Consensus is successful

30th June 2000 at 01:00
Neil Munro on the hectic first year of the Scottish Parliament, which took up its legislative powers a year ago tomorrow.


AWAY FROM the chamber, the two committees dealing with education have been wading their way through an astonishing workload with the help of witnesses unaccustomed to the public glare, from psychologists and careers officers to leading civil servants and the enterprise agencies. If nobody else does, these groups certainly know the Parliament has been busy - even if some of the business, such as the mushrooming of parliamentary questions from MSPs, has more to do with grandstanding than eliciting information.

The education, culture and sports committee, chaired by Labour backbencher Mary Mulligan, has an almost impossible job, as it struggles to span its three remits. When crises appear such as the funding of Hampden Park or alleged mismanagement at Scottish Opera, the inevitable cry is for the committee to investigate. At the same time Mulligan and her colleagues had an education Bill to get through, weighing the committee down even further and providing very little room for manoeuvre so it could establish a clear identity.

Nonetheless it has managed to strike out on its own away from the Scottish Executive's agenda, mounting inquiries into school closures, special educational needs and school buildings - even the Roman remains in the Cramond district of Edinburgh. Inevitably, with a membership which includes party animals (in the political sense) such as the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon and Mike Russell and the Tories' Brian Monteith, the education committee has not always found it easy to act like consensual adults.

But, while the Labour-dominated committee was widely expected to be ultra loyal to the Executive, it did speak out robustly in its report on the Bill. It was not an entirely unanimous report, as the SNP objected to the end of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee and the Conservatives dissented from the abolition of opted-out schools.

The enterprise and lifelong learning (ELL) committee, chaired by SNP deputy leader John Swinney, provides a contrast. For a start, it has had no major legislation dominating its first year and the bill on individual learning accounts is not seriously contentious. So it has had a free rein. But, arguably, it filled its time even more ambitiously than the education committee with an investigation into local economic development and training, whose conclusions the Executive is expected to back.

The committee has yet to engage fully with education and training issues but, in an interview with the TES Scotland earlier in the year, John Swinney said he was "anxious to do justice to both parts of the committee's remit".

The committees are largely seen as a success story of the Parliament, a welcome relief from the embarrassments and ephemera of passing political headlines.

They have taken a largely consensual view of their responsibilities, amply living up to the "new style of politics" so eagerly anticipated from the Parliament. They have generally provided a platform on which issues can get aired.

But whether they have been effective is too early to say. From ministers' point of view, of course, committees can appear over-zealous, straining to intervene on the minutiae as well as the major issues.

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