7 reforms to improve the Scottish Parliament

By Richard Wood

Next year marks 25 years since the establishment of the devolved Scottish Parliament. In that time we’ve had six first ministers, six elections and a seismic shift in voting patterns best illustrated by the once dominant Labour now in third place and a pro-independence majority at Holyrood.

With a quarter of a century of devolution fast approaching, the time for a review of Scotland’s democratic apparatus is surely needed. Democracy is a process not an event; likewise our democratic institutions need to evolve and keep up with democratic best practice.

1. Better Proportional Representation

When it comes to the link between how people vote at the ballot box and how seats are distributed in the legislature, the Scottish Parliament is significantly fairer than the House of Commons (let alone the unelected House of Lords). The introduction of the Additional Member System (AMS) to elect MSPs from the outset, rather than the unrepresentative First Past the Post (FPTP) system, has ensured diverse representative parliaments where seats won broadly reflect votes cast.

That said, the benefits of AMS should not be overstated. The system has a number of flaws which should be addressed and remedied. Holyrood needs electoral reform as well as Westminster.

AMS is only partially proportional. A majority of seats are elected via FPTP and the proportional list seats are allocated on a regional basis leading to only regional proportionality and a risk of overhangs with no mechanism to correct them. Furthermore, the FPTP constituencies as an integral (and majority) part of AMS result in safe seats, retain a major drawback of FPTP.

There’s also the two-vote problem – having two types of votes can lead to divergence between constituency and list votes cast, messing with the ended outcome of proportionality. As part of that, the system can be gamed: although unsuccessful, in 2021 Alba tried to game the list vote to create a supermajority for independence, going against the spirit of a system designed to represent as many views as possible – as accurately as possible. This is compounded by the fact that there are two types of MSP, constituency and list, which while in theory have the same roles in practice can be rather different.

AMS is superior to FPTP but its flaws demonstrate the need to reform. The Scottish Parliament needs a system like the Single Transferable Vote to empower voters, deliver better proportionality and end the two vote/MSP problem.

SEE MORE: 3 alternatives to Scotland’s proportional but flawed voting system

2. An end to dual mandates

Dual mandates occur when an individual holds elected office for two positions. In the Scottish context, this can be any combination of MP, MSP, Councillor or Peer. Scotland needs fair and accountable representation, through dedicated parliamentarians. We need to end dual mandates.

The main argument against dual mandates is one of two connected parts. In principle, parliamentarians are elected to serve their constituents at either Holyrood or Westminster. Each role has different responsibilities, and representatives owe it to their constituents to solely focus on representing constituents in one clear capacity. Dual mandates mean this cannot happen.

Related to that is the practical element. Being an MP or MSP is a full-time job and carrying out the duties of both roles to the same extent as a representative for one job is simply impossible. Constituents deserve better than that.

The only current MSP to hold a dual mandate is Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross. That said, it’s worth flagging that while Labour MSP Katy Clark is also a member of the House of Lords she has stepped down active duty in that role while in the Scottish Parliament. Furthermore, until the 2022 Scottish council elections, 18 newly elected MSPs also held dual mandates from their roles as councillors they won before the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.

SEE MORE: 5 reasons to ban MSP-MP dual mandates

3. Restrictions on second jobs

In a similar spirit to the above reform, the Scottish Parliament needs to restrict MSPs from having second jobs. The problem is a big one at Westminster, with MPs in safe seats taking advantage of that job security and focusing time and energy into other pursuits. While not as a significant issue in the Scottish Parliament, there are no restrictions on MSPs taking additional employment. Constituents deserve 100% focus on them – MSPs having second jobs just doesn’t cut it.

There is of course a debate over to what exact reach any restrictions on second jobs should have. Clearly any jobs even relating to public affairs and lobby should be to prevent any conflicting motivations. Full-time jobs should also definitely face a ban. While at the other end of the scale there’s a case to doctors and similar professionals to work limited hours in that capacity to retain licenses.

There is of course a middle ground between those two ends and while it’ll be up to policy-makers to decide where the line is drawn, anything that takes up a significant portion of an MSPs time should be banned.

