Overview —

A Common Weal response to a consultation on the framework governing Scottish Commissioners


Common Weal

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Common Weal’s interest in the Commissioner landscape in Scotland stems from our interactions around the Minister for Older People in previous Parliamentary sessions and our noting that said ministerial post had been dropped in the present session while a proposal for a Commissioner for Older People (as well as several proposals for other Commissioners) had arisen.

We appreciate that this consultation is not the place to discuss the merits and demerits of individual Commissioners (or the office holders themselves) but it was this experience that led us to formulate our view that it was becoming evident in this Parliament that the ease of reshuffling of ministerial responsibilities was creating a risk that policy portfolios could easily become de-prioritised at critical times. However, this was balanced by a risk that an over-reliance on Commissioners to fill the gap (or even to stand alongside an equivalent Minister) could result in a loss of democratic accountability in Government as while Commissioners are responsible to Parliamentary Committees they are not easily accountable to Parliament as a whole in the same way that a Minister is.

Added to this, we are concerned that the ad hoc nature of Commissioner appointments is leading to Commissioners in ostensibly similar policy areas (for a hypothetical example, consider the roles of a Commissioner for Young People and a Commissioner for Older People who would both be tasked with advocating for particular age demographics) having very different actual roles (with one perhaps being tasked with monitoring for breaches in regulations or statutory rights while the other being merely an advisory body. We therefore welcome this consultation and call for the regularisation of the role of Commissioners to make their remits and appointments more transparent and to ensure the maximum level of democratic accountability in their role:- In particular, consideration should be given to further empowering Parliament (not Government) to control and oversee Commissioners and for the Commissioners to act in the name of Parliament (not Government) as they give advice and uphold rights.

However we want to ensure that the advice given by Commissioners is not granted a platform above and beyond that of any other source of policy advice as this too would risk an undemocratic and technocratic influence over our politics and may crowd out other sources (such as independent think tanks). It is likely that the review of the Commissioners Framework will require a review of other areas of governance such as the role, appointment and powers of Committees and the ability for Parliament to hold Government to account (particularly when the party of Government holds majority control of Parliament). We would welcome and advocate other forms of input into public policy being similarly regularised and given a level of recognition. This could include direct citizen engagement via Citizens’ Assemblies or other forms of direct, deliberative democracy.

Much of this will likely lie outwith the scope of this particular enquiry (which may be a signal that the scope of the review should be broadened so that it can meet its aims) and will certainly lie outwith the scope of this particular response though we would welcome the opportunity to feed these and related ideas into the review should they be requested.

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