Backbone of democracy;Leading Article;Opinion

20th August 1999 at 01:00
ATTENTION FOCUSES on ministers, but at Westminster more influence usually rests with the chairman of a backbench committee than a parliamentary under-secretary. The problem is that chairmen of committees scrutinising Government departments tend to be senior figures no longer on the promotion ladder. Media attention therefore focuses on junior ministers on the make, however slight their effect on the policy process.

When Scotland lacked a parliament our junior ministers had more clout than their opposite numbers in English departments. No underling at the Department for Education and Employment could have had the freedom given to, or taken by, Michael Forsyth in 1987. In the Holyrood regime the ranks of junior ministers whose public outings are enthusiastically promoted by the Executive's information office will not cut the same ice. More heed should be paid to the MSPs in charge of subject committees.

That is not just because they can summon ministers to account for themselves, important though that role is. The founding fathers of the parliament decreed that committees should scrutinise legislation before it is debated, come up with policy ideas of their own and recruit specialists to their ranks. Therefore Mary Mulligan, chair of the children and education committee, who is profiled this week (page five), and her opposite number at enterprise and lifelong learning, John Swinney, ought to become key figures.

Theirs will not be an easy role: they have to resist pressure from ministers, backbench acolytes of the ministerial parties and opposition MSPs anxious merely to make trouble. They have to ensure that new ideas are aired as well as conventional ones scrutinised. In an ideal world their committees would have a budget to commission independent research.

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