SEE MORE: Polling suggests most Scots oppose dual mandates and second jobs for politicians

4. A return to four-year parliamentary terms

The Scottish Parliament was founded with fixed-term four-year parliamentary terms as shown by the 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections. Regular fixed elections ensure frequent accountability and democratic input from the voters. Westminster’s fixed-term parliament Act wasn’t perfect but it ensured a level playing field in normal times – all parties knew when the election was scheduled for. The reality was of course quite different due to Brexit and political upheaval but the principle is solid and is borne out in practice in much of the democratic world. In different times, the benefits would have been realised. The current uncertainty as to when the next Westminster election will take place is frustrating and places an obvious advantage in the hands of the incumbent prime minister.

With the principle of fixed elections established, it then follows how frequent these should be?

There is no right answer but the move to five-year Holyrood terms means just two elections a decade, less accountability and “zombie parliaments” at the end of a parliamentary term.

Two year parliaments, as seen in the USA with the House of Representatives, face the opposite problem: too much accountability leading to constant electioneering and voter fatigue. New Zealand and Australia have three year parliaments, which are popular over there but would be a radical shift in the UK and perhaps lead to the same voter fatigue seen during the Brexit crisis.

There is however, a happy middle that would ensure a fair balance between accountability and effective government. Four year terms would enable that – and it’s time for Holyrood to return to its roots.

SEE MORE: Frequent fixed elections and why they matter

5. A recall rule for lawbreaking and absent MSPs

During the last parliamentary session a disgraced former minister was able to claim his salary and expenses while not even turning up to the Scottish Parliament to represent his constituents. The minister brought the parliament into disrepute but there was no mechanism to remove him as an MSP.

Holyrood should learn from Westminster and introduce a recall rule to address this democratic deficit. A recall petition – that can lead to a by-election – is triggered if an MP receives a custodial prison sentence, is suspended from the House or is convicted of providing false or misleading expenses claims. A similar mechanism should be adopted at Holyrood, ideally as part of a new, fairer voting system, and built upon to include MSPs who don’t turn up and other actions that don’t live up to what is expected of MSPs.

The Westminster system is designed for FPTP so modifications would be required for AMS at Holyrood, especially the list element or any future better alternative. That said, whatever voting system is used it’s clear that there should be a mechanism to remove lawbreaking and absent MSPs. Anything less is an insult to democratic accountability.

SEE MORE: 5 reasons to support the Removal from Office and Recall Bill

6. More MSPs

The idea of more politicians will be off-putting for many but a moderate increase in the size of the Scottish Parliament would be a proportionate response to the increased powers held by the chamber. Furthermore, with around a fifth of MSPs on the government payroll (as ministers and junior ministers) an increase in members will improve overall accountability and scrutiny. MSPs also often sit on multiple committees in addition to party spokesperson roles and their work as constituency MSPs, a point recently made in the Herald.

Scottish representatives need the space to become experts in different areas. Freeing up time to limit multi-tasking would result in just that, further improving scrutiny.

An increase in MSPs would also allow greater flexibility when designing a new voting system for the Scottish Parliament. Sticking to 129 would place limitations on the exact make-up of any new election system.

7. Better ballot access

Better ballot access isn’t something that Upgrade Holyrood has directly advocated before but it’s a reform that’s well worth considering as part of a wider package of upgrading Scottish democracy. To stand for election at either Holyrood or Westminster, one must pay a deposit of £500, only returnable upon winning 5% of the vote. This has become such a normalised part of our politics it blurs into the background and is regularly accepted without question.

Yet is should be questioned. Requiring a £500 deposit to stand for election places an immediate barrier on potential candidates. Of course there should be a barrier to minimise non-serious candidates to only the most persistent but the nature of the £500 is a financial barrier which has obvious consequences for accessibility and equality.

Championed by Ballot Box Scotland, one alternative would be combination of entitlements and subscriptions, which are used in other democracies. Parties and/or candidates who win seats in the most recent elections would be entitled to automatically stand again if they wish. However, new parties or independent candidates would be required to gather signatures of say 0.1% of the electorate to demonstrate a level of support. This would result in a system with no financial barriers, only the barrier of proving that a party or candidate has a small but provable level of support and reduce frivolous candidates.

BONUS – Further powers for local councils and local democracy reforms

This isn’t strictly a reform of the Scottish Parliament, but to wider Scottish democracy. Decisions should be made as close to the people as possible at the level of governance most appropriate as possible. While the Scottish Parliament has gained powers since its formation, local councils have only seen some moderate increases in powers while power in Scotland has been increasingly centralised at Holyrood. Local councils surely deserve more of a say in how local areas are run.

SEE MORE: Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

Image via Pixabay

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