLYROOD committees packed with backbench Nationalist MSPs are failing to hold the Scottish Government to account, according to the architect of the new devolution deal.
Lord Smith of Kelvin yesterday said the Scottish parliament should learn from Westminster, where ministers receive tough scrutiny from MPs.
His comments add to growing concerns at Holyrood about the SNP’s iron discipline, which opponents argue has allowed ministerial decisions to go unchallenged.
Nationalist MSP John Mason recently broke ranks to warn that too many backbench committee members from the party in office can make them ‘subservient to government’.
In recent weeks, a committee refused to take further evidence from Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop about her decision to award a £150,000 taxpayerfunded grant to T in the Park, even though the Audit Scotland watchdog has decided to investigate the hand-out.
Lord Smith, who chaired the crossparty commission that led to the tax and welfare proposals in the new Scotland Bill, told a Sunday newspaper: ‘You watch the way the scrutiny works in Westminster. It is vicious sometimes.
‘I’ve appeared before a couple of select committees. They are unafraid to challenge. They are knowledgeable. We don’t have that at Holyrood.’
He added: ‘There needs to be better scrutiny. The Commons select committees take their own MPs and beat them around, and rightly so. It doesn’t happen here. I don’t know why.
‘It hasn’t properly been built into the system. But nobody should be afraid of that. You need challenge.
‘If I was the presiding officer, I would haul in the leaders of the parties and say something has to change.’
There has been scant criticism in Holyrood’s committees of domestic crises involving the NHS or police, with many Nationalist MSPs thought to be so focused on achieving independence that they will not do anything to put that at risk.
Earlier this year, former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill even admitted he supported a ‘wrong’ decision to oppose prisoners’ voting rights to ‘avoid any needless distractions in the run-up to the referendum’.
It was never anticipated that a party could secure a majority at Holyrood, but the SNP’s election success means that it now controls most of the parliament’s committees.
Meetings at Holyrood are in stark contrast to those at Westminster, where MPs are willing to openly challenge ministers from their own parties.
Last year, Labour and Tory members on the European committee complained they were blocked from publishing an original draft and a separate ‘minority report’.
Nationalist MSPs were accused of adopting a ‘cult of obedience and slavishness’ to the party’s leadership when the public audit committee published a report on police reform earlier in May. Two versions of that report were published – one by the SNP majority and another ‘minority report’ criticising the move to a national police force.
A spokesman for the Scottish parliament declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Lord Smith – who rejects claims the Scotland Bill does not deliver his commission’s findings – has spoken about the heart attack he suffered in August at a Bute House dinner with Nicola Sturgeon. ‘There was no prior warning, no pain,’ he said. ‘I felt my eyes swimming and apparently I fell straight back. What keeps going through my mind is what might have happened had I been driving home that night or walking in the street.
‘You apparently have ten minutes, then you’ve had it – and frankly you don’t want to be resuscitated after six minutes.’
The 71-year-old was saved by a student nurse working as a waitress in the building. A defibrillator has since been installed at Bute House and ministers have been taught how to use it.
‘Haul in the leaders and call for change’