Scottish Parliament Committees: the new administration’s final set of appointments

The last set of new appointments that need to be made as a result of the change of First Minister, and ministerial reshuffle, are from the government backbenches to the Scottish Parliament’s committees.

As anyone who has followed parliamentary committee proceedings will be aware, who convenes and sits on a committee influences how it conducts its business, including but not limited to its scrutiny of Bills. This blog looks briefly at how appointments to the Scottish Parliament’s committees works, the number of vacancies to be filled, and how the approach used in the Scottish Parliament gives party leaderships more direct influence than at Westminster.

Committee places are allocated to each party broadly reflecting the number of MSPs each has. Committee convenerships and deputy convenerships are distributed between the parties on the same basis. The standing orders imply that the Parliamentary Bureau acts as a central point that any MSP with an interest in a particular committee can approach, and then the Parliament as whole approves its suggestions. But in practice the parties manage who is nominated, as described on the Scottish Parliament’s website:

Parties choose which of their MSPs they would like to represent them on a committee. The members of a committee are agreed by the Parliament.

The Parliament agrees the political party of the convener and deputy convener. Committees choose their convener and deputy conveners by voting at their first meeting.

The number of members a party has on a committee reflects their share of seats in the Parliament

How committees are formed? Scottish Parliament

Each committee therefore chooses its convener (and deputy convener) from among the committee members whose party is designated to hold that post, which for smaller parties will usually mean a choice of one. The standing orders do not require a secret ballot.

As Ministers cannot sit on Committees, the promotion of some backbenchers into the government means that there are now vacancies that need to be filled, while some MSPs formerly in government are now potential new committee members. Some reshuffling among existing committee members is also likely.

Almost all government backbenchers already sit on at least one committee, and often two, as well as acting as substitute members, able to attend and vote when the regular member cannot. This useful note from SPICe, the Parliament’s research branch, records the membership of all Scottish Parliament Committees since May 2021, up to the start of this month. Some new ministers had already resigned when this was compiled, while some still show as committee members, but will not be.

Eight MSPs have been promoted from the backbenches into government. Four were Committee Conveners (Gillian Martin, Natalie Don, Joe FitzPatrick, Siobhian Brown). Four others were ordinary committee members on one (Graeme Dey, Emma Roddick) or two (Jenni Minto, Paul McLennan) committees. Seven MSPs are no longer in government and now add to the number of backbenchers available to fill vacancies (Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Kate Forbes, Keith Brown, Ben Macpherson, Clare Haughey, Ivan McKee) although not all of these may be allocated a committee role. The four vacant convenerships are half of the SNP’s total allowance of committee conveners, so moves to convener roles will be particularly worth watching.

The initial nomination of all committee members by the parties gives party managers at Holyrood more direct control over the committee system than at Westminster, including by limiting the choice for convener. There, chairs and committee places are also distributed proportionately between the parties, but individual places are filled by secret ballot (of all MPs for chairs, within each party for committee members). This note from the Institute of Government describes the arrangements in more detail, including limitations and criticisms. These include the number of chairs elected unopposed and the slow process for filling committee places at the start of a parliamentary session. Even so, this different approach makes it harder for the governing party’s leadership to have the sort of direct influence over Committee appointments that will shortly be exercised in Scotland, when MSPs return from their Easter break.